Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is back. Dan Brown’s latest thriller, the Dante-inspired “Inferno,” puts Langdon in a hospital bed with no memory of how he wound up there. Still, the clever professor is the only one who can figure out the doomsday puzzle, the first macabre piece of which is sewn into his bloody tweed jacket.
Langdon’s appearance in “The Da Vinci Code” was a literary phenomenon, selling 81 million copies in 51 languages.
We spoke at the offices of his happy publisher, Doubleday.
Lundborg: How long did it take you to write “Inferno”?
Brown: About three years, including all the research.
Lundborg: And you’ve said you don’t even like writing. You never need to write another word, so why do it?
Brown: It’s a hard process, but I love having written. I love the research, and I love to inspire other people to be excited about ideas I’m excited about.
It’s about sharing a passion for Dante, Florence, the big ideas about what’s happening in the future.
Lundborg: How did you decide on Dante?
Brown: I always knew I would write about him. It wasn’t until Dante came along and created a structured, codified, vivid vision of hell that we really started to say, “I’ve got to go to church!”
Sin has a scary effect and he invented hell as far as I’m concerned.
Lundborg: Dante thought pride was the biggest sin -- what’s it for you?
Brown: Sloth. Life is short and you go around once, so you need to make something of your life. You need to contribute, ideally to a dialogue.
Lundborg: What’s the toughest thing about creating a thriller?
Brown: For me it’s making it relevant to the real world. I use real history, real locations, real science: I tell my readers these are fictional characters but everything they’re dealing with, it’s real.
Lundborg: Does the thriller have a future?
Brown: We now have real-world thrillers at our fingertips almost daily. What authors bring to reality is that they take out all the boring parts.
Writers create suspense by cutting up reality, putting it in a different order, dropping pieces out, putting in misdirection. The story becomes fascinating as you try to connect dots that aren’t connected for you on the page.
Lundborg: Tell me about the secretive Consortium -- that’s real too?
Brown: There are a number of organizations like the Consortium. They essentially create alibis for people, or fictional realities. They make it easy to tell a very convincing lie.
Whether it’s the Vatican, the White House or Microsoft (MSFT) -- they all need to manage public perception and sometimes that involves creating illusion or shaping the truth.
Lundborg: With “The Da Vinci Code” you set the bar pretty high for yourself. Does that make it easier or harder?
Brown: In terms of research, I now have access to people and places I didn’t before. But simultaneously, I’m always trying to keep what I’m writing a secret, and so the people I talk to are signing non-disclosures.
For every question I ask about the novel, I’ll ask four about other stuff entirely. I’ll go on tours of places I know aren’t going to be in the book, just to keep people off the trail. It’s not very efficient.
Lundborg: So there’s no point in asking what you’re working on now?
Brown: I’d tell you, but it wouldn’t be true.
Lundborg: What’s the downside of “Da Vinci”?
Brown: There’s a lot of pressure. There are a lot of people who rely on me to turn in great books. Still, what a luxury to know what you’re putting on the page has a life.
Lundborg: Why are symbols so powerful?
Brown: They can convey enormous concepts without the baggage of language. They are transparent and universal.
Lundborg: Why does Langdon wear a Mickey Mouse watch?
Brown: This very serious professor needs to remind himself not to take it all that seriously. On some level, that’s something, especially now, I remind myself almost on a daily basis.
I take my work dead seriously, but what happens out in the world with these books, I have to step away from. You run the risk of losing your mind.
Lundborg: “Inferno” is full of smart people -- but it seems the smarter they are, the more they suffer. Why is that?
Brown: On some level, ignorance definitely is bliss. The more you understand the real world, the more you’re concerned about where we’re headed.
On some level, we all live in denial.
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(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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