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American author Dan Brown’s bestsellers have often used religion and God as plot devices. Photo: Alamy

How Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown survived poor sales and bad reviews to prove success is no riddle after all

From his first blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, to his most recent page-turner, Origin, Brown’s career has been a success story even more implausible than his plots, and despite criticism of his work, his books remain hugely popular

Dan Brown has been writing his thriller novels under the forbidding eye of Zeus, the king of gods. This is a bit ironic, given that Brown vaulted to fame, success and bestseller lists by being a bit of an iconoclast, employing faith-shaking premises challenging ideas about religion and God as plot devices.

His first blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code, was a puzzle-filled thriller that introduced readers to the notion that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married with children. His most recent page-turner, Origin, went even further, playing with the idea that science could ultimately triumph over religion by essentially proving the non-existence of God.

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It’s true that the god that watches over Brown as he writes is actually a cat, a massive orange and white tabby that adopted Brown after it wandered over from a neighbour’s house near Portsmouth, in the American state of New Hampshire, five years ago and never left.

But ancient Egyptians once revered cats as demigods, and since then, cats like Zeus have never let Brown and the rest of us forget it. “He’s very big. Very, very territorial. Does not like it when I leave. When my suitcase comes out, he actually gets quite upset,” Brown said of Zeus. “He sits on my desk for eight hours a day when I’m writing.”

The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown.

Brown’s books, or the films based on his books, have been criticised by some for being anti-Catholic. Brown, 53, describes himself as agnostic, but not anti-religious.

“My mother was very, very religious. She was the church organist. I sang in the choir,” he said. As a child, Brown said, “I believed in the Bible. I believed in Adam and Eve.”

But his father, a maths teacher who created treasure hunts for his kids and introduced Brown to a passion for secret codes, was an agnostic. “So I had a foot in each world growing up,” he said.

Brown learned about evolution when he was about nine years old, and when he asked his Episcopalian priest about it.

My mother was very, very religious. She was the church organist. I sang in the choir
Dan Brown

“The priest told me, ‘Nice boys don’t ask that question.’ And I moved into the realm of science. I moved away from religion,” he said.

“At some point, I realised I can’t really embrace them both, and I started on this journey of writing these books and trying to figure out where the truth lies.”

Brown said technology, like religion, can be used for both good and evil. But he objects when religion stands in the way of scientific progress or “is used as an excuse to have immunity from rational scrutiny.”

Brown’s mother died earlier this year of leukaemia, and his latest book is dedicated to her memory. Brown said her life was extended because of an experimental drug programme based on genetic medicine. “My mom had 10 years of life, and I had 10 years with her, because of these technologies, and I think it’s important we remember, and the church remembers, that religion does not have the market cornered on morality,” he said.

Brown’s path to success wasn’t a straight one. Before he took up writing, he hoped to be a singer-songwriter, the next Barry Manilow or Billy Joel. When his music career failed to take off, he turned to writing.

His first was a humour book, 187 Men to Avoid. Then, inspired by reading a Sidney Sheldon novel, he wrote a techno-thriller, Digital Fortress. His first Robert Langdon novel, Angels & Demons, and another techno-thriller, Deception Point, came next. He had to do his own publicity for those first books, and he sold books out of his car as he struggled to find readers.

“I was seriously considering not writing again,” he wrote of that time, describing his career in a witness statement in a lawsuit against his publisher. Instead, he changed his agent and got a new publisher, Doubleday, which heavily promoted his next novel, The Da Vinci Code.

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The runaway success of the The Da Vinci Code in 2003 led Time magazine to put Brown on its list of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2005, crediting him with “nothing less than keeping the publishing industry afloat”. But success has made him a target. Two lawsuits, both thrown out by the courts, accused him of plagiarism. And critics regularly bash Brown’s prose.

Fellow mega-seller Stephen King (fifth on the Forbes author list) once lumped Dan Brown novels with Jokes for the John as the “mental equivalent of Kraft macaroni and cheese”. Salman Rushdie described The Da Vinci Code as “a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name”.

In The Washington Post, reviewer Ron Charles said Origin was “so moronic you can feel your IQ points flaking away like dandruff”.

Origin, by Brown.

Asked whether reviews like that hurt or if he cries all the way to the bank, Brown said: “Kind of both. I just write the novel that I want to read, and I just hope other people want to read it.” Brown said he has ideas for several more books involving his hero Langdon, who he describes as “really the person I wish I could be …”

Brown said Langdon is braver and smarter than he is, but there’s one way they are alike: Langdon shares Brown’s claustrophobia, thanks to an experience Brown had of nearly falling into a well.

“That was something that almost happened to me as a child in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, and it has stayed with me, and I just made it the Achilles’ heel of this character,” he said. Future novels may have a different hero.

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“I’ve got an idea for a novel about race relations in the 1960s. I’ve got ideas for techno-thrillers, government conspiracy theories, all sorts of things, ” Brown said.

Whatever he does, Zeus will be watching.