Dan Brown: 'Inferno' Is 'The Book That I Would Want To Read'

May 18, 2013

Robert Langdon is back. The Harvard art professor in custom tweeds — and an ever-present Mickey Mouse watch — wakes up in a hospital after getting grazed in the head by a bullet, wondering how he ended up in Florence. He's got a sinister artifact sewn into his coat and just a few hours to keep the world from a grim biological catastrophe.

Dan Brown, whose book The Da Vinci Code — and several Robert Langdon sequels — has sold more than 200 million copies around the world, has written his first new novel in four years. Inferno is a story that ranges around some of the most splendid urban scenery in Italy, sweeps a couple of learned beauties to his side, twists through a Dante code, and raises questions — in Latin, Italian and English — about how the human species can keep going.

Brown tells NPR's Scott Simon that he doesn't really have a formula for writing best-sellers. "I wish I did, I could write them a lot faster," he laughs. "They all have certainly similar elements — there's codes and symbols and beautiful locations, but no, I don't have a formula that I know of."


Interview Highlights

On being inspired by Dante

"I have written a lot about the fine arts, but I'd never written about the literary arts, and so on some level Dante really, you know, spoke to me, as new ground but also familiar ground. Like the Mona Lisa, The Divine Comedy is, you know, one of those great ... human artistic achievements that transcends its moment in history and becomes a cultural touchstone. Feels like very — perfect ground for Robert Langdon."

On his research in Italy — is it as fun as it sounds?

"I hate to say this — it's a blast. It's kind of a Catch-22 now because, you know, since The Da Vinci Code I have access to places and people that I didn't have access to before, so that's a lot of fun for somebody like me. But I'm always trying to keep a secret. I don't want people to know what I'm writing about, so that's, I often end up asking — half the questions I ask are about something totally unrelated, and half of the places I go see are unrelated, just trying to keep people off the track of what I'm writing about."

On creating Inferno's villain, "evil genius" Bertrand Zobist

"In any novel, you would hope that the hero has someone to push back against ... I find the most interesting villains [are] those who do the right things for the wrong reasons, or the wrong things for the right reasons — either one is interesting. I love the gray area between right and wrong. Here is somebody who says we have an enormous population problem on this planet and everybody's turning a blind eye, and there are no simple solutions, but there is a solution. And while it's terrifying, maybe there's a silver lining to it. Maybe he's actually the good guy in all this."

On his place in today's world of literature

"You know, it's funny, I don't know where I would place myself in the literary landscape. I really just write the book that I would want to read. I put on the blinders, and I really — it is, for me, that simple. I'm somebody who likes codes and ciphers and chases and artwork and architecture, and all the things you find in a Robert Langdon thriller."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Robert Langdon is back. The Harvard art prof in custom tweeds and still wearing a Mickey Mouse watch wakes up in a hospital after getting grazed in the head by a bullet and wondering how did I get to Florence? He's got a sinister artifact sewn into his coat and just a few hours to keep the world from a grim biological catastrophe.

Dan Brown, whose "The Da Vinci Code," and Robert Langdon sequels have sold more than 200 million copies around the world has written his first new novel in four years. It's a story that ranges around some of the most splendid urban scenery in Italy, sweeps a couple of learned beauties to his side, twists through a Dante code and raises questions in Latin, Italian and English about how the human species can keep going.

I'm out of breath and I haven't even introduced the author. Dan Brown's new novel is "Inferno." He joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

DAN BROWN: What a wonderful synopsis. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: I have to ask, do you think you have some kind of formula for writing best-sellers?

BROWN: Well, I wish I did. I could write them a lot faster. You know, they all have certainly similar elements. There's codes and symbols and beautiful locations, but, no, I don't have a formula that I know of.

SIMON: What drew you to Dante for this book? A great artist, but not considered to be a source of mirth, if I might put it that way.

BROWN: No, "The Comedy," many say is misnamed, but I have written a lot about the fine arts, but I'd never written about the literary arts and so on some level Dante really, you know, spoke to me as new ground, but also familiar ground. Like the Mona Lisa, "The Divine Comedy," is one of those great arch - you know, sort of human artistic achievements that it transcends a small moment in history and becomes a cultural touchstone. Feels like very - perfect ground for Robert Langdon.

SIMON: Is the research you did through some of the most dramatic and enchanting spots in Italy as much damn fun as it sounds?

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: I hate to say this. It's a blast. It's kind of a catch-22 now because since the "Da Vinci Code," I have access to places and people that I didn't have access to before, so that's a lot of fun for somebody like me, but I'm always trying to keep a secret. I don't want people to know what I'm writing about. So that's, you know, I often end up asking - half the questions I ask are about something totally unrelated, and half of the places I go see are unrelated just trying to keep people off the track of what I'm writing about.

SIMON: You have a villain, and I think I can safely call him a villain in this book, named Bertrand Zobist.

BROWN: You may certainly call him a villain.

SIMON: OK. Evil genius. Because he is an evil genius. He has a way of saying things that sometimes sound very worthwhile. Where does this character come from?

BROWN: Well, you know, in any novel you would hope that the hero has someone to push back against, and villains - I find the most interesting villains those who do the right things for the wrong reasons, or the wrong things for the right reasons. Either one is interesting. I love the gray area between right and wrong. Here's somebody who says we have an enormous population problem on this planet and everybody's turning a blind eye. And there are no simple solutions, but there is a solution, and while it's terrifying, you know, maybe there's a silver lining to it. Maybe he's actually the good guy in all this.

SIMON: I don't want to give anything away, but you suggest that there are scientists who genuinely believe that a virus could actually be a good way of delivering mass immunization against vicious diseases.

BROWN: Yes. It was fascinating. As I was researching this book, I talked to a number of doctors and read an enormous amount on viruses and genetic engineering and all sorts of things. And what I heard everywhere from everyone was the genetic toolbox is so powerful that there really is nothing we can't do. I would say can we do this, can we do - absolutely. And finally they just stopped me and said, look, anything you can dream of doing to the human species, we can now do.

The only thing that stops us is money and ethics.

SIMON: I think if I have a favorite line in this book, it's when Robert Langdon asked his publisher to loan him a corporate jet so he can, after all, save the world, more or less.

BROWN: Yes.

SIMON: And his editor says: I'm not going to lend our jet to someone who writes art books. If you want to write "Fifty Shades of Iconography," we can talk. So where does this come from?

BROWN: Well, you know, this character, Jonas Faukman, the editor, is loosely based, or not so loosely based, on my editor, Jason Kaufman. It's an anagram, as many people know. And, you know, in my position you see a lot of the politics of publishing companies, and it's fascinating, and I've often thought that I would love to write a book set in a publishing company. They're fascinating worlds. And that's just a little glimpse inside.

SIMON: Yeah, but the turnover's gotten so big these days, hasn't it? Things you write about a character, yeah.

BROWN: Things are changing. Yeah, things are changing rapidly.

SIMON: The joke about 50 shades of iconography you have here does kind of raise the question about where you see yourself fitting into the literary landscape. Now, as we speak, you're - can I put it this way respectfully 'cause I enjoyed the book? You're book has gotten great reviews for a Dan Brown book.

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: I guess that's one way to put it. You know, it's funny. I don't know where I would place myself in the literary landscape. I really just write the book that I would want to read. And I put on the blinders, and I really - it is, for me, that simple. I'm somebody who likes codes and ciphers and chases and artwork and architecture, and all the things you find in a Robert Langdon thriller.

SIMON: Dan Brown. His new novel, "Inferno." Thanks so much for being with us.

BROWN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.