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The Dan Brown Code

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The best-selling author of The Da Vinci Code lectures on science and religion, and why he’s adept at killing off characters, in his turn at the Penguin Annual Lecture in India
Dan Brown simply does not care what Salman Rushdie thinks of him. With more than 220 million copies sold, he has good reason not to.

Yet, there is one essential truth when it comes to Dan Brown, the writer whose fame rests on “a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name”, as Salman Rushdie famously said of The Da Vinci Code (in the way that only Salman Rushdie can put it). Secretly we may all want to write best-selling thrillers for a living and not give a fig about what Rushdie thinks. Brown proved that he really doesn’t himself, when he revealed, without a trace of irony, what he thinks of Rushdie’s opinion of him: “He is a nice man.” To a room full of people who cheered and clapped if he so much as twitched a muscle, he continued: “When you’re a creative person all you have to guide you is your personal taste, some people will share your taste and some won’t. Life has to go on.” Brown was addressing an audience in Delhi in the eighth edition of the Penguin Annual Lecture Series on Monday evening at Siri Fort Auditorium, previously given by speakers as diverse as Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen and superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

What is life like if you’re a best-selling author who has sold more than 220 million copies, created the seventh highest selling series of all time (the Robert Langdon series), and are credited with reviving tourism in the cities of Florence, Rome and Paris? Most people walked in perhaps with the reasonable expectation that they would get a peek into this life. But, that was not to be. It is not for nothing that Dan Brown is called reclusive, just as often as he’s called best-selling and famous. He stresses that writing is an existence which is “solitary, schizophrenic and filled with demons and doubts”.

Dressed in a suit and tie, with his blonde hair combed back, Brown gives the impression of being a grave professor with bad news (like climate change), rather than an author of popular fiction. The evening began with a talk on codes, science and religion which Brown had clearly rehearsed many times over, before he took on questions from the audience. Here he delved into his childhood; a childhood spent in the eternal confusion between religion and science. His mother was a church organist, his father a mathematician. His mother drove a bright red Volvo with a license plate that proclaimed her love for God, ‘KYRIE’ (Lord in Greek); his father drove a white minivan with a license plate that proclaimed his love for science and mathematics, ‘METRIC’. His mother told him that God created the world in six days and his father told him of the Big Bang theory. Growing up was realising that the lines between the two are constantly blurred.

The adult Dan Brown is a little cryptic when it comes to picking sides between the two. “I find it impossible to imagine we are all here by chance, that we are here as scientists say because of random atoms.” His advice: Religion should not be interpreted literally as fact or history, but taken as metaphor, as lessons for life, so we can all engage in dialogue and live with open minds. His six books—including Digital Fortress, Deception Point, Angels and Demons and The Lost Symbol, the last two part of The Da Vinci Code franchise—bear this out this philosophy.

A pertinent question put to him by the audience: Why does a character die in the first five pages of every book you write? “I believe my books should be fun. They should grab you. I want my readers to curse me because they can’t put it down. Part of it is creating a shocking event and murder is pretty shocking.” Brown’s last book, Inferno (2013), is being turned into a movie in which Tom Hanks will reprise the role of Robert Langdon. He had one joke to share from his time on the film set of The Da Vinci Code. “On a film set you hear strange things. Like the time I heard, ‘Can someone get Mary Magdalene a Diet Coke?”

The author stops in Mumbai next.