Dan Brown returns with ''The Lost Symbol'' -- The author talks about writing at 4 a.m., being a geek, and trying to ignore his critics

By Karen Valby
September 18, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Lost Symbol

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Before The Da Vinci Code became the best-selling adult novel of all time — before the adventures of tweedy symbologist Robert Langdon enchanted 81 million readers worldwide and became a blockbuster franchise starring Tom Hanks — Dan Brown was already at work on the sequel. That was more than seven years ago. Since then, Brown has become a millionaire several hundred times over, been unsuccessfully sued twice for plagiarism, and generally hung around in the air like a piñata for sneering critics. His long-awaited follow-up The Lost Symbol arrives draped in a richly designed jacket full of winking symbols and codes. The author knows there are some who will see only a big red bull’s-eye beneath his name. ”The Da Vinci Code had the audacity to park at number one for a little bit too long,” says Brown. ”And it became very en vogue just to trash my books.”

Some people seriously love to hate on the man. Salman Rushdie publicly dismissed The Da Vinci Code as ”a novel so bad that it gives bad novels a bad name.” Stephen King, speaking to University of Maine graduates, urged young people to seek out literature that wasn’t like Brown’s ”intellectual equivalent of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.” But, his critics notwithstanding, Brown’s Mac & Cheese has managed to delight a healthy portion of the planet. A Dan Brown thriller is fun, fast, and unsexy, and it makes you want to spend a Saturday in a museum or, better yet, splurge on an all-inclusive trip to Italy. The man himself is not hip, and does not aspire to be. His taste for turtlenecks, for instance, was much maligned during the promotion of The Da Vinci Code. They have since been replaced by simple dress shirts, though Brown has held tight to his tweed jackets and penny loafers. ”I’m a white, preppy geek,” he says unapologetically. ”Forgive me.” He aims for amused imperviousness when his public image and professional work are attacked. ”But, yes, of course it hurts.”

If you’re wondering why Brown has been absent from the public eye for so many years — why The Lost Symbol was so long in gestating — it’s because the former prep-school English teacher had made himself a promise. ”I will not write a lame follow-up,” he insisted. ”It could take me 20 years. But I will never turn in a book that I’m not happy with.” Brown pauses. ”Four years ago I wasn’t happy with the book. Five years ago I wasn’t happy with the book.” Finally, amid a flurry of articles trumpeting the terrifically pleasant 45-year-old author as the white knight come to resuscitate a wheezing publishing industry, he felt ready to return. ”And if the book weren’t good,” he says confidently, ”I’d be terrified.”

A week before publication, Doubleday was in a state of frantic lockdown. Only a handful of people on the 19th floor of the Manhattan publishing house had read The Lost Symbol. Any journalist given a sneak peek had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, relinquish cell phone and BlackBerry, and read the 509-page book in one marathon sitting. Armed guards surrounded the publisher’s warehouse where the 5 million-plus copies waited to be unleashed on the world.

”You do not want to be caught stealing this book,” Brown says the next day, clearly tickled by the amount of breathless hoopla. He’s sitting on the fourth floor of the library at the elite prep school Phillips Exeter, where he can contort his body to point out his New Hampshire childhood home in the distance. His father had a storied career in the school’s mathematics department, and he himself spent a couple of years teaching English here.

Brown and his wife, Blythe, who is 12 years his senior and aids tremendously in his book research, live a few towns over from Exeter. The couple met in Los Angeles when Brown was pursuing an ill-fated songwriting career, and are now building an architectural dream house full of secret passageways and bookcases and cavernous rooms laden with codes. They live on land they call the Isle of Langdonia, a tribute to the character who made such extravagances possible. The couple have no children, though Brown likes to think of his novels as his kids. ”They’re always out there getting in trouble,” he jokes. ”They never do what you want.”

The Lost Symbol

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