To mark today's release of Dan Brown's new novel Inferno, here's a Q&A with Brown, courtesy of Random House.
Inferno refers to Dante Alighieri´s The Divine Comedy. What is Dante’s significance? What features of his work or life inspired you?
The Divine Comedy—like the Mona Lisa—is one of those rare artistic achievements that transcends its moment in history and becomes an enduring cultural touchstone. Like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, The Divine Comedy speaks to us centuries after its creation and is considered an example of one of the finest works ever produced in its artistic field. For me, the most captivating quality of Dante Alighieri is his staggering influence on culture, religion, history, and the arts. In addition to codifying the early Christian vision of Hell, Dante’s work has inspired some of history’s greatest luminaries—Longfellow, Chaucer, Borges, Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Monteverdi, Michelangelo, Blake, Dalí—and even a few modern video game designers. Despite Dante’s enduring influence on the arts, however, most of us today have only a vague notion of what his work actually says—both literally and symbolically (which, of course, is of great interest to Robert Langdon). A few years ago, I became very excited about the prospect of writing a contemporary thriller that incorporated the philosophy, history, and text of Dante’s timeless descent into The Inferno.
When you start on a new book, do you begin with the writing or the research? Do you enjoy doing one more than the other?
Research definitely drives everything I do. Before beginning the writing process, I spend a lot of time exploring worlds in which I intend to set the book. In Angels & Demons, those worlds included Vatican City, particle physics, and the ongoing battle between science and religion. In Inferno, the worlds include Florence, Venice, the writings of Dante Alighieri, as well as a frightening new science that I believe has the potential either to save humankind or to destroy it.
Where did do your research for Inferno? How long did you spend on it?
Researching Inferno began with six months of reading, including several translations of The Divine Comedy, various annotations by Dante scholars, historical texts about Dante’s life and philosophies, as well as a lot of background reading on Florence itself. At the same time, I was poring over all the new scientific information that I could find on a cutting edge technology that I had decided to incorporate into the novel. Once I had enough understanding of these topics to proceed, I traveled to Florence and Venice, where I was fortunate to meet with some wonderful art historians, librarians, and other scholars who helped me enormously.
Once this initial phase of research was complete, I began outlining and writing the novel. As is always the case, when a book begins to take shape, I am drawn in unexpected directions that require additional research. This was also the case with Inferno, which took about three years from conception to publication
With respect to the process, the success of these novels has been a bit of a Catch-22. On one hand, I now have wonderful access to specialists, authorities, and even secret archives from which to draw information and inspiration. On the other hand, because there is increased speculation about my works in progress, I need to be increasingly discreet about the places I go and the specialists with whom I speak. Even so, there is one aspect of my research that will never change—making personal visits to the locations about which I’m writing. When it comes to capturing the feel of a novel’s setting, I find there is no substitute for being there in the flesh...even if sometimes I need to do it incognito.
What kind of adventure will Robert Langdon face this time? Can you give us any sneak peak at the new novel?
Inferno is very much a Robert Langdon thriller. It’s filled with codes, symbols, art, and the exotic locations that my readers love to explore. In this novel, Dante Alighieri’s ancient literary masterpiece—The Divine Comedy—becomes a catalyst that inspires a macabre genius to unleash a scientific creation of enormous destructive potential. Robert Langdon must battle this dark adversary by deciphering a Dante-related riddle, which leads him to Florence, where he finds himself in a desperate race through a landscape of classical art, secret passageways, and futuristic technology.
What was the most exciting idea or story that you found in your research?
For me, one of the most exciting themes of Dante’s Inferno is the portrayal of pride as the most serious of the seven deadly sins—a transgression punished in the deepest ring of hell. The notion of pride as the ultimate sin dovetails perfectly with Greek mythology, in which hubris is responsible for the downfall of the archetypal hero. In mythology, no man was more prideful than the man who considers himself above the problems of the world…for example, he who ignores injustice because it does not affect him directly. This notion is reflected in a famous paraphrasing of Dante’s text: THE DARKEST PLACES IN HELL ARE RESERVED FOR THOSE WHO MAINTAIN THEIR NEUTRALITY IN TIMES OF MORAL CRISIS. This is a recurring theme of the novel.
What made Florence the ideal location for Inferno?
No city on earth is more closely tied to Dante Alighieri. Dante grew up in Florence, fell in love in Florence, and began writing in Florence. Later in life, when he was exiled for political reasons, the longing he felt for his beloved Florence became a catalyst for The Divine Comedy. Through his enduring poem, Dante enjoyed the “last word” over his political enemies, banishing them to various rings of the Inferno where they suffered terrible tortures.
Do you have a favorite place to visit in Florence, like a library or a museum?
Every visit to Florence should include a trip to the popular highlights—The David, The Uffizi Gallery, The Boboli Gardens, and Il Duomo. In addition, there are a number of other locations that I find particularly inspiring. The Laurentian Library contains a breathtaking staircase by Michelangelo as well as archives of ancient manuscripts that are literally chained to their shelves. Palazzo Vecchio’s spectacular Salone dei Cinquecento is home to one of the great unsolved mysteries in art history, which remains an enigma to this day. And the Battistero di San Giovanni boasts a dazzling mosaic cieling that is said to have terrified the young Dante Alighieri and later inspired his enduring vision of hell. All of these locations make an appearence in the new novel.
The great detective in your novels, Robert Langdon, shares your birth date as well as your place of birth. What else do the two of you have in common?
Langdon and I both share a fascination with history, symbols, and codes, but this is where the similarities end. Langdon is far more daring and exciting than I am. He is, in many ways, the hero I wish I could be.