A candid talk with 'The Lost Symbol': 'In my game you don't get to pick your Author'
September 23, 2009
By Steve Johnson
"The Lost Symbol" is on top of the world. With an initial printing of 5.6 million copies, it has a shot at being one of the most popular adult novels ever. So it was a surprise when, arriving at its Chicago hotel room for our interview, we found it staring out the window, paying no attention to the bottle of Champagne and tray of appetizers laid out before it on room-service linen.
Q. A suite at the Peninsula. Stops in every major city. These must be heady days for you.
A. Yes, they must be. That's what the publicist tells me every morning when she runs through my schedule.
Q. Everybody wants a piece of you. How many interviews do you have today?
A. Eight, nine? Maybe 10. They made me put on this makeup for "Fox & Friends." I don't think Steve Doocy had actually read me. I'm sorry I haven't taken it off yet.
Q. No worries. This is print. The words are what matter here.
A. Hah! Wouldn't that be nice?
Q. You sold 1 million copies your first day, setting a record for adult fiction sales, and 2 million in your first week, according to your publisher. You're lighting up the Kindle charts. How does that feel?
A. Yeah, and I came out just in time for Oprah's new book club selection. And what does she pick? A batch of African short stories. Have you read the reviews I'm getting? Nobody respects me. I've only got three stars on Amazon. A game of hangman on a discarded napkin could get three stars on Amazon.
Q. Forgive me -- I don't know you well enough to say this, but you seem down.
A. Nah, I'm fine. I'm on top, like you say. It's all good. I'm reviving interest in Freemasonry and noetics. People want to go to the nation's capital now just to follow conspiracies that aren't about birth certificates. And, unlike with my cousin, the Catholic Church isn't bothered at all.
Q. Your cousin?
A. "The Da Vinci Code." Can we go off the record? Used to be a nice guy. Totally stuck up now. Thinks his pages don't yellow.
Q. Well, for what it's worth, I read him, and I'm not a fan.
A. Yeah, and did you even try to watch that movie? Tom Hanks in a mullet! But it's not really Vinci's fault. In my game, you don't get to pick your Author. You want Michelangelo, but, as you're being written, you realize you've got a house painter. You want to be about robotics or string theory -- something cool -- and you end up being about noetics.
Q. Are you saying you wish Dan Brown weren't your Author?
A. I'm not saying I do, and I'm not saying I don't. Don't you think it's odd, though, that out of all the writers in the world, me, a book about symbols and secret societies, would by written by him, a writer who thinks every time five guys got together before the Renaissance, they hatched a plot that would endure for millennia?
Q. But that's not conspiracy. That's just coincidence. Or even logic. He's interested in that stuff. You're about that stuff. He made you be about that stuff.
A. Oh, I get it. You're part of it too.
Q. Not everything is a scheme, you know.
A. No, you're right. You're right. Not every shadow is sinister. (The book pauses and, for the first time, takes a long sip of Champagne.) Do you see what I did there? 'Not every shadow is sinister.' That was a short, sharp phrase. Decent writing, if I may say so. Chandleresque. My Author, he'd turn that into a three-page monologue on the history of shadows, delivered by a character on a moped fleeing an assassin.
Q. Well, he must be doing something right. He's got people talking about writing that's longer than 140 characters.
A. You're saying I'm too heavy? This hotel-room living is killing me.