with Dan Brown
By Claire E. White
Brown was born and raised in the small New England town of Exeter,
New Hampshire. The son of a teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy,
he grew up in a house full of books on a street where John Irving
used to live. After graduating from Exeter and from Amhearst College,
Dan followed in his father's footsteps by teaching English at Exeter.
His debut novel, Digital Fortress (St. Martin's Press, 1998) is
a heart-pounding techno-thriller about a beautiful and brainy NSA
cryptographer who must defeat a madman's sick plan to cripple the
U.S. intelligence community. With non-stop action, cutting edge
intelligence data, romance and a very real controversy about personal
privacy versus the threat of terrorism, the book is garnering rave
reviews from critic and fans alike, and just went into its third
printing. When he's not writing or touring for his new book, Dan
can usually be found hiking, playing tennis or squash or indulging
his passion for music composition. Dan spoke to us about his hot
new novel and whether the digital age means the end of personal
Did you always plan on being a writer?
When I graduated from college, I had two loves--writing fiction
and writing music. I lived in Hollywood CA for a while, doing the
songwriting thing. Aside from a song in the Atlanta Olympic ceremonies,
I never had much success in music. I woke up one morning and decided
to start writing fiction again. Digital Fortress was my first attempt
at a novel. I certainly feel blessed that it sold; I'm not sure
I would have had the patience to write another one on spec!
teaching prepare you for being an author?
as I've read a lot of the classics, where issues of plot and description
are well crafted. Actually, I suppose discussing books in the classroom
also helps me to analyze good fiction and incorporate similar themes
into my own work.
was your inspiration to write Digital Fortress?
In the spring
of '95, two U.S. Secret Service showed up on the campus of Phillips
Exeter (where I was teaching at the time) and detained one of our
students claiming he was a threat to national security. As it turned
out, the kid had been on the Internet the night before having a
light-hearted political debate via E-mail with one of his friends
and had made the comment that he was so mad at the current political
situation he was ready to kill President Clinton. The Secret Service
came up to make sure he wasn't serious. He wasn't, of course, and
not much came of it. The incident however really stuck with me.
I couldn't figure out how the Secret Service knew what these kids
were saying in their E-mail. I began doing some research into where
organizations like the Secret Service get their intelligence data,
and what I found out absolutely floored me. I found out there is
an intelligence agency as large as the CIA... that only about 2%
of Americans knows exists. It is called the National Security Agency
(NSA), and it is home to the country's eavesdroppers. The agency
functions like an enormous vacuum cleaner sucking in intelligence
data from around the globe and processing it for subversive material.
The NSA's supercomputers scan E-mail and other communiqu?s looking
for dangerous word combinations like "kill" and "Clinton"
in the same sentence. The more I learned about this ultra-secret
agency and the fascinating moral issues surrounding national security
and civilian privacy, the more I realized it was a great backdrop
for a novel. That's when I started writing Digital Fortress.
did you go about the research necessary to write such a technical
I really don't
think of Digital Fortress as all that technical. There is a lot
of cryptography (codebreaking) and a very big computer lurking in
the shadows, but overall I think of Digital Fortress as a chase
and a love story set in the backdrop of a fascinating secret agency.
I did read a lot of books about cryptography and the NSA's advanced
technology. The hardest part was sifting through the techno babble
and simmering it down to something fairly non-technical that anyone
could understand and that would not bog down the plot. I've been
excited because I've had a lot of people mail me and email to say
that they are not techno-thriller readers and that they loved the
book because of the other elements. I worry sometimes that, because
we talk about cryptography and the NSA that people think, "Oh,
it's a computer book," but it's so much more than that.
did you hook up with your anonymous sources - the ex-NSA cryptographers?
While I was
researching cryptographic method and toying with the idea of writing
Digital Fortress, I posted some questions to a cryptographic newsgroup.
I ended up talking to some people whom I later found out were former
NSA people. I was also fortunate to meet face to face with a Trusted
Agent with the U.S. Commission on Secrecy. Although these people
never shared anything classified (or even JOKED about it) -- they
helped me sort through a lot of recently declassified data through
FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act).
did your research reveal: how much does the government really know
about the average citizen's private life?
knows far more about us than we could ever imagine. They established
the Internet years ago as ARPANET and certainly buried the hooks
they need to monitor traffic. They also have satellites that can
listen to cellular phone calls and all sorts of other electronic
eavesdropping devices. It is important, however, that we don't react
with too much paranoia; agencies like the NSA are far more interested
in terrorists than in the average citizen and most of us have nothing
to worry about. Of course, the pros and cons of living in an Orwellian
"Big Brother is Watching" kind of society can be debated
kind of feedback have you been getting about the book?
Digital Fortress has been very gratifying indeed. The novel has
made a number of bestseller lists and is being considered right
now for a movie. I get a lot of email from excited readers. It seems
people have really connected with the timely "moral issues"
in the novel: How much privacy should we give up as citizens to
ensure our national security? The fast pace and inside look at the
NSA have also been common themes of what people have enjoyed. Every
now and then I get an irate letter from some technician telling
me that the gadgets in Digital Fortress could never exist in real
life (they all do), and I have to forward some article or photograph
confirming my research.
of the intelligence community and avid readers of spy novels, most
Americans have never even heard of the NSA. What does it do exactly?
The NSA was
founded at 12:01 on the morning of November 4th, 1952 by President
Truman. No note of this event was made in the Congressional Record.
The NSA's charge was simple -- to intercept and decipher intelligence
information from hostile governments around the globe. Secondly,
it was to create the means to enable secure communications among
U.S. military and officials. Put another way, the NSA is in charge
of waging the information war -- stealing other people's secrets
while protecting our own; they are not only the nation's code-breakers,
but also our code-writers. Today the agency has a $12 billion annual
budget, about 25,000 employees, and an 86-acre heavily armed compound
in Fort Meade, Maryland. It is home to the world's most potent computers
as well as some of the most brilliant cryptographers, mathematicians,
technicians, and analysts. Digital Fortress is about a brilliant
female cryptographer who works inside these sacred walls.
stated rationale of the NSA for its monitoring of the communications
of U.S. citizens is that such monitoring is necessary for the safety
of the American public from terrorist and other criminal acts. How
valid is this rationale? How great is this threat?
is very real. Last year the Director of the FBI testified before
the senate that the NSA's monitoring of civilian communication (Email,
cell phones, faxes, etc.) had in one year alone thwarted the downing
of a US commercial airliner, a rocket attack on US soil, and the
bombing of a US consulate. Americans hate to admit it but we have
a lot of enemies; we are a ripe target for terrorism and yet have
one of the lowest rates of successful domestic terrorist attacks
was the most challenging part of writing Digital Fortress?
This will sound
trite, but the toughest part was believing in the story even when
things were going badly...forcing myself to spend 5-8 hours a day
on the manuscript even when I wasn't positive I could make it work.
I did make it work, and I'm glad I stuck with it. I estimate I wrote
over 1000 pages to end up with this 350 page novel.
heroes of Digital Fortress are Susan Fletcher, a beautiful and brainy
cryptographer at the NSA and David Becker, a professor at Georgetown
and foreign language specialist. How did you create these characters?
Susan and David
are composites of people I know. They are also a bit larger than
life (something for which a few people have criticized me), but
this is an escapist, "fun" novel, and I personally enjoy
reading about characters that have exceptional talents like code-breaking
or multiple language skills. We run into boring people all day long,
so why not read about some interesting ones.
Susan and David have any more adventures for the NSA, or will the
book remain a stand-alone?
At this point
Digital Fortress will stand alone. Writing it took about 18 months,
and by the end of it I was ready to move on from the characters.
Using new characters will also allow me to set future novels in
other locales and keep the plots fresh.
it difficult weaving the romance in the story with the thriller
aspects of the story?
Not at all.
I'm far more of a romantic than I am a political espionage junkie.
Romance (particularly lovers separated by insurmountable obstacles)
always makes me care more about the characters and therefore the
of the favorite sayings of the book's mad genius Ensei Tankado is
"Quis custodiet ipsos custodes," a Latin phrase meaning
"Who will guard the guards?". Who is watching the government
to see that they don't intrude into the private lives of American
citizens? Is anyone?
Yes and no.
There are plenty of civil rights watchdog organizations who are
attempting to keep an eye on government snooping. One is the EFF,
which figures heavily in Digital Fortress. Theirs is a tough job
because agencies like the NSA are so clandestine and have so much
advanced technology that even "knowing" what they're up
to is almost impossible.
advances in technology mean the death of privacy for individuals?
day, civilians have fewer and fewer secrets, and it's only going
to get worse. The world has become a dangerous place, and our security
is harder to protect. Criminals have access to the same technology
we do. If we want the government to catch terrorists who use E-mail
or cellular phones, we have to provide a means for them to monitor
these types of communication. There are plenty of very sharp folks
who are working hard to find some happy medium -- key escrow systems
that would enable officials to monitor communications only with
a court order -- but despite all the efforts to leave the public
some semblance of secrecy, ultimately the price we pay for national
security will be an almost total loss of privacy.
this privacy issue only in America or is the same issue being raised
in other countries?
a hot issue everywhere. Oddly, the Germans are furious with NSA
right now over a system called Echelon, a European spying network
crated by the U.S. and England. For those interested in global espionage,
there is plenty of information at the novel's website: http://www.digitalfortress.com.
advice do you have for beginning writers hoping to get published?
Only one piece
of advice: Write a commercial manuscript. This does NOT mean selling
or writing a spy novel. Bridges of Madison County and Cold Mountain
were both "commercial novels." I was given a number of
great tips on writing saleable manuscripts, and for anyone interested,
I've posted them on-line at: http://www.digitalfortress.com/tips
you elaborate on that? Let's talk about settings, for example. What
can a beginning writer do with settings to add dimension and interest
to the story and why is that important?
There are two
things. First, the choice of setting is critical. For example, if
you're writing a love story, don't set the story in the middle of
a parking lot. Set the scene in a location that has an interest
factor so that the setting itself is interesting. I'm not saying
you have to set it inside the National Security Agency. You might
want to write it in a horse farm and show the reader the intricacies
of tending horses or set it in a private school and show the inner
workings of that school. Which leads me to my second point: reveal
your setting in such a way that the setting is interesting. If you
wrote a story in a private school and didn't reveal any inside information
about what it's like to work or study at a private school then you've
got a boring setting.
us about the website for Digital Fortress.
While I was
researching the book there was so much information about the National
Security Agency, about global terrorism, about intelligence gathering
that couldn't be worked into the novel that I wanted to share. Well,
it was not so much that it couldn't be worked into the novel but
that I wanted people to see that what I was writing in the novel
was true. For example, people would email me to say that there was
no way that there's an agency that can do this. And I would simply
respond, "go to the website and have a look - it's real".
And it's just grown from all the radio interviews I've done and
people calling in with questions. I'd go find the answers and post
them on the site along with articles.
it important for authors to be on the Web?
If that's what
you're writing about. It's important for authors to use the Web
responsibly. More than half the information out there is garbage.
And it's important to realize that just because it's on the Web
doesn't mean that it's a fact. I like to use the Web as an inspirational
tool to get ideas and then when you actually go to do your research
get your actual information elsewhere. There are some major books
that were published and had to be edited later because of faulty
research. Anybody with a computer can post a webpage and tell you
that they know everything about everything.
kind of books do you like to read?
Ugh! I know
I am supposed to list all the great writers who have inspired me.
I'm ashamed to say that I am so busy writing I have almost no time
to read anything other than non-fiction and research books. On vacations
I grab some mainstream thriller off the best-seller rack. Not glamorous,
I know, but the truth.
projects are you working on now?
I'm happy to
say that Simon and Schuster has just purchased the rights to my
next two novels, so I am hard at work on another techno-thriller.
This one is placed in Switzerland and Rome... where the age-old
battle between science and religion is heating up...
look forward to seeing it! Dan, thank you for coming.
It was my pleasure, Claire.