Interview with Dan Brown

by Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, May 1998

Dan Brown
Dan 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 privacy forever.


Did you always plan on being a writer?

Not exactly. 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!

Did teaching prepare you for being an author?

Sure, insofar 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.

What 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
"The government knows far more about us than we could ever imagine. 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."
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├ęs 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.

How did you go about the research necessary to write such a technical book?

Cover of Digitial Fortress
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for more information.
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.

How 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).

What did your research reveal: how much does the government really know about the average citizen's private life?

The government 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 forever.

What kind of feedback have you been getting about the book?

Feedback on 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.

Outside 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
"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 action."
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.

The 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?

The 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 on earth.

What 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.

The 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.

Will 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.

Was 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 action.

One 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.

Will advances in technology mean the death of privacy for individuals?

Yes. Every 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.

Is this privacy issue only in America or is the same issue being raised in other countries?

Privacy is 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.

What 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

Could 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.

Tell 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.

Is 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.

What 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.

What 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...

I look forward to seeing it! Dan, thank you for coming.

Thank you. It was my pleasure, Claire.

**Click here for our review of Digital Fortress


Click here to return to the index of the May 1998 issue.