NEW YORK - Dan Brown sees the world a little differently than the average person.
"I wish I could travel for pleasure," says the author of such scenic blockbusters as "The Da Vinci Code" and "Angels and Demons," in which secrets and suspense are combined with a guided tour of Italy and other stops in Western Europe. "Everything I see is a potential idea and I wish I could turn that off. Maybe I shouldn't. But, yes, every little work of art that I see or place that I travel to is a potential idea."
Brown, 48, spoke recently at the midtown Manhattan offices of Random House Inc., where he jokingly imagines setting a novel called "Random Cipher," with hidden passageways running throughout the building. Brown is a New Hampshire resident spending the week in New York to promote "Inferno," a return to his beloved continent and a chance, he hopes, to interest readers in the classic 14th century journey in verse by Dante that provides the title for his new novel.
"My hope for this book is that people are inspired either to discover or rediscover Dante. And, if all goes well, they will simultaneously appreciate some of the incredible art that Dante has inspired for the last 700 years," says Brown, who with "The Da Vinci Code" helped inspire customized tours of the Louvre, Westminster Abbey and other settings in the novel.
Brown's new book, published Tuesday, is already high on the best seller lists of Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com, a position to be expected for an author whose novels have sold 200 million copies worldwide. "The Da Vinci Code" alone has sold more than 80 million copies and ranked Brown with J.K. Rowling among novelists for whose publishers the deadliest sin is spoiling the plot.
Brown's fictional alter ego, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, is once again on the run. Caught up in a struggle to prevent a deadly virus from spreading around the globe, he wakes up in a daze in an Italian hospital at the start of the novel and spends the rest of the book trying to regain his bearings. There's a love interest - sort of - visits to historical landmarks in Florence, Venice and elsewhere and mysterious codes that allude to passages from Dante.
Everything about "Inferno" is a tease, including the way the author has written and promoted it. Brown makes a point of visiting the locations he describes, and since "The Da Vinci Code" published in 2003, his fans have obsessively tried to discern where his next books might take place and what they're about. Details of his 2009 novel "The Lost Symbol" emerged thanks to reports that Brown, whose dimpled chin and sandy-colored hair are known to many, had been spending time in Washington, D.C. Counter-espionage became necessary during his European travels for "Inferno."
"Researching now is a double-edged sword," Brown says. "It's great because I've got access to things I never had access to before. But it's also more difficult because I'm trying to write in secret on some level and people know who I am. So half of the questions I ask are totally irrelevant to the book, just to keep people guessing."
Dante was highly critical of the Catholic church and Brown was happy to let readers and critics wonder if he would renew the controversies of "Angels and Demons" and "The Da Vinci Code," both of which enraged church officials with such speculations as a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But the target in "Inferno" is overpopulation, an issue not raised by Dante even in his crowded rings of Hell.
"I'm always trying to keep people guessing," Brown says. "When people heard I was writing about Dante, they said, `Of course, he's going to be critical of religion.' ... That would have been too obvious."
Brown does briefly take on the Vatican in "Inferno" for its "meddling in reproductive issues" and he praises Melinda Gates, "a devout Catholic herself," for raising hundreds of millions of dollars to improve access to birth control.
But instead of reviewing church history, Brown has spent the past few years studying the future. He has immersed himself in transhumanism, which advocates the use of technology to alter the mind and body, and has his characters debate the morality of genetics. Among those thanked in his acknowledgements are not just art scholars in Italy, but the "exceptional minds of Dr. George Abraham, Dr. John Treanor and Dr. Bob Helm for their scientific expertise."
The book subscribes to no faith, but does contain a moral, from Dante himself: inaction during a time of crisis is a sin. Overpopulation, Brown says, is an issue so profound that all of us need to ask what should be done. The author himself has not decided.
"This is not an activist book. I don't have any solution," he says. "I don't fall on the side of any particular proposed solution. This is just my way of saying, `Hello, there's an issue that people far more skilled than I am in these topics need to address.'"