Dan Brown

Year of Graduation: 

“We think different things. We can talk about our ideas. ... We’re all respectful of each other. That’s the world I grew up in."

Cults, conspiracy theories, dashing Ivy League professors — these are the elements we have come to expect from Dan Brown thrillers. But a timpani-playing kangaroo? That’s new territory for the bestselling author of The Da Vinci Code.

Brown’s latest page-turner, Wild Symphony, tracks the adventures of a diminutive mouse as he gathers a menagerie of animal friends to put on a concert. Each page of this genre-busting picture book for the under-10 set features a poem that imparts a life lesson and also an original musical composition.

The music, performed and recorded by Croatia’s Zagreb Festival Orchestra, is accessible through a smartphone app that allows readers to listen along. Of the book’s enhanced audio capabilities, Brown says: “I was eager to try to re-create the experience I had as a kid. Of reading a children’s book and listening to classical music — but also taking it a step further, such that the music you’re listening to is directly related to what you’re reading.” Brown has also hidden anagrams and word games in the illustrations for kids and adults to discover.

We spoke with the author about his new project over Zoom, where he was comfortably ensconced in the library of his New Hampshire home, just miles from Exeter’s campus.


Where did the idea for this fantastical story spring from?

I used to walk out in the [Academy’s] Gillespie reserve. I was writing music and poetry at the time and I heard a bunch of frogs in the river croaking. There was a big fat bullfrog and some high peepers and some frogs in the middle and it sounded like a fugue to me. I went home and I wrote a piece of music that was called “Happy Frogs.” And then I wrote a poem to go with it such that you would know what you were hearing. I must have been maybe 19 at the time.


So Wild Symphony has been in the works for years.

This has been 30 years in progress. It started with a little project called “SynthAnimals,” which I sold [in Exeter] at the Water Street Bookstore and Whirlygigs (toy store) on consignment. It was a cassette tape and a little book that went with it. I forgot about it until I was on tour a couple years ago. I was giving an interview on Chinese National TV and the interviewer said, “Before you talk about your adult books, I want to talk about your children’s book.” I said, “I don’t have a children’s book.” He said, “Yes you do. We found it on eBay. Here it is.” They played a song. I read a poem. We had a laugh and went on with the interview.

Then Random House said, “This could be a real thing if you double the size, write 10 more poems, 10 more pieces of music, orchestrate it for symphony and illustrate it.” I decided to do it.


You mentioned walking in the Academy woods. What was it like to grow up on campus in the ’70s?

I grew up in the dorms, Dunbar, Bancroft Hall and Moulton House. We didn’t have a TV, so I read a lot of children’s books. I loved Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry, Maurice Sendak, all of them. And I would listen to my parents’ record collection, which was all classical music. My mom was a professional pianist and organist. Music and children’s books really became a big part of my childhood.


What’s your earliest memory of music?

My mom playing piano, and me lying under the piano listening. She also played at Sunday morning services at Christ Church in Exeter, and when I was a little kid, I’d sit on the piano or organ bench and turn pages for her. That’s a lot of pressure for a little kid. If you turn too early or turn too late, it’s a big disaster. You learn to read rhythms very quickly.


So that’s where your musicality came from. What about the poetry?

My dad’s a very good poet and a mathematician. He taught at Exeter for a long time. He would always write poems at Christmas for our treasure hunts. He’d write little poems that point you to another room and you’d find your next poem and you’d go all over the house on these treasure hunts. Poetry for me as a kid was fun. It was less fun when I got to Exeter and I had to read The Odyssey.


When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I wrote a book called The Giraffe, The Pig and The Pants on Fire, which I dictated to my mom when I was 5 years old. I told her what to write, she wrote it down. I drew pictures for every page, and we bound it in cardboard. I still have it. So, apparently as of 5 years old, I was telling stories. In college, I majored in creative writing and music composition, so one of those was likely going to happen.


Is writing novels and composing music a similar process?

They’re very similar. You can’t write a novel or a piece of music without understanding structure above all. You really need to know how to arrange pieces, whether they’re melodies or plot points, in order to create something that has flow. You have got to understand dynamics. You can’t write a piece that’s all loud. You have no moments to catch your breath. And you can’t write a book that’s all car chasing where nobody ever gets to exhale for a second. Thematic material has to rise and fall in both of them at the right rate. At least for me, they inform each other.


What is your writing day like?

I am up pretty much by 3:30 a.m. every day. I’m an early riser. I only sleep about five-and-a-half hours and I don’t set an alarm. I fall asleep within 30 seconds when I hit the bed. I don’t move and then I wake up and write. I will put in at least four hours, sometimes eight if it’s going well. By noon, I’ve put in an eight-hour day. Then I work out, talk to publishers, talk to agents, whatever it is I’m doing that day. They’re long days.


It’s like you’re almost still asleep when you start writing.

I move quickly from the sleep state to writing. When you wake up, you’re often coming out of a REM sleep, which is where you dream and where your mind creates something out of nothing. You’re in that frame of mind. I find if I try to sit down and write late in the day, it’s a struggle. I’m much more creative in the morning, much more focused.


There’s a tradition of moralistic messages in fairy tales and each of your poems has a moral too.

Some of these morals are derived from things I learned growing up on campus. Not initially as a student, but as someone there on campus as a young person. I just felt like, “We think different things. We can talk about our ideas. Some people do that. Some people do this. We’re all respectful of each other.” That’s the world I grew up in. If you look at a poem like “Happy Frogs,” the moral is basically, “Hey, we’re all different shapes and sizes and colors, but if we all work together, we can make beautiful music.” That’s just a way to tell kids that tolerance is important.


What was the creative process like for this project?

The creative process was very different because it was so collaborative. I’m not used to collaborating at all. I was working with an illustrator, three producers, a bunch of sound engineers, 80 musicians. There were a lot of moving pieces.


What did you enjoy most about that new process?

The recording of the music. I’m very familiar with what it feels like to sit alone and write. But living in Croatia for several weeks while we recorded this was amazing. I think I went three times to finish the whole album. My brother Greg ’93 — he’s a professional musician — came over for one of the sessions along with his son, my nephew Griffin ’20. We had three Exonians in the recording booth. It was really fun.


Can you tell me about the book’s dedication page?

My mom passed away about four years ago. This book really, it’s about being young at heart. It’s about morality and ethics. It’s about music. It’s about a lot of things that were important to her. I wish she could’ve seen it. If you look at the dedication page, you’ll see that there’s a staff of music that runs through it very faintly. The first three notes, it’s a C, a G and a B. Those are my mom’s initials.

— Jennifer Wagner

Editor's note: This interview was first published in the winter 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.