They met as 8-year-olds at a friend’s birthday party and soon became inseparable, playing on the same soccer team and writing short stories.
Twenty years later, the literary collaboration of Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason has yielded one of the hottest books of the year.
“The Rule of Four” was released May 11 to favorable reviews, many describing the literary thriller as a more intellectual companion of Dan Brown’s extraordinarily popular book, “The Da Vinci Code.” As of Tuesday, “The Rule of Four” has gone back to press 15 times, with 600,000 copies in print.
“The initial three weeks of sale are equal to, or a little bit above, the initial three weeks of 'The Da Vinci Code,’ which I think is pretty phenomenal,” said Sessalee Hensley, fiction buyer for bookseller Barnes & Noble.
Not bad, considering there were years when Caldwell was “just hoping it would see the light of day.” The two 28-year-olds spent four years writing the book, much of it on laptops in Caldwell’s basement in Virginia, where they once played as children.
The friends began working on the novel after Caldwell graduated from Princeton University and Thomason from Harvard University, in 1998. A mix of historical and present-day fact and fiction, the book revolves around two Princeton seniors and their attempts to solve the riddle of the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,” a puzzling, fantastical love story of uncertain authorship, published in Venice in 1499 and written in multiple languages.
As Tom, the narrator, and Paul, who has based his thesis around the Renaissance text, get closer to its secret, they find themselves engaged in a dangerous game — one that allows the authors to weave together intellectual details, potboiler twists and ruminations on family, friendship and time.
The authors decided to build a novel around the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (pronounced HIP-nair-OTT-oh-MOCK-ee-uh Poe-LIFF-il-ee) after Caldwell wrote a paper about it at Princeton. The esoteric text might intimidate most college students, but not Caldwell and Thomason.
“We were both so accustomed to an academic atmosphere, it was actually more daunting to sit down and write a novel,” Caldwell said in an interview with The Associated Press from his home in Newport News, Va.
Comparing their theories
Thomason, who lives in New York, agreed. Because there was no complete English translation of the book when they started writing, the two felt free to create their own solutions for it. It wasn’t until late 1999 that a translation by a Colgate University Professor came out and the two could compare their theories with the work.
“We were really thrilled,” Thomason said. “We found so much inside the book that really resonated with what we had come up with. It was an amazing moment.”
The book’s appeal comes as no surprise to its editor at Dial Press, Susan Kamil, who describes the first-time authors as “astonishingly bright and talented.”
“I was completely and utterly engaged in this book from the minute I read the second draft,” said Kamil, who had seen an earlier draft in 2001 but thought the book needed more work. She suggested several changes to Caldwell and Thomason, which they incorporated.
Kamil thought the “The Rule of Four” had a lot of potential, but neither she nor the authors were prepared for its immediate and extreme success, some of which has to do with “The Da Vinci Code,” which has spent 62 weeks on the best seller list of The New York Times since its March 2003 publication.
“There has always been an interest in secret code books,” bookseller Hensley said. “It’s always been a trend but now it’s very rapidly expanding. It’s a supernova trend.”
Caldwell and Thomason, meanwhile, are working on a second novel that also combines modern-day suspense with a historical puzzle.
The authors aren’t giving any hints, but whatever the book’s mystery, Thomason said, “It will be easier to pronounce than the Hypnerotomachia.”