How we met: Richard Leigh & Michael Baigent
'We had to sue Dan Brown. It has been a very time-consuming and bitter battle'
Saturday, 16 December 2006
Born in New Zealand in 1948, author Michael Baigent collaborated with Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln on the 1982 blockbuster The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail, whose ideas were later incorporated into Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. The editor of Freemasonry Today, he lives in the south of England with his wife and four children.
How did I first meet Richard? Well, it's a long story. I'd done a degree in psychology in New Zealand, but then went into photography and travelled to Bolivia where I became fascinated by the ancient ruins there, convinced they'd make the perfect subject for a television documentary. I later drifted to Spain and finally to England, still trying to hawk my documentary idea, but I had to accept that it simply wasn't commercially viable, and so I dropped it.
However, I was also interested in the Knights Templar [a Christian military order in the Middle Ages], and an acquaintance of mine put me in touch with Richard, who also had an interest. I thought that this could become my documentary instead. Several years later and after an enormous amount of research - I love to be out in the field, stomping through forests and looking at ruins - it became a book instead: The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail.
Who could have predicted that it would have become such a success, remaining in print for the next 25 years [with 2 million copies sold to date]? All we knew at the time was that this was a story that needed to tell itself, and that if we didn't tell it, somebody else would.
The book [which suggests that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and had children whose descendants are alive today] was controversial. We were on the front page of every newspaper in the world, and all over chat shows in America. This caused certain problems, however, particularly among fundamentalist Christians, who have been hounding me ever since, telling me that I'm going to hell and that I should beg for mercy. A pain in the arse, frankly.
Over the years, I'd say that Richard has become my closest friend, even though we very rarely see each other because we live so far apart. I can travel, for research purposes, up to six months a year, but we do speak all the time on the phone, and more than ever recently because of the court case against Dan Brown [mounted earlier this year, for plagiarism]. We had no alternative to sue, as we saw it as a blatant exploitation of our intellectual property. We lost the case, of course...
Has it cost us a lot of money? Oh fuck, oh fuck! Close to £2 million. It's been terrible. The case is going to appeal in January, and while I'd like to say I'm optimistic of the outcome, it's the law. Can you ever be optimistic of winning against the law?
Born in New Jersey, Richard Leigh moved to Britain in the mid 1970s to become a writer of literary fiction. His partnership with Michael Baigent, however, took him down a rather different path, albeit a hugely successful one. He is 63 years old, single, and lives in London.
I never felt particularly American, despite being born and bred there. My father was British, my mother Viennese, and I came to London in 1974 simply because I had become disgusted with America - for a variety of reasons - and also to pursue my career as a writer.
My chief commitment all along has been literary fiction, and my pantheon was a lofty one: Joyce, Proust, Thomas Mann. To some extent, then, The Holy Blood And The Holy Grail and everything that followed thereafter [Leigh and Baigent have collaborated on six books] were distractions from my own work. In many ways, I've spent more than 25 years writing books I never really wanted to write.
Yes, The Holy Blood did bring in money - though that money was divided - and there were passages in the book in which I was free to go for a gallop on one or other hobbyhorse, but there were other, larger sections that were onerous to me, in which I felt I was simply going through the motions.
Of course, initially, Michael had the idea for this to be a documentary, but it was my agent who said it had more potential as a book. He suggested that this would pave the way for my own books, which turned out to be a sick joke. Anyway, I reluctantly agreed to write the prose while Michael did much of the fieldwork, but once the contract came through, the publishers expected a once-in-a-lifetime story every two years. It was a chore.
The controversy upon the publication of our first book never really affected me. I didn't have a vested interest in it in the same way that Michael did. The research was purely an intellectual exercise; I enjoyed it for that alone. The finished article simply didn't have the same import for me as literary fiction.
Nevertheless, Michael and I did make good collaborators, which is why we worked together again several times over, and I'm sure we'll work together in the future as well.
I heard about the Dan Brown book on the internet, long before its publication, and reading up on it led me to believe that it was a work of important semiotic fiction comparable to Umberto Eco and Arturo Pérez-Reverte. But upon leafing through it, I quickly realised that it wasn't serious literary fiction at all. Not only that, but we believed it had also flagrantly availed itself of our material. So of course we had to sue. It has been a very time-consuming and bitter battle.
In the meantime, I am hoping to return to my own work. I have a collection of short stories out now, and a larger novel is ready for publication. Is it the fiction I've spent so long wanting to write? I don't know, I really don't know.