How code-cracking treasure hunts and pre-dawn press-ups have made Brown the best-seller he is

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A little after 10.30am yesterday, the writer of The Da Vinci Code suspended his self-imposed silence by taking the witness stand at the High Court in London to dismiss claims he is a literary lightweight and plagiarist.

In the process, Dan Brown revealed a refined upbringing complete with code-cracking treasure hunts and a penchant doing press-ups before dawn. The world's wealthiest novelist is accused of stealing the plot for his novel - which has sold 40 million copies - from a book written 20 years earlier by copying the theory that Jesus married and established a bloodline that the Catholic Church is desperate to conceal.

Brown, 40, dismissed the claims from two of the authors of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (HBHG) as absurd and said he was astounded by the accusations that have led to the £2m lawsuit. The appearance represented a rare apologia from an author who has revealed little about his personal background since his rise to fifth place in a list of America's best-paid celebrities.

In a 69-page statement to the court, the author, whose unashamedly populist novel was once described by Stephen Fry as "arse dribble", sought to put the record straight about his intellect by setting out his credentials as a painstaking writer who "grew up in a house of mathematics, music and language". The son of two New England teachers, and taught at Phillips Exeter Academy, the American equivalent of Eton, Brown outlined how he had only achieved success after two decades of creative struggle.

Brown explained his literary influences had been works by heavyweight authors such as Faulkner, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare, until he picked up a thriller in 1993 and decided he could write one too.

The author, who tried a career as a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles before turning to fiction, revealed: "For me, writing is a discipline, much like playing a musical instrument; it requires constant practice and honing of skills. If I'm not at my desk by sunrise, I feel like I'm missing my most productive hours. I keep an antique hour-glass on my desk and every hour break briefly to do push-ups, sit-ups and some quick stretches. I find this helps keep the blood - and ideas - flowing."

The court heard that despite attending the highly exclusive private school in New Hampshire where his father was a maths teacher and musician, Brown had had an austere upbringing in which plagiarism was considered a "major offence".

He explained how he had grown up without a television in a household obsessed with puzzles. He said: "On Christmas morning, when most kids would find their presents under the tree, I might find a treasure map with codes and clues that we would follow from room to room and eventually find our presents hidden somewhere else in the house."

It was only after his failed flirtation with music in LA, where he met his wife, Blythe, who was his manager and agent, that Brown returned to New England to become an author, with Blythe acting as his researcher. Brown said: "We were forced to literally sell books out of our car at low-profile publishing events. Doing our own publicity and self-funding a book tour was expensive and exhausting. I was seriously considering not writing."

Under cross-examination, Brown told the court that he was "not much of a detail person" and had relied on his wife to carry out much of the research for The Da Vinci Code, reading numerous tomes on the Knights Templar, the Holy Grail and Mary Magdalene. But he insisted that neither he nor his wife had read HBHG, published in 1982 by Brown's own publisher, Random House, until the final stages of writing The Da Vinci Code. The court heard that claims he had copied HBHG's "governing themes, logic [and] arguments" were "completely fanciful".

Brown said: "For [the claimant] to suggest that I have 'hijacked and exploited' their work is simply untrue." He then set out what many in a packed court room had probably come to hear - the secret of his success.

He said: "The ideal topic has no clear right and wrong, no definite good and evil and makes for great debate. For me, the 'must- have' themes include codes, puzzles and treasure hunts, secretive organisations, and academic lectures on obscure topics."

The case continues.