“Jo Nesbo is my new favorite thriller writer and Harry Hole my new hero.”
“I am the world’s greatest living crime writer. [Jo Nesbø] is a man who is snapping at my heels like a rabid pitbull poised to take over my mantle when I dramatically pre-decease him.”
“Many authors know how to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Jo Nesbo’s one of the few who keeps them there.”
“The Snowman by Jo Nesbo is relentless. His terrifying transformation of a childhood icon permeated my sleep. I started Redbreast but it was too much. I gave it to my guitarist Lenny Kaye and he was hooked. Now my band is reading Nesbo but I am too petrified to crack open the Phantom….”
“Norway boasts Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Munch and the best-selling thriller writer Jo Nesbø as native sons”
-New York Times
“The next Munch or Ibsen could be Jo Nesbø … And, if there’s any justice, one day Harry Hole will be just as big as Harry Potter.”
I COME FROM A FAMILY OF READERS AND STORYTELLERS. My mother was a librarian and my father used to sit in the living room reading every afternoon. And he told stories. Long stories we had heard before, but in such a way that we wanted to hear them again. When I was seven I pulled Lord of the Flies off the bookshelf and asked my father to read it to me. Not so much because I had good taste, but because on the cover there was a picture of a pig’s bloodstained head impaled on a pole. My father read it and I thought I could have made the story more exciting myself. I had already begun to impress friends my age, and some older children, with my gruesome ghost stories.
But my greatest passion was soccer. I made my first appearance for Molde, a Premier League team in Norway, at the age of seventeen and I was sure I would go on to play professionally in England for the Tottenham Hotspurs. So I started skipping school and I think that, if you asked the teachers at my high school, my very existence came to be shrouded in mystery. My grades tanked, but so what? I was going to be a pro athlete…
Then I blew out the cruciate ligaments in my knees. Probably no loss for Tottenham, but my world came crashing down. School was over and when I got my grades I realized they just weren’t good enough to do the things I had wanted to do. A number of career paths were no longer open to me. So I took a deep breath and signed up to do military service in the far north of Norway. For the three years I was there, I shut myself in every night and every weekend and bulldozed my way through the high school syllabus. And read quite a bit of Hamsun and Hemingway, too. Until then I had always trusted my talent and taken it for granted, and followed the path of least resistance, but now I discovered a new side of myself: self-discipline. When I finally held my high school diploma in my hands that spring, with top-notch grades, I experienced a deep, heartfelt satisfaction I had never felt before, and perhaps not since either. Now I could get into pretty much any school or any program I wanted. The problem was that I didn’t know what I wanted to study. So I enrolled at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration in Bergen, a school with a long, illustrious tradition and a prestigious name. I figured it had to be good.
One day in the cafeteria this guy came up to me and said someone told him I played guitar. That wasn’t exactly true: I knew three chords. But I didn’t contradict him since he was trying to get a band together. And so I became the guitarist for De Tusen Hjem which played the kind of industrial noise rock you get when you’re really bad at playing, have plenty of electricity, big amps and practice in a basement. We sounded so awful our vocalists quit one after another. Eventually somebody pushed me up to the microphone. And since I thought the lyrics for the cover songs we were playing stank and that we might as well be playing actual melodies instead of just angry strings of chords, I started writing songs. De Tusen Hjem never achieved world domination, but we did release a single, which was played frequently on local radio, at least once on national radio, and sold 25 copies.
When I finished university, I had an economics degree and the glimmering of a notion that I might like to write pop songs. I moved to Oslo and started working in finance, got bored and wrote songs. One night a young jazz bass player I knew listened to some of my songs. The next day we started a band, Di Derre. A year later we were touring. Two years later we had a recording contract. Our second album became the best selling album in Norway in years. Our concerts sold out in hours. And suddenly we were pop stars.
However, I had seen what happened to other musicians who turned their hobby into a job, and I knew it would demand too many compromises as far as my music, and my life, were concerned. So I hung onto my day job as a stockbroker while we continued playing gigs. I also studied to become a financial analyst. When I got headhunted by DnB Markets, the largest brokerage firm in Norway, to build up their options division, I had to commit to two years with them. In other words, I had more than enough to do. I performed at night and worked during the day. After one year I was so burned out that I hated everything and everyone I worked with, including myself. I told my band and my boss that I needed six months off. Then I hopped on a plane to Australia, to get as far away from Norway as I could. But I took my laptop with me.
The reason I brought my laptop was that a woman from a publishing company had proposed I write a book describing life on the road with the band. That engendered a whole new way of thinking and I realized I was ready to take the leap and write a novel. It was just a question of getting started. But it had to be a story about what Aksel Sandemose claimed were the only two things worth writing about: murder and love.
It takes about thirty hours to fly from Oslo to Sydney. And in those thirty hours I came up with the plot for a story I started writing as soon as I got to the hotel. It was the middle of the night, I had jetlag and I wrote about a guy named Harry who landed at the same Sydney airport, was staying in the same hotel and had jetlag…
When I returned from Australia I had almost finished the book. As soon as I set my suitcase down in my living room, I picked up writing again. I just wrote and wrote and was irritated by disturbances like hunger and the need for sleep. These were the best weeks of my life.
I sent the manuscript to a publisher, but under a pseudonym to make sure they wouldn’t be tempted to publish a crap book by a pop-star-turned-writer. The manuscript was delivered and my leave of absence was over. My first morning back at work I switched on my computer and realized I had almost everything: an apartment, no debt, an overpaid job and a great band. The only thing I didn’t have was time. My father had died two years before: the very same year he had retired and was going to start writing the book he had been planning about his experiences during the Second World War. But his time ran out. And I wasn’t going to let the same thing happen to me. So, before my computer screen was up and running, I was standing in my boss’s office explaining that I didn’t have time to work for him any more.
I spent the next three weeks wondering what to do. Until one morning I received a phone call asking if I were Kim Erik Lokker. And then the brief message that my manuscript was going to be published.
At the publishing house they asked me why I had used a pseudonym and I explained that my name was already well known in Norway. But when I told them my name they didn’t seem to recognize it. So I cleared my throat and explained that I was the vocalist for a well-known band. Still no response. I said the name of the band. Two of them nodded and one started humming a song. By another band.
The Bat was published in the fall of 1997 under my own name, and with a mix of elation and terror I waited for the reviews to deal with that pop music guy who dared to write crime fiction! But the reviews were on topic, serious and focused on the book, not on me as a person. And, best of all, they were positive.
I went to Bangkok in the winter of 1998 with the synopsis of what would become The Cockroaches. When I got there I realized things weren’t going to work out: I was planning to stay for two months and I was already feeling claustrophobic. And yet, two weeks later I was in love with the city. I didn’t notice the noise, liked sweating, and felt that air should have a smell, a taste and a color. And once again I was following in Harry’s footsteps—or he in mine—through Chinatown, on boats on the Chao Phraya River and in go-go bars in Patpong.
I discovered that I had learned a lot from the first book. I was better at the craft of writing and had picked up a few pointers on composition. At the same time, I was under more pressure now because I knew that writing was what I wanted to do, and after The Cockroaches there was no guarantee I would get another book published. From my time in the music industry I knew that the public’s memory was short, and that if The Cockroaches flopped I would be back to square one.
When I returned from Bangkok my publisher called and told me that The Bat had been awarded the 1997 Riverton Prize for Best Norwegian Crime Novel. I was pleased, of course, but also a little skeptical. It had been too easy! So I counted up the Norwegian crime novels that had been published that year, subtracted the authors who had already received the prize since I had heard people usually only won once, disregarded the books the reviewers hadn’t liked, and realized that I must have won the prize through a process of elimination.
A month later I found out that The Bat had also been awarded the 1997 Glass Key for Best Nordic Crime Novel. Then I figured maybe I shouldn’t think about these things so much and just enjoy the moment. I was unlikely to experience anything like this again.
When I saw the headline in the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, I knew enjoying the moment had been the right thing to do. I was witnessing my first devastating review. So when I learned that The Cockroaches had been accepted as the main book in the National Book Club’s New Books section—the golden ticket into a commercial and literary elite in Norway—I knew that it was actually thanks to its predecessor, The Bat.
So I sat down and started writing The Redbreast. It was the story my father had wanted to tell, about Norwegians on both sides of Nazism during the Second World War. About the mythical self-image of the Norwegian people and a nation actively resisting Hitler. About why people make the choices they do and the victor’s privilege of writing history. If writing the first two books was like playing a solo on an acoustic guitar, this was like directing an orchestra. When it was finished I knew that if the critics slaughtered the book or if it failed commercially, I would have to give up writing and find something new. Because The Redbreast was simply the best I had to offer.
When the book came out, it was more with a sense of relief than pleasure that I gradually realized I had done quite well. The publishers were enthusiastic, the reviewers were enthusiastic and the public was enthusiastic. The book won the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize in 2000 for best novel of the year.
In Nemesis, which came out in 2002, I set the plot almost entirely to Oslo, more precisely on the very street where I lived. As a private citizen, Harry gets drawn into the story via a former girlfriend from many years ago, who is found dead. And the tension between Harry and his adversary, his colleague Tom Waaler, continues. In terms of content, Nemesis is an obvious follow-up to The Redbreast and—the way I see it—has more in common with the first two Harry Hole books in terms of its structure and narrative. The book was well received and was awarded the William Nygaard Prize.
The Devil’s Star picks up where Nemesis left off, set in Oslo during a July heat wave, and once again with Tom Waaler as a central character. But he remains a riddle. The overarching Waaler storyline—a person who in many respects is very similar to Harry and reflects his psyche and moral dilemmas—runs through The Redbreast, Nemesis and The Devil’s Star, and so it would be natural to view them as an Oslo Trilogy. The Devil’s Star came out in fall 2004, became my greatest commercial success thus far, and paved the way for my books to be published abroad. Until that point I had been translated into six languages and was known as “an exciting, exotic Scandinavian crime writer.” But in spite of all that, I sold relatively few books outside Norway.
I finished The Redeemer in the summer of 2005, after having spent more than two years writing it. The inspiration for the plot came partly from the Salvation Army, partly from the siege of Vukovar on the border between Croatia and Serbia in 1992, and partly from the seedy side of Oslo around the now closed junkie hangout, Plata. I know a little about the Salvation Army after having worked with them on a charity recording and concert. The background story of the young Croatian hitman comes, at least in part, from a dramatic story a Croatian captain told me when I was writing Stemmer fra Balkan [Balkan Voices, non-fiction] in 1999. And you used to be able to stroll over to a war zone closer to home any night of the week—nighttime Oslo at the Plata—and study it close up. You still can, although Plata itself no longer exists.
I was wildly excited when I finished The Redeemer and was surprised to find more resistance from the publisher than I had encountered with any of my earlier books. I had already cut almost a hundred pages from the novel and I cut even more. The new version felt so pared to the bone that I was afraid I had killed it. At one point I asked my editor what he thought about dropping the book altogether and starting on a new one. Perhaps I had been affected by the fact that we could feel mounting expectations from all sides after the success of The Devil’s Star. In addition, The Redbreast had been voted Norway’s Greatest Crime Novel of All-Time by NRK [Norwegian Public Broadcasting] and the Book Clubs. Suddenly there was a long way to fall.
So it was with a certain dread-tinged excitement that we launched The Redeemer in the fall of 2005. The critics descended on the book, and the first review appeared the day after the book was released. It was a Saturday and my editor called to warn me that the review in Dagsavisen was quite dismissive. And one bad review usually presages more. I had the weekend to steel myself for the rest. On Monday morning I looked myself in the mirror, knowing I was facing five days of interviews and that I would be looking five years older by Friday. However, when the dust settled, the conclusion was clear: the bad review given by Dagsavisen was the only one; the others were, in a word, overwhelming. And the public was not slow to react. The head of my publishing house called to tell me that The Redeemer was the fastest-selling fiction book in the history of the company. Five days had passed and it was already, for lack of a more precise or profound expression, a fantastic success. And I can remember promising myself I would enjoy the moment without feeling guilty or suffering the paranoia I imagine extremely beautiful women must feel: the feeling that people like you for reasons you actually despise. Quite the contrary, I ordered a T-shirt that said BESTSELLER on it. On the other hand I’ve never found the right occasion to wear it. Well, I suppose I can always beat myself up for being too chicken.
I spent 2006 writing a few songs for Di Derre’s Farewell and Best Of album, and then doing the launch and the subsequent farewell tour. The tour was a heartwarming encounter with a large, loyal audience. But I also discovered something else: in the popular consciousness I was no longer a musician who wrote books, but a writer who played in a band. When I started writing the next Harry Hole novel, The Snowman, I noticed that things were starting to happen abroad. My agent started calling more and more often, and more and more contracts were arriving in the mail from countries further and further away from Norway. My Harry Hole novels have been translated into more than forty languages, but I still get a huge kick out of it when a book arrives in the mail and the only word I recognize is my own name on the cover.
The Snowman was released in June 2007. Not only was it unheard of to release a book in the middle of summer—after all, it was generally agreed in the Norwegian publishing world that books with a certain sales potential should be released in the fall—but was it really going to be called The Snowman? Yes, of course.
Again reviews were positive and The Snowman was to become the fastest-selling novel in Norwegian history. And for the first time in many years I took a sort of summer vacation. It didn’t last very long.
For many years I had been toying with an idea for a children’s book. It had started with my daughter who, as usual, had asked me to make up a story while we were eating dinner. So I made up Nilly—a tiny, red-headed ten-year-old boy with an Elvis quaff and the banter of a used car salesman; his neighbor and best friend Lisa; two fat, nasty twins with a Hummer-driving father; and a fairly eccentric professor who had accidentally invented the world’s most powerful fart powder.
Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder came out in October 2007, and I was apprehensive about the reviews. After all, this was a book they were allowed to slaughter. My worries proved to be groundless. The book was greeted with unanimous enthusiasm. Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder was nominated for Ark’s Children’s Book Award 2007 and sales took off, probably significantly aided by a popular talk show that interviewed me. They flew in the Methane Man, a tall, thin man dressed in superhero spandex. He used extremely audible farts to blow out candles on a birthday cake and “sing” hymns. A quarter of the entire population of Norway, myself included, laughed until we were screaming.
In November 2007 I published a novella titled The White Hotel. All the revenue from the sales went to Save the Children. And I think I can hear you yawning now as you wait for me to tell you how overwhelmingly positive the reviews were. But it was only reviewed in one place. The reviewer liked the project, but hated my contribution. I read the review twice and I’m sad to say he made some good points.
All the same, 2007 was a fantastic year for me. I was awarded the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize for the second time, this time for The Snowman. Furthermore, the Harry Hole books had started appearing on bestseller lists abroad. So what do you do when everything is going so well? Yes, that’s right, you start writing something completely different, forcing yourself to take risks, and thereby discover a new world. This way the fear of failure will increase the pleasure in any success you might achieve. This time the project was a story about a headhunter at a recruitment firm. He uses the FBI’s nine-step interview model on job candidates and is married to a woman who is much too beautiful and whom he must rely on art theft to finance. One day a Dutch man turns up for a job interview. It turns out he has a missing Rubens masterpiece hanging on the wall at home… The title was Headhunters. It topped the sales charts from the moment it came out in the summer, and again the critics were very kind. Apart from one, from my hometown paper in Molde, who just didn’t like the book. I read the review carefully. And even though Headhunters received The Norwegian Readers’ Prize for 2008, I thought—and still think—that the critic in Molde had good arguments.
I also made a decision that was very important for me. But not until Greedy Jo had had a serious discussion with Decent Jo. The decision was that all the income from Headhunters, domestic and international, would go towards a plan I had been mulling over for a while: basic reading and writing classes for children in the third world. My motivation was principally twofold. I have been privileged enough to be able to travel all over the world, and what this traveling has taught me is that the ability to read is a basic prerequisite for citizens to find their bearings in society so that genuine democracy can exist and so that those same citizens can create a better life for themselves and their families. Besides, I had also realized that I did not have—and would never have—a lifestyle that matched what was gradually becoming a rather large amount of money in my bank account. And there were surely plenty of other very human motives there, too: feelings of guilt that things had gone absurdly well, the need to be liked, to buy myself karma, an indulgence, redemption, etc. But I do not imagine that self-analysis by an overpaid Norwegian writer is very important to an Indian girl who receives ten years of schooling and can return home to her village afterwards, perhaps as a teacher, and be a role model for other girls and mothers.
So we set up a foundation, the Harry Hole Foundation, which would award an annual prize called A Decent Guy or A Decent Lady, and a stipend that the prizewinner, with the help of a committee, would invest in literacy projects. And the following year, in 2009, we did just that. The Decent Guy prize went to a prison chaplain, Odd-Cato Kristiansen, and the stipend went to the Naandi Foundation that helps provide schooling for deprived girls in India.
In 2008 I published my second children’s book, Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder: Bubble in the Bathtub, a flatulent romp through French history, which was short-listed for Ark’s Children’s Book Award, but didn’t win, eliciting the following question from a journalist: “How does it feel to lose for once?” For someone who has definitely not succeeded at everything in life, it feels strange to realize that in some circles I have been branded a kind of golden boy who can do no wrong. But of course there are heavier crosses to bear, and I promise to do everything in my power to make sure that this illusion lasts for as long as possible before the bubble bursts.
That would certainly have happened in 2009 if I had published the Harry Hole novel that I had just finished writing. To put it plainly, it was bad. And I knew it. I had sent the manuscript to my editors after spending two months writing a first draft that in a way was brave and different, but that didn’t work. It felt like applying make-up to a corpse. So when we met in the summer of 2008 and, as usual, my editors made comments that on the surface might have seemed like minor details, this confirmed for me that they had read the novel the same way I had. I told them I was going to drop the publication. There was a long silence and a couple of gaping mouths around the table, and they argued that these things could be fixed. But, deep down, I knew that the problem was the basic foundation, the scenario, the premise of the whole story. It couldn’t be helped that it was almost two years of work. And as I left the meeting, I felt relieved and confident that I had done the right thing.
Then I sat down and wrote The Leopard. It was my longest and most labor-intensive book so far. I did research in the Congo and Hong Kong, studied torture weapons and interviewed avalanche experts, scuba divers and rock climbers. And it was also my most brutal book. I had already started Harry’s physical deconstruction in The Snowman, and this continued in The Leopard. Because Harry is like all of us; we fall apart. The only question is how fast. This book was also well received in Norway, but it might have been the first time I noticed that there was so much interest in the books that the reviews probably wouldn’t have that much impact on the sales. In the end, the book broke the previous sales records in Norway and also sold more than ever in most of the other markets.
I received something in Sweden’s Svenska Dagbladet that I don’t think I ever had before: an unqualified trouncing by a reviewer who felt that the book sensationalized violence. The review seemed so emotionally charged that I could only conclude that The Leopard not only wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but a tea that really stuck in some readers’ craws, a book whose brutality and scenes of violence could truly alienate readers. I received many questions about the use of the torture device Leopold’s Apple in particular. For example, whether it really exists. And another question started coming up: How do you come up with these things? Meaning: What kind of sick, perverted mind could come up with such ideas? I tried to look within myself, to ask if the violence in the book was really appropriately calibrated for the purpose: to say something about the character behind it. Or if I had let myself be lured into sensationalism, effects for the sake of effects and a callous fascination with suffering. There was a time when I flung American Psycho at the wall because it made me physically ill, made me feel polluted just from reading it in all its splendor. Had I now created just such a book, one that had become a sort of guilty pleasure for closet sadists? If there was any comfort, it was that The Leopard was selected as the year’s best crime novel by the Danish Academy of Crime Writers, topped the bestseller lists in Norway, Finland and Denmark, and for the first time Harry Hole made it onto Der Spiegel’s bestseller list in Germany, where it reached as high as No. 3.
At the same time another piece of news came sailing in. I was on my annual writing trip in Asia when I heard that Nemesis had been nominated for the Edgar Award as best novel in the U.S. The award is viewed as a sort of the Oscar for books, also in the sense that pretty much only American books ever win it. I was surprised since I do not personally consider Nemesis to be my best book. I figured it was a sort of compensatory nomination since my standard prize-winning novel, The Redbreast, had flown under the radar when it was released in the U.S. and hadn’t been discovered until a core group of mystery enthusiasts picked it up later and started discussing the book on the Internet. I was quite sure Nemesis wouldn’t beat out the other five highly qualified nominees, but went to New York with my agent Niclas with two shared goals: to finally have the time and energy to get drunk together and to congratulate the winner in a way that sounded genuine. However, my friend Henrik Mestad, who’s been nominated for a number of acting awards, told me that no matter how sure you are that you won’t win before you go, something strange happens in the seconds before the winner is announced: you become COMPLETELY convinced it will be you. I blew that off, of course, and then of course that is just what happened. In the seconds before John Hart’s name was announced as the very deserving winner, I thought, “Who am I going to thank?” And, “What is the quickest route to the stage?” On the other hand, that gave Niclas and I something to laugh about when we started working on the evening’s remaining goal.
In the fall of 2010, Doctor Proctor and the End of the World. Maybe, was released, the third in the series. It was clear that both the series and the author now had an established fan base, because the book went right up to No. 1 on the general Norwegian bestseller list, which is unprecedented for a children’s book. The exhibit at the Natural History Museum in Oslo that accompanied the release was also unusual. “Doctor Proctor’s Sensational Exhibition of Animals You Wish Didn’t Exist” was created by Pjotr Sapegin, Kristine Grüner and their employees at an animation studio, and was based on the animals in the Doctor Proctor books: the Mongolian water vole, flesh-eating flying fish, rhinoceroses with colds, toadstools that eat children and other unsavory creatures. The book won the 2010 Norwegian Critics Prize and before the ceremony I got a message from my daughter to say that I should accept the prize on her behalf, since after all she was the one who had asked me to come up with a story about a crazy professor, a tiny, hilarious boy and a very heroic girl who was a little like her.
The Leopard was released in the U.K. in 2011 and expectations were high, since The Snowman had made it to No. 2 on the paperback list. Both my publisher and my agent were through the roof with joy (let alone myself as the author, although I didn’t have much of a roof where I was at that time) when word came that The Leopard has reached No. 1. When I went on a U.K. tour in March 2011 I realized that something had happened. I had readers! And they were lining up outside the store and around the corner to have their books signed in the same stores where I had sat drumming my fingers a few years earlier.
As I write this, I’m about to tour the U.S. for the launch of The Snowman there. In spite of the Edgar nomination and reviews, the series has not reached a big audience over there, so it’ll hardly be like in the U.K. Or in Poland where I recently accepted a prize and two teenage girls, who had run away from home somewhere further north in Poland, were standing in front of the place where the ceremony was held hoping to meet and maybe get a picture with their hero. Of course, I’m afraid the hero they wanted to see was Harry Hole and that they were a little disappointed that the author was over fifty years old, shorter than 1.94 meters, and didn’t have a scar extending from the corner of his mouth to his ear. But as we took the picture of the three of us together and I heard the younger of the two let out a timid, contented sob, I felt a little like a pop star again. So now it’s about time to head to the U.S. and come back down to earth, ground myself in reality and start from the beginning again. I’m looking forward to it.
Translated by Tara Chace
Half-an-hour before Jo Nesbo is due on stage at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, and already the line stretches the length of the capacious Old Swan Hotel, snaking into mid-morning sunshine. “I’ve never seen a queue like it,” one festival veteran tells me.
The festival is marking its 10th anniversary, and has invited some of the genre’s biggest stars to its annual jamboree. The roster includes Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Harlan Coben and John Connolly. But there’s no doubting the main draw: Jo Nesbo, bestselling author of The Snowman, Headhunters and Phantom.
Nesbo’s reputation was established by a series of novels set in his home town of Oslo that featured his troubled but brilliant police detective, Harry Hole. A typical Hole investigation combines stomach-churning violence, black humour and state-of-the-nation addresses. Nesbo has dismembered drag queens, unleashed great white sharks, and hidden characters in faeces-filled outside toilets, all the while musing on Norway’s record in the Second World War, its economy and welfare state.
Back at the Old Swan, people arriving early, or so they think, sigh at the length of the wait. They have travelled from Scandinavia, Germany, America and across Britain. I ask the eager and the impatient why they are here today. Most whisper as if sharing a secret. “He’s different and exciting.” “He’s a phenomenon.” “He’s hot.” “He’s trendy. A bit of a rock star. Down with the kids.” What the informal poll makes clear is that Nesbo the man is as big a draw as Nesbo the writer. How many novelists have also been successful footballers, stockbrokers and pop stars in previous incarnations? How many go mountain-biking with their nation’s prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg?
Nor does it hurt Nesbo’s allure that his literary success translates easily to the cinema. Last year’s Headhunters was a slickly plotted, but oddly humane thriller about consumer excess and masculine crisis. It was followed this summer by Jackpot, a very violent, but enjoyable buddy movie gone wrong. Martin Scorsese is rumoured to be adapting The Snowman for the silver screen. “As long as he remains healthy, it should happen,” Nesbo tells me later. “I just pray he doesn’t have a heart attack.”
The doors to the auditorium open. The Nesbomaniacs (Nesbots?) brush me aside in the rush to get the best seats. Nesbo himself is introduced by festival curator Mark Billingham. “He has sold over 14 million books. One is bought every 23 seconds. Which means he’s already sold a few since I have been up here,” quips Billingham, a former stand-up. The audience chuckles. One awed crime writer is overheard asking, “Is there anything Nesbo can’t do?”
An hour or two later and all is quiet. After a prolonged book signing, the writer is calmly picking at lunch in a largely deserted hotel. If he seems impressively calm given the surrounding fuss, then perhaps it’s because Nesbo has been preparing for fame his entire life. “I peaked as a celebrity at 17 when I played soccer [for Molde FK],” he says. “It doesn’t get bigger than being a local boy playing for your local team.”
Years playing alongside his brother Knut in popular Norwegian rock band Di Derre (rough translation: Those Guys) prepared him further for the pressures of fame. “I have a deep respect for my most devoted fans. I am a fan myself. But you don’t make friends the hour after the concert. What you especially fear is the guy who says, ‘I have read all your books. Why don’t we sit down in the corner and talk about them for half-an-hour?’”
Nesbo admits he could have been this guy recently when the American singer-songwriter Chris Isaak played in Oslo. Offered the chance to meet his hero backstage, Nesbo refused for fear of acting like a star-struck teenager. “I would have seen the desperation in [Isaak's] eyes.”
We have chosen a strangely poignant day to talk. It is a year to the day since Anders Breivik murdered 77 people, first in Oslo and then on the island of Utoya. “I was one of the few people in Oslo who didn’t feel the blast,” Nesbo recalls. “I was climbing at my gym. At that moment, I was hanging in the air on a rope. I was shocked, but I wasn’t surprised that something like this happened. The bombing felt real. It was only when I heard about the shootings on Utoya that it became unreal. We went to bed, and they said that 10 people are shot. The number in the morning was 90. You would think that emotionally the jump shouldn’t make a lot of difference. But it did.”
The tragedy raised and refined Nesbo’s profile in the grimmest of circumstances. Already popular internationally, his chilly thrillers seemed perfect for the boom in Scandinavian crime fiction and drama that saw Wallander and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo emerge from Sweden, and The Killing and Borgen from Denmark. One Harrogate crime writer suggests that Nesbo was the right person to fill the vacuum created by Henning Mankell’s decision to close Kurt Wallander’s casebook and Stieg Larsson’s early death.
Nesbo’s independent Norwegian identity emerged in the aftermath of Breivik, as he was sought out to comment on the battered state of his own nation: for instance, how Norway’s enviably civilised society concealed violent undercurrents dating back to the Second World War. Parallels were drawn between the grizzly details of the attacks and the occasionally grizzly plots of Nesbo’s fiction. The Redbreast (2000) felt especially prophetic, featuring a right-wing psychopath whose Nazi sympathies echoed Breivik’s extremist views.
Today, Nesbo refuses to mention Breivik by name. But he rejects the idea that the man recently declared sane by a Norwegian judge embodies any philosophy other than his own sociopathic narcissism. “Because of the media coverage, we have created an icon: a Norwegian monster. It’s naïve to think it doesn’t derive from our natural fascination with the monster. We are trying to get into the head of this one individual, who may or may not be very sick. [Breivik] represents himself and not many others. From a social or political point of view, this is not a very interesting event.”
What Nesbo does find fascinating is what the response reveals about contemporary Norway’s vision of itself. “As a trauma for a nation it is important. In one way, I am proud of the way we reacted: that we won’t give in to violence and stop trusting each other.”
On the other hand, he was disturbed that his countrymen seemed to revel in their stoicism, possibly as a way of avoiding darker subtexts in their society. “It’s almost like Norway wanted their 9/11, as if the nation fell in love with its reaction to the tragedy. Would any other country in the world react like this – so calm, wise and full of love? I’m not sure I like that. A Norwegian killed a lot of other Norwegians. How proud can you be about that?”
Despite his evident contempt for Breivik, Nesbo seems most at ease when teasing out the sociopolitical dimensions of the tragedy. He is content to talk about his childhood and early life up to a point, but he reveals little about his personal life. One rumour suggests he is divorced or separated, but even his PR is unsure about his relationship status. What is certain is that he is accompanied to Harrogate by his 13-year-old daughter, Selma. When I ask about fatherhood, Nesbo responds with a gentle diversion. “It’s easy being a father. It is very easy being her father.”
Up close, it’s easy to see why Nesbo inspires almost as much curiosity as his fiction. His persona comprises a tantalising blend of friendliness and reserve, humour and seriousness. He charms everyone, but adheres to the old showbusiness adage: leave your audience wanting more.
Now 52, Nesbo looks younger than his age. A promising football career ended after he wrecked the cartilage in both knees, making crossing his legs appear an uncomfortable adventure. A passion for rock-climbing has caused damage to his wrist, a serious injury for a writer. “I dictated my last book. I had time to reflect on where these sentences come from. Do I reproduce something I have already written? How original am I?”
It’s a good question, not least because his next novel, The Bat, isn’t original in the strictest sense. First published in 1997, but never before published in English, it narrates Harry Hole’s first case in the distinctly un-Scandinavian setting of Australia. What The Bat lacks in polish and Scandinavian froideur, it makes up for with energy and seemingly personal confession. Nesbo, like Hole, flew to Australia in the late 1990s. While Harry investigated the murder of a young Norwegian woman in Sydney, Nesbo hoped to recuperate after a decade combining the stock market with pop music. He planned to write a memoir of this strange double life when Harry Hole popped into his head on the flight from Oslo to Sydney.
Five weeks later, he had completed a novel, patterned on his own travels around the country. The book’s original Norwegian title, The Batman (Flaggermusmannen), was inspired by Aboriginal myth, but echoes of a different Batman resound in Harry Hole. The novel’s epigraph is by Frank Miller, whose Batman: The Dark Knight Returns comic helped inspire Christopher Nolan’s recent film trilogy.
Here is Nesbo’s account of his own hero’s beginnings. “There was a policeman in my grandmother’s village called Hole. We never saw him, so I imagined a tall, blond, scary guy. My grandmother warned us, ‘If you are not in bed by eight, Hole will come and get you.’” Years later, Nesbo, now a well-known writer, was at a funeral. “This man shakes me by the hand. ‘I’m Hole,’ he says. ‘All right, I remember saying, but it is not 8 o’clock yet.’”
It’s a neat joke, one that locates Hole in the modern tradition of superhero as anti-hero: a Norwegian dream of justice and a figure from a nightmare. An alcoholic with a taste for violence, Hole is also courageous, intelligent, tenacious, funny and even romantic.
Nesbo admits that similar contradictions define his own personality. “During research for The Redeemer, I met a priest who told me, ‘My heart is better than my brain.’ If he acted on instinct, he would be a good person. If he reflected on something, he would be more cynical. With me, it’s the other way around. I think my heart is quite selfish. If I followed my heart, I would not be a good person. But I have moral principles. I have to sit down and reflect.”
Comparably antithetical tensions run throughout Nesbo’s life. His parents fought on opposing sides during the Second World War: his mother was a member of Norway’s Resistance movement; his father fought for the Germans. Raised in the United States, his father had been inculcated with a hatred of Communism deep enough that he chose Hitler over Stalin. “He was sentenced to two years in prison,” Nesbo says. “He told me that it was fair, given the choice he had made.”
His father’s guilt would affect his family long after the war. Having started his own business making “kitchens and wooden floors”, he lost everything, including the newly built Nesbo family house, when the company folded. “My father was too proud to go bankrupt,” Nesbo says. “He paid all his debts down to the last cent. I think it was to do with having fought for the Germans. He didn’t want anyone to have anything on him. I really respected my father for doing that.”
This self-destructive pride almost sounds like a blueprint for Harry Hole. To begin with, it moulded the young Jo Nesbo. “I think I was righteous. I saw myself as the good guy in my own movie. I didn’t get into many fights when I was younger, but when I did, they were righteous. I always thought I was defending something good. I fought for friends who couldn’t fight for themselves. I was still being selfish and arrogant, but I was focused on what was fair and unfair.”
These twin themes of selfishness and dignity run throughout Nesbo’s conversation. Take his curtailed career as a footballer. “When I scored, I wouldn’t congratulate the player who made the pass. I would run into the goal and kiss the ball because I had seen Pele do that. My team-mates really hated me.”
A professional contract beckoned, but those knee injuries forced Nesbo into early retirement aged just 19. The disappointment might have floored a lesser individual. Nesbo simply moved on, and not for the last time. “It didn’t feel like a disaster. I didn’t get depressed. I found new friends and new interests, almost overnight. I did stop watching football. It was too painful to watch games and not play myself. I had to find something else to do in life.”
This “something else” makes Nesbo seem like an eccentric Norwegian superhero. By day, he was a stockbroker. By night, he was a pop star in Di Derre. “You have girls in the front row throwing you kisses and taking off their shirts. It took me years to realise that it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to sleep with you. Some of them did, of course. But not all. That was a disappointment.”
Nesbo learnt a new lesson about the relationship between artist and audience. “Some artists see a gig as an audience worshipping them. I think it is about having a great time together. I have a part as the singer. An audience has a part. Playing a gig doesn’t make me high on myself.”
Writing has inevitably distanced Nesbo slightly from his audience. It also asks different questions about his art. “I do ask myself, ‘To what good end do I produce these stories?’ I tell myself I write because I want to say something true and original about the nature of evil. That is very ambitious – to say something about the human condition that hasn’t been written before. Probably I will never succeed but that is what I strive to do.”
A brief discussion about the shootings at the recent screening of the Batman film in Colorado prompts Nesbo to consider the social responsibility of the writer. He is still feeling his way along the fine line between the bestseller as sensational entertainment and the bestseller as social critique. “Do these stories always serve the purpose of saying something true, or of selling books? Of giving in to my fascination with the monster in the cage? If I were totally honest, I admit that at times I give in to that temptation.”
What Nesbo won’t divulge is the fate of Harry Hole, who was left suspended between life and death at the end of his most recent investigation, Phantom. Fans, publishers and indeed Nesbo himself will have to wait to learn the outcome. But if fame has taught Jo Nesbo anything, it is the value of patience.
”I did the same thing year after year, and nothing happened. But I kept writing those stories. Suddenly the time was right. You know, when [the singer-songwriter] Tom Waits released Swordfishtrombones, he was asked, ‘What have you done differently to have commercial success?’ He said, ‘I haven’t done anything. I have been doing the same thing for 15 years. It’s not me who is coming to you. It is you who is coming to me.’”
2011, Crime Fiction
Doctor Proctor and the End of the World. Maybe. [Doktor Proktor og verdens undergang. Kanskje.]
2010, Children’s Fiction
The Leopard [Panserhjerte]
2009, Crime Fiction
Doctor Proctor’s Time Bathtub [Doktor Proktors tidsbadekar]
2008, Children’s Fiction
The White Hotel [Det hvite hotellet]
2007, Short Novel (A Charity Project for Save the Children)
Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder [Doktor Proktors prompepulver]
2007, Children’s Fiction
The Redeemer [Frelseren]
2005, Crime Fiction
The Devil’s Star [Marekors]
2003, Crime Fiction
2002, Crime Fiction
Merry-Go-Round Music [Karusellmusikk]
2001, Short Stories
The Redbreast [Rødstrupe]
2000, Crime Fiction
Balkan Voices [Stemmer fra Balkan]
1999, Nonfiction (co-authored with Espen Søbye)
The Cockroaches [Kakerlakkene]
1998, Crime Fiction
The Bat [Flaggermusmannen]
1997, Crime Fiction
First off, your name ends with a letter that does not appear in the English alphabet.
How does one pronounce your name? Is there an English word that contains this phoneme?
It’s like the German ö. Or the “o” in Peter Sellers’ pronunciation of “bomb” in the Pink Panther-movie.
Who are your favorite authors?
Jim Thompson, Vladimir Nabokov, Knut Hamsun, Henrik Ibsen, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, and Frank Miller.
Which are your favorite books?
Lolita (by Vladimir Nabokov), The Killer Inside Me (by Jim Thompson), Pan (by Knut Hamsun), Ham On Rye (by Charles Bukowski)
Which are your favorite movies?
Starship Troopers (no kidding!), The Conversation, Rules Of Attraction, The Usual Suspects and – yes, I’m sorry – The Godfather, The Deer Hunter and Taxi Driver.
Do you have any favorite football teams?
Molde, Tottenham, and always Brazil.
Which are your favorite musicians?
Miles Davis, Jayhawks, Teenage Fanclub, Elvis Costello, Ryan Adams, Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.
Where do you like to travel?
Buenos Aires, southern Thailand, and Australia.
Do you have any hobbies or interests, besides writing and making music?
A little rock climbing, any kind of ballgame, and watching movies.
How do you pronounce Harry Hole’s last name?
“O” like in “pool” and “e” like in “ethnic.”
Do you and your character Harry Hole have a lot in common?
We’re both romantic, melancholic, and have a mix of chaos and discipline.
How did you start off writing?
I read. And I read. I basically put off writing as long as I could, that was until I was 37. Then I started writing like a madman.
The novel Nemesis has the concept of memory loss at its heart. In thrillers, this is often linked to questions about identity, and the difficulty of accepting the darker side of a person’s character. How did this become so central to the book?
I think the question whether true evil exists – whether it’s an antisocial gene, a consequence of society and culture, or something we simply need to survive in certain situations – is a central theme in all my Harry Hole-books, but maybe especially in Nemesis.
Can you describe your writing routine?
Not really, because I don”t have such a thing as a routine. I write anywhere, anytime. And when I’m supposed to write I often find myself doing other things …
You’re a musician as well as a writer. How does writing differ creatively from your music? Do you find them competing for your attention?
Music for me is more like releasing tension, I don’t really have a method. Writing is about dreaming things up, using your imagination and instantly knowing whether you’re onto something. Writing music has taken the back seat to writing fiction now.
How strong is your connection to Harry Hole?
I used to think him and I were two completely different persons. I see now that’s not true. He may not be my alter ego, but I’ve certainly used a lot of my own person in Harry. Let’s say 70%. The best parts. Well, some of the not so good, too.
Do you sometimes dream of Harry Hole?
Never. Thank God.
Many of your readers are perhaps mainly interested in the further development of Harry Hole, and less in the criminal case. Is this a compliment? Or is it a frustration?
That’s great! I know I’ll get you hooked on the plot anyway.
How important is it to you that your readers can identify with your characters?
I like them to both identify and to be mystified. Like in real life.
Is that why Harry Hole is not a superhero, but a man with a lot of problems?
He is a man with problems because in order to be an interesting hero you have to have problems.
Don’t you think that people sometimes wish that a policeman like Harry Hole had more features of a superhero?
As a policeman – sure. As a character in a story of fiction – perhaps. But it’s just not that kind of story. Harry is a man at war with the world, including himself.
Some would say that an author who writes a dozen books about one and the same character has an easy job. What’s your reply?
That an author whose ambition is to write twelve GREAT books about one character has chosen a difficult job. A series like this has both advantages and disadvantages for a storyteller. I can use a universe that both the reader and I know, but at the same time I have to keep the characters fresh and interesting, and the storyline that binds the books together has to be carefully planned.
How important is it for you to take a stand on topics that are not an important part of the plot – for example, current political topics?
It’s not. I try to be descriptive, not normative. On the other hand I think it’s impossible not to be political when describing society. In writing you have to edit – to emphasize something and leave another thing out – and the choices you make in your editing will automatically be political choices.
The Peer Gynt Prize 2013
for his international success and for putting Norway on the map of international literature
Shortlisted for the 2012 Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards
The Bestseller Dagger
Shortlisted for the 2012 CWA International Dagger
for Best Translated Crime Novel of the Year (Phantom)
Shortlisted for the 2010 Edgar Award
for Best Novel of the Year (Nemesis)
Shortlisted for the Macavity Awards 2010
for Best Mystery Novel (Nemesis)
The Great Caliber Award of Honour 2010
for his entire authorship
The Danish Academy of Crime Writers’ Award 2009
for Best Crime Novel of the Year (The Leopard)
Shortlisted for the 2009 CWA International Dagger
The Norwegian Book Club Prize 2008
for Best Novel of the Year (Headhunters)
Shortlisted for the 2008 Ark’s Children’s Book Award
for Best Children’s Book 2008 (Doctor Proctor’s Time Bathtub)
The Norwegian Booksellers Prize 2007
for Best Novel of the Year (The Snowman)
The Norwegian Book Club Prize 2007
for Best Novel of the Year (The Snowman)
Shortlisted for the 2007 CWA International Dagger
The Finnish Academy of Crime Writers’ Special Commendation 2007
for Excellence in Foreign Crime Writing (The Devil’s Star)
Shortlisted for the 2007 Ark’s Children’s Book Award
for Best Children’s Book 2007 (Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder)
Best Norwegian Crime Novel Ever Written in 2004
Awarded by the Norwegian Book Clubs (The Redbreast)
William Nygaard Bursary 2002
The Norwegian Booksellers Prize 2000
for Best Novel of the Year (The Redbreast)
The Glass Key 1998
for Best Nordic Crime Novel of the Year (The Bat)
The Riverton Prize 1997
for Best Norwegian Crime Novel of the Year (The Bat)