Interview: crime writer Jo Nesbø

by Fiona Rae / 11 February, 2012
The Norwegian bestselling crime author, on his way here for Writers & Readers week, is not the next Stieg Larsson.


Harry Hole is falling apart, slowly, but surely, psychologically, even physically. In the world of Jo Nesbø, the Crown Prince of Norwegian crime-writing, heroes don’t last forever; they deteriorate, adversely affected by all they’ve seen and done. And Harry Hole, the loner detective who’s preoccupied by evil and gets swallowed up by his cases, has seen and done a lot over the course of eight novels. He’s foiled crimes, and committed them; saved lives, and seen colleagues die; witnessed brutal violence, and seen those he loves drawn into the horrors of his job, his calling.

“Harry is the sort of character that anything can happen to,” says Nesbø, his strongly accented voice coming down the line from his Oslo home. “He’s like this wild and free-roaming character. He can do anything and he would still stay in character.”

That ability to do anything has seen Hole continually evolve over the course of a series that has broken sales records in Norway, and scooped awards, been translated into dozens of languages and earned glowing reviews around the world. “It’s not going to be an everlasting series – there’s going to be an end – but Harry is developing as a character,” says Nesbø. “Not necessarily developing in a good way, but developing nonetheless.”

For Nesbø, who will be appearing at the New Zealand International Arts Festival next month, as part of a national tour, it’s important to show that heroes can disintegrate. Eventually, we all fall apart, he says; it’s just a matter of how quickly. It’s a fact of life, an early foretaste of death, and an interesting thing to explore in a book.

Nesbø, now in his fifties, is fit and active. His favourite pursuits are rock-climbing and playing music with his pop-rock band Di Derre. But he has tasted deterioration himself. He suffers from tennis elbow, a niggling injury he’ll never quite get rid of. And earlier in life, before becoming a chart-topping musician, a stockbroker, then the rising star of European crime fiction, he played football in Norway’s premier league, until a knee injury ruined his dream of playing for Tottenham Hotspur in England.

Like his protagonist, Nesbø is very much his own man. He writes the way he wants, for himself, and does things because he enjoys them, not because of any externally influenced sense of style, genre or “how things should be done”. When I praise him for developing and evolving his protagonist – unlike some crime-writers – I can almost hear the shrug. “I don’t think that’s important,” he says. “In my case, it’s just what I wanted to do with this character. For me, having Harry ageing, developing and falling apart, it’s just more interesting for me as writer.”

Similarly, Nesbø writes the Harry Hole series because he loves to do so, not because of any sense that readers generally prefer continuing characters. “I don’t spend too much time thinking about those things,” he says. “I’m more focused on what story I want. I don’t really know what people want. If they like the Harry Hole series, that’s fine, because I like to write this series. If they were more into stand-alones, then I would still write the series.”

This month, the series expands for English-language readers, with the release of Phantom, the ninth book (and seventh to be translated). Following on from the brutal The Leopard, which became Nesbø’s first No 1 bestseller in the UK, selling over half a million copies, Phantom has Hole, whom Nesbø describes as a “hero with the seeds of destruction in him”, returning to Oslo after three years abroad. He seeks out his old police boss and asks for permission to investigate a homicide case – the death of a young junkie – that is regarded as solved. As Hole conducts a solitary investigation of what might be the first impossible case of his career, the murdered boy also tells his story to the reader, as he lies bleeding to death on an apartment floor months earlier.

Nesbø fans can also look forward to the Headhunters film, an action-packed adaptation of the author’s stand-alone art-heist thriller. Nesbø tells me he doesn’t know where he got the inspiration for Headhunters, in which a corporate headhunter running a scheme to steal artwork from the homes of his applicants ends up pulled into murder when his latest heist goes bad.

“When you write songs, sometimes you struggle for weeks and weeks, and sometimes you write one in 20 minutes,” he says. “And this was a 20-minute song. I woke up one morning, I was just lying there, and I just came up with the idea. It was like it was there, already finished.”

The idea came at a time Nesbø was in between Harry Hole books and, he admits, he “needed a break from Harry”. The story flowed quickly; he started right away, completing a synopsis in two days and finishing the novel in three to four months, and that sense of flow and pace carries through into the book.

“If it reads like easy work, that’s how the writing was, too,” he says. “It’s not too complicated, it’s got more humour probably than the Harry Hole books, and it’s like an Ocean’s 11 feeling, it’s playful, not really serious. It was fun to write.”

Importantly for Nesbø, Headhunters has also been used to kick-start a plan he’d been “mulling over for a while”: setting up the Harry Hole Foundation to help provide basic reading and writing classes for children in the Third World. All Nesbø’s income from Headhunters – book sales around the world and now the film rights – goes to investment in literary projects.

On his website, Nesbø explains that he’s been privileged enough to travel all over the world, and what that’s taught him 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”. In the foundation’s first year, 2009, the money went to providing schooling for deprived girls in India.

Headhunters premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, and has already become the most successful Norwegian-language film in history. Perhaps surprisingly, given Nesbø’s versatility (he  has written crime novels, children’s books, music and lyrics, a non-fiction book, short stories and freelance journalism), he had little to do with the film script once the rights were sold, although he wrote the final line, when the producers were stuck.

“I had written screenplays for TV and also for a musical, but it’s really technical writing, and I enjoy books more,” he explains. “You can experiment in books more – you’re your own judge and you can do whatever you like.

“When you’re writing for the movies or TV, you have a lot of limitations, and you even have bosses – and the two best things about being a writer are that you don’t have to get up in the morning and you don’t have any bosses. Writing for the movies, suddenly you have somebody telling you that they’re not happy with this version of the script. I guess I’m at the point of writing that I like to be my own boss.”

More films are to come; an English-language remake of Headhunters is in the works, and after years of Nesbø resisting selling the film rights to the Harry Hole series – he was concerned a film could change how both he and his readers saw the detective – it was recently announced director Martin Scorsese would helm an adaptation of The Snowman, the book that preceded The Leopard.

Again, Nesbø did things his own way. When the producers of Fargo, one of his favourite films, asked him what it would take for him to sell the rights to The Snowman, Nesbø said he’d have to decide who’d direct or write the film. Unsurprisingly, they baulked – such input is rarely, if ever, given to authors by Hollywood. But a year later, the deal was done on Nesbø’s terms and, soon after, Scorsese was announced as director.  Matthew Michael Carnachan (one of the writers of the big-screen version of the political thriller State of Play) is writing the screenplay. The film won’t necessarily be set in Norway, which doesn’t trouble Nesbø. He says he doesn’t want to look over the shoulders of the film-makers because, as a storyteller himself, he understands they need “total freedom” as creators of the film story.

“You can’t have somebody coming in and trying to correct things. My only policy when it comes to having the books adapted is that I will give the stories to people who I think are talented storytellers. Although calling Martin Scorsese talented is perhaps a little, ah, understated.” Nesbø’s success has inevitably brought comparisons to another Scandinavian crime writer, as reviewers, readers and publicists search for the next big thing after The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Does it bother Nesbø, who so clearly values his individuality, to be called “the next Stieg Larsson”?

“I don’t have much control over that, and I try not to get too frustrated about things I can’t control,” says the Norwegian. “I guess it could have been worse – I could have been ‘the new Dan Brown’.” He appreciates the attention the so-called “Scandinavian crime wave” has brought to writers from his part of the world, but Nesbø doesn’t see his writing as particularly Scandinavian. His most important influences include Vladimir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Miller (creator of the neo-noir Sin City comics) and American hardboiled crime from the 1950s and 60s, such as Jim Thompson (The Killer Inside Me).

“I feel just as different from Scandinavian crime writers as I do from writers in other countries,” says Nesbø. “Just as different, and as similar.” Nesbø, after all, is his own man.

PHANTOM, by Jo Nesbø (Harvill Secker, $37.99); Nesbø will speak in Auckland (March 6), Christchurch (March 7), Wanaka (March eight) and, in conversation with Craig Sisterson, Wellington (March 10) as part of Writers & Readers Week at the New Zealand International Arts Festival. He will also introduce Headhunters screenings on the same evenings in each centre. The film is released on March 8. Click here for tickets and information.

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