Triptych image: Megan Cotts, 2012
NORWEGIAN BEST-SELLING thriller writer Jo Nesbø began our interview with an apology. Not unusual. Interview subjects, especially the famous ones, tend to do just that. The most frequent is, “I’m sorry I’m late.” Nesbø’s apology was “I’m sorry about last night.” No, not what you think. The evening before our morning interview at Dialog Café in West Hollywood, I had been his interlocutor at a Writers Bloc event at the Goethe Institute. He thought maybe I had gotten upset by some of his answers, telling me, “It was meant to be funny, but […] I was expecting you to hit hard back, but you didn’t and so I was, ‘I hope she didn’t think I was nasty or anything.’” I didn’t. His wit and humor conveyed through a dry, acerbic delivery was pretty damn brilliant and the audience ate it up. I was doing my best to be his straight man, because the guy is an engaging entertainer — and has been most of his life, first as a soccer player, then as a member of Norway’s most popular rock band, Di Derre (translation: Those Guys), and now as one of the world’s most popular and best-selling writers. How popular? One statistic I’ve heard is that a Jo Nesbø book in one of at least 40 languages is sold somewhere in the world every 23 seconds. I did the math: that works out to 3,756.5 books a day; 1,371,130 a year. In the truest sense of the word: awesome.
Jo Nesbø has been interviewed before. A lot. He has been asked the same questions over and over again: about the pronunciation of his first name, in Norwegian it’s “Yoo”; about the naming of his character Harry Hole, in Norwegian it would be “HOOL-le” a common name in Norway, but, being fluent in English, he realized that it would make an amusing name in our language; and about the fate of Harry Hole, who when we left at the end of Phantom, had just been shot by the son of the love of his life, Rakel. His just-released Police picks up Harry’s story — and Harry does seem to be in a better place. But about his character’s trajectory, Nesbø would only say it’s dark now, the forecast is for even darker days ahead, and eventually it all goes to hell. If you love crime fiction, it sounds like an excellent prognosis.
Harry Hole fans should pace themselves with Police, though, as they will have a bit of a wait for the next installment. Among Nesbø’s next books are two written as Tom Johansen: Blood on Snow, to be published in fall 2014 followed a few months later by Blood on Snow 2. Blood on Snow is about an unlikely love triangle involving a hit man who falls for his target, who happens to be the wife of the man who hired him. Johansen’s follow up is Blood on Snow 2 — “More Blood,” Nesbø deadpanned.
The Johansen books are not Nesbø’s only departure from his Harry Hole series. He has written a children’s series about the mad Doctor Proctor as well as the stand-alone Headhunters, about an executive placement professional, which was adapted into a darkly hilarious film of the same name.
The film adaptation of Headhunters is not Nesbø’s only foray into the world of production. Nesbø is getting the Hollywood treatment and then some: the film version of his bestseller The Snowman initially had Martin Scorsese as a director, but now it doesn’t, and I Am Victor, a television series about a lawyer starring John Stamos, was being developed for NBC, is being retooled. The day following our interview, Warner Bros announced it had bought Blood on Snow as a Leonardo DiCaprio vehicle.
Nancie Clare: I’ll start by asking: what question do you dislike the most?
Jo Nesbø: “So tell us about your last book.” I expect that question, but it’s a difficult question. And when I’m being asked that for the 100th time I still feel unprepared. So it’s surprising that the most obvious question, the one I’m there to answer, is actually the question I hate the most. Maybe it’s because I have the feeling I’ve become the seller of a product that I’m trying to sell in a three-line pitch. And I hate that. But there and then, it’s my job. You would think that answering a question for the 10th time would be easier than trying to come up with new answers. Actually it’s the other way around. So, I love these questions because I haven’t had these questions before.
NC: Jo Nesbø is a brand. Is that a bit of a disconnect for a writer, someone who spends two years creating a book, that it all has to be boiled down to a sound bite and taken on the road? Is that just part of the deal?
JN: Yeah, it’s part of the thing.
Being a writer is a shy exhibitionist’s way of expressing him or herself.
The fact that I’m a brand, I like that I can take on this role as “the writer Jo Nesbø” instead of being “the private person Jo Nesbø,” which I never am when I’m doing interviews or when I’m at an event. Actually my daughter, when she was younger, she had read something about me in the paper and she said, “Dad, you know there was something about JoNesbø in the papers today.” And she says “JoNesbø” in one word. So she totally got it that the guy in the papers is the brand and he is JoNesbø. And I am “Dad.” And I try to keep it that way.
NC: You’ve been a soccer star, a member of Norway’s most popular rock band, and now an international best-selling novelist. Is it surprising that the writing is the form of entertainment that has taken you furthest, fastest?
JN: No, not really. I was always going to write something at some point. Most of my friends, they never said anything, but for them it was just natural that at some point I would write a novel. When we released our first record, most of my friends back home were surprised because I didn’t play in a band when I lived there. They were like, “Oh wow, you started playing and you’re making your own songs. And wow, you’re going to release an album.” And also when I started studying economics and business administration they were really surprised, like, “You’re that kind of guy?” But at the age of 37 when I published my first book and I told them, “you know what? In two months I’m going to publish my first book.” They were like, “Yeah, of course. What took you so long?”
NC: So you felt writing was your true calling?
JN: Most writers, they may not tell you to your face, but they have enormous confidence in their writing. I’m confident that I have something that is unique as a storyteller. And I think you need to have that when you sit down at your laptop and you start writing your first novel. [You need to say to yourself] “I think that it’s a good idea that I write 400 pages and that people that studied literature for six years will think this is wonderful and publish it. And people will buy it and read every word that I have written and that afterwards I expect them to come up to me and thank me for having written the book.” [laughs] Which is, what’s the word in English … grandiose?
JN: Yeah, big ego. Napoleon complex [laughs again].
NC: I wouldn’t go that far.
JN: It’s almost at the edge of that. As a musician or as a stockbroker I never had that feeling that I have something that’s really, really special. But as a storyteller and a writer I always had that feeling. But it didn’t mean that I would get famous or that I would get readers.
You cannot have two thoughts in your head at the same time, that, “Okay, I have this confidence; on the other hand, when I turn off my laptop I may think otherwise.” But I didn’t care. I felt like a champion when I was working at my laptop and that was enough for me just to have that feeling: that you were on some sort of brilliant drug. Just writing and feeling that confidence and that you were in control of what you were doing. So that guy sitting at the laptop is not surprised that writing has brought me so far. But the guy who turns off the laptop and is doing something else, he might look at it from the outside and say, “Wow, how did that happen?”
NC: You believe in your writing.
JN: Yeah. I had to believe in my writing because the series was not an overnight success. The Harry Hole series has been a slow burner in every market. When I had my first number one in the UK, journalists asked me, “What did you do to have this overnight success?” I’ve been publishing for 10 years!
NC: Why do you think you are bigger in the UK than here in the US?
JN: I don’t know really. When I’m writing I think about two friends of mine. They are my audience. I don’t think of UK or Europe or the US as an audience. I write what I find interesting and what I think those two friends of mine find interesting. And I write really locally. I refuse to spend time analyzing those things because if you get seduced to start thinking about who reads and why that may lead you down the wrong way.
NC: You’re not going to bring in a focus group and ask them, “What do you want Harry Hole to do next?”
JN: With writing you can’t go visit people where they are — you have to invite them to your home — have them come to you. That’s what I’m doing. For every country where we’re doing well, I’m surprised because I’m writing about this guy who’s living in Oslo. To me it seems really farfetched that anyone outside of Oslo would be interested. On the other hand, I know from both writing music, where I write about the little town where I grew up on the west coast, and it worked all over the country, ‘cause everybody knows that small town and I guess everyone knows a town like Oslo.
NC: I wanted to ask you about your Doctor Proctor series of children’s stories. Were they something you did to be the “anti” Harry, because you have a child or you just thought it would be a cool thing to do?
JN: Most of my stories, they don’t start with me thinking, “So what should I write now?” They always start with an idea. In this case it was a children’s book. My daughter, she always asks me to tell her stories. And then there was this one that after I told it I realized there’s something to this story. I just liked the idea.
NC: And there’s the scatological backstory of farting, which all kids love.
JN: Yep. You know I grew up with two brothers and we loved farting. I don’t know if it’s a boy thing but my father and my brothers, we just loved it; my mother did not love it that much. And when I was going to tell my daughter this story, I asked her what she wanted and she said, “a mad professor and a girl that’s a little like me and a boy that is smaller than the girl,” because she was afraid of boys at the time. So I said, “okay, we can do that.” “And a dinosaur,” she wanted a dinosaur. So I said, “How about we forget about the dinosaur and we have some farting instead?” “Oh, no, no. No more farting,” she said. “Just a little bit,” I said. “Okay, just a little bit.”
NC: Who do you read?
JN: There is so much that’s exciting in Scandinavian literature right now. Not in crime fiction necessarily. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. He wrote six books published over two or three years about his own life. Just about his own private life: […] and it sounds like really introverted, experimental — and in a way it is — but it’s so painfully honest. And you would think that this is something that people would not read: 1,500 pages of a guy writing about his own life, which is nothing special, but it was number one on the best-seller list.
NC: Do you see a difference between Scandinavian mysteries and those from other countries?
JN: Scandinavian crime fiction has challenged the readers a bit more than crime fiction from other countries. When you see “crime novel” on the cover of a book in Scandinavia it’s not synonymous with pulp fiction. It could be pulp fiction of course, and easy entertainment — myself, I see myself as an entertainer — but entertainment doesn’t have to be light entertainment. I take my entertainment quite seriously. And I think that’s the thing about Scandinavian crime writers, [they] have this mandate of addressing problems in society. All books are political — whether the writer is aware of it or not.