I met with Jo Nesbo (right) last month, to interview him on the publication of the latest Harry Hole novel, THE LEOPARD. The result read a lot like this:
The cover of THE LEOPARD, the eighth in Jo Nesbo’s series of Harry Hole novels, bears a sticker saying, ‘The next Stieg Larsson’. This is not something that has Nesbo, a Norwegian, jumping for joy.
“I guess every writer doesn’t want to be compared other writers,” he shrugs, “and it’s not like I’m enthusiastic about it. I’m thinking okay, you want to use that sticker, it probably could have been worse. It could have been ‘The next Dan Brown’ (laughs).”
When we meet in the plush surroundings of the Westbury Hotel, Nesbo appears to have little in common with his most famous creation. Harry Hole is a morose character, a hard-drinking loner and a self-destructive detective with the Oslo Crime Squad who pursues and is pursued by demons in equal measure. Nesbo, on the other hand, is a lively interviewee, outgoing and articulate.
Both men, however, share a fascination with evil.
“I remember when I was going to school,” he says, “and there was this guy who sat in the window row. And he would catch flies on the window-sill, and he had brought a tweezers, and he would pull off one wing and two feet, something like that. And part of me, as kids always are, was fascinated as to what would happen to the fly, but what made me more fascinated was that this guy would do this thing day in, day out, and that he had brought the tweezers. Just the idea of him being at home in the morning, planning it - ‘Oh, I’ll bring a tweezers, so I can torture a fly.’ I thought that was really evil. And I wondered, could that be me? Or is this kid just a mean character, and I could never be anything like that? Or is it just coincidence that he’s killing flies and I’m not? Has it to do with upbringing? Are you born that way? And that’s really what I’m writing about - those kind of people. Why do they do it? What’s in it for them?”
As a boy, Nesbo had a very catholic taste in literature.
“From a very young age, it was Mark Twain, when I read TOM SAWYER. And later, Charles Dickens, who I only started reading some years ago, but I had OLIVER TWIST read to me when I was young. Later on it would be Norwegian writers like Knut Hamsun, and then some American writers, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, the Beatnik generation … Ernest Hemingway was a big influence. And a lot of Norwegian writers (laughs) that you probably haven’t heard about.
“My mother was a librarian, so she would bring books home. My father was also a keen reader, so there would always be lots of books around where I grew up. And later on, many of my friends would be planning to become the next big European writer. So we would gather in this café, dressed in the long coats we had bought from the Salvation Army, and sucking in our cheeks to look hungry (laughs), and discuss literature. Dostoevsky and Hamsun, y’know, although we hadn’t actually read them … But I think that milieu at the café probably stopped me from starting on my first novel, because all my friends started, and they would brag about it, but they would never get around to actually doing it. They all had writers’ block at the age of 19. So maybe all that discussion about literature put me off from sitting down to do it, because you couldn’t bear failure. And I can still see that in my friends, that the fear of failing is probably greater than the eagerness to succeed, because it means so much to them.”
Oddly, for a writer who is so closely identified with Norway, Nesbo’s first two novels were set on the other side of the planet.
“The first one, THE BAT MAN, is set in Australia because I was going to Australia for five weeks, and I just needed a backdrop for the story. So I took Harry Hole to Sydney, and I was doing research while I was writing. Actually, I didn’t see much of Australia (laughs), I spent most of the time in a small hotel room in Sydney, in a red-light district, just running out to grab a meal and then back to the room to write. It was that and visits to the museum, where I collected aboriginal tales, that was also some of the backdrop to the novel.
“For my second novel … I’d also read Ray Bradbury, the science-fiction writer, when I was young. I really liked his stories set on Mars, this red desert that had been colonised, so it was really familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. And I liked the idea that he could create a place where nobody had been before, and was completely his own universe. So I thought, is there a city in the world that has that quality, we know it’s there and we have some general ideas about it, but we don’t really know it, and to me that city was Bangkok. So I went to Bangkok and stayed there for two months, and that’s where the second novel is set.
“But then, for my third novel, I knew I was going to write the novel that my father never got around to writing. And that was about his war-time experiences, in THE REDBREAST, which is very much a novel about Norwegian society and the formation of a young nation. I mean, Norway won its independence only in 1905, and so it’s always been very important to the Norwegian self-image of the idea of Norway resisting the German occupation during the war. Which I understood, from my father’s side of the story, was only part of the story about that period.”
The nature of good and evil isn’t just a concept for Nesbo. THE REDBREAST features the stories his own father told him of fighting for the Germans who occupied Norway during WWII. Was it difficult to write about such a personally painful episode?
“In a way it was easy,” he says after a lengthy pause, “because I had lived with these stories for so long. Actually, some of the stories, the ones that sound the most fantastic, they’re actually just my father’s stories. The bigger story, which was about how a young man living in Norway at that time could choose to fight for Hitler … I mean, I didn’t know about my father fighting for the Germans until I was 16. I’d grown up with the same view as everyone of those, y’know, evil Nazis from hell, but then I had to imagine my father … Just the image of him wearing that German helmet, y’know? It was a shock to me. But at the time, the way they saw Europe, the old democracies were bankrupt, and it seemed like the ‘strong men’ of Europe at that time were Hitler and Stalin. So you had to make a choice between Germany and Russia, and my father decided to go with Hitler rather than Stalin.
“But what I tried to do when I wrote THE REDBREAST,” he insists, “was to not make it simple, to say that everyone who fought the Germans were the good guys, and that none of them had a motive for, say, receiving favours for fighting alongside the Germans. Because that brings a greater complexity than the stories we grew up with when I was young, about the few ‘bad apples’ collaborating with the Germans.”
By comparison with Nesbo’s previous novels, THE LEOPARD is more complex offering that engages with Norwegian society on a number of levels. Was that a deliberate approach, or was it simply what the story required?
“It’s always about the story. I don’t have any other agenda than the story. Writing about Norwegian society … If it helps the story, I’ll use it. But my focus is always on the story and the characters. I mean, I spend quite a lot of time working with plot, and I love that, but the difficult part for me, and the part which has to be right, is the characters. Especially the motive of the killer. That’s the most difficult thing, to make it credible that a person has motive enough to kill somebody. I find that hard. I have to believe in my characters, and I have to believe in their motives logically, that this person would kill another person because it adds up, but it has to add up emotionally too. And that’s hard, because killing is such an extreme act. And what happens in a lot of stories, you tend you end up with serial killers who kill just because they’re mad, y’know?”
A best-selling crime author and excavator of the darkest aspects of the human psyche, Nesbo is equally proud of his children’s novels, the latest of which was awarded the 2010 Norwegian Critics’ Prize for Literature for Best Children’s Book only last week.
“It’s more fun,” he says of the ‘Doctor Proctor’ series. “In many ways, I find more pleasure in writing children’s books. It’s still hard work, but I feel better at the end of the day, when I go to sleep, having worked on my children’s books. The crime novels go more into a dark universe, so it’s place that … well, I have to take breaks from Harry Hole, and that’s one of the reasons why I write children’s books as well as adult novels, or novels for adults …’ He grins. “I guess, ‘adult novels’, that would be a sex story, right?” He shakes his head. “The English language, it’s hard to master.”
Jo Nesbo’s THE LEOPARD is published by Harvill Secker.
This interview first appeared in the Evening Herald.
“Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.