Jo Nesbo: 'A Norwegian killed a lot of other Norwegians. How proud can you be about that?'

The crime writer speaks out on Anders Breivik, his Nazi-sympathising father and his struggles with his own moral principles.

James Kidd
Monday 10 September 2012 00:51

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."

esbo 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.'"

'The Bat' (Harvill Secker, £18.99) is out on 11 October

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