Chain Reactions: An Interview with Jo Nesbø

Over the course of the last few years, Scandinavian novelists have begun dominating the crime-writing scene. Some of it has to do with the enormous popularity of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy. But even the number of Larsson fans who picked up another Scandinavian writer to prolong the excitement they'd experienced with Lisbeth Salander cannot, by itself, account for the proliferation and growing popularity of writers who range from Sweden's Henning Mankell  to Denmark's Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis. By far the most successful (and praised) among them in the U.S. is Jo Nesbø, creator of the Oslo police detective Harry Hole. Harry is, like all good detective heroes, forever butting heads with his superiors. He's also a drunk who, unlike other alcoholic series detectives (Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder and James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux come to mind), never goes decisively on the wagon.

The Oslo that Harry traverses has never been as dark as in the latest Nesbø novel to hit these shores, Phantom. Harry, no longer a cop and now working in Hong Kong, returns to the city because Oleg, the son of the woman he loves and who has always regarded Harry as his father, is jailed, accused of a drug murder. As Nesbø explains in this interview, Harry's mission is not so much to find the truth as to get his boy out of jail.

Nesbø's visit to the East Coast of the United States was interrupted by Hurricane Sandy. A week after we were supposed to sit down to talk in New York City, we caught up via phone. --Charles Taylor

The Barnes & Noble Review: It seems every few years some country becomes the focus of crime writing. A few years ago it was Scotland with tartan noir. And really in America in the last few years, it's Scandinavian crime writers. Do you have any idea why that is?

Jo Nesbø: I can only hope that it has something to do with the quality of the writing. But that's been going on for a long time, that you have this tradition of many storytellers in Scandinavia that use the crime novel as a vehicle. Ever since the '70s, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were the godfathers of Scandinavian crime. They broke the crime novel in Scandinavia from the kiosks and into the serious bookstores. So, hopefully it might have to do with that, just that there are so many crime writers and some of them, not all of them, but some of them are good.

BNR: Do you think that you and your colleagues offer a darker strain of crime fiction? Because I believe you do.

JN: I can't speak for the other writers, you know, where they have their inspiration. But myself, I'm probably influenced by being a musician and Henrik Ibsen. With the geography, with the long winters. But also, you know, growing up in the '60s and the '70s in Norway, I've been exposed to American culture. And my father and my grandparents came from the United States, so I'm thinking maybe a little bit more than other Scandinavian writers, I'm probably influenced by American culture. Although I mean, Norway, being a nation that had so much emigration to the United States and also people coming back, it sometimes feels like another American state. Also Norway, where it's coastal, where I grew up, it's close to England.

BNR: When you say American culture, I'd assume we're talking about music as well as literature?

JN: Yes.

BNR: And you're a musician. You have a band, is that right?

JN: Yeah.

BNR: What's the band's name?

JN: The band's name is Di Derre, and it means something like "Those Guys."

BNR: [laughs] Okay. And how would you describe the sound of the band?

JN: I'm not sure if I could do that in a way that would make sense to an American audience. It's a Norwegian folk music meets zydeco meets rock 'n' roll meets pop.

BNR: [laughs] Okay, all right. Well, that sounds like a description we can work with. I don't know how you got involved in writing. You started off in a field quite different, isn't that correct?

JN: Well, the short version. At nineteen I was pretty sure I was going to be a professional soccer player. At that time I played for one of the Norwegian premier leagues. But I tore ligaments in both knees, so I started studying business administration and economics and became a financial analyst, and I worked at a brokerage firm as a stockbroker. And at the same time, I had formed my own band. And when I got to Oslo, I formed another band, and we recorded first one album and then we had a big breakthrough with our second album.

So you know the rest of the band, they were full-time musicians, and I was, you know, the one who had a day job. But for some reason I insisted on keeping on as a stockbroker. I needed that sort of normalcy of going back to a job on Monday morning. It was a crazy combination. At the end of that year, we had done 180 gigs with the band while I was still working as a stockbroker. I was the singer and the songwriter in the band, so you would think that at least I would do it full time, but at the end of that year I was just so tired of playing and working that I had to take six months off. And I told my band and the boss at the brokerage firm that I'm going to Australia to do something completely different. So I brought a laptop to Australia, and that was where I wrote my first novel.

BNR: You wanted the normalcy of the stockbroker's job -- is your writing routine very disciplined?

JN: It is. When I got back from Australia, I knew that I had to write. I would quit the job at the brokerage when I got back. And I also told my band that I didn't want to go touring for a long, long time. So for the next couple of years I was mainly a writer. But I was a bit worried. I didn't want my music to be the thing that paid the rent because I didn't see myself as a musician. And I was afraid that I would have to sort of compromise in order to make a living as a musician. And I didn't want that.

So I'd rather have a job that paid the rent and then play, just play the music that I wanted to play. But as a writer at that time, I figured I made enough money as a musician and as a stockbroker so I didn't have any financial worries for the next ten years. So, I figured, okay, I'll just write anything I want to write. I'll be this struggling writer for the next ten years. That was my plan. And I was a bit worried that I wouldn't get up in the morning, that I would start drinking too much and living an unhealthy life. But what happened was that with the privilege of spending so much time writing,  every morning I would just get up and work far more as a writer than I had as a stockbroker.

BNR: You're speaking about discipline and how it felt good to you. I'm also interested in your mentioning Ibsen, which would suggest to me that you're fastidious about what you introduce into the novels, that you're making sure what you're giving us is something that's going to be used. Is that fair?

JN: Yes. I think so. Actually, I think that Ibsen is great for crime writers to read because he was in many ways one of the first crime writers. What he would do in his plays is of course having something happen and then that will lead to a chain reaction where the truth is bit by bit being revealed. And those are often dark family secrets. The nature of Scandinavians is that they don't talk so much, there will be these dark secrets, and most things are under-communicated. So in that way, I think Henrik Ibsen was a crime writer.

BNR: It's certainly true in Phantom, where we keep returning to the flashbacks, and what we're learning in the flashbacks is ahead of what Harry is learning. And finally the flashbacks complete the story. So there's an example of what you're talking about.

JN: Phantom was for me an interesting technique of telling the story. You have one voice that it is in the present telling what is happening, and then there's one voice from the past that's also driving the story forward. And you know that the two story lines will meet eventually. If you only have that voice in the present, you're not sure that you get to know the whole truth. But since you have that voice from the past, you know that you will find out what happened. But you also know that it doesn't necessarily mean that Harry is going to find out what happened.

BNR: How would you describe your relationship to Harry? Do you feel he's your surrogate, or do you feel a little more removed from him than that? In crime fiction we always seem to wonder how close the author is to his or her detective.

JN: And I think that sometimes the writer is wondering about the same thing. Because when I started writing about Harry, I certainly didn't plan for him to have anything to do with me and my life. But looking back, it's sometimes strange because you can see how you're using more and more of yourself in the main character. They say that every writer is writing about himself or herself, and I think that is probably true, whether they want it or not. And at least for me, I can see, not at the time of writing but later in hindsight. The things that are going on in Harry's life mirror what's been going on in my life. I probably do use more of myself in my main character than I've planned. It just happens in the process because he is your eyes and ears into the story.

BNR: Harry's relationship with alcohol is, as far as I can tell, unique. We've had series detectives with drinking problems before, but at some point they seem to lick it. There are the Scudder books by Lawrence Block, and the James Lee Burke Dave Robicheaux novels. What I find interesting about Harry's on-and-off drinking is that you are not judgmental at all.

JN: Yes, well to me it's as simple as needing to make a more interesting story. Storytelling is all about conflict. Like in an Ibsen play again. In every scene there must be a conflict. And I think that Harry...his struggles will of course be with the world, will be with the killer trying to flee or not wanting to be found. That is the obvious conflict in any crime novel. But you also have to have a conflict on the inner level. And to me Harry's fight with alcoholism is sort of a symbol of Harry's fight with the world and with himself, with his other self. Because you know, the story, the way I see it, is always about the main character's internal self, whether it's going to heaven or hell. Harry's fight with alcohol has to do also with a moral choice. Alcohol is just a symbol. To me, alcohol is Harry's Kryptonite.

BNR: Harry goes through some profound changes in Phantom. How did you make those decisions about what happens to Harry in the book?

JN: In the previous book, The Leopard, Harry is going home because his father is dying. So it's a book about, among other things, the father-son relationship, and in that book Harry is the son. But in this book we meet Harry as father and Oleg is the son. He has made a choice coming back to Oslo to investigate this case where Oleg is in jail as if he doesn't have a choice. You have a feeling that he wished that he didn't have to come back home. But his job in this book is not as a police officer, it's as a father. His only mission is to get Oleg out of jail, whether he did commit the murder or not. That is for me the biggest. He's not out for justice. He's just out to save his boy.

BNR: You're talking about things like redemption and the soul of the character and in some ways -- and I mean this as a compliment -- in some ways that might strike some as old- fashioned preoccupations to have in contemporary fiction.

JN: Yeah.

BNR: Earlier you talked about your coming from a culture where crime fiction has been used to address other things while still working as crime fiction. I'm going to let you answer this any way you can, but I'll break it into two parts: Is crime fiction the way that literature now deals with social and moral questions? And is it necessary for literature to have a moral component or, frankly, to characterize the language you're using, a spiritual component?

JN: Well, I think it's interesting that a couple of years ago, there was a literature festival in Norway where crime fiction was being criticized because it wasn't dealing with social issues the way it used to do. It had become less political, and it didn't address problems in society. And for me it was interesting that that was sort of a mandate that crime fiction had. I realized that as crime writers we had this mandate to address society, which was our responsibility and not the responsibility of the rest of the literature field. And it's sort of a normal request to have that mandate and in another way it's strange that just thirty, forty years ago what was considered pulp fiction has now taken up the role that the big important writers earlier in the century had.

And I do think that it is interesting that the crime novel also has taken over the role that religious writing used to have, that used to deal with moral questions about wrong and right. Of course that sort of literature doesn't exist any longer. But this literature that used to be purely entertainment, and still is mainly entertainment, is the literature interested in moral questions, what is wrong and right, while the rest of literature is sort of describing society but doesn't necessarily have a strong viewpoint, or doesn't have -- what's the word in English -- it's descriptive but not normative. While crime writers are more normative in their way of writing and storytelling.

BNR: So when a detective, or anyone else in the novel, when their flesh is in peril, it's their soul that's in peril.

JN: Hmm, yeah.

BNR: If someone who reads your novels has never been to Oslo, how close to the real thing is the vision they are going to get of Oslo? Some of the stuff, especially in Phantom, especially about the drug hangouts, I could think of parallels for in '70s New York.

JN: Yeah, I just spoke to Paul Auster about New York in the '70s. That really interests me. I wish I was there in the '70s and he told me, no, you probably don't.

BNR: I think he's probably right.

JN: You know, the New York of the '70s, of the movies during the '70s and in novels like The Basketball Diaries. I'm just curious about that, because it's such a bleak, dark city at that time. I guess I do draw ideas, talking about inspiration for the Oslo that I describe in the Harry Hole series, because ever since the '70s Oslo has been one of the biggest drug cities in Europe where you had the highest number of deaths from overdoses. But then again, it's probably not the Oslo that you will see as a tourist in Oslo, mostly seeing the city at the daytime and hopefully avoiding neighborhoods where you have the prostitution and drug scene. Although if you were to go looking for it, it's not hard to find. It's in the midst of Oslo. The Oslo after dark that I've described is there. But I do add fiction, so it's a bit twisted, it's a bit darker. Just like Gotham City is a version of New York City.


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