Jet lag has historically been a creativity stimulating phenomenon for Jo Nesbo.
After all, he wrote the first draft of his debut novel, The Bat, while under its reality-bending, time-warping influence. At the time – this is the mid-nineties – Nesbo was a chart-topping musician who, mistrustful of long-term success, still kept his full-time job as a stock broker at a top brokerage. At a professional crossroads, he fled 30 hours across the world to Australia. Somewhere above the ocean, he began mapping out a book – not the memoir of his band’s “life on the road” he’d promised to an interested publisher, but a crime novel about a detective named Harry Hole, whose story poured out of him as he wrote, jetlagged in a Sydney hotel room.
Fast-forward a few decades and more than 50 million books sold, we spoke to Jo Nesbo, newly arrived in Canada to fete the publication of Killing Moon, the latest instalment in the record-breaking, Scandi Noir genre-defining Harry Hole series (Nesbo is fine if you say “Hole” the English way, but technically it’s more like “hoo-lah” if you’re aiming for the true Norwegian pronunciation).
In a pleasing bit of symmetry, we find him battling time zones again – and working through it – when The Globe reaches him on the phone. “I’m a bit jet lagged, but not that bad,” says Nesbo. “Actually, 10 minutes ago I was writing a bit. I was up early.”
What is your relationship to the word “bestseller”?
As for most writers, or at least most ambitious writers, it’s sort of two-sided. On one hand, it’s a sign you have succeeded, because what you’re trying to do is reach as many readers as possible – and reach them in a profound way. On the other hand, it’s a worry that you’ve become this bland mainstream writer that is an ‘easy read,’ that you didn’t want to become. It’s pride and worry at the same time.
Your journey to becoming a bestseller can read as if it were sort of a happy accident. You wrote a book, sent it off, three weeks later you had a publisher. It feels like it happened so easily for you.
First of all, I was 37, and it wasn’t as if I hadn’t been writing up until then. I’d been writing lyrics for my band in Norway. I was a well-known writer or storyteller in that respect. I remember having my first book published, and it wasn’t a bestseller but it was well-received by the critics and I received a prize for crime book of the year. You are right. My thought was, ‘Really? Can it be this easy?’
And then with my second book, I realized that no, it’s not that easy. My second book was probably the worst book I’ve written in the series. With my third book, I put a lot of work into it and it became a bestseller. In the U.K., it was [the 7th Harry Hole novel] The Snowman that became a bestseller, and I remember journalists saying, ‘What is the secret to your overnight success?’ And I had to tell them, ‘What overnight success? I’ve been published here for 10 years.’
With the Harry Hole series, there’s a big meta-narrative about him and his life that spans the books. At this stage, does continuing that story come first, and then you insert the crime that drives the particular novel?
When I started the series, and for the first five novels, it definitely started with the crime, and Harry was intended to be the camera lens through which we saw what was going on. Step by step, he has moved in front of the camera, and in many ways has become the centre of attention. It’s become more of a story about Harry Hole set in crime fiction than crime fiction and Harry being some police detective.
Is that because you’ve become closer to this character in your head?
When you get to know a character that well, there are so many layers to him by now, created by the stories and what readers have experienced and been through with Harry. It’s not only I who have invested in Harry, it’s also my readers. It’s like old friends.
Do you know how Harry’s story ends?
I do. I wrote a storyline for Harry when I wrote my third novel, and I’m still following that. I don’t know how many books there will be, but his life and what’s going to happen is all in that storyline that I wrote, my god, 20 years ago.
You’re a children’s author as well, which might surprise readers of your crime fiction. Does that feed a different part of your soul?
My whole family are storytellers. In many ways, it’s a coincidence that it’s a crime novel I started out writing. Basically, I’m a storyteller, whether it’s children’s books, short stories or crime novels.
Who’s a harder audience: Kids or adults?
Kids show no mercy. I remember my daughter had a birthday party where her mother suggested I bring a guitar and play a few songs. I said, ‘Six-year-old kids aren’t interested in a man playing a guitar and singing.’ She said they would be. I think I emptied the room in 10 seconds. The only one left was my daughter, staring at me, and I could tell she was feeling sorry for me.
When it comes to writing crime fiction for adults right now, though: The genre has just exploded in popularity, and it can sometimes seem like the way to get attention can be to ratchet up the depravity, the violence, the depths of psychological darkness in stories. Have you felt a pressure to do that?
No, not really. To some degree, I think I’ve scaled it down since The Leopard [the 8th Harry Hole novel, published in 2009]. That was probably the book where I was more detailed in the gruesome details. But to move into the darkness of our souls? I think that’s an interesting journey. If there’s a metaphor to the violence, if there’s a link between what we call ‘the evil mind’ and survival, emotionally or physically? I think it’s interesting to go in there and have a look, because I think our minds are capable of anything in order to survive.
You’re also a rock climber. Is there a connection to writing there for you?
So they’re completely separate? I find that the different things people do in life are so often connected. You know, in that way that you’d approach rock climbing, thinking three moves ahead, and writing?
I disagree. I think we’re looking for patterns, and when we get two different pieces of information, our brains will automatically try to link it together. It’s like, ‘He’s a writer and he’s a rock climber. What is the link?’ Well, there’s not really a link. I’d like there to be a link! It’s a total coincidence.
But I need to make order out of the universe, Jo!
I mean, that is what I do as a writer. I try to tell a story where things are linked. But that’s fiction for you.
You sound like a firm believer that there are, in fact, coincidences.
Things are more or less likely. We’ve perhaps survived as a species because of intelligence, and our ability to recognize patterns. That’s probably why we became storytellers, because in our stories there are beautiful patterns that we really enjoy, both as writers and readers. It’s protecting us against the depressing fact that it’s all chaos.