Jo Nesbø: ‘We should talk about violence against women’

The Norwegian author of the Harry Hole detective series on Tom Jones, the ‘Nordic noir’ label and his soft spot for a crime cliche

The Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø, 59, has sold more than 33m books worldwide and won a host of prizes, including the prestigious Glass Key for best Nordic crime novel. Nesbø took a circuitous route to becoming a bestselling author, playing football for Norway’s premier league team Molde before torn knee ligaments ended his career. He went on to form the band Di Derre, who topped the charts in Norway, and worked as a financial analyst before his first novel, The Bat, was published in 1997. Nesbø’s latest Harry Hole book, Knife, opens with Harry waking from a hangover covered in blood…

Harry Hole travels an extremely dark path in Knife... Was this always the plan?
It’s been on the cards for many years, actually. When I wrote my third novel [in the series], that was when I planned what was ahead for Harry. It’s all part of his life story, which belongs not only to the genre of crime fiction but also of classic tragedy. So it was bound to happen.

Did you know, when you wrote The Bat, that you would still be telling Harry’s story 12 books later?
I knew that there were some key events in his life. But of course there have been lots of detours that I didn’t plan for.

Knife finds Harry drinking heavily, miserable, but also full of ingenious moments of intuition. Put like that, he sounds like a lot of fictional detectives. How do you keep him fresh?
I think in many ways it’s easier as you get to know him better. As you get older you get more interested in developing your friendships with your old friends than having new friends because it’s all on a deeper level; you’ve already done all the chit-chat. And it feels a bit the same way with Harry. I really know him, my readers know him, so we can get to the real business right away.

Will you ever retire him?
He will not have eternal life. He probably won’t die from old age – but then again, who knows?

That sounds ominous…
What I can promise you is that when he is gone, he will not be resurrected.

And you won’t pass the Harry Hole franchise on to someone to write after your death?
Definitely not. I’m telling you right now – if that should happen, if you see somebody trying, you can quote me on this.

Here in the UK we label all crime writing from Scandinavia as Scandi noir, or Nordic noir. Does it really have something in common, or is it just where the authors come from?
I think basically it’s the latter. But then again I see it from the inside, and I can understand from the outside that there are certain similarities. It would be strange if there weren’t any – we share the same culture, the same social and political backdrop.

Crime fiction is criticised for gratuitous violence against women. Is this something you consider when you’re writing?
Violence against women is a problem in society – it is something we should talk about. I would be more worried if there was an absence of violence against women in fiction, because it’s a problem in real life. Of course, it’s a question of how you do it, but in general I would be more worried if fiction pretended it wasn’t a problem.

When you come to writing the violent scenes in your books, is it difficult?
Both yes and no. Since I’m writing in a genre that violence has traditionally been part of, there is a certain choreography to the violence that separates it from real-life violence. It depends on how true you are to the cliches of the genre. I like some of those cliches. Harry Hole borrows a lot from the tradition of the hard-boiled detective novel, and with that comes certain traditions. All storytelling is building on tradition and what has been before.

Do you always know the solution when you start writing?
Yes, I do. I’m the captain on the ship. I like the feeling when writing chapter one that I can tell my readers: come sit closer, listen carefully, I have this great story to tell you and I know exactly where we’re going.

You were working as a stockbroker and touring with your band when you sat down to write your first book. Why did you go for crime?
I’d been asked to write a book about the band. I said no, but I was going to Australia for five weeks so I said: “When I come back, maybe I will have something else for you”. I figured, at least I know the head and the tail of a crime novel, so since I only had five weeks, I could write a short, simple crime story. It was because I had a deadline!

What books are on your bedside table?
You’re interviewing me in the bathroom, but I have a bookshelf in my bathroom. I read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace from time to time – it’s like a modern Ulysses and I haven’t really finished it but I think he’s a brilliant writer and I really recommend his essays, which are often overlooked. There’s also Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, and some of the classics I’ve never had the time to read – Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory, and Bret Easton Ellis’s first novel, Less Than Zero.

What kind of reader were you as a child?
I would read anything. My mother worked at the library, and I would read anything she brought home - I would read a lot.

Which books have stayed with you since childhood?
My father grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and he had Mark Twain books, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Those were my favourite books.

Who do you admire most of the writers working today?
I really like Ian McEwan. I always enjoy his books. They are both wise and interesting. And a Norwegian writer named Johan Harstad, who is translated into English; he’s a really good writer.

And what do you plan to read next?
Right now, I’m reading this brilliant biography by Tom Jones, Over the Top and Back, and it’s really funny and honest. He has left out all the women, which is sort of a letdown, but on the other hand the rest of the book is brilliant.

Knife by Jo Nesbø is published by Vintage (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15

Contributor

Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

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