Theakston File 1: Jo Nesbø, interviewed by Mark Lawson

Mark Lawson’s interview with highly-acclaimed, best-selling Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø, creator of the Harry Hole series, was the last event of the Theakstons Crime Writing Festival 2012. Tickets had sold out well in advance and the venue was packed. Mark Lawson, introducing his guest, told us that a Nesbø novel is sold somewhere in the world every 23 seconds.

The following is not designed to be an exhaustive account, but focuses on parts of the interview that stood out for me as particularly interesting.

The interview took place on the first anniversary of the Oslo and Utoya massacres, and Nesbø spoke with eloquence and sensitivity about the impact that these have had on Norway.

Nesbø’s plan when he began writing was a straightforward one: ‘I thought I would come up with a simple story and write it’. It took him all of five weeks. However, when prospective publishers asked how long the novel had taken to complete, he would say over a year.

One reason why the Hole series was published out of sequence in the UK was because the first two novels were set outside Norway. Publishers felt that it would be too confusing to market a novel by a Norwegian author that was set in Australia [as is the case with the first Hole novel Flaggermusmannen – first published in 1997 and due to be published as The Bat by Harvill Secker in October. The title has been adjusted to avoid confusion with the ‘other’ Batman…]. So The Redbreast [the third novel] was the first of the series to be published here.

The character of Harry Hole was not fully developed until The Redbreast: ‘Then I knew who he was’.                                                                                                                                          

There was a fascinating description by Nesbø of how his own family history had shaped the The Redbreast.

When Nesbø was 15, his father had sat him down for a talk. Afterwards ‘I understood why my family was preoccupied with the Second World War’. While his mother and her family had been part of the resistance movement during Nazi occupation [Germany invaded Norway in 1940], his 19-year-old father had volunteered to fight with the Germans on the Eastern Front. When the war ended, he was sentenced to a couple of years in prison for his role in the war.

Nesbø at first found this revelation ‘incomprehensible’, but his father encouraged him to discuss the issue and to ask him any questions that he wanted, and they grew closer as a result.

The Redbreast seeks to understand how a young man like Nesbø’s father came to take the political path he did. On his father: ‘He was a 19-year-old trying to understand the world and what was going on. He was raised in the States and comes back to a Europe that’s almost bankrupt. Germany and Russia are the two strong nations and there is a feeling that you have to choose between them. And so my father made his choice’.

Nesbø wrestled with the fact that his father had been declared a traitor after the war, but his father was OK with the fact that he had been formally punished: ‘Two years in prison was fair for being as wrong as I was’.

Thus: ‘The Redbreast to a large extent is my father’s book’. It’s a story of World War Two and how the individuals involved ‘reflect on their choices’. The characters who serve under the Germans in the novel ‘all have different motives for doing what they’re doing’.

On Norway’s engagement with the past in the post-war period:  After World War Two, Norway wanted to see itself as a nation that fought the Germans, with a strong resistance movement. While there was some resistance, Nesbø felt that ‘it was a bit of a shame for Norway that we didn’t do more to fight the Germans’. Most people didn’t do anything. Only now are young historians rewriting the story. A grey, complex area.

[Note: There’s a BBC World Bookclub programme on The Redbreast in which Nesbø also discusses his complex family background and its relation to the novel – you can listen to it here (55 minutes duration).]

Jo Nesbø

On the influence of Swedish crime writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: all Scandi writers are influenced by them, even if they don’t know it because they’ve been influenced by writers already influenced by them! They are the godparents of Scandi crime.

It was never Nesbø’s agenda to focus on political issues but ‘it’s impossible to write without being political in some ways, simply because as a writer you ‘edit’ the world you see around you’.

[Lawson also alluded to the fact that Radio 4 will be dramatising all 10 of the Martin Beck series as part of a broader focus on European Detectives – see this BBC article for further details].

Film adaptation: the favourite to play Hole in the adaptation of The Snowman, directed by Michael Scorsese, is Leonardo DiCaprio. There is apparently a website where you can bet on who will get the role, and Nesbø himself is a long-shot for the part. He is keeping his distance from the script-writing process.

On Harry Hole’s fate: ‘There will be an end, and there will be no resurrection’ [audible ‘ooooooh’ from the audience].

A droll moment: after we had been told of Nesbø’s talents as a musician, journalist, stockbroker and writer, an author sitting next to me leaned over and whispered incredulously, ‘Is there anything this man cannot do?!’.

Karen has also posted a good write-up of the event at Euro Crime.

UPDATE: James Kidd’s interview with Nesbø, which he carried out at Harrogate, has recently been published in The Independent.

18 thoughts on “Theakston File 1: Jo Nesbø, interviewed by Mark Lawson

  1. Lovely write-up, thank you. I especially liked the part about his family’s past in the war. Lief Davidsen addresses a similar theme to The Redbreast in The Woman From Bratislava, about the Danish mythology of its role in WW2. And K O Dahl does so (for Norway, again) in The Man in the Window. Interestingly, Nesbo and Dahl share a translator, Don Bartlett, so it might be interesting to see what he thinks of the way these two authors treat this issue.

    • Thanks, Maxine. Yes, there’s a whole subcategory of Scandi crime here that I’m tempted to see as the authors’ contribution to creating a more balanced history of their countries’ pasts (a kind of corrective to the histories that overly foreground resistance activities). I wonder if these crime writers are ahead of historians in this respect (they sometimes are in Germany)? From what JN says this may be the case.

      Larsson’s TGWTDT and Lackberg’s The Hidden Child would fit into this subcategory as well. It would be very interesting to compare and contrast the way in which the authors approach this issue – and I’m sure it would be illuminating to discuss with translators such as Don Bartlett (good idea – thanks!).

      • I remembered two more – Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson, which is a fascinating look back to the very north of Sweden and the supposed “no armaments” route allowed by the Germans, which was supposed not to compromise Sweden’s neutrality. And Kjell Eriksson’s The Hand That Trembles.

      • Thanks, Maxine – that’s quite a nice little collection we’ve built up there. The next thing to do would be to check out the range of years in which the texts were originally published and to ask – why then?

        If you think of any more…

  2. Mrs P, I heard Jo Nesbo talk about his father on the radio a few years ago. You have to admire his honesty. There were large numbers of people in the UK who would have collaborated with the Nazis, but we were lucky we had Churchill and Fighter Command.

    • Thanks, Norman. Yes, he’s very open and very honest. Perhaps this is made possible by the fact that his father was also open and honest about his past, and encouraged Nesbo to ask him as many questions as he wanted. In other words: no festering secrets, no damaging silences, no nasty surprises at a later point after the father had died.

      I put a link up to the BBC World Service programme on The Redbreast. Was that the one you heard or was it earlier? A good opportunity for anyone who wasn’t at Harrogate and would like to hear JN speak on the subject.

  3. Pingback: Theakston File 3: Camilla Läckberg interview with Mrs. P (Part 2) | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

  4. Pingback: Jo Nesbø | The Official Website

  5. Not only is Jo multi talented but so is his brother Knut who plays a mean lead guitar for a sports commentator. Check them out on Youtube, my favourite is di derre (their band) playing Aure Frukt og tobakk. In fact it was di derre’s catchy rock that got me learning norwegian; the lyrics are like the books, witty and wise. I hope to be able to start reading Jo in norwegian soon, and thank him for giving me another language and so further insight into his beautiful country and its lovely people.

  6. Aha Mrs Peabody, your alias has been exposed by Mark Lawson in the current, excellent Radio 4 series “Foreign Bodies”. Only problem with the series is that my reading list is getting entirely out of hand. I may have to take to my bed for the next 3 years to cope!
    Tried the first Arne Dahl, “The Blinded Man” but found some of the characters spoke like a synopsis of a newspaper article from the Financial Times when they were ostensibly having a bit of a chat. Not sure if this is due to the author or translator. This reinforces my gratitude for the talents of Don Bartlett in translating Jo Nesbo. Can we know a little more about Don? Especially as I have a family connection to some Norfolk Bartletts.

    • Yes, Lynne – my cover is well and truly blown! And I know that feeling of reading lists spiralling out of control: I listened to the Foreign Bodies ‘Van Der Valk’ episode earlier today and the whole series has just joined my TBR pile.

      Translators are indeed often the unsung heroes and heroines of the international crime fiction world. There’s a three-part interview with Don Bartlett on the Euro Crime website, which might be of interest:

      • Lost in Translation?
        I went to my first big name author event yesterday-Jo Nesbo in London re “Police”. Authors must get tired of the same questions, but like the experienced stage performer he is, Nesbo made it an enjoyable, fresh and charming experience for his audience. He was asked if he thought things had got lost in translation and that got me thinking on the train home.
        I began learning norwegian a year ago so that I could translate his catchy rock songs with Di derre from the mid 90s and -hopefully-read his, Karin Fossum and Karl Ova Knausgaard etc in the original. I bought “Politi” in mid June and by the time I collected my pre-ordered copy of “Police” last Saturday I had read the norwegian original one and a half times. I managed to keep most of last weekend free for reading (Nesbo aficionados will recognise the need) and devoured it to make sure I had grasped all the complexities of the plot, and then began to compare some chapters word for word.
        Norwegian has a smaller vocabulary than English so in some cases the excellent Don Bartlett will translate the same norwegian word in many different ways in order to bring out shades of meaning. For example Nesbo uses “sa ut” quite a bit and Bartlett translates it as “gawped / looked / stared / appeared” as needed. Quite different shades of meaning to a native English speaker. So in some ways the translator could be said to be adding to the reading experience.
        But on the other hand I do not have enough knowledge of norwegian usage to appreciate any different shades of meaning when Nesbo uses “tvert om / tvert imot /i stid mot / i motsetning til” for “on the contrary.”
        Nesbo said after reading the translation of “The Bat” he thought there were losses, but had decided that Bartlett was better equipped than he to solve the problems.
        To me Nesbo’s novels are in safe hands with Bartlett, most of the translation is very, very close to the original, and Bartlett only adds /subtracts when he needs to , for example Harry at one point says ( in norwegian) “F..k, F..K”, which in some cases in England these days is nothing much. So Bartlett renders this as “Sh.t, sh.t. Sh.t and b.gger” which to me gives me more of a feel of Harry’s frame of mind.
        Nesbo pointed out that because norwegian is not widely spoken across the world, the editions in e.g. South Korean are based on Bartlett’s English versions. So all you budding linguists get learning norwegian and swedish. However I think Nesbo has nothing to worry about with Don Bartlett.
        However perhaps I ought to stop before I feel a PhD coming on. This has made me think about the reverse, so next week when I am in Oslo again, I may well be tempted to buy the norwegian translation of “Norwegian by Night” and read that.
        By the way perhaps I should pass this on to Michael Gove to re-vitalise the teaching of languages in English Schools. Wanting to read a real page-turner like Nesbo that is not yet available in your native tongue is a great incentive. I followed the advice of Michel Thomas the renowned language teacher, and read a chapter at a time, just trying to get the gist, working out a probable meaning for any new words by the context. I had a notebook beside me and noted down those words that I wanted to check as I couldn’t be sure of their meaning or that cropped a lot, just to check. By the time I was halfway through the book on the first time, I was reading slowly but more or less on my own.
        I have noticed that a couple of phrases from Nesbo’s songs have more or less become proverbs- I have heard them quoted by norwegians several times-“I need do God, just my own strength”, and “God is a guy who is difficult to understand”.

        Also an amusing episode in Oslo in mid June. Every bookstore had the poster for “Politi/Police” in the window with the slogan “Harry Hole er tilbake / HH is back”. Friday afternoon rush hour outside Oslo Central Station and the bus and tram stops are full of folk waiting to make their way home. Suddenly a police car comes round the corner from the cathedral and weaves in and out of the cars, buses and trams, with lights flashing and “the blender” on. It speeds off towards Gronlanderiet and Police HQ. As it disappears a deep Norwegian voice intones “Harry Hole er tilbake!” and there is general merriment. HH has definitely become part of norwegain folklore.

  7. Thanks, Lynne. I’ve only seen Jo Nesbo speak once (the talk that this post reported on), but was struck by what a relaxed presence he had – he’s very at home on the public stage. And thoughtful, very considered answers.

    I’m very impressed by your language learning strategies – I’m sure your Norwegian has benefited enormously from reading Police in parallel (we recommend our students do the same and have things like the Harry Potter series in English/German in the university library!). Great idea to try the process with Norwegian by Night as well. It should be very interesting to compare how the translation process has worked out in each direction. Your translation examples relating to Police are fascinating…and I love the anecdote about the police car: a very imaginative PR team at work there!!!

  8. Obviously I didn’t express myself clearly enough. The event outside Oslo S was not a PR stunt,in fact quite the opposite, just someone commenting in a way that he knew would be understood by the majority of people present.
    Further to lost in translation, I have now read 3 of Nesbo’s books in Norwegian, and beginning to appreciate that the guy is quite a poet in terms of choice of vocabulary, sentence structure and use of assonance and alliteration. Is there nothing he can’t do?

    • Sorry, Lynne – me getting the wrong end of the stick. Yes, quite an illustration of Harry Hole’s cultural impact!

      In answer to your question at the end: it would seem not. Somewhat depressing for us mere mortals…

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