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.