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Writer Jo Nesbø on Punk, Football and Why Most Crime Fiction Sucks

He's been a footballer, pop star, stockbroker and now a blockbuster author who's shifted 28 million copies of his Harry Hole series. Jo Nesbø is better than you at most things.

by Matt Blake
10 February 2016, 12:00am

Jo Nesbø is better than you at most things. In his time he has been: a top-flight footballer in the Norwegian Tippeligaen with Molde; a high-flying stockbroker; and a Norwegian pop star. But all that pales in comparison to what he's best known for: writing those books your dad can't stop buying in the airport. Well, your dad and everyone else's. Nesbo's Harry Hole crime series, among others, has shifted 28million units in over 50 countries. According to his publisher, one of his books is bought every 23 seconds.

An adaptation of one of his novels – Headhunters – won a Bafta. Leonardo DiCaprio's production company recently bought the rights to another one, Blood on Snow. And now a film version of The Snowman, starring Michael Fassbender, has just started filming. So we caught up with Jo to talk about his life and career, from punk rock to crime writing.

VICE: Hi Jo. You once described crime novels as the "punk rock of literature". What did you mean by that?
Jo Nesbø: To me, punk rock is about taking away everything that is not necessary so you can see the skeleton of the song. I think that crime writing, at least the crime writing that I like, is the same thing. The story is cut to the bone. The one thing that my books don't do that punk rock does is statements. My books are the opposite; they are questions. I give my protagonists moral dilemmas and force them to make a choice. And I try not to be the judge of the choice they make. One of the big questions I try to ask is, what is free will? What is morality? Is it something God-given, or is it a framework that society has imposed on us to make us more efficient?

I never liked crime fiction as a kid. Well, I'm still not that interested in crime fiction.

Your parents fought on different sides during the second world war, didn't they? Do you think that's where your obsession with morality came from?
Yes. My mother's family were freedom fighters against the Nazi occupation of Norway. But my father, who was older, grew up in America in the 20s where he was conditioned to believe the worst thing that could happen to a country was communism. So when the war broke out he joined the Germans to fight Stalin. Although, it wasn't until I was 15 that he said, "Jo, you're old enough to know now that I fought with the Germans in the second world war."

How does a 15-year-old even process that kind of information?
It was a huge shock. My father was the man I respected most in the world. Everything I thought was solid and true in the world was shattered in a moment. But then he said, "Ok, I guess you have questions, then I'm happy to answer them." So I started this conversation with my father when I was 15 and it continued until the end of his life.

Did you ever understand? Your mother's family must have hated him.
They would've hated him if he'd been pro-Hitler and joined the Nazi party. But they understood that he did it to defend Norway from Stalin; that was his war. He didn't know about the Holocaust. Yes, he'd heard rumours, but thought that's all they were. I remember once he told me, "I had to spend three years in jail for fighting with the Germans, and I think that was a fair punishment for being as wrong as I was." I respected him for his honesty. I can defend my father intellectually now – the wounds heal, but that shock creates an emotional scar that never goes away.

Your band Di Derre ("Those Guys") are one of Norway's most successful groups. But you worked as a stockbroker until your 30s. How did that happen?
I only quit the city when the band became too big to hold down another job. I had this crazy idea that I didn't want to leave my day job – I didn't want music to pay my rent. I thought, if I had a day job, I wouldn't have to compromise. I've seen too many musicians sell out in order to survive.

How would you describe Di Derre's music?
We're a pop band with a punk attitude.

Was crime fiction always part of your life?
Not at all. I never really liked crime fiction as a kid. Well, I'm still not that interested in crime fiction.

A crime writer who doesn't like crime writing?
Whenever I meet crime writers, they are so into crime writing. All they want to talk about is these crime writers that I've never read and I'm never going to read. I'm a slow reader so I have to pick my books carefully. I have a few favourites, like Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler, but even when I read Chandler for the first time I had already read all the parodies. By then he seemed almost comic and over the top.

So you don't think modern crime fiction is that good?
No. There are definitely good crime novels out there, but I think there's a reason why the crime genre has the bad reputation that it has, and that is the fact that so many mediocre crime novels are being published every year.

What about yours?
When I'm writing, I feel like I'm the best writer in the world. I don't mean that in a competitive way, but that I have to think, "There's nobody who understands this story better than me and the readers are lucky that I'm the one telling this story and not some other clumsy writer." The whole idea of writing a novel takes an enormous amount of confidence. Books are expensive in Norway, but you expect thousands of readers to read every fucking work you've written. And then you expect them to walk up to you in the street and take you by hand and say, "thank you."

Do they?
Sometimes they do. When I'm writing a novel I get the feeling that this is what I am meant to do. Not that I feel necessarily unique... But even if the whole world told me I was not good at telling stories, then I would say that the world is not ready for me. That is the only thing in life that I'm 100 percent confident in. It's not a crazy ego thing, it is just that I have a very clear idea of what I want to do as a storyteller.

So what did you actually want to do with your life – you played for Molde FK when you were a teenager. Was football the original dream?
I genuinely believed I'd play professionally for Tottenham. It was my life, until I got injured. I got tackled as I was passing and my knee buckled. I heard the cartilage snap, like when you tear the leg off a chicken, and that was my footballing career over. I was 19. It was devastating - my entire world fell apart. But you know what, when you're 19, you can build a new world in three weeks. I told myself, "OK, I'm probably not going to play soccer. How important is that to me? Is this a trauma that has to define my life?"

If you could trade in all the success you've had as a writer and a pop star to be a footballer, would you do it?
I've never been asked that before... It's a hard thing to say. Would I really? [pauses]. Yes, I think I would.

Thanks Jo.


Jo Nesbo's new thriller Blood On Snow is out now in paperback, published by Vintage.

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