The hero of many of Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø’s novels, the dissolute detective Harry Hole, witnesses all manner of horrifying violent deaths. One victim in a case Hole works on is Superglued to a bathtub and made to drown as the water rises; another has her face torn to shreds by an exploding metal ball put in her mouth. Despite the creatively ghastly crimes that come from Nesbø’s imagination, he’s not at all scary in person.
When I meet him at his Manhattan hotel, the slight Scandinavian is low key and no nonsense. Nesbø looks like the rock climber he is. He wears shoes that look purchased at REI and has evenly distributed but unmanicured stubble. The extremely prolific, best-selling writer doesn’t just write crime books—though he’s written more than a dozen of them, including the just-released The Son—he also has a best-selling children’s book series called Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder. He is currently writing a new crime series using the pen name Tom Johansen, for whom he created an elaborate back story (more on that in a bit).
I spoke to Nesbø about his ability to work everywhere, how storytelling can be like songwriting (Nesbø still writes songs for his band, Di Derre, which has been around since the early '90s), and the freedom and joy of writing as an alter ego.
This workday, I got up at 4 a.m., I went to a deli outside the hotel, I got coffee, and I worked until 8 o’clock, I went to the gym here at the hotel, then I had breakfast with my agent. I will do interviews until 4 o’clock, then I’ll go to the airport and get on a plane back to Oslo. I’ll work on the plane, probably for five hours. Then when I wake up I’ll be in Oslo.
Writing is what I do when I don’t have other things to do. I have no rules, and I wake up at all different times depending on what I did the night before.
Again, I have no rules for how long it takes. It could be that I would work on an outline or synopsis for a year, or like a week. Sometimes the whole story will come to you, like it’s already been planned. Sometimes, as with a song, it seems like you pick them out of the air. It’s the same thing with stories. But sometimes you’ll run into problems, and a story you’ve planned to start writing in a month or two, suddenly you’re still working on an outline after a half a year.
The craft is the same whether I’m writing children’s books or crime novels. Maybe if writing a book in the Harry Hole series, a crime novel, it may feel like conducting a symphony orchestra. Writing a children’s book is like jamming with your band. It’s more direct, but it doesn’t mean it’s easier, or less demanding. It is more enjoyable.
Punk music was sort of a democratic form of music where everybody felt they knew the rules, they could play the three chords on the guitar and they could be on stage. In a crime novel, the reader is taking part in the story. It’s like a dialogue, an intimate dialogue, between the writer and reader. It’s an interactive process to read a crime novel, especially a whodunit. The writer is going to try to manipulate you, but they will also give you enough information to solve the case, so you do feel like you’re participating.
When you talk about creative work, it’s work that 200 years ago, you would have done for free. My job writing books is something that I would do for free. Some of the best writers not just in Norway, but in the rest of the world, would have other jobs besides being writers. But working is, for many people, it’s the best part of their day when they’re doing what they really want to do.
Normally I will have one project I’m working on at all times. Right now I’m working on two. One is Blood on Snow, which is where I use a pen name, Tom Johansen. I originally planned to publish them without revealing that I wrote them. It’s kind of a long story. We had built up a whole life story for Johansen. He had been a Danish or Norwegian crime writer with a cult following in the '70s. But what happened was that the lawyers said you can’t do that. People can sue you, if you claim it was a cult writer who didn’t actually exist. Still, I wanted to use it as a pen name. I started writing a story called The Kidnapping of Tom Johansen, in that story, Johansen is a character. I kept referring to his one big success called Blood on Snow. He tries to capitalize off the success of that book with Blood on Snow 2: More Blood, which isn’t supposed to be a very good book. I’m currently working on Blood on Snow 2 as well. Working in someone else’s voice makes it more fun.