The king isn’t dead

Jo Nesbø might be considering his own mortality but there’s much life yet in the leader of Nordic Noir

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Throughout Jo Nesbø’s fiction writing death has been a constant and central theme, although as he gets older it’s the writer’s own mortality that’s increasingly occupying his thoughts.

“I don’t really have a plan or strategy for what I write. The idea for a novel is always the boss.”

“The fact that I’m getting closer to death makes it more interesting and the more I think about what awaits behind that door,” says the bestselling Norwegian crime novelist, who turns 62 in March. “At a younger age, I had this silly idea that you would gain some wisdom from knowing that you were going to die, that you would have a different view on life. But as I get older, I have realised that you live as a stupid person and you die as a stupid person. There’s not that much insight to gain from getting close to death.”

Expounding on the subject, he goes on to describe a panic attack he had when he was in his early teens and anxiously woke up his father, Per, from an afternoon nap to ask him what happens when you die?

“He had been in the trenches outside Leningrad during World War Two, so I gathered he knew something about death. He looked at me half asleep and said ‘I think it all goes dark,’ and that was it,” recalls Nesbø, who says that he now shares the same belief. “I think that dying may be a very sad and banal thing. So I guess I’m just planning a graceful exit. That is all we can hope for.”

Despite the characteristically morbid turn our conversation has taken, it must be said that Nesbø looks in fine health and says he has no desire to shuffle off this mortal coil anytime soon. A keen climber with a lean frame, closely cropped hair and chiselled features, he proudly states that he’s “in better shape than ever”, although concedes that injuries now take longer to heal, if they ever heal at all. Speaking to Big Issue North over Zoom from his home in Oslo, Nesbø appears at least ten years younger than his birth certificate indicates and has the same youthful sparkle that he displayed when this writer first interviewed him just over a decade ago.

Back then, he was in London promoting The Snowman, his seventh novel (and fifth to be published in the UK) about his most famous character, the flawed, alcoholic police detective Harry Hole (pronounced Hool-eh). At the time, Nesbø’s books came with stickers on the cover proclaiming him as “the next Stieg Larsson”. Ten years and more than 50 million book sales later, he now finds other upcoming authors compared to him with publishers desperate to repeat a fraction of his international success.

“I don’t really have a plan or strategy for what I write,” he says. “The idea for a novel is always the boss.”

Aksel Hennie in the 2011 film Headhunters, one of several screen adaptations of Nesbø’s books
Aksel Hennie in the 2011 film Headhunters, one of several screen adaptations of Nesbø’s books

Those ideas, fuelled by the novelist’s lifelong fascination with the darker side of human nature, have seen him crowned the undisputed king of Nordic Noir, the Scandinavian crime fiction genre that became a phenomenon in the early noughties and still remains hugely popular, dominating book charts and television schedules. Current stars of Scandi Noir include writers Åsa Larsson, Niklas Natt och Dag and Ragnar Jónasson, while hit TV crime dramas Bordertown, Darkness: Those That Kill and Beck have kept viewers hooked on chilling tales of sadistic serial killers and grisly homicides, long after The Killing’s Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl) walked off into the snowy sunset.

Nesbø’s latest standalone novel, The Kingdom, out now in paperback, is another gripping addition to the genre. Less bloodthirsty than his Harry Hole novels, it tells the story of Roy and Carl Opgard, two brothers who become embroiled in a deadly tale of lies, deceit and murder when they try to build a spa hotel near their childhood home, bringing long-buried family secrets to the surface. Although the book’s pacy narrative is clearly fictional, the central story of two brothers sharing an intense bond is one born of personal experience, explains the author.

“I knew that at some point I would have to write about brothers. I grew up with two brothers and my younger brother, who passed away from cancer [in 2013], him and I were very close. Like the brothers in the novel, we would share a bunk bed and he was a social, outgoing kind of person, while I [had] fewer friends and would be more the kind of guy that would read a lot.”

Growing up in the fjord town of Molde, Nesbø and his younger brother, Knut, were huge football fans and both went on to play semi-professionally for their home club in Norway’s first division before torn knee ligaments ended Jo’s playing career aged 18. He joined the air force and worked for several years as a financial analyst before scoring success alongside his brother in the rock band Di Derre, who topped the Norwegian charts. The group continued to make music and tour even after their singer became a famous writer. He describes his relationship with Knut as being multifaceted, but with love and respect at the heart of it.

“The two of us being a united team of two made us really strong, but at the same time he would be, in some ways, my emotional Achilles heel. He was my younger brother and whenever he was in trouble or his life wasn’t going well for him it would involve me. Like any older brother, you would try to fix your younger brother’s problems and when I couldn’t it was just as frustrating for me as it was for him. Also, of course, him being that close to me, he could annoy me immensely, pushing the right buttons.”

Roy and Carl share the same character traits in The Kingdom and while Nesbø says the book doesn’t reflect his relationship with Knut he admits “there are certain emotional reflexes that you have as an older brother that I can definitely relate to and that I brought from my own life to the novel”.

The pandemic has meant that Nesbø hasn’t been able to travel and promote The Kingdom as he normally would, although the writer acknowledges that he has nothing to grumble about and has remained busy. “For me, life hasn’t changed that much. I can work from my home. My band had gigs we planned to do, and they were all cancelled, so it’s been quiet. But I can’t really complain when you look around and see all the problems it’s caused for people both economically and socially.”

In October, Nesbø gave his fans an early Christmas gift with his first short story collection, The Jealousy Man and Other Stories. Last year also saw him appear virtually at the Edinburgh TV Festival, where he appeared in conversation with Greta Thunberg to discuss the creative industry’s responsibility towards the climate crisis.

This year looks just as busy. Last month, Nesbø told Norwegian newspaper VG that he has started writing the 13th Harry Hole novel, although a publication date is yet to be set. In the meantime, work is also underway on a Norwegian TV series of his novel Headhunters, which was turned into a successful movie in 2011. Film and TV adaptations of his books Midnight Sun, The Son and the Harry Hole-starring The Devil’s Star are in various stages of development, while Amazon has bought the rights to The Jealousy Man story collection. Sitting at the opposite end of the publishing spectrum is a forthcoming non-fiction title about rock climbing.

“It will be a personal book about a very mediocre and old rock climber trying to achieve a goal in climbing which, to me, is absurd if I can make it, but in climbing history is not a big deal,” says Nesbø, who is also behind the popular children’s book series Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder. Looking ahead, he says he will continue to pursue his diverse range of interests, rather than conform to audience expectations or commercial pressures.

“I became a writer because I wanted that kind of freedom and it would be very stupid at this point to give away that freedom and give in to what the publishing house or what the reader wants. I just try to stay true to the idea that I must do what I would like to do. There’s no organised plan or order.”

Asked how he thinks the pandemic and accompanying lockdowns will affect his writing, he says it will inevitably seep through into his fiction, but it won’t necessarily be a conscious decision or even one that he’s aware of at the time.

“It’s not like I choose the themes for my writing based on what I read in the papers or what’s going on around me,” he explains. “But somehow what’s going on in my life will end up on paper. Sometimes it’s hard to explain how that happens.”

He refers to when his novels first started getting translated into other languages around 2005 and he would often find himself being interviewed about books he had written many years before. “That was when I realised that what was happening to some of the characters in the novels was exactly what was happening to me at that point. It was so easy to see in hindsight, but at the time of writing I didn’t realise. So, I guess it’s true what they say – writers write about themselves.”

The Kingdom and The Jealousy Man & Other Stories are published by Vintage and out now

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