Interview with Jo NesbøFebruary, 2014
Jo Nesbø: I'm at a place called Railay. It's a peninsula—a national park where you have rock climbing. I go here every year with other climbers. It's a kind of boot camp...just climbing and writing.
GR: So you are very familiar with the country?
JN: Actually, the first time I was in Thailand, I spent several months in Bangkok, and only in Bangkok. I wasn't down here [in Railay]. It was just two years later that a friend of mine who plays in my band, who's a rock climber, said, "You should come down here and write." So I came down, and this is where I started rock climbing, but that was like 12 years ago.
GR: You have said that Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles inspired you to set Cockroaches in Bangkok. The city acts as another planet for Harry. What was your agenda when you began research for the book in Bangkok?
JN: For me, when I came to Bangkok, I wasn't really prepared. I had been traveling a lot, so I wouldn't say that I wasn't an experienced traveler, but I was still overwhelmed by Bangkok because of the heat and the pollution and the chaotic street life. I wasn't staying in the backpacker's area or the tourist part of the city or the posh part of the city. I was staying in a very typical part of Bangkok, down by the river. I was living with a friend, and it was really in the first two days that I wasn't sure if I was going to make it. My first reaction was, "I can't stay here. I have to get out of here." But the city grows on you. You get used to it. I just fell in love with Bangkok.
On one hand, I walk around there, and I'm on a mission, I'm at work, so I'm constantly looking for things I can use in the story. But on the other hand, at that time I didn't plan my novels in detail the way I do now, so I was open, you know. I enjoyed every aspect of Bangkok—the things I did use in the book and even the things I didn't use in the book. I just got an e-mail from the French restaurant that is in the Patpong area in Bangkok, and they realized they were in the book, and they were proud to be in it.
GR: Do the Thai people read your novels? How do they or might they feel that their country is portrayed?
JN: Some of my books have been translated into Thai. That was quite recently, so if those books are doing well, they will probably at some point translate Cockroaches also. I love Thailand, and I love the Thai people, so I hope they won't get offended, because this would have been my first trip to Thailand, and I wrote the book the same way I wrote The Bat. It was from the point of view of a newcomer, somebody who is in Thailand for the first time. I found that was the best way to write it, since Harry is just arriving to this city and it's Mars—a totally strange place. So I think it was very effective and an easy way for me to write about Bangkok—to experience all these things for a first time. But of course it is not the book of a guy who's lived in the country for ten years who has the insight of someone who really knows Thailand. I probably know Thailand better now than I did then, but still I spent two months doing research.
GR: Cockroaches is the last of the Harry Hole novels to be translated into English, but it's the second book in the series. Why is this novel bringing up the rear?
JN: When we started selling the rights for the Harry Hole series, I was pretty convinced that the first two novels wouldn't be of much interest because they were about a Norwegian detective. That was exotic enough to begin with, but then in the first novel, The Bat, Harry was in Sydney, and in the second [Cockroaches] he was in Bangkok—that was sort of too much. But since The Bat has done so well, they wanted to translate the second novel. I think if it hadn't been for the success of the rest of the series, it probably wouldn't have been translated. I think it was just that the whole series has gotten such a big following.
GR: We would feel cheated if we Americans only got nine of the 10.
JN: Yeah. It's a bit confusing now for American and English readers because everything has been translated out of order. It was the fifth book in the series, then the third book, then the fourth, then the seventh, and now the first and the second. So at least they're using the right name in the UK, where my publishing house is Random House.
GR: Goodreads member Peggy asks, "What effect, if any, do you feel having your work translated to English has on your work? Do we lose something not having the native language?"
JN: Yes, you do. It's inevitable. And I realized this. I never read my translations nowadays because it's too frustrating. And I think that Don Bartlett, my translator, is doing a great job. I realize that the problems that he will run into, I couldn't have solved them any better myself. But things do get lost in translation. It's mostly the humor. There are certain things that have to do with humor in that language, choosing a word, stuff like that. But that's just the way it is with language. Everything can't be translated.
GR: The immediate thing that popped into my head when I saw the name Harry in a detective novel was Harry Bosch from the Michael Connelly novels. Is he someone you like?
JN: Definitely. I mean, there are so many good American crime writers like Michael, of course. Dennis Lehane, and you have James Ellroy, who is great. And all these are really good crime writers, but just like any other country you also have a lot of bad crime writers. And people are kind of surprised when I tell them that we have bad crime writers in Scandinavia, too.
GR: You have said that you admire the work of Jim Thompson because he writes these very dark crime novels.
JN: Jim Thompson is probably the writer who inspired me to write the kind of mystery novels that I do. The way I see it, he wrote American Psycho 30 years before Bret Easton Ellis did. To me he was a pioneer in writing from a sociopath's point of view. Writing from that type of first-person point of view is courageous. And he pulled it off, even with the black humor in it; that's really impressive.
GR: Did you know right away that you were going to write crime novels? Many mystery writers begin with aspirations of writing the next great novel, then they move to the more structured crime genre.
JN: I didn't write a crime novel because I had an idea that it would be easier to sell, but like you said, the genre has a very defined form and structure. I had limited time in which to finish my novel. I had given myself five weeks to write the first draft. So I thought, OK, it will have to be a crime novel simply because I didn't have time for the big novel. And I had seen many of my friends with ambitions of becoming writers: They would start on their big novel right away, and of course never finish it, so I decided, OK, let's write a crime novel. At least I know the head and the tail of a crime novel. That was the reason. I wasn't ever planning on having it published. I was going to use it to introduce myself to some of the publishing houses, then hopefully if they liked it they would say OK, we can't publish this, but send us whatever you're writing next. So I was a bit shocked when they found me and said that they wanted to publish the crime novel, but by then I had probably realized there was more to the crime novel than I had been availed. It's probably easier to be quick when you have boundaries. At least that's how it works for me.
And also, there's something special with crime novels, it's a very intimate conversation with the reader because, when the reader opens a crime novel, they go into it with certain expectations. That means that when they open to page one, the reader expects you to work as an illusionist, so they have to pay attention, and so there's almost an interactive reading where you are giving your reader clues. I like that game that you have with the reader—to really know what you're expected to do—to have to, on one hand, live up to those expectations, and to, on the other hand, want to surprise them. And I think that's quite challenging, and I like that.
GR: That game between writer and reader has led to these books becoming incredible successes.
JN: It's all about storytelling. I don't really see that a crime story necessarily has to be about murder. It's good if there's a murder...at least one murder. I don't see myself as writing about police work or solving murder cases, but I think it's a very effective vehicle for storytelling.
GR: Goodreads member Martha writes, "I love every one of Jo Nesbø's books. I've always wanted to know how he keeps track of all the plot twists and ties up all the ends at the very moment he wants the reader to know what's going on and not a moment before. I picture a huge wall plastered with yellow Post-it notes that he moves around almost like a board game!"
JN: I write synopses. It's just a resume of the story, and I put everything in there. And other than that, I just have to keep it in my head. But when I'm working on the plot, I'm probably thinking about plot and the details of the story day and night, so I am constantly working on it. If I put it away for a couple of months, it's like I have to start all over again.
GR: And now you've taken on Macbeth. Can you tell me anything about this upcoming project?
JN: It's the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare, so Random House has invited a number of writers to write novels based on his plays. And I was, of course, very honored to be asked and to be able to write a novel based on Macbeth. It's also a bit scary, but not too scary when you think about it. I said in a press release that I wouldn't try to live up to Macbeth or to Shakespeare. I'm not going to have a go at Shakespeare; I'm going to have a go at the story of Macbeth, the way it's been structured by Shakespeare. And it's a good story.
GR: Goodreads member Marieldrucker writes, "Your Harry Hole novels are dark police procedurals. How easy is it for you to switch gears and write Harry Hole and then write books like the Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder series for children?"
JN: Not that hard, really. I think I need to do both. I think that Dr. Proctor...those books are a great break from Harry. It's so different. It feels like, how can I put it: If writing a Harry Hole story is like directing a symphony orchestra, then writing Dr. Proctor is like going to a club and jamming with a band. I don't have to plan it that much in detail, but it's still just as challenging, only in a different way. It's more playful, but you have to be on top of the game.
GR: Goodreads member KatherineC asks, "Have you ever considered writing a historical novel?"
JN: I have, if by historical novel you mean a story of fiction placed in another time with a backdrop of actual events, the answer is yes, I have considered it. I don't know when or if that novel will be written.
GR: Have you started one?
JN: Well, it's just an idea of a gun that's been produced early in the 20th century, and it's a beautiful gun that travels from owner to owner, and it's a sort of history of violence—of the United States and Europe in the 20th century.
Interview by Mickey Stanley for Goodreads. Stanley is the assistant to Executive Literary Editor Wayne Lawson at Vanity Fair magazine. He has written about arts and culture for Men's Vogue, C Magazine, ArtWeek, and Vanity Fair.
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