Interview with Jo Nesbø

February, 2014
Jo Nesbø Officer Harry Hole, the brilliant alcoholic sleuth in Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø's ten-novel series, is most affecting and darkly sympathetic when the author removes him from the happy streets of Oslo and dispatches him to more treacherous cities abroad. In The Bat—Nesbø's first novel and a New York Times best-seller—Hole tracks down the killer of a low-level celebrity in Sydney, Australia, giving readers their first enthralling glimpse of the detective—disoriented and untethered. In Cockroaches, Nesbø's second novel in the series and the last to be translated into English, Hole is again sent overseas, landing this time in Bangkok to investigate the murder of a Norwegian ambassador whose body is discovered in a Patpong flophouse. Nesbø's relentless descriptors of Bangkok's deafening street life turn the city into the novel's next best character. For Hole, Bangkok is a reeking humid sump overwrought with corruption, sex crimes, pollution, and inexorable traffic. Nesbø, on the other hand, holds the entire country in the highest esteem. From Thailand he speaks with interviewer Mickey Stanley about rock climbing, Jim Thompson, and the accidental success of his first novel.

Goodreads: What are you doing in Thailand?

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.

Learn more about Mickey and follow what he's reading.

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Comments (showing 1-27 of 27) (27 new)

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message 1: by Esther (new)

Esther Jo Nesbo is my favourite author at present & I have read all his Harry Hole books & look forward to reading "Cockroaches". Jo, do not let Harry die!! Esther


message 2: by Donna (new)

Donna The first Harry Hole book I read was Snowman...and I was hooked. I then read others, mostly, in chronological order. Can't wait to read Cockroaches and then I'll probably read all of them a second time.


message 3: by Ismo (new)

Ismo good


message 4: by Sandy (new)

Sandy Kandrac Great interview. Cannot get enough of Jo Nesbo have consumed all his novels. Can't wait for "Cockroaches"


message 5: by Gaynor (new)

Gaynor Bray Read Cockroaches last Friday- couldn't put it down! Stayed up till 1 am to finish! A great read!


message 6: by Phyllis (new)

Phyllis Sherwin Like many people, I've read the Harry Hole books in the order they've been published in the US. Love the books and look forward to more. I agree...don't let Hole (Holy or Ho-leh or Hoo-leh) die. Such a complex character.


message 7: by Eboku (new)

Eboku Stephen Cockroaches could make a brilliant 'TV-Series' show


message 8: by Judy (new)

Judy Thanks so much for a really fine interview!


message 9: by Ståle (new)

Ståle Elgåen Now I wanna read the story about the gun...


message 10: by John (new)

John A. I'm in the Nesbo-Nut Club. The idea of following a gun is reminiscent of Annie Proulx's "Accordion Dreams', and the "Red Violin". One needs to be very original to avoid the comparisons. John A


message 11: by Diane (new)

Diane Reese A friend introduced me to Harry and I've been hooked ever since! Diane


message 12: by Samuel (new)

Samuel Sackey I am looking forward to re


ad Harry's books.


message 13: by Amy (new)

Amy H My favorite genre at the moment is Scandinavian mystery - I really enjoyed reading this interview and am looking forward to getting to know Harry!


message 14: by Richard (new)

Richard Kopperdahl If you like rough, alcoholic, doesn't play by the rules, detectives, Harry Hole is your man. Jo Nesbo taught me more about Oslo than any travel guide ever could. Love the grit, love the gore. Nesbo also gives a history lesson of Norway during the German occupation. Across the border, Henning Mankell writes thoughtful, melancholy crime thrillers about the Swedes but Nesbo has a broader pallete and is still ramping up while Mankell is winding down.


message 15: by Lili (new)

Lili Richardson I have read all his books and I am looking forward to his Macbeth and anything else coming from JN.


message 16: by Jan (new)

Jan I thought I was all caught up. I'm not complaining though. Another Harry Hole is always good news. Miss Robin Sachs though


message 17: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Rai I have read all Jo Nebo's books and he is excellent writer. I have read somewhere that a new book "Son" is coming out. Can't wait to read it.


message 18: by Chris (new)

Chris Jimenez Jo nesbo thanks for Harry hole waiting for your next book. geddy up, let see you translate that.


message 19: by Andy (new)

Andy Grand interview! well done all.


message 20: by Barbara (new)

Barbara Love Jo Nesbo and I can't wait to get caught up by going back to the beginning for The Bat & Cockroaches. Especially Cockroaches, because I just visited Bangkok for the first time in October. I convinced a friend to read Police and she is now hooked!


message 21: by Ruthann (new)

Ruthann Just finished Headhunters. It is not in the Hole series and it is a great book with an intricate fast moving plot. I hope Jo will expand the story in future books. Love the Harry Hole series too.


message 22: by Risma (new)

Risma Simal Thanks a lot! Inspiring interviews..


message 23: by Christine (new)

Christine Zaniboni Love your books, Jo Nesbo!! Keep Harry coming!!


message 24: by Lorraine (new)

Lorraine Ryan I have just finished reading Police,& was so glad to see
Harry reunited with his family. I have read all of the Harry Hole series, except 'Cockroaches'.Hope to get my hands on a copy soon.
Love your stories Jo. Hope to see you in Australia sometime soon.


message 25: by Marilee (new)

Marilee I've read most of the Harry Hole books, but not the first two just out in the USA… nor the last two, Phantom and Police. I admire the books so, I'm spacing them out, like chocolate treats. Also, to be frank, they're very intense and I often feel I must take a bit of a mental health break between readings.

Has anyone heard if Nesbo is writing his Macbeth in English or Norwegian? I've heard him interviewed in English and he's quite proficient, though of course writing an entire book in a non-native language might be challenging.


message 26: by Dawn (new)

Dawn I really go for Norwegian psychological crime fiction ! I have gone through all of Henning Mankell and why did Steig Larrsen have to have a heart attack ? I just heard a book group friend mention Mr. Nesbo and I had to look upon this interview . YES, I am convinced I will be addicted before I even begin. There is a feeling about writers when they talk about the process in which they write. That feeling is not about their process itself , it is the passion for sharing the act with another. As a teacher of Literature you cannot just turn off the enthusiasm for your work that is really not work most of the time. For a writer , writing is a way of life . I am going to order my first book in his series right now!!! I am excited! Good luck Mr. Newbo! Thank you for your diligence. Dawn Copley


message 27: by Christina (new)

Christina Michael I luv yo books


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