Jo Nesbo in Conversation with Declan Burke | Magazine | Crime Fiction & True Crime | Interviews | Special Guests
Police , Jo Nesbo

By Susan Condon

Crime fiction fans packed The Pavillion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire recently in anticipation of an engaging night with international bestselling crime author Jo Nesbo. We weren’t disappointed.

A musician, songwriter, economist and author, his first crime novel featuring Harry Hole was published in Norway in 1997 and won the Glass Key Award for best Nordic crime novel (an accolade shared with Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson). Nesbo has gone on to sell 20 million books worldwide.

Declan Burke arrived on stage and immediately commented on the almost palpable crackle of enthusiasm from the audience, before he introduced Nesbo as, “one of the shining lights of international crime fiction – or maybe we should say, one of the dark stars of international crime fiction. He is a musician and a former professional footballer, but he is best known to us as the author of ten novels featuring the Oslo police detective, Harry Hole, the latest of which is, Police.”

There were plenty of laughs as Declan asked Nesbo to give him a lesson in the pronunciation of Harry Hole. “You’re getting closer,” laughed Nesbo, as Declan tried once more, finally settling on Harry Hoola, as he joked that maybe his Sligo accent had something to do with the slight variation.

Jo Nesbo and Declan Burke by Ger HollandNesbo (pictured left with Declan Burke, photo Taken by Titch) describes Harry as being a type of “Jesus figure; and that is, in a way, what we are looking for in a true hero. It’s not whether he is going to survive, whether he’s going to solve the case or survive physically. I think we are, of course, interested in that too. But what we are interested in is whether our hero is going to make the right moral choice, given the moral dilemma, because that is going to decide whether his eternal soul is going to heaven or hell.” He continues, “that is the focus of the series – it’s the decisions; Harry’s mortal dilemmas; because he doesn’t always make the right choice. He’s always on the edge.”

Nesbo agrees that we do see Hole as a protagonist, “but the truth is, of course, that he is drifting towards the dark side, he’s becoming more and more similar to the people he’s trying to catch.”

In his first book, The Bat, Harry Hole goes to Australia. Nesbo deliberately chose his protagonist’s name because it is identifiable as a common Norwegian name.  When Declan asked how it came about that Hole, who we normally associate with Oslo, in a cold and bleak environment, ended up in Australia, Nesbo replied, “the simple reason for that was, I was going to Australia…”

He explained that at the time he had been touring for a year with possibly the biggest selling band in Norway. Although he was a singer and song-writer, he had also kept his day job as a stockbroker, “Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde life”, he joked. He had been asked by a girl he knew at a publishing house to write a book about the band, but “I told her that I couldn’t do that; what happens on the road stays on the road, but that I might write something else.” In need of a break, he decided to travel to Australia. On the thirty hour journey from Oslo to Sydney he came up with the character of Harry Hole and pretty much planned the book. He found himself “writing about Harry Hole who had just landed in Sydney and checked into the same hotel where I was staying. For the next five weeks I followed in Harry’s footsteps, or probably he followed in my footsteps, all over Australia.”

Harry Hole, says Declan, “is a loner, he’s socially awkward, very principled, fearless when he needs to be,” and he goes on to ask, “did you have in mind any fictional models or did he spring fully formed?”

“Probably a number of them,” replied Nesbo, “but the two models I had in mind when I first came up with him was a mix between a very eccentric Norwegian football coach and Batman. But then I added probably a number of traditional American hard-boiled detectives.”

When Declan enquired what drives Harry, Nesbo tells us that, “Harry is a man of contradictions who is a loner and can feel like an outsider, but he has found something that he’s good at – catching killers – and that is what gets him up in the morning.”

Nesbo sees himself as an entertainer and he wants to entertain. He compares himself to a vulture, he picks what he needs from what’s going on in society and uses them in his novel. His basic values and points of view will also be in there somewhere, but he doesn’t use his novels to guide people, although he admits, “I think it is inevitable that you use yourself in your main character. I didn’t realise it until, I think, the fourth or the fifth book; how much of myself I used in the character.”

Declan worries about Harry when he reads the novels – the fact that Nesbo, “really put him through the mill, he suffers not just physically but he suffers psychologically, which is a wonderful thing because in too many crime fiction characters in a series they bounce back from bullet wounds, the stab wounds pshaw and they carry on regardless. The impact of each book takes its toll on Harry,” Declan pauses dramatically, before asking, “have you put a limit on how much suffering he can take?”

“He doesn’t have eternal life,” says Nesbo. “I could end the series here, I mean it wouldn’t be a bad ending to the series, but then again I always feel that way when I’ve finished a Harry book, that, y’know, I’m really tired.” There was complete silence, until Nesbo concluded, “but then normally six months go by and I want to hang out with Harry again,” and the audience breathes once more . . .

“When I was first published over here, they published first, the sixth book in the series, then the fifth book, then the seventh and the eight and then the first and the second.” He joked, “but then again I guess that’s why my publisher is called, Random House.” But when Cockroach is published in November we will finally be synched. It is surely to Nesbo’s credit that many fans were not even aware that they were translated in this way and proof that his books don’t necessarily need to be read in any specific order.

Declan commented on Nesbo’s books which are “very satisfying, very intricately plotted with a number of characters and Harry’s colleagues are almost a part of the fabric,” he went on to ask Nesbo, “are you an organic writer? When you sit down to a particular book do you write on a page-by-page basis or do you plot in advance, to a great extent?”

Nesbo replied that he “plots very much in advance. That is my method, to wake up too early in the morning and dream up something. But that part of the process is a very organic one; I just come up with different ideas; with the motive and just different scenes. A book like, The Devil’s Star, was actually based on four key scenes that I wanted in the book and I didn’t know at the time how the scenes connected to each other. And I learned later that this is much the way that Stanley Kubrick worked with scenes for his movies. So that is just gut feeling and finding something in the scene – you don’t know what it’s about; you just know that it’s interesting somehow.” Nesbo told an enraptured audience of the waterbed scene in The Devil’s Star which spoke of “a twisted love story”.

“More twisted than love story,” joked Declan, as the audience laughed.

“The next phase of the writing is the plotting and I love that part too, when you just connect things, you know you are going to plant different clues. I like to think that I give the reader a fair chance, or at least a chance, to solve the murder before Harry does.”

Nesbo explained that for the third part, he often writes three synopsis’ – the first just five pages to see if the story is good enough, then twenty pages just to map out what is going to happen and then up to a hundred pages where he will include dialogue for his characters. When he finally sits down to write the story is already there so that he doesn’t have the feeling that he’s making up a story, instead it’s about telling a story that is mapped out. He feels that he can then tell his readers, “come closer, sit down, because I have this story to tell you and trust me, I know where I’m going, I’m just not making this up as we go along, it’s your privilege not to know the story and my job to know the story.”

And that is exactly what Nesbo does best; he hooks the reader from the first page and doesn’t let go until the very end.

Police is available in bookshops and online here.

Photo of Jo Nesbo and Declan Burke, courtesy of Taken by Titch (Ger Holland).

© Susan Condon

Susan Condon, a native of Dublin, is working on the final edits of her debut novel – a crime fiction thriller set in New York City. Her short stories were awarded first prize in the Jonathan Swift Award; the City of Dublin VEC Competition and the Bealtaine Short Story Competition and she has also been long-listed for the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition in 2012 and 2013. Publications include Original Writing from Ireland’s Own, Anthology 2012; South of the County: New Myths and Tales and

Check out her blog at or follow her on Twitter @SusanCondon

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