I’m on a wonky Zoom line to one of the most famous living Norwegians. Not that you’d know it.
Bearded and wearing a cap low over his heavy-framed glasses, Jo Nesbo looks like what he is: a fit, youthful, slightly hipster dad in his early 60s.
What he does not look like is a man so globally successful that he comes just below dramatist Henrik Ibsen and artist Edvard Munch in a Google list of famous Norwegians, but above his friend Morten Harket, lead singer of 80s mega-band A-ha.
‘Really? Ahead of Morten Harket?’ he says, his face lighting up with delight. ‘I’ll have to tell him next time I see him!’
Jo Nesbo has every right to be delighted. Since his first novel, The Bat, was published in Norway in 1997, he’s sold 55 million books, 13 of which star his iconic detective Harry Hole, and been translated into 40 languages.
Nesbo grew up in Molde, a small city on the west coast of Norway, where his parents Per and Kirsten relocated when he was eight. Pictured climbing in Thailand
He was first published in the UK eight years later in 2005, at the start of the Nordic noir wave that included drama series The Killing and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Since then, he’s topped the bestseller lists here seven times. Yet you’d pass him in the street.
‘That’s the difference between me and Morten,’ he quips. ‘I can work in a coffee shop and not be bothered. He’s a rock star, I’m just a writer.’
The ‘guy who loves making up stories’ and ‘gets paid handsomely for it’ is dialling in from Greece, where he’s on a climbing and writing break; two of his great loves, along with football and music. Writing wasn’t plan A, it wasn’t plan B. Or C.
Nesbo grew up in Molde, a small city on the west coast of Norway, where his parents Per and Kirsten relocated when he was eight.
Young Nesbo was not best pleased. ‘I had lived in Oslo, where in a radius of 50 metres there were 30 kids the same age. It was a wonderful place to grow up. Being removed from Oslo was a big shock to me. Since then I’ve always had this romantic view of Oslo.’
In Molde, Nesbo and his two brothers threw themselves into football. He won best junior player at the prestigious national cup and was signed by Norwegian premiership side Molde FK.
But he had his sights set higher. ‘Playing for Tottenham was my dream. We were national champions at the junior level, so we were ready for the next step, but then I tore the ligaments in both knees, so I had to come up with a plan B. I didn’t have a plan B!’
The problem was that Nesbo had been too obsessed by football to bother with school.
His latest outing, Killing Moon, starts in Los Angeles, where a grief-stricken Hole is toppling off the wagon, but soon returns to Oslo, where two young women who seemingly have nothing in common have gone missing. Published in Norway last August, it went straight to number one
Since his first novel, The Bat, was published in Norway in 1997, he’s sold 55 million books, 13 of which star his iconic detective Harry Hole, and been translated into 40 languages
‘I’d skipped classes because I was sure I’d be a professional player. When that door closed I figured I’d have to do what my parents had always told me and get an education.’
After doing mandatory military service in the air force, he studied at the Norwegian School of Economics in Bergen before becoming a stockbroker.
It was while working in finance that Nesbo formed his band Di Derre (Those Guys) with his brother Knut and a bunch of friends. One of life’s frontmen, he wrote the lyrics, sang and played guitar.
What began as five mates having a laugh then turned into a recording contract, two number one singles and a tour. The others became full-time musicians but Nesbo refused to give up the day job.
‘On Monday morning I needed to get up and go to work,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to make music to pay the rent.’
Monday to Friday, Nesbo was leaving work at 4pm when the Stock Exchange closed, flying to wherever the band was playing that night, hitting the stage then hitting the sack to be up for the first plane back to Oslo for work the next morning.
It wasn’t exactly a long-term proposition. Exhausted, he pulled out of touring, asked his boss for a sabbatical and flew to Australia.
Before he left, an acquaintance who worked at a Norwegian publisher and loved his lyrics asked him to write a memoir about life on the road. But on the plane, Harry Hole took root in Nesbo’s brain.
‘I didn’t have a fully formed story, just that character and a few elements. The rest I came up with as I moved through Australia. For the last three weeks I sat in a Sydney hotel room writing. I didn’t think it would get published, I just thought it might help me get a foot in the door.’ Enter plan D.
Nesbo might imply that his writing career is a fluke, but there’s no doubt it’s in his genes.
‘My aunts and my father were all great storytellers,’ he says. ‘We would spend every Christmas and summer holiday listening to stories around the dinner table. They were usually the same old ones but it didn’t matter.’
Even as a child, Nesbo’s yarn-spinning skills were in demand. ‘On summer holidays my brothers would make me tell ghost stories. For years I thought it was because I was such a great storyteller. But later they told me, “It was because we could hear the fear in your voice; you were almost more afraid than we were!”‘
I’m more famous than Morten Harket? I must tell him when I see him
As any Nesbo reader will know, darkness holds a fascination for him. ‘I was always drawn to what scared me,’ he says. ‘When I was a kid, going to get potatoes from the cellar for dinner took me about 30 seconds but felt like 30 days. It was a nightmare, but not a recurring one – my brain always found a new way to scare me.’
Nesbo’s family has its own darkness. Both his parents fought in the Second World War.
His mother, just a girl then, ran errands for her aunts and uncles in the Norwegian resistance movement, but his father’s involvement was hazier.
‘When my father was 19 he volunteered to fight with the Germans against the Russians,’ he says. ‘He came from an anti-communist family who had moved back here from the United States. But it wasn’t until I was 15 that my father said to me, “OK, now you’re old enough I’ll tell you what I did during the war. I fought outside Leningrad with the Germans. And I spent three years in jail for that; fair punishment for being as wrong as I was.”‘
‘I had grown up with this image of the German soldier as the essence of evil, and my father was my role model, who I dearly loved and respected, and so I had to ask a lot of questions. It was the start of a conversation that lasted the rest of our lives, about morality, politics, choices, about how history is written.’
This conflict between good and evil – and the spaces in between – plays out in every Harry Hole novel. Hole was inspired by a detective in the village where Nesbo spent every summer.
‘He was the local police officer. My grandmother used to say, if you’re not home and in bed by eight o’clock, Hole will come and get you! I always imagined this tall, blond, scary guy but I never got to see him.’
That tall, blond, scary guy turned into the tall, blond, oddly attractive, alcoholic Harry Hole. Part bogeyman, part avenging angel who spends his life navigating a moral tightrope.
His latest outing, Killing Moon, starts in Los Angeles, where a grief-stricken Hole is toppling off the wagon, but soon returns to Oslo, where two young women who seemingly have nothing in common have gone missing. Published in Norway last August, it went straight to number one.
Like Lee Child with Jack Reacher, Nesbo has become synonymous with his fictional detective.
‘Of course certain aspects of your personality will be in that character: sense of humour, popular culture, basic values. But hopefully Harry is a much darker personality than I am!’ he says.
‘I was once invited backstage by a famous Icelandic band who were big Harry fans. They were hard partying and when I said I was going to bed because I was climbing next morning, they were really disillusioned: ‘This guy isn’t Harry Hole!’
Maybe not, but he is many other things: footballer, musician, songwriter, former stockbroker, bestselling writer… and obsessive climber. Nesbo has been climbing for over a decade and is now grade 8a, which qualifies him as elite.
‘I was hooked,’ he says of his first trip to southern Thailand, where he goes to climb and write every year. ‘Which was strange because I had a fear of heights and wasn’t a natural climber, but those challenges drew me in because I had to conquer them. I became a hardworking climber.’
This all-in approach is typical Nesbo. Although he’s quick to say the reaction to his climbing prowess is overblown: ‘There’s no other mediocre climber that has had as much attention for climbing an 8a! Which is quite good when you’re 63, but it’s not a sensation, it’s not like it has never been done before. For other climbers it must be annoying.’
Someone who probably doesn’t think her dad is a sensation is his daughter Selma. (Nesbo is very private about Selma’s mother and whether or not he is in a relationship.)
‘She is 23 and she’s politically engaged,’ he says. ‘I love talking to her because it reminds me of the talks I had with my father. He would listen more than talk; he didn’t think his point of view was superior – although his views were based on an experience that made him wiser than I was. In the same way, with my daughter, I have some viewpoints I’ve spent more time thinking about than she has. But she has fresh information I can learn from. I’m still changing my opinions; it’s healthy to conclude, “Oh, I’ve been wrong for 63 years!”‘
Global bestseller, climbing ‘sensation’ and still gigging with Di Derre? Not bad for 63.
‘I think we all need balance in our lives,’ Nesbo says, ‘and for me it’s balanced to spend the day in front of my laptop alone and then grab my guitar and go and play a gig in Oslo for friends and get applause before I go to bed. That, for me, is a perfect day!’
Killing Moon by Jo Nesbo is published by Harvill Secker, £22*
*TO ORDER A COPY FOR £18.70 UNITL 11 JUNE, GO TO MAILSHOP.CO.UK/BOOKS OR CALL 020 3176 2937. FREE UK DELIVERY ON ORDERS OVER £25