Other than the chapter of The Snowman that is available on Jo Nesbø’s Facebook page, I haven’t read Jo Nesbø. That will soon change. Nesbø is a wonderful storyteller—quick on his feet and very funny—so if you get a chance to see him on this book tour for The Snowman, don’t miss him. Instead of reading from The Snowman, Nesbø told the story of how the novel came about, which was through a scene he envisioned as he began to conceive of the plot. The way Nesbø told the story was chilling. All of us listened with rapt attention, and there was a collective oohh at the end of it. Beginning with a scene is unusual for Nesbø as he described his typical method of writing a novel. It begins with a 5-page synopsis of the plot, expanded to 25, and then when he gets to about 100 pages he begins to add dialogue as a way of getting to know and developing the characters.
On his website is a detailed autobiographical essay that covers some of what he spoke about: how he wrote his first novel, his work as songwriter and lead singer for the Norwegian band Di Derre, the sequence of his novels and which are available in English translation. It’s an interesting history of accomplishments and endeavors.
After talking some about the Harry Hole novels, Nesbø took questions from the audience and replied generously and thoughtfully to all of them. In response to a question about the high quality of Scandinavian crime fiction, Nesbø gave a lot of credit to the Swedish crime writing couple Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö for not only setting the standard high but also introducing his part of the world to readers of English. (See Sarah Weinman's article on the couple as an influence on Stieg Larsson.) He also pointed out that in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, crime fiction has always been treated as literature. It does not have a separate category in libraries and bookstores, so the argument about genre vs literary fiction does not really exist in those countries as it does in the U. S. Thus, writers of crime fiction have never had any reason to see themselves as anything but the writers of literature. (He also noted that there is plenty of bad Scandinavian writing, just as there is bad writing anywhere.) As for his own influences, he pointed to American crime writers of the 1950s, in particular Jim Thompson.
Stieg Larsson inevitably came up. A number of recent articles have made comparisons, which Nesbø resists on a number of points. The one he spoke to in particular is that he sees himself primarily “as an entertainer” rather than a political writer. But he then went on to make an interesting point about how all writing is political, broadly speaking. He gave the example of how a writer chooses some details over others in describing a city and commented that what is left out of such a description is often as telling as what the writer includes.
Nesbø’s first two novels are not available in English, and he said that was fine with him as he thinks they are not as good as the novels that follow (a woman in the audience who had read them in Swedish disagreed). When asked about the quality of the English translation, Nesbø revealed that he had not read his books in English and has no desire to, preferring not to know what has been lost in translation, which he accepts as inevitable. He has great faith in his translator Don Bartlett, in part because he has lived in Norway and is familiar with the culture. Being translated into English is a great boon for writers who write in, as he put it “small languages.” Without the English translation, there would be no Korean translation, for example, as the novel goes not from Norwegian to Korean but from English to Korean, making it even more removed from the original. When asked if he would be writing any novels in English and if he had ever tried it, he laughed and commented (kindly) that since few Americans ever bother to learn another language, they don’t understand how difficult it is to convey, for example, humor, which is not just a matter of wording but of cultural reference and nuance as well.
With his books translated into over 40 languages, it seems logical that the Harry Hole novels would also succeed on the screen. But Nesbø has said no to a number of television series until he is finished with them. He does have a story arc for Harry Hole, and added that, like all of us, Harry is not immortal. He has finally agreed to a movie version of one of the Harry Hole novels (The Snowman, I believe) but only after years of being told no when he asked for director and screenwriter approval. Apparently some studio wants the story badly enough that it has relented and given him the power to give a thumbs up or down to its choices.
If you have children who have read Nesbø’s children’s book Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder, you should definitely take them to a Nesbø event. He is, much to the delight of the children in the audience, more than happy to discuss the power and properties of farts and Fart Powder.
Delight. That’s the word that best describes an hour with Jo Nesbø.