At 17 in Norway, Jo Nesbo believed he was on his way to becoming a football star, having been selected to play for Molde FK, a Premier League side in his hometown. Then he tore the ligaments of both knees; his career was over.
After spending time in the military, college, and business, Nesbo became a star as the singer and songwriter of Di Dierre, a pop group that had a No.1 album in Norway in 1994. But the group never made the leap to international glory, and it was only after a 30-hour flight to Australia that Nesbo found his true calling as a detective novelist.
He chose a detective novel because he had read a lot of it. Her father had lived in Brooklyn for a while and Nesbo grew up with Norwegian and American culture. (He even wore a t-shirt honoring pulp fiction icon Jim Thompson during our Zoom interview.)
“I had seen all my friends try to write the great European novel and never finish, so I was like, ‘let’s write something that has structure’ and I knew the structure of detective novels.”
Nesbo grew up in a storytelling family – as a child he specialized in spooky ghost stories – and learned “you better have a good punchline, but the art of storytelling is also the way to get there “.
In 1997, his first novel, “The Bat”, starring Harry Hole as a talented but troubled detective, made his debut in Norway. Almost 25 years later, Nesbo is an established star, with a dozen Harry Hole novels as well as nine other detective novels. (He also has four children’s books in the “Doctor Procter’s Fart Powder” series.)
His work has been translated into 50 languages ââand sold 50 million copies worldwide. His latest is “The Jealousy Man,” a collection of dark and twisted short stories that reveal the worst of human nature. The main story and at least one other, “London”, are being adapted for television or film, joining a growing list of Nesbo adaptations, including “The Hanging Sun” and “The Devil’s Star”.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. How attractive are you to writing short stories?
When you write a novel, it’s like running a supertanker; you have to plan, you have to have a route, you can’t just go left and right.
I started to write lyrics and the challenge was to write a story in three verses and a chorus. To me a short story is like writing songs, you can sit down and write, and you can quickly tell if it works or not. And if it works, it might already be over, it’s really nice to go to bed at night after writing a story.
Plus, you don’t have to explain a short story. When you write a novel you have to think, âWhat is it really about? A short story can just have a feeling and that’s okay.
Q. Did you also like the fact that if you write short stories nobody is looking for Harry Hole, so you are free to try new things?
I became a writer relatively late, at 37. I became a writer so that I could do what I want to do. I do not feel any obligation or loyalty to my readers, my publishing house, or my bank account. If you write to serve your readers, it won’t be good. I write whatever I want.
Q. Even your stories that have a âhappyâ ending for the protagonist are pretty dark. Is it because of the genre you’re writing in or does it say a lot about your tastes or your personality?
I don’t think much about genre when I write. But I probably can’t give you a truthful answer, at least not one that I would put a lot of faith in.
I go on instinct, as if there is some seriousness in a story and you can’t fight it. But I’m the one writing the story so maybe I’m saying it’s just me trying to shirk responsibility to create an ending like that.
Q. Okay, but do you have a dark view of the world?
I am a born pessimist. And I guess that’s why I’m so happy in life – I feel like I have nothing to lose. I’ve thought about the worst things that can happen before, so any deviation is good news.
Q. Did the training you received while playing football help you to become a writer?
No. I was so young, I was that guy who had talent but who only respected talent and didn’t respect hard work. I would take what came easily to me. If I hadn’t been injured, I wouldn’t have succeeded just because I didn’t have the discipline and ambition.
And school was easy for me, but when I played football I skipped school so my grades, which had always been good, got so bad; I took it for granted that I could study anything, but suddenly I didn’t have the grades.
It was all due to my lack of discipline and ambition. As soon as things got a little difficult, I walked away from it. I was a character without substance, without a backbone.
Q. When did you learn your work ethic?
I learned it in the army. My dad was a very gentle man and never forced me to do anything, but he could see that I was going astray and not realizing my potential, so he sent me to school for officers. It is a very old fashioned thing to do, but I will be forever grateful to him. The military was a wake-up call and I learned that there was something called hard work.
Now, after I’m over 60, I’m working on rock climbing, which I started when I was 50. Now I have the right attitude but not the body of course.
Q. Harry Hole is not the kind of guy you think of as a patron saint of literacy. But your Harry Hole Foundation donates money to invest in literacy programs around the world. What prompted you to start this?
Really, it started when I was 17 and I’ve traveled the world as far as my money can take me. I then realized that these people I met in other countries were not those who lived in a different world; I was. Living in a place like Norway – where you can go to school, go to university for free – we took that for granted as if it was almost a human right. Of course not.
And later I thought about how you can’t have democracy if people can’t read and write and if you can’t distribute information to make a choice. Literacy is therefore fundamental for people all over the world to have a better life for themselves and their families, especially so that girls in some of these countries can escape their mental and physical prisons.