I’ve been crazy about Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series for about a year now, but I never really thought of the detective’s name as dirty until Stephen Colbert joked about it at the BEA this last Tuesday. He introduced the Norwegian writer as “a best-selling novelist and the creator of the exciting detective character Harry Hole, which is also, I believe, one of the main characters from 50 Shades of Grey.”
Nesbo seemed to take the joke well, but maybe he was just a bit punchy from lack of sleep. He said, “I just arrived from Oslo yesterday. So I woke up at four o’clock in the morning, being jetlagged, and I actually had three hours of writing, just as I could see the sun coming up over Queens or Brooklyn, where my father grew up, so in a way, I feel partly like a New Yorker.”
In front of the largely American audience, he admitted to being somewhat intimidated, having to give his speech after listening to those of fellow writers Junot Diaz and Barbara Kingsolver, along with Colbert’s verbal antics. “Normally, when I travel around in Asia and the rest of Europe, I will, of course, speak English. But it’s kind of easier to speak English there. Here, it’s sort of intimidating. I sat here listening to all of you, and there were words there that I didn’t know existed in English. You know, you guys, you’re so good at speaking English,” said Nesbo.
At the same time, Nesbo is delighted to see his work in translation, in part because it makes him look smarter. He said, “That is actually the best part of reading my own books in English. There are long words in there that I don’t understand. It makes me proud, you know. I wrote that word.”
Nesbo gave some background on his childhood, which seemed to prime him for a career as a writer. He said, “I grew up in a storytelling tradition. When we had dinner, my father would be the most important contributor. He would tell stories—long stories—extremely long stories, actually.”
His father had an interesting way of rationalizing his stories, too. Nesbo said, “Every time we caught our father lying, he would refer to German scientists, like Sepp Windler, who worked in the field of human behavior, and according to my father won the Nobel Prize in 1968 for a work where he proved that in families where they lie on a regular basis the average life span is seven years longer than families that stick strictly to the truth.”
Nesbo’s mother was a librarian and brought home books to read to her two sons, and his father was a big reader, as well, devouring volumes by Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper. “All in all, I grew up in a home where fiction and tall tales were considered a good thing—even a healthy thing. So I guess where all the kids aspired to be doctors to save the world, my call was to expand the average life span of humanity with some tales of death and murder,” he said.
Nesbo first started his creative writing with his assignments for school, where his stories caused some concern. “When I grew up, we had to write essays at school, and the titles of the essays would be like ‘A Trip to the Woods,’ something like that, and I would write these essays, and they would be in the tradition of my father—far too long essays,” he said. “And in my essays, nobody would come back home alive, so my teachers, they were a bit concerned.”
Other passions in his youth were music and soccer. Nesbo said, “My plan A for my life was to become a professional soccer player. I played my first game in the Norwegian Major League at the age of seventeen. At the age of nineteen, I broke the ligaments in both knees, so I had to come up with a plan B. So I started studying business administration and economics in Bergen on the west coast of Norway, and that is where I learned to play guitar.”
His unorthodox tastes applied to his music as well. Rather than learning guitar using the conventional six-string guitar, Nesbo taught himself to play the twelve-string guitar. He found it hard at first, saying, “When you learn your first chords and you put your fingers on the guitar and you finally press on the right strings in the right places, you really don’t want to move your fingers again—especially when you play a twelve-string guitar. So what I would do was … make songs with just one chord. I would make my own songs.”
After Nesbo finished school, he moved to Oslo and started his own band. They started to play at a small club where the band’s bass player worked but had to get creative in order to attract people to their shows. “We would play for free or for beer. We were so bad, so in order to make people come back the next weekend, we would change the name of the band that we were in,” said Nesbo.
The band remained nameless, but they gradually began to get better and started to have a following. Nesbo said, “Some people actually liked our songs, and since we didn’t have a regular name, they would ask for Those Guys or That Band. And that was the name that we eventually made our band name. It was Those Guys in That Band.”
The band released a first album titled That Album that sold 5,000 copies, but it was their second album that hit the big time. “We had a huge success with two singles, and suddenly we were playing all over the country. You know, big gigs,” he said.
Nesbo kept his full-time job as stockbroker while touring with his band, and the next year of his life was a grind. Nesbo said, “I would be at my office when the stock exchange was open. I would work there until it closed at four o’clock, and then I would grab my bag and I would run into the street and get a cab to get to the airport, where the plane would take me to wherever my band was playing that night. Then we would play the gig. The rest of the band, the guys, would go off to some party with some beautiful blonde girls. I would head back to the hotel to get some hours of sleep. Get the first plane back to Oslo, hopefully in time for when the stock exchange opened. And stay there until four o’clock, grab my bag, run into the street, grab a cab.”
Nesbo added, “At the end of the year, I played 181 gigs while having a day job. So I was more or less burnt out.”
Nesbo kept writing during all that time. He worked on lyrics and also started experimenting with short stories. He decided to take six months off from his job and told his band that he didn’t want to tour for a long time. Nesbo said, “I planned on going to Australia. … At the time a girl at a publishing house, a girl that I studied with, she had asked me to write a book about the band. I knew I didn’t want to do that, but I said, ‘I may come back from Australia with something else.’ So I brought my laptop, I got on the plane from Oslo to Sydney, which takes around thirty hours, and I started writing about this guy called Harry Hole.”
Harry Hole, the detective of Nesbo’s best-selling series, is based on a mixture of people from Nesbo’s life. He said, “Harry was the name of my childhood hero, a local football player, but Hole, which is a common Norwegian name, was the name of the local police officer in the village where my grandma lived. Me and my brother, we used to go there on summer holidays when we were kids, and our grandmother would always say, ‘If you’re not home by eight o’clock, Hole will come get you.’ And I never saw this guy, but I imagined him as this tall, blond, kind of scary guy, and many, many years later, I was in my hometown, and this old, old guy—must have been around ninety years old. He would come up to me, and he would give me his cold, hard hand and stare at me with his cold, icy eyes, and he would say, ‘I am Hole.’ And my first thought even then would be, But it’s not eight o’clock yet.”
As Nesbo concluded his unusual story about how he came to be a writer, he appeared to have won over more fans. Colbert said, “Thank you, Jo. You learned a lot of new English words here today. And we learned something that we didn’t know: Norwegians are funny.”