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Travel to Oslo


Lunch with Jo Nesbø at Aymara, Oslo

1 April 2015

Kaye Martindale talks to best-selling Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø over scallops, monkfish and a pisco sour at his friend’s Oslo restaurant, Aymara

As the minutes pass by, I grow increasingly worried. I’m supposed to be meeting Jo Nesbø, best-selling author and the king of Nordic Noir, but it’s been tricky to pin him down and I’m concerned that he’s had a last minute change of heart. I’ve been scanning the street for Jo for 40 minutes when a cyclist wearing a hi-vis jacket obscures my view. 

As he turns and takes off his helmet, I realise it’s him. Relief and surprise sweep through me in equal measure. I wasn’t expecting the novelist, who’s sold more than 25 million books, to arrive on a pushbike. Any doubts I had about Jo’s enthusiasm for the interview dissipate as soon as he greets me. His whole being seems to smile. He’s bursting with explanations and apologies for his tardiness. He got lost. 

“It’s a new restaurant”, he explains, “I haven’t been here before”. We are in Aymara, a finely realised restaurant, named after the native Aymara people of the Andean region of South America. Every detail has been carefully tended to in order to ensure the perfect balance between Mayan aesthetics and contemporary style. The friendly staff are the epitome of Scandinavian cool with their elaborately groomed facial hair and piercings. 

To my surprise, Jo greets the owner with a hearty embrace. “This is how small Oslo is,” he says with a grin, before explaining that they’re climbing buddies.

Jo is a household name in Norway. He’s sold three million books in his native land, where the population is only five million. This means that you are likely to find one of his books in every second household in Norway. Yet if the clientele of Aymara have recognised Jo, they are playing it cool.As he talks in Norwegian with his friend, I pick out the words pisco sour – a typical South American cocktail made with egg white – as a waiter deposits a glass in front of Jo. 

I’d watched a few YouTube videos of Jo before our meeting, in which he looked bored and a little standoffish, and that, along with his penchant for thinking up imaginatively grizzly ends for the characters in his novels, had created a sense of foreboding in me about how the interview would go. I couldn’t have been further off the mark. 

When I ask him if answering the same questions over and over again ever becomes tedious, he is happy to explain his attitude to the interview process. He seems to grow taller and happier as he answers, leaning forward slightly. “It’s not like I hate interviews, if I hated them I wouldn’t do them but…” he grins as he pauses, “when I started out I thought having someone listen really carefully when I talked would be great. I was surprised when after a while I got tired of hearing my own voice and hearing myself repeat the same stories.” 

But he doesn’t show any signs of interview fatigue: listening to Jo talk is as engrossing as reading one of his books. I’m pulled into his world as his fast-paced enthusiasm carries me seamlessly through his stories. Our starters arrive: catch of the day (cod) with leche de tigre, a Peruvian citrus dressing, maize corn and sweet potato, along with a dish of scallops and passion fruit marinade.

Jo spent his teenage years dreaming of being a professional football player, a common enough ambition among adolescent boys but one that Jo had the skill and dedication to achieve. He was playing for Molde FK, one of Norway’s top clubs, by the age of 19. But then a knee injury shattered his dream.

Life could have taken a negative turn here for Jo, but instead of lamenting his loss, he threw himself whole-heartedly into new pursuits. After mandatory army service, he stayed on an extra year in the military to complete three years of high school studies in six months. With his qualifications under his belt, he went on to become a stockbroker. 

Although outwardly successful, the financial world wasn’t his “cup of tea in the long run”. So, seeking an escape, he formed a band, Di Derre, with his brother and some friends. “We had no plans; we just wanted to play a few gigs,” he says. “We started writing our own songs and then we got a couple of offers from record companies. We weren’t the greatest band in the world but we had good songs. We put out one album, the critics liked it but it wasn’t a commercial success but then the second album… We had two hits and boom! We were the biggest selling band in Norway.” 

Jo chivalrously offers me the last scallop as he insists that he preferred being in the band before they made it big. Reticent to go into specifics about his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, he admits that the intimate gigs they played to their small but dedicated following before fame were like parties. “We often wouldn’t even be on stage, the only thing between the audience and us was the mic stands and the monitors.”

As the waiter deposits more food from head chef Kim Danien Mikalsen’s kitchen – monkfish and some heavenly potatoes that have been smoked, mashed and then rolled with mushrooms and radish – Jo tells me that despite being in Norway’s biggest band, he wouldn’t leave his day job. “I refused to quit as I didn’t want music to pay the rent. The rest of the band toured as full-time musicians while I continued to work as a stockbroker. It was a crazy situation. They were on a bus travelling around the country and after every gig I jumped on a plane back to Oslo for my day job.”

After one year of leading a double life, Jo needed another escape. Suffering from burnout, he left for Australia. He’d been given some encouragement from a publisher friend to write an autobiography about his life, and he thought he’d give it ago. What poured out instead was his first crime novel. The Bat features the troubled detective Harry Hole, a character who has created a large and loyal fan base for Jo around the world. 

Jo dreamt up Harry and almost the entire plot on the 30-hour flight from Oslo to Sydney. A platinum selling album and 19 books later, with a Hollywood movie and TV series on the way, it looks from the outside that Jo has had a blessed life. He reflects that it could all have gone terribly wrong when he shattered his knee. 

“It was a turning point and I was lucky. I wake up in the morning and know that I can’t take it for granted. I’m not that interested in money. I’m not interested in fame. I like those things but I just love the job. I’ve had a lot of jobs and this is the best by far.”

The waiter hovers, waiting for us to finish our second course, which is taking us a while to get through as Jo regales me with his tales. We eat up and they bring more food. As I wasn’t privy to the ordering I have no idea that two more huge plates of meat are on their way. Jo bellows a deep hearty laugh as I exclaim that I’m a vegetarian. 

The author traces his love of storytelling back to his childhood. “I grew up in a storytelling family. It was something we focused on. We would say ‘he’s a good storyteller’ or ‘did you hear the way he told that story?'” “Even when I was really young the older boys would ask me to tell that ghost story. I didn’t have a technique. I guess by instinct I put the right ingredients together. I imagined that I was a listener too so I would tell it how I wanted to hear it. They told me later the reason they asked was because they could hear the fear in my voice when I was talking.” 

Jo’s stories continue to instil fear into his readers as his unfortunate characters meet their ends in grotesque and elaborate ways. I tentatively ask how he conjures up the death scenes. “I don’t imagine the killing so much as I imagine ways in which I don’t want to die. A lot of my stories or ideas come indirectly from childhood memories and fantasies that were born when I was young. 

“When you’re young there’s no censorship of the mind, you think about everything. You think you’re abnormal, that if someone spent 10 seconds inside your head they would run screaming out. But then bit by bit you realise that everyone is like that.”

As I read Jo’s books half in terror, half enthralled, I imagined elements of his characters reflected in their creator. I scan his seemingly shiny persona for dark, brooding traits, and ask how is it to spend so many of days inside the minds’ of psychopaths. “Whenever you find a thought repulsive you automatically turn it away. That is what makes my job interesting. What most people don’t want to think about or find hard to think about, I have to have the courage, will and perversity of mind to say okay: let’s go into the cave.” 

“It’s like Nabokov, there’s no reason to believe that he was a paedophile but then again he chose to stay in the mind of a paedophile for a long time. In order to do that you have to open up, you have to be willing. I mean in Lolita the main character is very pathetic. He’s someone you both sympathise with and despise. You find in all characters that there are things that you don’t like, and that is really hard, but at the bottom there’s something very human that’s common for all of us. If you can get down to that, you’ll be able to write about that protagonist as a real character.” 

After three courses and two hours of almost non-stop talking about himself, I catch Jo stifle a yawn. As we say our goodbyes, the table of eight sat next to us begin a friendly debate with Jo in Norwegian. At ease, he laughs and chats with them, as I think that he’s an ordinary guy who’s been extraordinarily good at rolling with the changes and challenges that life has thrown at him. 

He says goodbye to the table as if they are old friends, and I ask what they were talking about. He answers that they were demanding that he make a new album with his band. “I’ve written all my songs, I don’t have any more in me,” he says. Never one to look back, Jo slips on to his bike and rides off into the Norwegian darkness.

Images: Geoff Brokate