Jo Nesbo, the Norwegian crime writer, on his climbing addiction
Jo Nesbo is something of a Boy’s Own hero. In his late teens he was a professional footballer, before joining the air force and studying at business school with many of Norway’s leading chief executives. After that, he sang and played guitar in one of the country’s most successful bands. Today, he is a best-selling crime writer, whose novels have sold some 33 million copies worldwide; The Thirst, the 11th in his series featuring the intense, flawed detective Harry Hole, has just been published.
Watching him bound up a climbing wall, showboating for the photographer by hanging on one-handed near the top, it is tempting to see climbing as merely another thing Nesbo does preternaturally well.
But, for the 57-year-old, it is clear that the attraction of climbing is entirely different. “Sports came quite easily for me. Climbing was the opposite. Climbing, I felt clumsy. I could see other people who would learn much quicker than I did and I wasn’t used to that. I was the slow guy in climbing,” he says, sitting in Bolgen & Moi, a restaurant close to his home in central Oslo.
Nesbo started climbing properly about eight years ago. He immediately discovered he was “slightly more afraid of heights than average”. The first time he went outdoors climbing — in Thailand, which he rates as the best country in Southeast Asia to practise the pursuit — he descended on to a beach and fell asleep for two-and-a-half hours.
Looking fit and slim in his climbing gear, his stubble flecked with grey, Nesbo explains that the real challenge for him is not physical but mental. Sports climbing — which uses fixed anchors drilled into the rock and ropes to keep people safe — is at its core not particularly dangerous, he says. “But it’s a place where you can, without putting yourself in real danger, put yourself in a situation where you’re really afraid. So it’s more the feeling of danger than objectively being in danger. That was for me a place that I haven’t explored before so that was why, I think, I got hooked on climbing.”
It is an addiction that has turned into an annual ritual. Nesbo goes to southern Thailand every winter for one or two months to do just two things: climb and write. “I probably get more work done there in two months than I do here at home in six months, so it’s a good place to go,” he adds.
When Nesbo discusses his climbing, he displays a charming and entirely unexpected vulnerability. In the past, it has been easy to read arrogance into his seemingly natural mastery of so many disciplines, from playing football for Molde FK in Norway’s first division, to writing songs for Di Derre, whose frontman he is (the band’s debut album went to number one in the Norwegian charts in the mid-1990s). Nesbo himself only added to that impression.
“The idea [when you start writing a book] is that . . . people will pay a lot of money, and they will read every f***ing word that you have written,” he told The New Yorker in 2014. “And afterwards you expect them to come up to you in the street: ‘Can I shake your hand? Can I have your autograph?’ That is the grand idea that you see when you start writing.”
There is no doubt that Nesbo is fiercely competitive; he admits as much. But today he is less brash, more circumspect. “When I grew up, I think I admired talent more than hard work,” he says. “If it didn’t come easily, if it didn’t come naturally, it wasn’t worth striving for.”
When he knew that in football training they would perform the Cooper test — how far you can run in 12 minutes — he would skip the session. Similarly, when maths and physics became harder after years of surfing through school, “my reaction was not to actually sit down and read the books but to skip the math lessons and to skip the tests”.
Nesbo says the turning point came when, at the age of 18, he tore both knee ligaments, bringing to an end his footballing career. After that disappointment, his father pushed him into officer training in the military, and Nesbo — posted to a remote part of northern Norway — spent his spare time working relentlessly to get the grades that would take him to business school.
“For the first time in my life there was no one to tell me when to show up for training. I was on my own. I think that since then I have appreciated hard work more than I appreciate talent.”
Nesbo goes on to relate his “deep satisfaction” at solving climbing problems. He remembers the first time he made an ascent ranked as 7C, one of the toughest grades.
“I had been working on that for months and when I finally figured out how to do it, there was no applause,” he says. “It was just me and my climbing partner. We were on a beach where there were lots of people, and when I came down they had no idea that this was something I had been working on for months to accomplish, this one climb that lasts for two minutes.”
He stops, and attacks the frying pan filled with smoked salmon, two fried eggs and salad that has been delivered to the table. It is clear that he is relishing talking about his hobby rather than his new book, one of his first to be released near-simultaneously in Norwegian and English.
Unlike many of his fellow Scandinavian crime writers, such as the late Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, Nesbo eschews explicit political or social commentary in his novels, preferring to focus more on the human story, as well as crafting pacy, punchy plot lines.
“My stories don’t start with a political agenda. They start with a story I want to tell that is usually based on an individual. But I probably stand with one foot in the tradition of Scandinavian crime-writing and one foot in the tradition of American crime-writing, with the hard-boiled detective novel,” he says, naming Jim Thompson (who wrote harrowing, nihilistic thrillers such as The Killer Inside Me) as a particular inspiration.
There is a cinematic feel to Nesbo’s stories: they are swift and efficient, with quick cutting between each scene. The 2011 film adaptation of his thriller Headhunters became, perhaps predictably, the highest-grossing Norwegian film of all time, and was nominated for a best foreign film Bafta in 2013. Michael Fassbender will take the role of Harry Hole in the big-budget version of The Snowman, the seventh book in the series, later this year.
A feeling persists — confirmed by the gripping but somewhat repetitive nature of The Thirst — that this great natural talent is not always pushing himself when he writes crime novels. What does he make of the idea that crime-writing is not great literature?
“I think the scepticism towards the crime novel in general is fair,” he says, thoughtfully. “There are a great number of really nonsense crime novels written every year all over the world.
“But I think the best crime novels are great literature because they are, of course, not about the crimes as such. The crime novel is the vehicle. The stories are about conflict and the human condition and society.”
He adds that he likes the genre because — as with the three-and-a-half-minute pop song — it imposes limits on him as a writer. “Within that frame you have to tell the story,” he says, “and I think those limitations actually spark your creativity. That’s why I always like genre music and genres in literature and movies, because it means you have a common starting point.”
But I get the sense that he has his own doubts about his commitment to his craft. Nesbo says that he has previously grappled with a self-invented problem: would he be willing to spend two years writing the best book he could, and not put his name to it? “I concluded — and I think I’m honest — that, yes, I would be willing to do that, just for the satisfaction of knowing that I could.”
Like Nesbo’s other books, The Thirst is gruesomely violent: the murderer’s weapon of choice is a pair of metal teeth that help him to drink his victims’ blood. But it also involves internet dating, and particularly Tinder, as a plot device. Nesbo — who is not married — says his interest in online dating started when he saw a couple in his local coffee shop.
One person would speak for a long time without interruption while the other maintained eye contact. At first, Nesbo assumed they were conducting a job interview but, when he managed to eavesdrop, he realised they were on a date. “I was in a way impressed that they dared to go on these dates,” he says.
Nesbo often draws on real-life experience when writing his books. But he chickened out of joining Tinder himself, leaving it to a friend instead. (As well as relating her experiences to Nesbo, she found a long-term partner using the app.)
At this point, we have been talking for an hour and Nesbo is due to leave for a climbing session with a friend. We clamber on to our respective bikes and head along the Akerselva, the river that divides Oslo between its formerly industrial east side and more upmarket west side.
I manage to keep up with Nesbo for the first half of the journey as we chat about our children — he has a teenage daughter — and living in Oslo. But on the first serious hill, he leaves me swiftly behind and is forced to check over his shoulder to ensure I go the right way.
At the climbing centre, he slips on his climbing shoes and, after a few pictures, is off up a route called Dr Ullsokk. Soon, he looks as if he is concentrating hard on finding the next foothold. I’m reminded of what he told me earlier about climbing being an escape from writing.
“You’re somehow always in the story you’re writing,” he had explained. “You spend a lot of time being just half-present in the present and half in that other room, where the story-writing is going on. But when you’re climbing it’s impossible. Then it’s just climbing.”
‘The Thirst’ (Harvill Secker) is out now. Richard Milne is the FT’s Nordic and Baltic correspondent
Photographs: Linda Bournane Engelberth/VII Photo; Alamy