Harry Hole’s Creator Goes to Hollywood, Rewrites ‘Macbeth’

Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Author Jo Nesbo during an interview in New York City on May 14, 2014. Nesbo worked days as a stockbroker and nights and weekends singing in one of Norway's top rock bands, Di Derre, before writing the first of nine best-selling novels featuring iconoclastic Oslo detective Harry Hole. Close

Author Jo Nesbo during an interview in New York City on May 14, 2014. Nesbo worked days... Read More

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Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Author Jo Nesbo during an interview in New York City on May 14, 2014. Nesbo worked days as a stockbroker and nights and weekends singing in one of Norway's top rock bands, Di Derre, before writing the first of nine best-selling novels featuring iconoclastic Oslo detective Harry Hole.

Jo Nesbo is killing it.

The Norwegian crime novelist, whose Harry Hole detective series has been translated into more than 50 languages, is juggling three book projects -- one of them a modern-day retelling of “Macbeth.”

Now Hollywood is calling. Swedish filmmaker Tomas Alfredson is adapting the film version of “The Snowman,” the seventh Harry Hole book. Warner Bros. has snapped up film rights to “The Son,” Nesbo’s newest crime novel.

Nesbo, 54, spoke with Bloomberg over lunch at headquarters in New York. Everyone survived.

Homicide and Humor

Bloomberg: For someone whose recent profile in The New Yorker was titled “Pure Evil,” you’re a pretty funny guy.

Nesbo: If there’s anything really Norwegian about the books, it’s probably that black humor, a really Norwegian thing. It’s really understated.

Where does that come from?

People don’t really talk in Norway, though it’s not as extreme as in Finland. When I go to Finland to visit my publisher, it’s awkward from the second I meet him until when I leave. If there are two Finns with you, one of them will try to be funny and the other one will criticize him for not being funny enough. And you’re sitting there thinking, this is really awkward. And I’m not kidding, they will probably be drunk.

What is it about Danish and Norwegian and Swedish crime fiction that has everyone so excited?

Hopefully it has something to do with the quality of the writing. Then again, there are just as many bad crime writers in Scandinavia as anywhere else.

Is there anything you would say no to Hollywood about? If they wanted to take one of your heroes out of Norway and put him in, say, Wisconsin?

I said no for many years. I was worried that the movie is such a strong medium compared to the book. On the screen, an actor would define how Harry walked and talked and it would be difficult for me to write about Harry. But I always said that if Martin Scorsese calls, I might reconsider.

Is that what happened?

That’s what happened. And that’s why I sold the rights to “The Snowman” to him.

Do we know who’s going to be starring in “The Snowman”?

No, you don’t.

Do you have any say in the matter?

I’m an executive producer, so in theory I have, but it’s not like I’m going to tell them what to do.

Is there a particular element of your voice, your style, that you are most concerned be preserved in the movie?

It’s not a good idea to think of a movie as a version of a book. It should be a story in its own right.

You’re a former rock ’n’ roller. Music infuses your books. Do you listen to music while you write?

I do. All kinds. Now it’s an American group, sort of hard-core bluegrass, Punch Brothers.

That’s not what I would I have guessed. Because you were in a punk band, right?

No, not really a punk band. It was just we couldn’t play very well, so we sounded like a punk band.

Love and Death

When you begin a book, do you start with a puzzle and then build the story around it? Or do you just let the story create the puzzle as you go?

There’s no rule. One of my books, “The Devil’s Star,” started when I bought a water bed. If you don’t put in this antibacterial stuff, the bed will start making sounds.

That started me thinking about having something in your water bed. It went like this: A man has brought a woman home for a one-night stand. While they are having sex, she can feel something between her shoulder blades. The man goes off to take a shower. She pulls the sheets off the bed and she sees a profile of a woman pressing against the rubber.

Then she realizes the shower has stopped. She can hear water dripping on the wooden floor behind her.

Then I thought, what is this besides a dead woman inside a water bed? It was probably his girlfriend or wife who had tried to leave him. And he wouldn’t let her, so he killed her. So she is in there, naked, forever young. She will be there waiting for him when he comes home every day.

So it’s sort of a love story. And as soon as I understood the subtext, I knew I had a story.

Meth-Brewing Witches

What about “Macbeth”? How do you re-imagine it?

I set it in the 1970s, in a city that could be Oslo, or could be Glasgow. It’s just a city with really bad weather. And a corrupt police force. And they’re fighting not for the throne but for the position of chief of police. The three witches are of course making methamphetamine.

Part of the charm of Macbeth is watching him degenerate.

At first, he’s a war hero, just like in “The Godfather,” when Michael Corleone arrives in his uniform to the wedding. And he’s made king, and then he slowly gets more and more corrupt and more and more crazy. That is the story, the moral downfall of Macbeth.

Do you have any routine when you write?

I’m lucky because I can write anywhere at any time. Actually I prefer to write in airports or coffee shops. Writing is more or less what I do when I have nothing else to do.

(Alec D.B. McCabe is an editor at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted and compressed from a longer conversation.)

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