Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø recently gave The Guardian a rundown of the books he counts among his greatest influences. His dad grew up in New York, so the household included a wealth of books by America authors, which exposed him to early favorites Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn –“food for the imagination for a kid like me.” With Tom Sawyer, he found his first murder mystery.
(Note that Huckleberry Finn is number 33 on the American Library Association’s list of books most frequently challenged in libraries and schools from 2010-2019.)
As a teenager, Nesbø’s perception about what literature can and should deal with evolved, in part due to reading Jean Genet’s classic, The Thief’s Journal. He says he knew he wanted to be a writer after reading some gritty works—On the Road by Jack Kerouac and Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski—which may have inspired some of the noir strains in Nesbø’s own writing, especially the Detective Harry Hole series (the only works of his I’ve read).
What a big debt most successful writers owe their early inluencers! Like me, you may be surprised when self-proclaimed authors say that they “don’t read,” or that they don’t read in the genre they want to write in. As a friend has said, “reading is like breathing in; writing is like breathing out.” Writing requires reading. Nesbø endorses this notion, even saying that “writing is a result of reading, like making music is a result of listening to music.” He calls it a social reflex, the way people tell stories around the dinner table, or the campfire, or in the foxhole. Storytelling was a strong tradition in the southern United States, which could be why so many great storytellers have southern roots.
Now that Nesbø is older and an acclaimed writer himself, some authors no longer hold appeal (Hemingway), though he’s still making discoveries (Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March) and has returned to some authors with new appreciation—he cites his fellow Norwegian Henrik Ibsen, (whose play, An Enemy of the People, is one of my favorites). Currently, he’s reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, which would seem to be feeding the same impulse that made him think about what literature should deal with. It will be interesting to see if some of Haidt’s ideas about how people make moral judgments find their way into Nesbø’s fiction.
Nesbø is the popular author of bestselling crime thrillers like The Snowman and The Son, has a new horror novel out later this week, The Night House, available for pre-order. Tagline: When the voices call, don’t answer.
Image: By Elena Torre – Flickr: Jo Nesbo, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19747762