Big in Norway
26 Mar 2008
When Kris Hollington accepted an invite to publicise the Norwegian edition of his book How to Kill; The Definitive History of the Assassin, he had no idea what he was letting himself in for.
I was delighted to hear that my book had been bought by Gyldendal, Norway’s largest publisher. After exchanging a couple of emails with the Norwegian editor, I thought that was that, so I was very surprised a few days later when I received an invitation to Oslo to spend five days publicising Drap (the Norwegian title).
Norwegians read more books per head than any other nation on the planet - apart from Iceland. Although there are only 4.5million people in the entire nation, popular books regularly sell over 100,000 copies. And they love non-fiction - Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad sold 200,000. It’s not just because of those long winter months – they are quite simply a literary nation. The most popular book buying time of year is Easter, when people march through the streets, skis over one shoulder (they really do), books under the other, heading for log cabins for two weeks of reading, cross country skiing and drinking home made vodka stored in 5-litre plastic jugs.
I don’t know if this is a reaction to the lack of crime in Oslo but they love crime fiction and non-fiction. I had tried to write How to Kill in fiction-style a-la Day of the Jackal and was flattered to see that the Norwegians got this straight away.
The plane landed in six feet of snow (this was mid-March) and we slid to a halt in a drift just shy of the terminal where I was met by Gro Braten, the publicist, who was wielding a copy of my Norwegian translation – you could see it a mile off: Drap: Snikmordets Moderne Historie. Lots of red, black and white. Gro whisked me off to one of Oslo’s most opulent hotels where she handed me my itinerary – it was two pages of A4 full of one-line bullet points. Hang on. This looked like work. Newspapers, magazines, radio and…TV? “What was this one?” I asked, pointing at Senkveld vit Tomas and Harald.
“Oh that’s Norway’s biggest TV show, watched by a million people every Friday night.”
I absorbed this quietly. Did they think I was someone else, someone famous? My UK publishers (and I) would kill for this sort of publicity.
That evening I dined with Jan Swensson, the head of non-fiction and Stein Morten Leir, one of Norway’s leading crime fiction writers in a Michelin-starred restaurant next to Oslo’s Cathedral. On arrival, feeling pretty confident thanks to the star treatment so far, I was asked what I’d like to drink I said loudly ‘A fine Norwegian beer!’ only to be met with a deadpan face “This is an Italian restaurant, sir.”
“Ah right, well perhaps some wine then.”
The conversation soon got round to crime, specifically psychopathology. As an expert on the topic I had the table spellbound (they may have been humouring me) as I lectured them on the brains and social lives of psychopaths, pointing out that the most successful businesspeople tend to be psychopathic - they often have to make cut-throat decisions that bring misery to thousands of people. This caused a sharp intake of breath from both Gro and Jan – turned out that Stein, before he became a successful writer, had been the vice president of Norway’s largest private telecoms company. Luckily, he took this in his stride.
I was then amazed to learn that Norway doesn’t have literary agents (a gap in the market here perhaps?). Book editors take on all the duties of an agent, which is like letting the crocodiles babysit the wildebeest.
The next day, in the library of an exquisite hotel I was made to feel like a superstar yet again as a whole gang of photographers took my pic for various newspapers and magazines before I completed a series of interviews for tabloids and broadsheets. I was amazed – they wanted to know my opinion on everything from the US election to the Danish cartoon of Mohammed.
And they’d all read the book – apart from one ancient white-haired lady who kept reassuring me she had but asked the oddest questions (she was particularly obsessed with how much it costs to have someone killed). It didn’t matter, I was having a wonderful day – after spending so much time cooped up writing the damn book it was great to get out and talk about it non-stop to all these interested people.
The day ended with dinner at the Theatercafeen – an enormous legendary Viennese-art-deco-style establishment with a unique ambience. Probably the best place in town for celebrity spotting, it has been listed by the New York Times as one of the ten most popular cafes in the world. As I chomped on reindeer steak and swigged Norwegian beer (finally), I met advisers to the Norwegian PM and advised them to beef up their security (the Norwegian PM wanders freely about the streets – a mistake Swedish PM Olof Palme made in 1986 when he was shot in the back).
Then there were the pop stars, reality TV stars, fellow writers, publishers, moguls and the Crown Prince of Norway who stood on his table and shouted something patriotic in Norwegian before he was carted off and banned. He really was banned. Marvellous really – Prince Charles would never lose it in the Ivy…
The next day was filled with radio interviews, starting with Norway’s most popular radio show (listened to religiously by a million people) and we wondered through the streets of (freezing) Oslo while the presenter asked me to point out everyday objects that might be used by an assassin. Spotting what looked like a gadget shop I suggested we try there. The presenter burst out laughing – the shop was called ‘Easier Life’ and we soon rechristened it ‘Easier Death’ as it was full of potential murder weapons, from lead-topped canes to electric cheese knives.
As we walked I couldn’t help but notice that there was a bookshop on every street. As Gro and I discussed the Norwegian book trade I was fascinated to learn that while the Kite Runner has sold 200,000 copies, no one in Norway has heard of the Time Traveller’s Wife. Apparently, the impossible to translate Raw Shark Texts is flying out of the stores while Bridget Jones’ Diary failed to set Oslo alight.
Then came my TV appearance. Senkveld is broadcast every Friday night and is Jonathan Ross meets Ant and Dec. I was in the green room (which was red) when the producer asked me to pop down for a publicity photo with the presenters, Tomas and Harald. It was extremely busy and I didn’t notice the smartly dressed man with a quirky smile until he was right beside me. He beamed welcomingly. “Who are you?” I asked.
‘Tomas!” he replied, incredulous. My toes curled until it looked like I was wearing a pair of Persian slippers. I had just slighted the most famous man in Norway. Luckily the interview went down a storm although the hysterical studio audience was slightly disconcerting. The following day I was famous. People pointed fingers and smiled knowingly while I hunted for warm clothing in a department store. I then went and basked in my fame at the Literature House, an amazing bookshop, lecture hall, crèche, restaurant and bar – beer in a bookshop? Why don’t we have that in London?
To celebrate their new building, which had its own lecture theatre and restaurant/café Gyldendal had decided to open it up for the book-buying public – an inspirational idea which I would urge British publishers to reproduce. Jan told me they wanted to dispel the mystery of publishing and show people exactly how books were created. They also had the wonderful idea of asking aspiring Norwegian writers to bring their manuscripts to the offices where a team of editors would give them a quick scan before dishing out some constructive advice.
They had expected a few dozen people to turn up but when I rolled up outside there were 2000 people in the queue, including one woman who looked close to death – she told me she’d spent a week writing night and day in an effort to finish her book in time for the event. Nearly all of them had a finished manuscript and while most of them were awful, a surprising amount were pretty damn good according to the editors – sadly they only had only set aside space for four new authors. The woman I spoke to wasn’t one of them.
Then it was time for my talk in the newly-built lecture theatre. “I don’t know what happened,” the young student who was guarding the entrance said, “the place was packed for the last author, no no-one’s here for you.” There was no maliciousness there. Norwegians are very matter of fact.
Turned out that no one had announced that there was going to be another talk. Suddenly I could hear rumbling, a sound which steadily grew in volume and I turned round to see a hundred or so people politely stampeding towards me. In first place was a very rotund man with a large file under his arm and more pens than it was sensible for any person to have in his top pocket.
The talk went smoothly; they even laughed in the right places (all Norwegians speak perfect English). As Jan asked if anyone had any questions from me about a dozen hands shot up - rotund man, front and centre was dislocating his arm so I started with him. His question, about the ancient Hashishashin, the Iranian assassination sect lasted almost as long as the talk and my answer was shorter than I felt he deserved. “No, they did not smoke hashish.”
Afterwards, a copy of my book was thrust in my face – I pushed it away “I’ve already got one thanks.” It took me a few moments to realise – people wanted me to sign my book. Amazing. This took some time (“Is that Haraldssenn with two s’s and one n?”) but I loved every moment. It went on so late I missed dinner so when I got back to the hotel I emptied the mini-bar and collapsed into a discombobulated heap.
Oslo is an exciting place to be if you’re an author – they seriously love books over there, it’s a national obsession. Writers, especially crime writers, get your agent to send them your book. I don’t think I’ll get quite the same treatment when How to Kill comes out in America…
(All that publicity worked by the way – two weeks later Drap was in the top ten, just behind Anthony Beevor).