‘Writing is a good way to process what’s going on in your own life’
Norwegian crime writer Thomas Enger on the wit of Harlan Coben and the wisdom of Stephen King
Thomas Enger: I would love to pick the brain of the Bible’s author about how to get away with all those completely unrealistic scenes and still sell millions
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
As I am 120 years old, at least on Monday mornings, it’s hard to search those dusty memory logs for a good answer to this, but I do remember the first crime fiction novel that really made me love the genre. It was Henning Mankell’s One Step Behind. I read it on the plane from London to Mexico City, and because I wasn’t completely finished with it, I distinctly remember the feeling of not wanting the plane to land. It was that good.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I read a whole bunch of the Hardy Boys novels, so that would be my best guess.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
Anything by John Hart or Harlan Coben.
What is your favourite quotation?
“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work.” (Stephen King)
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
Ahem. This requires a deep knowledge of the Irish literary scene, which – as a Norwegian – I cannot say that I have. Sorry. But I do love Ireland. And I really like Sebastian Barry.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
It depends. If I’m at home in my favourite reading chair, I like the feel of an actual book in my hands. If I’m going away on holiday, I need something I can stock at least a thousand books on, so I have a few options to choose from.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
If you mean visually, my wife gave me this wonderful special edition of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy a few years ago. Just stunningly beautiful. If you mean beautiful, as in a beautiful story, then I would have to say a very small book written by the Norwegian comedian/composer/musician Kristopher Schau. It’s called (roughly translated) “On behalf of friends”, which tells the story of a few select people who have died, who don’t have any living relatives or close relationships, whose funerals don’t have more visitors than the priest and the caretaker. In their obituary notices in the newspaper it just says “On behalf of friends” instead of family names. So sad to live a whole life and die without no one being there to say good bye to you. It really is a beautiful book.
Where and how do you write?
Anywhere, and as often as I can, but mostly (like right now) I write on my kitchen table. Sometimes I write in bed or in the sofa. I usually put my headphones on so I can completely shut out anything that can disturb me. Which – in my house – is quite a lot.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
If I would have to choose something, it would have to with something written by Harlan Coben. The way he manages to incorporate humour into sensationally suspenseful novels is just amazing.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
I wouldn’t say that my books are heavily dependent on research, but I do like to follow my characters around. If they take a train journey, for instance, then I do the same thing – even if it means going to Florence (not that I have, but I would) or Gothenburg (that I actually did).
What book influenced you the most?
Probably the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, where people live to be, like, 850 years or something. If you can write that, and still sell millions of copies, for decades, then the sky literally is the limit.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
On Behalf of Friends (Kristopher Schau)
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
On Behalf of Friends (Kristopher Schau)
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Here I’d like to quote my good buddy Stephen King once more. “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.” Just read. Read a lot, and as often as you can, and never stop.
What weight do you give reviews?
When they’re good, they’re testaments to my underappreciated brilliance. When they’re bad, they’re testaments to the reviewer’s un-brilliance (if that’s even a word) and non-understanding of ...anything.
All kidding aside, I totally respect that everyone’s entitled to their own opinion. I just try to block out anything that can demotivate me or destroy my confidence. Which is why I rejoice and smile as broadly as humanly possible when someone loves my stuff and tells other people about it.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
I’m happy to report to you that people will never grow tired of stories, so the industry will be around for years and years to come, thank God – that means I will still have a job when I turn 130. I just hope that it still will be possible for small, independent publishers with a deep and genuine passion for books, to exist alongside the big corporations.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
Two trends, mostly: crime fiction novels with an unreliable narrator, and badly written porn stories disguised as “erotic novels”. You know the ones I’m talking about.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
That there are lessons to be learned about life from reading.
What has being a writer taught you?
That writing is a good way to process what’s going on in your own life and all around us. By writing about it, you can understand things better.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Stephen King, Harlan Coben and John Hart. Oh, and the author of the Bible. I would love to pick his or her brain about how to get away with all those completely unrealistic scenes and still sell millions.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
Oh God. Probably something by Harlan Coben. He’s just so incredibly funny.
What is your favourite word?
When my daughter says “Daddy”.
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
The Black Plague.
What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
It’s a scene from the ending of my first book, where Henning Juul – my main character – has cracked the case and he is thinking about his dead son. The way I incorporated a poem into his thoughts at that moment towards the end where he is attending a funeral. It almost makes me cry every time I read it.
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
The Kite Runner by Khaled Housseini.
If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?
I wrote a young adult novel a few years ago, a book called The Evil Legacy (not published in the UK, but UK publishers – feel free to email my agent). Before it was published, before I even had sent it to my publisher, I read it to the eldest boy in the household. He was 12 at the time, and when the suspense parts made him crawl under the covers, I knew I was on to something. It was so much fun.
Cursed by Thomas Enger is out now (Orenda Books, £8.99). Enger is a Norwegian crime fiction writer and a composer. He is most known for his books about the scarred crime reporter Henning Juul, which have been sold to 26 countries. A TV series is also under development. He lives in Oslo with his wife and two kids. He is currently working on a new crime fiction novel called Killer Instinct, due to be released in Norway in 2017.