Graeme Simsion: Author of The Rosie Project

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Graeme SimsionThe Rosie Project by debut author, Graeme Simsion, is destined to be one of the literary hits of 2013. Developed initially as a film script, Graeme turned his idea into a novel during a novel writing course at Melbourne University in 2012. That manuscript went on to be shortlisted, and win, the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. It was then picked up by Text Publishing and the rights have now been sold to more than 30 countries.

The Rosie Project is a romantic comedy about IT professor Don Tillman. Don wants a wife, and resorts to a most unconventional way of finding one. He’s designed the Wife Project, a 16-page questionnaire designed to find him the perfect partner. The along comes Rosie Jarman – a woman who, on paper, is most definitely not Don’s perfect match.

The Rosie Project is a charming, funny, romantic read. We spoke to Graeme recently about his writing journey and the unexpected success of his first novel.

Click play to listen. Running time: 21.41

the-rosie-project

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Danielle 
Welcome, Graeme, thanks for joining us. First of all, tell us a bit about The Rosie Project.

Graeme
The Rosie Project is coming out on the 30th of January, in Australia at least, then in another 32 countries down the track in various languages.

It’s the story of a socially-challenged genetics professor who sets out to find himself a life partner or wife, scientifically. So, armed with a 16-page,
double-sided questionnaire he sets out to find himself the perfect woman. And, as is the way of these things, he doesn’t succeed, of course, in his original intent. But, he meets a woman who ticks none of the boxes on the questionnaire – she’s a smoker, she’s a barmaid, all of the things that he doesn’t want, but he finds himself strangely attracted to her. She enlists his help, as a genetics professor, to help trace her biological father. So, they have a reason for being together and that sub-plot as it were, of who is her father, keeps the momentum going, I guess through the book, as the two of them get to know each other, and, well, you can probably predict how it ends up.

Danielle 
Now the professor, Don, is an interesting character – charming in his own way. You have mentioned that he’s based on a lot of people you know in academia who are possibly undiagnosed Asperger sufferers – I don’t know if that’s even the right word. But, I just wonder how much of Don is based on your observation of these people and how much on research of people with Aspergers?

Graeme  
OK, far more observation – far, far more on observation than on research, though I did fair bit of reading, mainly personal accounts of people with Asperger’s Syndrome. You’ll notice in the book we never actually says he has it, although I’m sure that if he walked into a psychologist’s office within 30 seconds that’s the diagnosis they would make. But, for all sorts of reasons, I didn’t want to put a label on him. But, where he came from there are people are like Don in academia where I’ve worked and in information technology… those are the classic places you find them. But, I had the voice of a particular friend, an information technology technician, in my mind when I created the Don character. Now, Don has traveled a long way since then, but he was in many ways my reference point.

Danielle 
Don is very amusing, I think humor is kind of a key theme in this book. But, then did you ever feel like you had to – you were walking a bit of a fine line, you didn’t want to make fun of him, but you also needed to keep the humor there, how did you manage to keep that balance?

Graeme
I thought very, very hard about this, because if you say, which we don’t, that Don has Asperger’s Syndrome, and we’re going to laugh at him, and we’re going to laugh at him for things that he does related to Asperger’s Syndrome, or that is a characteristic of Asperger’s syndrome, then are we making fun of the handicapped, as it were?

Look, I characterise Don as being wired somewhat differently than from most people, but nevertheless he is a functioning person who’s doing well, except in this thing that he wants to achieve, which is to find himself a life partner. So, I read him as you would any dramatic character or comedic character, he’s somebody who wants something, he doesn’t have all of the tools to get there, in this case social skills, and he’s going to have to learn them, and we laugh along the way as he tries to do that. So, I never felt that I was making fun of somebody less fortunate than me, or even different from me. We were laughing at a person’s inadequacies, but we all have inadequacies.

Particularly, sometimes, we’re laughing at ourselves because we realise that, “Why wouldn’t you do it Don’s way? Maybe he’s the more rational one. He’s the one who’s got his meals organised, who isn’t spending all of his time wondering what to buy at the market, what’s fresh today and getting on with the important things in his life. He’s the one who’s prioritised.” We think, “OK, he’s different,” but some of the time we’re laughing at ourselves that he’s smarter than us.

Danielle 
Yes, definitely. I felt that way a few times.

Graeme
Can I just add to that? I was still insecure, nervous, about had I made fun of people who I certainly did not want to make fun of, but I ran the manuscript past several people, some who would self-describe as having Asperger’s Syndrome, or had been diagnosed with it, and more people who have had family members, kids typically, but sometimes husbands, with Asperger’s, and without any exceptions they came back and felt that not only was it accurate, but it was funny, and appropriate, and sympathetic.

Danielle 
Did you manage to achieve that on your first finished manuscript, or was it a workshopping process?

Graeme
That I pegged on my first manuscript. And it came from a screenplay and right from the beginning – I think because I always loved Don, so I was always sympathetic and positive about Don, but also always made him a strong person who is motivated. I never looked down on Don as someone to be pitied. And, when I got to the book it made it much easier, because I chose to write in first-person. An awful lot of books about people who are different are written, screenplays as well, are written from the perspective, point of view, of somebody else. So, I think of Rain Man, for example, it’s the Tom Cruise character that we’re asked to identify with, not the Dustin Hoffman person – you couldn’t really identify with the Dustin Hoffman person. But, in Asperger’s films, Snow Cake, a Canadian film with Sigourney Weaver, you are not asked to identify with Sigourney Weaver, you’re asked to view her from the Alan Rickman character, from the outside. I wanted this to be in there and to relate.

Danielle 
Yeah. So, because this was originally a screenplay, at what point did you decide it was a novel? Was it the opportunity to get inside Don’s head rather than watch him?

Graeme
Turning into the novel was driven by two things, one was that purely pragmatic idea of marketing the screenplay. It’s very hard to get a film made. Having a novel out there can help. And the second thing was I’ve always nursed a desire to write a novel, I didn’t think I could do it. But, at the beginning of last year, around this time last year, I enrolled in a class in novel-writing at RMIT, and I was very intimidated, but I thought, “OK, at least I’ve got the screen play here, I’ve got the story, I’ve got the characters. All I have to learn – all I have to learn is the art of writing the novel.”

So, I didn’t have to take quite as big a step as if I had to come up with characters, plot, subplots, and so forth.

Danielle 
Did you find it challenging going from writing screenplays to writing a novel? Even though you had your characters, it’s a very different way of writing.  

Graeme
I found it dead-easy. There you go, it’s an honest answer. I mean I did not find the total creation of this dead-easy. I went through all sorts of stuff, but all of that pain was in writing the screenplay. The translation to novel, once I started it just flowed. I was worried. I didn’t know whether Don’s voice was something that would be sustainable. I had already written a short story, but I didn’t know whether it was sustainable beyond that. Once I got going, I took it to my class, I said, “Having read these 2,000 words, do you want to read more?” They said, “Yeah, show us the rest of this chapter.” I thought, “Beautiful.” And from then on I just sat down and just churned it out.

Danielle 
Right. So, do you think you’ll stick with novels and short stories now? Or is there still a desire to make films?

Graeme  
Look, I think my focus will be on novels, but I’ve done some hard yards now with screen writing, and I’m expecting that this will be made as a film, so I will return to the screenplay – I have already returned to the screenplay, and hopefully, hone my craft with input from serious players, which would be great.

And, I think sometimes different stories suit different media – I’ve written short plays, for example, and some stories are paced, or the reason some stories are film stories. So, I guess it will be what story I want to tell and what I feel the appropriate way of doing it is.

Danielle 
I just want to talk a bit more about your path to publication, because it’s been quite spectacular. Just tell us about what happened after you won the Victorian Premiers Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, what was the next step after that?

Graeme
OK, I’m going to just change your question just a little. It was getting shortlisted that mattered for me.

So when I got shortlisted, suddenly there was interest. I had already submitted the book to two slush piles – three slush piles – one sort of by invitation, which was Text. But, it had only been there for a few weeks, it was languishing there. Once I got shortlisted I let those players know that had happened, and everybody was galvanized, at least into reading it. And, from then on – winning the award was nice, it brought one additional publisher on board, or persuaded one publisher to look again, because the word got around about the shortlisting. I had a couple more publishers approach me, so I had four or five – five publishers, one of who choose not to proceed, interested in the book and all talking to me.

So, at that point I didn’t have an agent, but I’ve got a business background. I didn’t want to drag it on too long. I felt it would be inappropriate to go on for weeks and weeks. So, I just said, “OK, publish it as you’re interested. Here’s the manuscript, if you haven’t gotten it already. Come back to me by Friday,” which this was a Monday, “… come back to me by Friday with your best offer, and I’ll let you know by Monday who’s the winner. In the meantime feel free to talk to me.” I was overseas at the time and we talked on Skype and so forth. And, I have to say Text – well, Text got the gig, and Text got the gig fundamentally because they listened to me, and talked to me, and came up with an offer that met my needs.

Danielle 
So, I mean a lot of people would say that’s an enviable position to be in as a first time author.

Graeme
Oh, yeah. Me too. I’m tremendously aware of that. Here I was studying a few months… six months into a course in professional writing/editing, and you know industry subjects which tell you how to somehow kick the door down and somehow to get one publisher to look at you and then what to do. And, I’m in this unaccustomed situation of having several publishers all making me offers, all making me offers that I would have pretty much cut off my right arm a year earlier to take – any one of those offers I would have been very, very happy to proceed with. So, suddenly I was – it was a very good position to be in.

Danielle 
So, I mean what’s that like? Has it been a surprise to you? The attention that the book is getting?

Graeme
Look, I knew when I finished it that I either had something that was going do very well or not at all, I didn’t think it was an in-between thing. I gave it to my partner, who also writes and said to her, “Read it.” She read it, the first person to read this thing I had produced. She said, “Well, what do you want to know?” I said, “Does it read like a real book?” And she said, “I don’t know.”

“It’s very different,” which was exactly what I didn’t want to hear.

And in fact that I submitted it to the Premiers Awards without having any idea, I had no feedback from anybody really, except my wife, daughter, and the guy whose voice I had sort of channeled for Don. So, these were highly disinterested people. And then in the mean time a former colleague who had begged me to read the manuscript, I let her read it and she came back in and said, “It’s probably better than you think, Graeme,” and she was an English Lit grade.

And one of these middle-aged women who reads a book a week, and I thought, “OK,” but I never expected to do well in the Premiers Award. I hadn’t regarded it as a literary novel – literary words scared me. I was hoping that one of the judges would say, “Hey, this is not for us for the award, but Charlie down the hallway who does popular fiction might be interested. But, they very bravely accepted a book, which I hope is very accessible.

Danielle 
So, you mentioned your background in business. But, how new are you to writing? So, when did you decide that you wanted to be a writer and how long had you been writing before you got to this stage?

Graeme
My first book was published in 1993.

Non-fiction. I have written, but predominantly non-fiction, all my life. But, I had not written any fiction – when I enrolled in the screenwriting course at RMIT I had no written any fiction since high school, and it was probably about year – year 10, or whatever.

Danielle 
So, what was the catalyst for that? Why suddenly decide, “I’m going to get back into this.”?

Graeme
In 1998, going back awhile, I made a vanity film. So, I adapted a manuscript, an unpublished manuscript that my partner had written, into a screen play, just for the hell of it. I had read a book by Joe Queenan called The Unkindest Cut, which told the story of making a very low-budget film, and it seemed like so much fun. So, I made sort of a no-budget film using domestic video gear, but I wrote the screenplay. Now, it wasn’t writing original fiction, because I was adapting from my partner’s work, but I learnt the form of the screenplay, and I got some nice feedback on the screenplay from professionals in the industry. And, it just nagged and chewed away at me, and I thought, “I can do this.” And, even though I really desperately wanted to write a novel, deep down I didn’t think I could do it, but I thought I could do a screenplay. So, I enrolled in screenwriting.

Danielle 
So, it sounds like you’ve actually take the reverse path, if you think screenwriting was more difficult and you found the novel writing –

Graeme
Screenwriting is easier.

Danielle 
It was easier –

Graeme  
I’m sorry, in the end – in the end, yeah. In the end the actual process of writing the screenplay for The Rosie Project was much, much tougher, because it was within the screenwriting process that I worked out character, and story, and themes, and so forth. I mean normally one would write the novel first and then adapt the screenplay, and therefore the novel carries all of the burden of coming up with the story, coming up with characters and so on. All of that burden was transferred to the screenwriting process.

So, in a way I’m sort of conscious that people are interested in how the craft works here. I did not think I could write a novel, I was totally intimidated by the scale of it, the craft of it, but I ended up approaching it from a number of baby steps. So, at first I could write via my non-fictions, so I could put words and sentences together. Then, I did the screenplay, but I was adapting a story that was already there, so all I had to learn there was screen play craft. Then I got to write short films, but my own story. Then a longer screenplay, The Rosie Project, with all of those things already in place, and then with that screenplay written I did that final step with all of those characters, and themes, and plots that were already in place, I just had to learn just how a novel was sort of crafted, what a novel was, what the form was. So, I did it in lots of baby steps.

Danielle 
So, is your next project going to be another novel?

Graeme
Yes, it is.

Danielle 
A novel from the start? Or will you use some screenwriting tricks?

Graeme
I have drafted – the next two projects are drafted. Rough, horrible first drafts, but the 70,000 words on the page. And they’re both novels.

Danielle 
Yeah. So, once The Rosie Project phenomenon is over for a little while, do you hope to continue writing full time, and when will we see another novel from you?

Graeme
When we see another novel is largely up to Text. As I say, I’ve got something drafted, two novels drafted as we speak, and they’re probably only a few months away from being able to be handed over, after my editing, the best that I can do, getting it professionally put from Text editors, but obviously they’ve got to decide the timing for the marketplace and so on.

But, I think that will be – Text will have something for the marketplace when they’re ready to go.

Danielle 
So, you’re happy to keep up this life as a full time writer?

Graeme
For the first three books, yeah. I’ve got a three-book contract with Text, so we’re together for that much, and I hope for longer than that, but that’s as far as I’m looking at the moment. That’s a fair way to look, and then maybe I’ll go, “Time to do another screenplay,” hopefully doing that period we will be going ahead with the film. So, we’ll return the screenplay, certainly there’s been a lot of interest in that, and that will occupy some of my time as well.

Danielle 
Excellent. Just one last question, what is your advice to new writers?

Graeme
Can I give a have pieces of advice here?

Danielle 
You can give a few pieces.

Graeme
OK, let me undermine a piece of advice that is given to writers. Writers are told to write everyday, to write something everyday. I do not write everyday, I do not write most days. I write in big, heavy bursts, but I think about my writing everyday.

So, the first one is don’t take that ‘write everyday’ as some sort of mantra that has to be given. There are other ways of working. The second is about having a plan. There are two ways to write a novel, one is that you have a very detailed plan for that novel, or a quite detailed plan, and you write within that. The other is you just start somewhere and let it come out.

I belong to theory #1, and I believe that theory #2, ‘just keep writing,’ is taught to too many people. What I would say to you is if you’re writing and you say, “I’m the sort of person that just starts on Page 1 and just lets it flow,” I would say, “Is it working for you?” And if the answer is, “Well, I’m really struggling at the moment, I’ve been at this novel, this second novel for four years and getting nowhere,” I’d say, “Try the other way.” If it’s working for you, by all means. But, it is not a natural way to undertake any activity, and if it’s not working for you, then I would say try what I would consider a more conservative, conventional sort of approach.

And, good writing is rewriting – that much is just crucial. You can always make it better. When I took delivery of The Rosie Project, I mean after the final edit, when we were all done and dusted, and the editor said, “No more, it’s done. Here it is for the weekend.” I incorporated all of her edits, I went, “Fine,” and dusted it. I went through the whole thing again after that, and then I picked it up and read the entire thing aloud to my partner, and still found –

Danielle 
In one sitting?

Graeme
No – two days. But she very graciously listened to the whole thing and she – in fact she’s a doctor and she found a couple of medical things that weren’t quite right, and we fixed up a couple of little things, because when you read it aloud… and I took delivery of this and I opened up a random page and I went, “Oh, no. I should have swapped those two paragraphs.” You can always make it better.

Danielle 
That’s excellent advice – all of them. Thanks very much for coming in today.

Graeme
Oh, thank you, Danielle.

Danielle 
I loved reading The Rosie Project, and I love Don, and I’m sure it’s going to be very successful.

Graeme
Thank you very much.

Danielle 
Best of luck.

Graeme
Thanks, Danielle.


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