Graeme Simsion, author of The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect, is a writer of screenplays, short stories, novels and a couple of short plays, an occasional producer of films (primarily those for which he is screenwriter), and husband of writer Anne Buist. The father-of-two is a former IT specialist (data modeling) and founder of a business and IT consultancy. He once once gave a conference presentation dressed as a duck, has walked the Chemin de St Jacques/Camino de Santiago/Way of St James (a 2000 km trip from Tramayes, France to Santiago) with his wife, and played harmonica with a band. For more interesting facts, visit his website, or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.
Monique: What prompted your move into writing fiction?
Graeme: I was inspired by Joe Queenan’s book The Unkindest Cut to make a low-budget feature-length movie (shot on a handycam). I was in my forties and hadn’t written fiction since high school. I adapted an unpublished novel by my partner, Anne Buist, so a lot of the story was not mine. But I got some encouraging feedback about the script (if not my performance as romantic lead). The obvious next move was to sell my consultancy business and enrol in a course in screenwriting at RMIT.
Monique: Which character did you come up with first – Rosie or Don? Did anyone or anything in particular inspire them?
Graeme: Don came first. Rosie did not emerge until two and a half years into the writing (slow work as I was learning as I went). Before that, the female lead was Klara, a nerdy Hungarian physicist who was perfect for Don. Which was the problem. I wanted a stronger character and more conflict.
All my characters – and situations – are, I hope, inspired and informed by real-life experience, albeit some of it my friends’ real-life experience. I found that many of my fellow students, particularly the younger ones studying screenwriting, had spent a lot of time watching films, which on the face of it would seem a good thing. But their characters were often second-hand – borrowed from the movies rather than life. I think it showed.
Don was inspired by many people I met studying science and working in information technology. None, to my knowledge, had an Asperger’s diagnosis, but that was probably a product of the era: the diagnosis wasn’t widely used till the mid 1990s and then focused on children. Rosie drew on an amalgam of many people, especially a couple of smart women whose confrontational style (barely) concealed a fear of trusting others.
Monique: Both The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect have proved highly successful. Will there be a third Rosie book?
Graeme: I’m thinking of one – and only one – in about five years. I’ll do something different in between, and am currently working on a book – working title The Candle – about a relationship rekindled after 22 years. Then I want to do one with my partner, set on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrims’ walk in France and Spain. Another love story with mature-age protagonists (taking advantage again of my extra years’ experience).
Monique: What sort of messages were you trying to share with The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect? Why was it important to you to raise these issues?
Graeme: I wasn’t. I believe that if you set out to share a “message” you end up hitting readers over the head with it – alienating them as well as compromising the story. Look at the handling of indigenous issues in (some) Australian films if you want examples. If you want to send a message, write non-fiction, argue your case properly, and engage with the debate.
I think if you tell a story honestly, your own values will imbue but not dominate it. I guess the simplest value that you (hopefully) see in the Rosie books is that I value and respect people like Don. Feedback suggests that people reading it have been prompted to rethink their views of ‘geeks’ and / or people on the autism spectrum in general, and to gain a better understanding of people in their lives who may think like Don. (“I didn’t understand my husband until I read The Rosie Project”…)
I think more in terms of themes than messages anyway. “Theme” suggests raising an issue – asking the reader to think – rather than telling them what to think. In The Rosie Project, I touched on a couple of philosophical concepts in the very practical contexts of finding and defining love, and in The Rosie Effect I was consciously raising the issue of how we deal with the complexity of information and advice that surrounds us and how we reconcile it with our own values and intuition.
Monique: Screen rights for The Rosie Project have been optioned by Sony Pictures Entertainment. What stage is this project at now? What involvement will you have?
Graeme: It’s in development – producers, directors and (re)-writers attached. I wrote the screenplay.
Monique: What surprised you most about the response to The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect?
Graeme: For The Rosie Project, the number of women who fell in love with the Don character. I wanted him to be relatable and sympathetic, and plausible as a partner for Rosie, but not as some sort of general romantic idol. Reactions to The Rosie Effect cast a rather disturbing light on this ‘love’. A number of readers did not like Rosie in this book. For dramatic reasons, I put her under considerable pressure, and had her react in what I considered a realistic way, forcing Don to step up to the plate to save the marriage. But these readers clearly expected Rosie to tolerate any and all of Don’s foibles and to do all the heavy lifting: “She knew what she was getting herself into.” Like she’d got a puppy for Christmas. A cute, fluffy, dumb puppy that can’t be blamed if it pees in the corner. Not a husband who is expected to pull his weight in equal adult relationship.
Monique: You’ve written a bit about the value of creative writing courses. What’s one thing you would tell wannabe writers about them?
Graeme: You’ve got to do the work – and not just the assignments. The teachers won’t expect it, but you need to plan to put in as much work as you would to qualify in any serious profession: think neurosurgeon if you like. A suggestion: treat every assignment as a piece of writing for publication – and follow through with that.
Monique: You’ve studied professional screenwriting and editing. How have these courses helped your writing experience?
Graeme: They offered theory, discipline, feedback, peer support and an introduction to the industry. Assignments and exercises made me stretch my reading and writing beyond the comfort zone I would have otherwise remained in. I wouldn’t have written a novel without them.
Monique: How has your wife Anne Buist (Medea’s Curse) supported your writing journey?
Graeme: Cooking, shopping, ironing, the usual. (Sarcasm alert. For the record, she may have ironed a shirt for me once, but only because my hands were full making a margarita).
At that level, though, she’s never objected to me throwing away a lucrative business to pursue a dream – on the contrary she was hugely supportive – and has allowed me to trespass on territory that she had occupied for a long time.
One of the things we learned in screenwriting is that story development can be a collaborative process, and Anne is my collaborator. We do review each other’s drafts too, but it’s the input to story and character (particularly characters of the opposite gender) that’s invaluable.
Monique: At Perth Writer’s Festival you and Anne said you prefer to write together. Can you explain how that works?
Graeme: We kick around plot and character ideas together – informally, over a glass / bottle of wine and dinner.
Physically, we enjoy writing in the same room. Drafting is pretty much a solo activity, but from time to time Anne will use me as a human thesaurus / spellchecker and I’ll run a scene past her to test its comedic potential – i.e. whether she laughs.
Monique: You and Anne are also writing a book together. Can you tell me a bit more about the book? What’s the writing process like as a couple?
Graeme: This is the love story set on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Early 50’s male divorcee (recent, bitter and broke) and late 40’s widow (recent, seeking spiritual renewal, broke) encounter each other and form an instant mutual dislike. You know how it goes…
We’re writing alternating chapters rather than trying to collaborate on the actual draft. We plotted out a God’s-eye-view story, then set out to write our own versions (from the perspective of each of the two protagonists). Then we combined – negotiating on whose bits to lose to avoid telling the story twice.
Monique: Tell me about your road to publication. What are some of the highlights and lowlights?
Grame: Highlight: Absolute highlight was getting shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. It was my first real affirmation that the book had merit, and I knew immediately that it would open the door to publication. Selling international rights over a frenzied two-week period meant that I could give up my freelance consulting work and concentrate on writing. Lowlight: not too many and not too low, but the books were marketed as chick lit / romance in some countries and I was worried that they would not reach an audience beyond that demographic.
Monique: Do you become emotionally attached to your characters? What happens when the book is finished? Do you close the door or wonder what they’re getting up to?
Graeme: No. I become emotionally involved in the story as a whole, as I write it, but outside the writing process I’m conscious that the characters are my creations. With a third book in the back of my mind, I do sometimes see situations and think, “What would Don do?”
Monique: When you write, what is your biggest weakness?
Graeme: Along with many writers, a reluctance to ‘kill your darlings’ and to throw away material already written. I’ve learned to do it, but it still hurts a bit. That’s why having a writing partner is a big help: they can point out what needs to be done without the burden of having to do it themselves!
Monique: What’s the biggest myth about being a writer?
Graeme: That it’s primarily talent. Yes, some is required, but there’s a lot of technique to be learned (from how to use dialogue tags to how to structure a story) and that comes from study (formal or informal) and practice. And while you have to read, it’s not enough. You can listen to Jimi Hendrix till the cows come home, but it won’t make you a guitar player.