Former IT consultant Graeme Simsion's debut novel, The Rosie Project, is about an emotionally challenged geneticist's quest to find the perfect wife. You can read Kirsty's review here. Today, in the wake of the novel's selection for the Richard and Judy Book Club, Graeme joins us to talk inspiration, writing habits and books he loves.
My stories are generally inspired either by a character or an incident with which I’m directly familiar, which I then bend out of shape by asking ‘what if?’ The Rosie Project was inspired by a friend’s search for a partner (so this was a case where both the story and the character came from the same place) but both Don Tillman and the story have since changed beyond any recognizable connection with him.
The same applies to individual scenes and secondary characters – although I may feel at the time that I’m making them up, I can, on reflection, usually find the source or sources.
Can you tell us a little about your average writing day?
No such thing! For a long time I had to fit my writing around my day job. I was self-employed (largely running seminars on technical and consultancy skills) and my workload varied enormously. Sometimes there was no time to write and at other times I would have several clear days. Now that I’m a full time writer, I’ve kept the habit of fitting in my actual writing work when I can around book tours, talks and the business side of writing – it isn’t all sitting in a garret writing deathless prose.
Also, what I do on a ‘writing’ day (or part of a day) depends on where I’m up to with my work. I’m a planner so I’m not always writing prose. I may be writing an outline, or thinking about an outline, or solving a plot problem, or shuffling scenes on index cards (a technique I learned from screenwriting), or re-writing / editing.
When you are writing, do you use any famous people or people you know as inspiration?
I’m a longstanding Bob Dylan fan and I take some inspiration from his ability to keep doing creative work into his seventies. I was a later starter with writing, and I like to think I can keep going past the traditional retirement age.
What is your favourite Women’s Fiction book of all time and why?
You realise you’re asking a man this question?! I guess the fact that any book I nominate is one I’ve read makes something of a nonsense of the “women’s book” category. I really enjoyed Bridget Jones’s Diary – I like the humour that can be achieved with an unreliable narrator, and the fact that we do actually engage with Bridget’s story – it’s not just a series of laughs. It’s a stretch to say that Don Tillman is a male version of Bridget Jones, but the storytelling approaches are similar.
What female writer has inspired you?
Simone Sinna, erotic fiction writer, in her role as my wife – she’s my sounding board for story and has a phenomenal work ethic. Toni Jordan, author of Addition, Fall Girl and Nine Days gave a seminar that was instrumental in setting on the path to publication. But I guess they weren’t quite the answers you were looking for! To tell the truth, I don’t think of authors as male or female – I’m more interested in their writing. At one time, I thought Harper Lee was a man and Laurie Lee a woman … Discovering my error didn’t make any difference to how I felt about them or their writing. If I think of the authors who have inspired me by the quality of their writing (which for me means stories and characters as much as elegant prose), writers I would want to emulate rather than just admire, and then pick out the females … and have to name just one … Carol Shields.The Stone Diaries in particular has stayed with me, and one incident inspired me to walk 2,000 km – and to do so in a particular state of mind.
Can you give us three book recommendations?
John Irving – A Prayer for Owen Meaney (Irving at his best combining intelligence, humour and emotional punch).
Matthew Quick: Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (Uplifting and intelligent – a positive view of humanity without sugar-coating it.)
Bill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything (don’t get me started on non-fiction, I’ll go all day but this is what you get for asking a science major who had a career in technology)
If you want only fiction, add.
Toni Jordan – Addition: If you’re looking for a female equivalent of Don Tillman in a story with similar tone and themes, Addition is probably as close as you’ll get. Toni lives just around the corner from me.
What is your writing process? Do you plan first or dive in? How many drafts do you do?
I’m absolutely a planner, a discipline I got from my earlier work in IT systems design and had reinforced by screenwriting studies. I worked on The Rosie Project over five years and did at least 70 redrafts from the first effort (I can tell from my version numbers!). Needless to say it changed a lot – but I was learning the craft. I hope future novels will require less, but one of the principles I learned in design is you can always make it better.
What was your journey to being a published author?
In my early twenties I made an effort at writing and decided I didn’t have the talent. Then, over twenty years later, I made a feature-length film – just for fun – and discovered I had some aptitude as a screenwriter. I enrolled in a screenwriting course and, for my feature film project, worked on a script that eventually became The Rosie Project. The script won a prize – hence some attention and a producer, and while we were looking around for funding for the film, I had the idea of re-writing the story as a novel – which would enable me to explore protagonist Don Tillman’s inner world more thoroughly. In early 2012 I wrote the novel version of The Rosie Project and it won the Victorian Premier’s Award (in Australia) for an Unpublished Manuscript. The short-listing brought it to the attention of publishers and I signed a contract with Text Publishing in June 2012. No agent.
What do you think is the biggest myth about being a novelist?
That by approaching writing as a hobby, you can expect to achieve similar results to those who approach it as their profession. It’s a tough game – there are less ‘jobs’ than there are for judges, neurosurgeons and probably rocket scientists – and you need to be prepared to put in a similar effort find a place.
What advice can you give to our readers who want to write a novel of their own?
1. Get help. Join a writers’ group, enroll in a course, or both. Forget about the myth of sitting alone in a garret. Most of us need feedback, discipline, encouragement and a dose of theory from time to time.
2. Do not underestimate the importance of story. Yes, you can write prose that is so beautiful it doesn’t require a strong story to hold it together, but don’t expect to sell many books. I don’t think story is a substitute for fine prose, but it doesn’t detract from it.
3. I’m going to recommend you plan. If writing by the seat of your pants works for you, I won’t dissuade you. But if you’re stuck, especially after writing around a third of the book, think about planning as an alternative. And I think planning benefits story in particular (see above)
4. You can make it better. Good writing is re-writing. Again, find an editor (a professional or trusted fellow writer) and listen to what they say. They won’t have the solutions, but they’ll probably find the weaknesses (if not, find someone else!)
What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a sequel to The Rosie Project to be published in Australia later this year. I have a couple of novels drafted and sitting on the backburner, and a couple of short stories in a similar state. I think it’s helpful to have at least two projects on the go at a time – although I do get focused on one for extended periods. (My publisher would kill me if he thought I was taking time out to work on another novel as we approach the deadline for Rosie II).