Graeme Simsion on The Rosie Project and being a late starter

Speaker Key:

AL              Andrew Leigh

GS              Graeme Simsion   


GS              I’m not that old, but I came to this career in writing quite late. And I hope, brought a whole bunch of things to it that, if I was 25, I wouldn’t be bringing to it. So, I’m interested in sharing with people what being a late starter means.

AL               My name’s Andrew Leigh, and welcome to The Good Life, a podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. Although I’m a politician and an economist, this isn’t a podcast about politics or economics. It’s about living a good life, which is an idea that goes back to the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. What Aristotle meant by a good life, was the life that one would like to live, a life with pleasure, meaning and richness of spirit. A life that most of us were trying to live, until everything else got in the way.

                   In this podcast, I’ll seek out guests, not because they’re smart, but because they’re wise. I’ll speak with writers, athletes and social justice campaigners, with people who’ve been lucky, and those who’ve experienced hard times. I’ve found their stories fascinating, and I hope you do too.

                   In 2013, a novel called The Rosie Project hit the shelves. It was a romantic comedy, but one that appealed to men and women alike. To date, around 2,000,000 people worldwide have read the book, which counts among its fans, Bill and Melinda Gates. The Rosie Project was written by Graeme Simsion, who spent much of his adult life building up a data modelling company, and writing textbooks on questions like the suitability of the 5 Ps framework in database design.

                   But as well as excelling on left brain activities, Graeme’s also managed to publish about a dozen short stories, a dozen short films and plays. The film of The Rosie Project is in production. In this sense, he’s similar to his wife, Anne Buist, Professor of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, who’s also written four novels.

                   In 2014, Simsion followed The Rosie Project with a sequel, The Rosie Effect, which also sold spectacularly well. I’m speaking with him today on the launch day of his latest novel, The Best of Adam Sharp, a book about what happens when long-lost lovers get back in touch. I’m speaking with him in Canberra, a city whose marathon nearly killed him, but created one of the best short stories about running I’ve ever read. Graeme, welcome to The Good Life.

GS              Thank you very much, Andrew.

AL               First of all, the marathon. Do you resent our city?

GS              No, I don’t resent the city. I made a very… Well, no, it was very unlucky. I was well-prepared for the marathon, but I went out there and just sometimes things go wrong on the day, and I just pushed through the pain. And at the end of it, a week later I was in Intensive Care, and it was a little bit touch and go for a while. So, you do these things in life, and what can you do? You look back and say, I shouldn’t have done it, but you don’t have those choices.

AL               Rob de Castella, who I think started off the marathon on the day that you ran it, has this lovely line where he says, the marathon is a serious race and if you disrespect it, it will hurt you. I’ve felt that pain before, and it sounds like you did, in even more spectacular style.

GS              Yes. Well, he also said, at some point you’re going to have to dig deep. And it’s probably physically, it’s certainly physically, as deep as I’ve ever dug in my life. And if it hadn’t been the marathon day, the thing I’d actually prepared for, it had been a training run, I would’ve stopped. But you know what decided it, my knees went, I was going to stop, but, you know, it was just muscles, just muscles, who cares? And they were melting.

AL               Literally melting down. Well, I’ll put up a link so people can read the short story. It’s a terrific one. But I wanted to start on the theme that sort of sits behind The Rosie Project, that of autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Your central character, Don Tillman, is a genetics professor who’s both brilliant and, at the same time, socially clueless. But the book’s written in a way that I think there’s a lot of the activity in it that many men can say, oh, I can see myself in that. It’s inspired, I understand, from a close friend of yours?

GS              Well, it was inspired by, I guess, a career, a life in the sciences that… I was in the radio club at school, and then I studied Physics, and after that I worked for about 30 years in Information Technology. I did a PhD, I taught at the University of Melbourne, the Science faculty. I ran a business in IT. So I met a lot of people like Don Tillman, and there was one particular friend who, I guess, I took his voice in my head, and originally, his personal story inspired the first draft of the book. But there’s no real-life Don Tillman. In subsequent redrafts and so forth, the story moved a long way, unrecognisable as any part of his personal life. And the character changed a lot too, but he was the starting point, yes.

AL               And, like many other people, I suspect, it’s a book which I’ve given a lot to people whose child is on the spectrum, to people who have siblings on the spectrum. Because it brings out the great strengths of somebody on the spectrum. You must have worked very hard to achieve that.

GS              Well, look, it was really a story-telling question. I didn’t start off the book with any sort of social mission in mind. I wanted to tell a story as well as I could, and I think when you do that, and I think most authors would agree with me, that you don’t set out with a theme, the theme emerges and it emerges out of your own values. The things you believe in permeate the book, whether you like it or not. So you set out and say, I’m going to tell a story about a socially awkward man trying to find a partner, and succeeding or not.

                   And your own feelings for people like that guy are going to inform it. Now, in fact, the guy who particularly inspired the Don character, is someone I have enormous personal respect for. He’s cared for a very ill partner for more than 20 years, with unwavering dedication and loyalty. Something that I would look at myself in the mirror and say, could I do that? So, I’m writing about a man who I think is probably a better man than I am, and that helps. I think the Asperger’s community responded to the book well, first of all because he was portrayed sympathetically, and part of that was being inside his head.

                   I think too often, we see the unusual person only as a vehicle for someone else to grow. So if you look at Rain Man, we’re never really asked to relate to the Dustin Hoffman character, to Raymond, we’re asked to relate to the Tom Cruise character and what he’s going to learn from interacting with the weird guy who we never want to get too close to. So it was very important to me that we were inside Don Tillman’s head, and I even deliberately held off the introduction of the Rosie character to stop anybody wanting to relate to Rosie. And I wanted them to be in Don’s head, not Rosie’s head.

                   And I think the other thing that helped get a sympathetic response is people say, what research did you do on Asperger’s Syndrome? And my answer is, 30 years in Information Technology. Meaning that Don came from real people, not from reading a textbook and trying to put those textbook traits into a character. And people will say to me, but he drinks, Aspies don’t drink. I say, you’re kidding, you’re saying there’s no Aspie in the whole world who drinks booze? They say, well, most of them don’t, now, let’s not have an atypical Aspie. I say, it’s exactly what I want, I want an individual human being who might not be the typical Aspie, but who has all sorts of other attributes.

AL               And even the way in which the story is told is quite different. The descriptions of the world around Don are incredibly spare, there’s no sort of extraneous detail about what he sees.

GS              Oh no, I deliberately chose to write the book in first person, because that way… Except when someone else speaks, and it’s quite important when someone else has a line of dialogue, because they give us another view of the world. But all the rest of the time, it’s not just Don’s speech as you would see in a movie, it’s Don’s description of what’s going on, his analysis of the situation. I wanted you to get into his head and think as he thought, and recognise that this is a legitimate, viable way of seeing the world. It might be different, but it’s functional. And, bar a few problems, and that we all have a few problems, he can get on.

AL               I talked to my mum today about The Rosie Project, and she said, oh, I never really thought of it as being a novel about Asperger’s. She said, I thought about it being a novel about finding love, and about the fact that when you look for love, you can’t find each of the traits that you’re looking for, because people come in whole packages. That notion of the search for love must be something you think about a lot, I guess, because, well, it’s in your latest novel, for one.

GS              Yes, I’m interested in writing about love, but I think that probably, if you want to put it the sort of way that Don Tillman would put it, you’d say, one of the most critical decisions we make in our lives is our selection of a life partner. Numerous outcomes will flow from that, or words to that effect. And it’s a crucial decision for most of us, it’s a life-changing decision for most of us to commit to a person, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

                   So I’m interested not only in the search for love, which is what The Rosie Project was about, but also, as in The Rosie Effect, and in the new book, The Best of Adam Sharp, about what does long-term love look like? And in The Best of Adam Sharp, we’re contrasting it with romantic love. We’re saying, okay, we put up romantic love as being this, we all know what a wonderful thing that is, but what does happily ever after look like?

AL               I was signing a congratulations letter today, for a couple that had been married for 60 years, and it struck me that that sort of a couple, those two individuals are almost entirely different people than the young couple that married one another 60 years ago. In a sense, one of the huge challenges of marriage is to stay together as you change. Have you found that in your own life? Do you have observations on how we manage to deal with that hugely challenging bit of our lives?

GS              Well, experientially, I’m on my second marriage, but this one has lasted for me for 28 years, 27 years, coming up this year. And people have actually said to me… We have a spectacularly successful marriage, you feel really frightened to say that, because you don’t want to jinx it, but people have said, why don’t you and Anne write a book about how marriage works? And the truth is, I have, I’ve written a couple of novels now, which are really about what makes that long-term relationship work. And as I say, that interests me a lot.

                   And if you’re looking for the answer to it, I think people do change, and I think it’s about what Don Tillman would probably call joint projects. I think it’s about having plans together. There was that famous formulation of what it takes to be happy, and we’re talking about the good life. And it was an obscure, it’s one of those things that gets attributed to all over the place, but it was Napoleon somebody, but the idea that what you want is something to do, something to love, not someone to love, something to love, and something to look forward to.

                   And I think if you can bring that into your marriage, and particularly that something to look forward to, together, that you’re making plans together, I think that’s a tremendously powerful force for keeping a marriage successful.

AL               This interesting stuff, and now in the economics of happiness, that suggests that much of the happiness that we derive from holidays, is actually derived in the anticipation of the holiday. When one greatly looks forward to arriving at the beach resort, and how perfect the weather will be, and in practice, on the day, the flights are late, there’s rain at the beach resort, things aren’t quite the way we want it. But that notion that much of pleasure in life is in the anticipating, and I think is important. Do you find that in your own holidays or projects that you anticipate?

GS              Absolutely. John Lennon said, life is what happens while you’re making other plans. But those other plans are tremendously important. In fact, I’d probably argue and say, life is making those plans. They’re probably some of the most exciting times that you spend together, because you’re using your imagination, you’re talking about what it is that you both want. And that may well be defeated by reality, but they’ll be shared experiences as well.

AL               Do you and Anne write together?

GS              We do. We actually write in the same room, so physically, we write together. Not all the time, I mean, right now I’m travelling and I’m writing solo, but our ideal writing is sitting in a little shack that we’ve got up in the country, and sitting in separate armchairs and typing away on our computers, with a glass of wine to look forward to at the end of the day. And just occasionally stopping to compare notes. Anne will stop me and say, what’s the word for such-and-such? And I’ll stop her to say, listen to this passage, is this funny, or is this funny?

                   So we do that, but we also write together in terms of collaborating. So we plan our stories together, we’re both planners who work out the plan for the story beforehand. We’re each other’s first readers, and right now we’re working on a book together, which will be alternating chapters. So we work very closely together.

AL               Is that the first joint bit of writing you’ve worked on together?  

GS              It’s the first writing that will have both of our names on it. But Anne has made enormous contributions to my books, and I’d like to feel that I’ve repaid that with contributions to hers.

AL               So there’s not a sense of trepidation that you might be too much in each other’s pockets in producing a joint work?

GS              We’re well down the track with it, we’re well down the track and it’s been pretty successful. We’re writing alternating chapters, which is not as bad as having to agree on everything that’s written. But I get to her chapters and start tearing into the editing of them and so forth, but she’ll give back as good as she gets.

AL               Will I know at the end who’s written which chapters, or are you not [overtalking]?

GS              Oh absolutely, yes. There’s two protagonists, so Anne’s writing the female’s point of view, I’m writing the male’s. We thought we’d not make it any harder than that. And so you’ll see the two things. And there’s obviously room for comedy, because at the end of a chapter the man says, well, that went well, and we pass the baton.

AL               What’s your ideal writing day? Tell me about your routines, which, I guess, are one of the hardest things for writers. Do you have a time where you start, do you have a word target that you focus on?

GS              No, no, no, no, no. No to all of the above. It’s a really common question to ask writers, what is your routine?

                   And I’m amazed that people can actually answer that. At the end, the extreme end of it, if you like, is a woman I know, Tanya Chandler her name is, who was in my writing class when I was studying. Three kids, a job, most people in the class in that situation would be saying, look, I just don’t have time to write, and that would be an excuse for the fact their writing wasn’t progressing. But she would get up at four o’clock in the morning, work for three hours before her real day started. It must’ve half-killed her, but she’s got her second book coming out in a couple of weeks. So she’s succeeded with that, so in that sense, it’s a routine.

                   But I don’t know what she actually did within those three hours. And if I was doing that, what I did within those three hours would vary enormously. And that’s partly because I’m a planner, so sometimes I’m planning, not writing. When you’re planning a plot, you’re not writing any words. Sometimes I’m writing, sometimes I’m problem-solving. So, to give you an idea, the three stages in writing a book, from my point of view, there’s the planning stage, there’s the first draft and then there’s the rewriting or editing.

                   And different writers will give different attention to each of those stages, even to the extent of saying, I do no planning, I just sit down and I start writing that first draft. And that first draft is going to be perfect, so there’ll be no editing. So that would be an extreme view. But it does mean for me that, well, for The Best of Adam Sharp, that first draft took me 16 days. So the only 16 days where I was observing anything like you might call a writing routine, and churning out a certain number of words per day. And they were frantic, caffeine-driven, mad writing. But then I spent over a year in edit.

AL               So, what, this is a 100,000-word book or so?

GS              Oh, it’s about 85.

AL               So you’re producing at a rate of 5,000 words a day, when you’re churning it out?

GS              Probably my first draft was probably only about 60,000 words. But let’s just not split hairs. Yes, and 4,000 or 5,000 words a day, I can do. I think probably 8,000 would be the most I’ve ever written in a day. But if you know what you’re writing, if you know, and you’re not fussing too much about quality, you’re just trying to get it done, because you know you’re going to come back to it, you can write a lot. You can write as fast as you can type.

AL               I’m happy to accept that, but it’s a sort of Shakespearean kind of pace to be churning things out. Do think that’s because you have the confidence that you’re going to spend a lot of time in the editing process?

GS              Yes. I know that I can edit it, it’s not so much that I will spend a lot of time, but I know that I don’t have to stand by what I’m writing down. I know that life is going to be easier when I’m not trying to deal with a blank page, when I’m dealing with something, so I can make it better. I’ve got the confidence that’s come from having a plan, so I know I’m not going to get writer’s block, run out of ideas.

                   Effectively, I’m trying to avoid writer’s block by just ploughing on. If I set the quality bar too high, I’ll freeze. And you know, you actually do write some quite nice stuff that you keep, but there’s other stuff where we say, there’s a better way of writing this sentence, or a better way of dealing with that paragraph, or maybe we don’t need it at all. But you have to treat your writing, well, I have to treat my writing as disposable. No matter how well you write something, if it doesn’t serve the story, then it may have to go.

AL               Kill your darlings, as they say.

GS              Yes, absolutely. And that applies more to the stuff that you think is wonderful at the time, it’s flowery, it’s over-written, it’s… Elmore Leonard says, if it looks like writing, I get rid of it. And that’s a pretty good maxim, for my writing at least, I don’t want the writer to be constantly stepping back and saying, what beautiful writing. I want to take myself completely out of that equation and let the reader immerse themselves in the story and the characters, and not worry about admiring Graeme Simsion as a writer.

AL               So then with Adam Sharp, what share of that first draft is in the final draft? Is it like 20%, 80%?  

GS              Well, the plot is almost unchanged. Which means that the characters, in terms of real character, the decisions they make, pretty much unchanged from that first crude draft that I did. There’s lots of stuff there, but the individual words, the sentences, have been refined. It felt, every time I did a rewrite, edit, that massive amounts have changed, but when you really stand back, if I’d shown someone that first draft, and then the final draft, they’d say, it is basically the same story, I don’t see what all the work was about.

AL               Now, you’re an academically-trained writer, you studied at RMIT. What were the lessons you took from that? What did your time at RMIT do for you as a writer?

GS              Okay, I would probably say I’m a vocationally-trained writer. I was at the TAFE, RMIT TAFE, rather than at the university, and the emphasis was on doing, rather than on understanding the underlying theory or all the crit and so forth. I thought it was essential, for me, anyway. Really, I was 50 years old when I decided I wanted to be a writer, and I guess the biggest lesson that my previous work had taught me was how long it takes to become competent at something, and an expert at something.

                   And I didn’t start saying I want to write a book, I started saying, I want to be a writer. Anymore than a neurosurgeon says, I want to operate on a brain. You don’t start there, you say I want to be a neurosurgeon, I want to be able to learn the skills that it takes to do this thing properly. And I understood how long it was going to take, and I understood that it would not be just about trial and error, that there’s a body of knowledge, and I ought to learn that body of knowledge, to save me from making all the mistakes that others had made before me.

                   So there was going to be a body of knowledge, I knew I was going to have to practise, and practise a lot. I knew I was going to have to look at the work of others and critique it, I knew I was going to have to subject myself to criticism from people who were more knowledgeable than I was. So, for me, that means signing up for an academic, to a formal programme, to learn the underlying theory and so forth, but also to get myself into that milieu, into the world of the people who are doing that, to understand the industry, to have moral support and intellectual support from people around me.

AL               So I’m enjoying Anders Ericsson’s book, Peak, at the moment, which is all about deliberate practice. He’s the guy who came up with the notion of 10,000 hours, although he’s somewhat critical about how Malcolm Gladwell has taken the 10,000-hour principle. Because Ericsson says people have misinterpreted it to say you just have to write for 10,000 hours, or you just have to play the violin for 10,000 hours, and then you’ll be good. And he says no, it’s about really deliberate practice. So what did you do, what was your deliberate practice in becoming a writer?

GS              No, I could not agree more, by the way, that it’s this deliberate practice, it’s not just constantly writing. As you say, it’s being critiqued, it’s not just about practice, it’s about learning the underlying theory, all of that. What did I do? The course at RMIT was just instrumentalist, because it forces you outside your comfort zone, for a start. So you get an exercise, write a short story about X, and it’s not the thing you want to write the short story about. So you have to step outside, and that gives you confidence. When you step back in, it stretches you out a little bit more. It’s about doing focused practice, practice for a purpose.

                   On the other hand, right from the start of the course, I thought, I’ve got to go into this with an idea, because then everything I learn can be applied to that. So I’m not just going to walk out of a class and say, that’s interesting, I’m going to walk out of the class and say, how can I use that on this thing that I’ve called The Rosie Project? So The Rosie Project was my school project, all the way through five years of originally a screenwriting course, and then as I got into a professional writing and editing course.

                   I did an MBA many years earlier, and to do an MBA when you’re actually working as a manager is a quite different experience, I think, from doing that as an academic subject at school. Because you can relate everything that’s being taught to your real experience on the job. And you will challenge your teachers and so firth and say, that’s not what I found. Or, you think you’ll take it back to work and you’ll try it out.

AL               So that’s your distinction there between when, you pulled me up and I’d said that you did academic writing study, and you said, no, no, no, I did vocational study. The distinction there, to make it more sharply, is that you did studies that directly applied to a practical project you were doing. There was nothing purely theoretical about your studies.

GS              There was very little that was purely theoretical. We did four-hour classes at RMIT, and those classes, the teacher might come in…

                   I can remember one teacher coming in at one time, and he said, all right, he says, you’ve got to learn to do scene breakdowns. Which is, you summarise a scene, this is screenwriting, you summarise a scene in one sentence, base don what the purpose of that scene is. And he then gave us a screenplay. It was for… No, I’ll remember at some point… American Beauty. And he gave us the entire screenplay for American Beauty, in fact it was a draft screenplay, much bigger than the final one, and he just said, get to work. Just start doing those scenes.

                   So, four hours, we all just sat there and did scene breakdowns. So, you wouldn’t do that in a purely academic type of course. But these were techniques that these guys, many of them practitioners who came in as contract teachers, very valuable people, just gave us and said, you’ve got to practise this, you’ve got to learn it.

AL               So, there’s this economic theory of creativity that the world is sort of broken up into two creative types. One type which are driven by a single idea, think Picasso, Joyce. Another kind who are driven much more experientially, drawing from the world around them and sort of experimenting on what they do. Think Dickens or Matisse.

                   And the theory has it that the people who are driven by a single grand idea tend to peak young, in their 20s often, and those who are driven by the world around them and tend to experiment much more, peak later in life. So Matisse’s best work, Dickens’ best work comes later in life. First of all, do you buy the dichotomy? Secondly, do you feel like you fit more neatly in the Dickens, Matisse camp?

GS              Well, I’d better. I’d better, because I’m 60. So if my best work has been done early in life, it’s too late. Look, I’ve felt, I came through a science background, and I think there are physiological questions here about when your brain is at its peak to do this highly intellectual work of Mathematics and so forth. So I wouldn’t buy the dichotomy, there you go. And that’s an immediate reaction rather than a considered response. I wouldn’t buy the dichotomy, because I think it depends on the nature of what you’re trying to do and what your goal is. It depends a little bit… Just thinking it through.

                   I mean, my background here is that I did a PhD, which was on database design. But I was investigating the creative aspect of that, so it was really a human behavioural type of PhD. And I didn’t look at that economic theory of creativity, I looked at psychological theories of creativity, which were quite different. So you’re challenging me with something that’s quite, quite different, and it’s not a dichotomy that I’m closely relating to.

                   Again, as I say, I think you’re going to find most of your mathematicians peaking young, not because they have a grand idea, but because physiologically that’s where they’re coming from. You’re going to find a certain type of writer who draws on the real world and so forth, reaching a level of maturity, they’re able to do it. That’s me, people say, don’t you regret starting so late? I don’t think I had the maturity to write well, earlier. I think I needed that time to grow up, even though it took a very long time.

AL               So in that case, you’d regard there as being two kinds of people in the world, one kind that believe that the world can be divided neatly into two kinds, and the other kind that believe that the world’s much more complicated than that.  

GS              Yes.

AL               Yet, I’m still going to stick with my theory for a little longer. One of the things that you notice with indigenous art, is almost all of Australia’s great indigenous artists do their work very late in life. And in part, I think that’s because they’re drawing on stories around them, and there’s a lot of experimentation. Indigenous art, in some sense, is sort of a polar opposite from cubism.

GS              Okay, so I would say then, you’re running with a dichotomy that is about people, and yet I think the dichotomy might more correctly be about the nature of the work. You see that the nature of Aboriginal art is that it’s drawn on this and this and this. But then, we could go back the other way and say, well, the best practitioners, or traditionally it has been done by these practitioners who come to it later in life. But it might well be that in 10, 20 years, we discover that young Aboriginal artists are doing something quite different, that we regard as having merit as well.

AL               It’s totally plausible. And one can easily tell another story to argue again against myself, that the reason that successful indigenous artists have done their work late in life, is that it hasn’t been possible, for most of Australian history, for indigenous artists to make a living from their art. So it’s been something people have pursued in retirement. But how has it shaped you, to have this global success thrust upon you in your 50s? Do you feel as though, in some sense, you have the bedrock of a strong marriage, the comfort of knowing who you are? Or...

GS              Not to mention being financially secure.

AL               Yes.

GS              So, I previously ran a business, we were reasonably successful. A lot of risk in it, it wasn’t as if we felt month to month that we were secure. But it came out of that, when I sold my business with a reasonable financial base, that I wasn’t so… And I’d been used to travelling the world, giving seminars, those sorts of things. So the nature of the job wasn’t standing up in front of crowds, getting a certain amount of visibility.

                   I was at the 2020 summit that Kevin Rudd organised. It was on television, I was, when I say I was facilitating, so I was up front on television, I had my little bit of fame. So it wasn’t as if I was 25 and suddenly hanging out with people that I was uncomfortable with or anything like that. And I think by this age, you’ve realised that these sorts of things are pretty shallow. And the pleasure I’m getting out of the writing is the joy of doing this job of creating books that people want to read, rather than any of those peripheral things such as the fame of it or the money. Fortunately, I think it was James Baldwin said, the money, it turned out, was like sex, that when you didn’t have it, you thought of nothing else. But once you had some, you thought about other things. And so, coming from that sort of base, it’s been great.

AL               Yes.  And are you happiest when your book is released, or are you actually happiest when experiencing the flow state, sitting next to Anne, writing away?

GS              Absolutely the latter, the best… There’s a relief when the book is released, because it’s never all just fun. But when things are flowing and you’re writing something that you feel is worthwhile, even if you know that probably later you’ll throw it out, that feeling of creativity is an enormous part of the human condition, I think. I think to be human is to be creative. And it doesn’t mean you have to write books, it doesn’t mean you have to make movies or pottery or anything like that. You may be creative working in the shed on a repair, or something like that. But just to make something, to create, for many, it’s the most satisfying thing we do.

AL               And do you miss anything about moving away from what economists would call joint production, to individual production? You ran it for quite a big team, there were about 70 people in your firm?

GS              Yes, I wasn’t particularly good at it, looking back at it. Managing people is just about the toughest thing you can do, it’s enormous, if you care about it, it’s an enormous amount of stress involved. If you get to a certain size in a company, you can delegate that, but the sort of size company we had, if something really serious happened in personnel, it was going to end up with me. And there was also a lot of financial risk associated with it.

                   One of the nice things about writing is that there’s really no serious downside, you’re not going to lose your house over a book going, unless perhaps you get sued. But in general, the worst risk is you don’t get paid, not that you lose investment or anything like that. And it’s because it’s largely an individual endeavour, but there are team aspects of it, when it comes to marketing the books, certainly with editing.

                   And I used to work as a consultant, so I’m getting a bit of my own back now, with the editors giving me feedback. And I really have to bite my tongue sometimes and say, well, this is what you used to do to other people, eat this up, suck it up. And that’s actually good fun to work with other people to get a result, for which I get most of the credit, which is very nice.

AL               And do you see yourself as continuing to work as a novelist? Or are you thinking about moving into the area of screenplays? What do the next couple of creative decades have in store for you?

GS              Well, I came to novel writing from screenwriting. I didn’t think I was up to writing a novel, I didn’t think I had it in me. I had a little bit of a try in my 20s, and just felt that… It’s ludicrous, it’s like saying I had a little try at brain surgery and the guy died so I didn’t bother studying it any further. Obviously, I should’ve thought about studying it properly. But I thought I could do screenwriting, I’d convinced myself I could do screenwriting, I’d convinced myself it was easier than novel writing.

                   And with respect to the screenwriters out there, I think in some ways it is, that you’re not doing the whole job, you are putting down a template that other people will then contribute to. But, really because I couldn’t get my movie of The Rosie Project up, because I was a newbie, that people would rather adapt books these days, I went round and said, okay, I’ve learnt an awful lot of things along the way to being a novelist, I’m not coming from zero at the moment, I can build on that. So I did that, and I would still return to doing screenwriting if there were interesting projects there.

                   But being a novelist is so much easier, because, for a start, you’ll probably get published. If I wrote a screenplay today, the chances it would actually be made into a movie are relatively low. If it’s commissioned, that’s different. If I’m in a team for a TV series, in a writer’s room, that’s different too, and I’d probably grab those opportunities with both hands. But for the moment, writing novels is enormously satisfying. I’m looking at writing, not a memoir, but a book of stories in the way that, say, David Sedaris would do. And I think that would be a lot of fun too.

AL               Do you have a theme in mind?

GS              Part of it is about being an old guy, part of it is about the…

AL               You’re not that old.

GS              I’m not that old, but I came to this career in writing quite late. And I hope, brought a whole bunch of things to it, that if I was 25, I wouldn’t be bringing to it. So, I’m interested in sharing with people what being a late starter means, what changing careers late in life is like, what are the challenges, what are the pros, what are the cons.

AL               Very good. I look forward to reading it. Well, let me ask you just a few final questions. What advice would you give to your teenage self?

GS              Okay, what advice would I give to my teenage self? I would… That’s an enormously hard question, I guess because I’m pretty happy with the way that my life has gone. So I haven’t made any terrible mistakes, and I feel that when I’ve taken a wrong turn, that turn has ultimately been good for me. Except for running that marathon in Canberra. So I would say to my teenage self, if you’re ever running a marathon in Canberra, for God’s sake, when you start to feel really crook, pull out.

                   I think that the 10,000 hours, that it takes a long time to be good at something and enjoy the journey, is really important. I guess I learnt that anyway, but there was a time when I was really working hard, doing the 10,000 hours and really probably much more focused than most of my screenwriting student cohort there, who were going out to the pub and doing what you’re doing when you’re 25 and so forth. I was the really focused older guy. And I declared that my goal was to get a Hollywood movie made. And the head of the school took me aside and clearly, out of real concern, he said, Graeme, will you be okay if you don’t get there?

                   Because there was a very good chance I wouldn’t, and I think she was genuinely concerned for my mental health. And I sort of laughed, and said, look, I am enjoying this journey so much. And I would probably just say, by all means, Graeme, or young Graeme, set really important goals, but don’t forget to smell the flowers, don’t forget to enjoy the journey.

AL               Yes. What’s something you used to believe, but don’t anymore?  

GS              You’re really asking some hard questions here, and I could say, God, and it would take us down a whole path. But what did I used to believe and don’t anymore? Look, there’s one, I used to believe I would never have a long-term, successful relationship in marriage. Perhaps that’s something I would’ve said to my teenage self. You go through a stage, and as a teen, early 20s and so forth, where many of us believe that we’re just cut out, we’re never going to find a partner, and those sorts of things.

                   And what I’ve watched all around me, of course, is that people do find someone else. But I guess the sort of romantic ideal of love… There’s a blurb on the back of The Rosie Project in some countries, probably here, that says, Don learns that you don’t find love, love finds you. Now, I sort of get what they’re saying, that you don’t find it scientifically. But equally, I would turn around and say, you don’t find love, you make it. That love is something that you make, that you create, not something that you find. And I think that would be a pretty important learning for me.

AL               Well, you’ve already said you disagree with one of my economic ideas, but another favourite economic idea of mine is that love is not mining, it’s manufacturing. That it is much less about finding the perfect one, and much more about endeavouring to enhance the shared connection that you begin with. And so that set of shared experiences builds into something really strong that can sustain itself against the inevitable shocks.

GS              Of course, and you’ll probably do better if you start off with lower expectations. We talk about arranged marriages, for example, in the past. My grandfather and grandmother… And basically, my grandfather’s wife died, leaving him with young children. He recruited a nurse, a nanny, and when her visa ran out in three months, his recourse was to marry her. And so they were thrown together, and they just worked on it.

                   They were together for just on 50 years, until his death. And they were an example of a really successful, close marriage. Because, clearly, they decided they’d work on it, rather than feeling that they’d found their soulmate and everything would work out. So that was an important lesson for me, growing up, I think. We all knew in the family, this is what had happened, and they were yet seen as being a fantastically successful couple.

AL               That’s beautiful. What’s the most important thing you do in life, to stay mentally and physically healthy?

GS              Well, I can tell you the worst thing I do is I drink too much, so I think it’s a bit of a hazard that you go with the writing life, and if I abstained a bit, I’d probably be more mentally and physically healthy. So I tell you what, I would’ve probably said… There you go, go back to the teenage self. I’d have probably told myself not to drink. There you go. I don’t class myself as an alcoholic, but who does? And I would probably say, you know, Winston Churchill once said, alcohol has given me more than it’s taken. You know what, I’m not so sure about that. So I wouldn’t encourage our kids to drink, for example, and we haven’t, except by example, unfortunately. So, what was your question again?

AL               The most important thing you do to stay mentally and physically healthy. And I think your answer is…

GS              Well, I keep fit. I’m actually physically reasonably fit. I go jogging, my wife drags me out of bed to go to the gym. She is a stern disciplinarian, and I think that’s pretty good. I think one of the crucial things I do… You mentioned at the beginning, you said I had a movie in production with Sony pictures, it’s not, it’s actually in development, just to make the distinction. Meaning, and they often refer to development as development hell. So we’ve had Jennifer Lawrence attach, and Richard Linklater attach, and then Jennifer dropped out, and Richard dropped out behind her.

                   And that was… So we had champagne and then we’re not having champagne. And then we had Ryan Reynolds attach, and up again we go and down we go. We’ve had so many of these things, and I don’t let that faze me at all. One of the important things I learned in life is not to worry about things you can’t control. Go back to Stephen Covey or someone like that, and circle of concern, circle of influence. Worry about your circle of influence, try to expand it if you can, but don’t spend your time fretting about things that are outside your circle of influence.

AL               That sounds very important. Just out of curiosity, how far away until The Rosie Project hits our screens?  

GS              I have no idea. If you…

AL               And you’re unconcerned.

GS              That’s right. You’re an economist, I would say there’s a 50% chance that it will see some action in the next 12 months. And I think an 80% chance that we’ll see some action in the next five years. So, we hope it will get made. Meantime, I’m writing more books.

AL               Which is something you can very clearly control. Which personal people have most strongly shaped your views of living a good life?

GS              You’re being very difficult with the questions here. I think your parents have shaped your views enormously, and they shaped them in two ways. They shaped them by being role models for what you might like to do as well. And they shaped them by doing things that you say, look, I don’t want to do that, I’ve rebelled against that.

                   So I’ve done both with what I’ve learnt from my parents. I’ve evaluated what I’ve taken from my parents, particularly, say, in bringing up children. I think I was brought up… My parents did some terrific things bringing us up, and they did some things that I don’t want to do with my kids. And a good life, for me, includes having a happy, functional family and includes seeing my kids do well. And I’ve been massively happy with the way our kids have turned out.

                   I don’t take the credit for that, but I take, how can I say, there are a few things I didn’t screw up that I might’ve screwed up, so I feel pretty good about that. But there’s no individual, I don’t think, who sort of said, this is what a good life looks like. It’s a combination of a lot of things and figuring stuff out for yourself.   

AL               And for you, clearly, the way in which you structure your life involves saying no to a range of things. What do you carve away, what do you put off to one side in order to create these big chunks of writing time?

GS              Well, when I enrolled in my writing studies, I still had a job. I was freelancing, but it was quite demanding freelancing. I had a young family, and it was important to give them time, as well as time to my marriage. And I thought, this is going to fill up my life pretty much if I want to do 10,000… I was wanting to spend full-time-job equivalent on my writing, plus do the freelancing to make a living, plus the family and so forth. So I didn’t watch any television whatsoever. Okay, I lie, the only television I watched was I watched DVDs of series that I needed to watch, in order to inform my screenwriting. So I was watching critically. I only read books critically.

                   Now that sounds a really dull sort of life, but it wasn’t, because I had my family and I had my studies which I was finding really exciting, I had a job to do. So I gave up on those sorts of things. I tried to keep friendships going. But if I had to pick one thing that I’d say you just don’t need in your life, is mindless television. And social media is, I would say to a writer out there, forget it. Or spend 20 minutes a day focused on Facebook or whatever it’s going to be.

                   But the idea of idling social media work in the background because you’ve rationalised to yourself that that’s somehow helping the marketing, the single best thing I would say to someone about marketing your book, is write a better book. Spend the time writing a better book, because ultimately, it’ll be word of mouth that sells that book, not some sort of a marketing exercise.

AL               Graeme Simsion, thanks very much for taking the time to talk today about writing, marriage and living a good life.  

GS              Thanks very much, Andrew.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life. If you liked this podcast, please rate us on iTunes. Next week, I speak with Lana Sandas, Chief Executive Officer of the Women in Prison Advocacy Network, about addiction, prison and healing.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.