It’s an approach that echoes something Ernest Hemingway once said: “In order to write about life, first you must live it.”
The Best of Adam Sharp is loosely based on one of his wife’s exes, and a relationship rekindled after two decades. His third novel, it centers on a pianist and, while writing it, Simsion spent a lot of time with a friend who played the piano, the aim being that anyone who knows that world well “would read it and say it has a ring of truth”.
It features a lot of transgressive sex. “That doesn’t mean that I was there, but I’ve lived in a world where that was common enough, and I’ve talked to people who’ve been in those situations”.
Fifteen years ago, the 65-year-old had hardly written a word creatively in his adult life. “If someone had said to me, ‘Would you like to be a novelist?’ I would have said that it would be wonderful but I don’t have the talent,” he says.
It’s good news for aspiring authors but comes with a caveat: be prepared to work massively hard. Even then, he admits, unpublished writers need a lot of luck. Having decided to get serious about writing at 50, Simsion took a methodical approach to the task, conscious of making up for lost time. Think about how much time you had to put into whatever career you’ve had to reach a certain level, he says, and apply that same principle.
TAKE 7: THE ANSWERS ACCORDING TO GRAEME SIMSION
- Worst habit? Cocktails – a legacy of research for The Rosie Project.
- Greatest fear? My writing causing harm—especially in the autism space.
- The line that stayed with you? “You watch yourself from the sidelines” – Jackson Browne describing a way of thinking that’s important to the way I work.
- Biggest regret? Not starting sooner.
- Favorite room? My home bar library.
- The artwork/song you wish was yours? “The Times They are a-Changin’” – not the Nobel Laureate’s greatest song, but the phrase is now part of our language.
- If I could solve one thing… Tribalism.
The Novel Project is his latest offering, book number 10, devised to help anyone keen to write anything from a bestseller to a family memoir. After retiring from IT, I have penned a similar book featuring insights gleaned over his two decades in database management.
That one time he had tried to write post-high school, he penned “some pseudo Hemingway stuff” and figured he wasn’t mature enough to produce anything worthwhile. “I hadn’t spent enough time doing it. It’s like getting behind the wheel of a car and saying you can’t drive – of course you can’t.”
When we meet, Simsion is just back from the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia and is soon heading to southern Burgundy in France. But he can write anywhere: cafes, hotel rooms, airport lobbies, you name it. “I’m a bit contemptuous of people who’ve got to have their special place. As I said regarding my previous career: no one ever says, ‘I need a special place to do database design’.”
Ironically, the one place he finds it tricky to be productive is at his desk. That said, he points out that a lot of work in writing is not spent writing: “I like to walk or jog and think.”
It’s a tip he has for anyone in the business of ideas – identify where you’re most creative. It might be walking, digging ditches or taking a shower. Wherever it is, dedicate time and energy to it, “don’t waste it”.
Not surprisingly, discipline is key to success; it’s part of his nature. While he was studying writing, for example, he didn’t watch any television. The only exception would be to see how a particular trick was done, for example, in a series such as breaking bad. “I still enjoyed my life, I socialized a lot. If you’re going to have friends and family and keep yourself fit, which I tried to do, you only have so much time left, which I tried to divide up wisely.”
Given it was his first novel, he was shocked at roses success? “It came as a huge surprise, but it was a series of things. The biggest day was when I won the Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award because it was an affirmation of my writing. Someone outside the family thought my writing had some merit. Let me tell you, inside the family it was no sure thing,” he says, laughing.
Before then, there were only three readers. His daughter from him, who said: “Wow, it’s better than I thought it would be, Dad.” One was Anne, who asked: “Does it read like a real book?” She said, “I’m not sure.” Then he showed his personal assistant to him, also a major literature, who said it was terrific.
Once he was shortlisted, there was a bidding war for the rights – won by Text Publishing – then a German publisher made a substantial offer, which triggered more international interest. “Two weeks after the German offer, I had enough projected income to say that’s my job now.”
Since then, he has co-written two books with his wife, Two Steps Forward and Two Steps Onward, about walking the Camino trail, a spin-off from the Rosie series, Don Tillman’s Standardized Meal Systemand the audiobook Creative Differences, which has been optioned by Truce Films.
When he was 12, Simsion’s family moved to Australia from New Zealand; he describes his younger self as socially awkward. “I was in a place where I didn’t fit in very well. I became unsure and – retrospectively, I see – I became an observer of what was cool.”
That detachment was useful later in life, his observational abilities giving an insight into behaviours, mannerisms and speech. A lover of language, he is finely tuned to the differences in how we speak, accents as well as generational distinctions.
A focus on dialogue to paint character is informed by his screenwriting studies, the writing career he’d originally pursued. The Rosie Project began as a screenplay, which he flipped into a novel in under a month. He uses direct language more than most authors and argues that it’s far more effective: the show don’t tell philosophy.
Toni Collette is slated to direct and star in Adam Sharp, which Simsion considers his best book, even though it is one of the least successful commercially. When doing publicity tours for The Rosie Projecthe used to give the bookseller $50 and say: “If no one asks me who I want to play Don Tillman, I’ll take the $50 back.”
It never happened – not that he minds. There are terrific casting directors out there, who will take care of that. Given it’s been years since the book was first optioned, his philosophical approach makes sense: these things always take time. He likes it to the Alcoholics Anonymous prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change …”
Later this year, Sony Pictures will film The Rosie Project with Henry Cavill in the role of Tillman. Jennifer Lawrence was once slated to play Rosie; more recently, Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones. If her fans have anything to do with it, Clarke is a shoo-in. “There was a picture of [Clarke] taken with books behind her and one of them was The Rosie Project. I don’t even know if she was at home – she could have been at the library,” Simsion says, adding that he doesn’t lie awake thinking about the adaptations.
“Ernest Hemingway famously said, ‘You drive up to the State line, you throw it across, and you forget about it’,” he says, with a laugh. “It eats my wife and my publisher up more than me.”