Graeme Simsion is a Melbourne-based business consultant and writer of short stories, plays, screenplays and three non-fiction books - The Rosie Project, The Rosie Effect, and The Best of Adam Sharp.
The Rosie Project began life as a screenplay, winning the Australian Writers Guild/Inscription Award for Best Romantic Comedy before being adapted into a novel. It went on to win the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript and has since been sold around the world to over forty countries where it has become an international bestseller. Sony Pictures have optioned the film rights with Graeme contracted to write the script. The Rosie Project also won the 2014 ABIA for Best General Fiction Book, and was ultimately awarded Australian Book of the Year for 2014.
The sequel, The Rosie Effect, was released in 2014 to acclaim. In 2016 Graeme published The Best of Adam Sharp.
Graeme was a business consultant and data modelling expert before he decided a career in writing would suit him better. He has fascinating - and very specific - insights into what makes a writer, and why writing should be regarded as a profession.
- Graeme read Enid Blyton as a child, including the Noddy and Secret Seven
- He graduated to science fiction, and read all of Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. le Guin, Philip José Farmer and Michael Moorcock.
- In his final year of school, Graeme read and was influenced by One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Plague by Albert Camus, Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa and Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
- In his early twenties, Graeme was heavily influenced by Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller.
- Graeme recommends reading The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel by Jodie Archer.
- He has also read John Irving, John Fowles, Joanne Harris and Philip Roth. At the time of this interview, he had just read On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan.
- Graeme and Nic refer to the ‘Dan Brown syndrome’, which refers to a good story and publishing success in the absence of good writing.
- Graeme is married to author Anne Buist.
- Graeme refers to High Fidelity by Nick Hornby when Nic asks for his favourite songs, and then lists Bob Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’ and ‘Angelina’, as well as ‘Anthem’ by Leonard Cohen.
Nic Brasch: Welcome to The Garret. Graeme Simsion is one of the recent success stories of Australian literature. His third novel, The Best of Adam Sharp, is his first book outside of the world he created in The Rosie books: The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect. Those books have been international bestsellers. Graeme’s books explore the deep relationships between people, getting to the nitty-gritty of the human connection. I am delighted to welcome Graeme Simsion to The Garret.
Graeme Simsion: Good to talk to you Nic.
Nic: Let’s go right back. Were you a big reader as a child?
Graeme: Yeah, I was a big reader, even amongst my peers I was a big reader. My parents encouraged it, they thought that was a good thing, probably because I was no good at sports, so I had to be good at something. When I look back the first thing I can remember is Enid Blyton, and I read all the Noddy books, and graduated sort of briefly to Secret Seven stuff, and so forth, and then moved on, right to Biggles and the whole deal.
Nic: It’s amazing the number of writers I’ve spoken to, they’ve all said Enid Blyton. And I remember Enid Blyton was big for me as well. For a certain generation, I guess we are the same generation, Enid Blyton was absolutely huge.
Graeme: This is going to make me sound very Aspey, ok, which is only going to reinforce a number of people’s view of me. I used to copy out the Noddy books. I actually would sit in class and I would write down, particularly the little songs that he sang, and I actually became quite an adept, a poet of doggerel, if you like, like a rhymer in my teens, and I put it down to that, to actually having written out, loosely speaking, poetry, but at least rhyme, from a very early age.
Nic: Have you still got those notebooks, exercise books, you used to do it on? That would be fantastic.
Graeme: I, I can, no! Because I know where the conversation would lead, and we’re not going there. You don’t want to see my juvenilia!
Nic: After Enid Blyton, who did you progress to, what or who was next? Let’s go through the stages of reading, say in your 20s and 30s?
Graeme: Ooh well, ok.
Nic: So the teenage next.
Graeme: Yes, so the teenage years I read science fiction. I was a really keen science fiction fan. And look, just to put people in perspective I’m 60 now, so we’re talking about the 1960s and 70s for reading. And at that time, I read all of Isaac Asimovs’, Robert Heinlein’s, Arthur C. Clarke’s, Ursula le Guin’s, Philip José Farmer’s, Michael Moorcock’s, all the big players in science fiction at that time.
I think the turning point for me was my final year at school. I was 15 at the beginning of that year, and for my English class I had to read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn; The Plague by Camus; we had Darkness at Noon; Arthur Koestler; The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Notice all white males. (Laughs). Those were the days, but that was a real turning point for me in my reading.
Nic: By ‘those were the days’ you mean ‘those were the days’, not ‘ah, those were the days, all white males’.
Graeme: No, you can read any inflection out of that, I’m making a simple statement of fact. That back in those days…
Nic: I’m just making sure of that.
Graeme: …And look, I think I mentioned those science fiction writers. I think the only female writer I mentioned was Ursula le Guin, who’s still living as we record this. But, I was mainly reading male authors, and that was the nature of what we were fed, as it were. But that was a huge turning point for me, because I’d read something serious beyond science fiction. And back in the day I would’ve said the science fiction I was reading was starting to get more experimental, and so on, and suddenly this was a real bridge. And so actually over the VCE, or the HSC as it was in those days, syllabus people, a big depth for what they chose. I think we did MacBeth as well. Suddenly I was into books and thought ‘Wow, there’s really something here about the human condition’. That was pretty exciting for me.
Nic: You said you left school at 15, did you go all the way through? Did you leave Year 12 at 15?
Graeme: Yeah, year 12. I finished year 12 at 16. I was sixteen when I finished school. It didn’t help, because I would’ve liked to have studied in English literature that year, but I was too immature. None of the — and this is the male female thing — only two or three males did it. They were the guys who were exceptional at reading, if you like, and they didn’t do well. It was seen as very much a girl’s subject, and girls did well and the boys didn’t.
Nic: What was it about science fiction? Because again, I’ve had a number of writers talk about their early love of science fiction and how important it was to them. What was it about science fiction that captured you?
Graeme: Oh I liked science. Really, I was a science person, and I enjoyed the survivalist sort of stuff in science fiction, we’re trapped on a planet. The Martian, absolutely so many of the traditional science fiction stories were that kind of story.
I went back, only a couple of years ago, and picked up a Robert Heinlein book that I saw lying around. And you know, the writing was just so awful, really really terrible! But what got him through — and it’s the Dan Brown syndrome, if you like — it’s good story will cover a multitude of sins. If you’ve got a gripping story, people will read.
Nic: Yes, Dan Brown’s a very good example of bad writing and great story.
Graeme: Well look, I won’t comment on bad writing. Well he’s certainly regarded pretty widely as being pretty ordinary writing. But he sells millions of books, and rather than saying this is a marketing hype or anything like that, I think you’ve got to say ‘Well, hang on, what’s behind this?’ And I would say, people, or popular readers, go first for story. I think there’s also an aspect for some readers — and again, there’s a gender difference here, at least there has been traditionally — is that I think a lot of male readers like to learn something from a story. That doesn’t mean something deep about the human condition. I mean, like I how to fix such and such. And it’s almost as if you’re not guilty if you’re reading fiction, if you actually learn how to fix something or to survive on Mars, or whatever might come up that you might need to do.
Nic: So you left school, fascinated by science, great at English. Did you want to be a writer then?
Graeme: Yeah, for about a few hours. I nursed the idea of writing a novel the way that I’m sure a very large number of people do that, as a broad sort of wish without doing anything properly about it.
When I was 21 I travelled around Australia with a mate and a kombi van, and we read a lot. I was reading mainly Hemingway and Henry Miller at that stage. Remember I was 21, ok? And I thought, ‘I can do this’. You read Hemingway, and you think, ‘I can do this’. And I tried, and I probably wrote five or six pages of really dreadful ersatz Hemingway.
Nic: You’re not alone there.
Graeme: And my friend who I was travelling with, sort of read it and he said, ‘Look, stick to computing’, which was my job then. And that’s what I did, I stuck to computing and things that came out of that, to a more prosaic sort of life, right through until I was 50.
So I did not write another word of fiction for practical purposes until I was 50, bar adapting a manuscript that my wife had written. My wife Anne Buist is also a novelist, but she was an unpublished novelist at that stage. I took one of her manuscripts, I adapted it as a screenplay just for a fun thing to do, because I’d read a book by Joe Queen about making low-budget movies. And so I adapted her novel as a screenplay, but you know, I wasn’t doing a lot of original writing here, it was adaptation. But that was my only venture before I turned 50, into writing, in fiction.
Nic: And I know that your entry into novel writing was somewhat different from other novelists in that you, when you had the idea for The Rosie Project, you wanted it first and foremost to be a film, screenplay, and it’s where you started, and later became a novel. Is that right?
Graeme: Well, yes, but around the other way. It was about what I wanted to be, followed by what I did. So I didn’t think I was up to being a novelist, and some people may still agree with that. But I didn’t think I had what it took to be novelist after that devastating experience in my early 20s. But because I’d adapted this book of my wife’s and she made a little film out of it, and had some very positive feedback about the screenplay, that you know what, with proper education and some hard work, I might be a screenwriter. And that was good enough for me because I would still get to tell stories. I think if you’d ask me that moment could I choose between being a screenwriter or novelist, I’d have chosen novelist. But you know, if you’ve got a choice between something you can’t do and something you might be able to do, you’re going to take the one that you might be able to do.
Nic: So just going back. You’ve been successful in business up to that point. I’m just intrigued to some extent that you didn’t feel as if you had the confidence, you weren’t confident enough to be a novelist. You don’t strike me as an unconfident person in terms of — I mean I know you’ve had success in business and etc, and you’ve written bestselling novels now, so I’m just really interested in, why did you believe that?
Graeme: So you reckon you could win Wimbledon? Do you?
Graeme: But really, we all have some appreciation of where we think our strengths and weaknesses lie. I can’t draw, for example. Now I’m not saying that without intensive work I might learn to draw.
But also I carry that view that many of us have about any creative work that is primarily a result of talent rather than hard work. So, having had a go, decided I didn’t have any talent, then having had another go in screenwriting, and saying what a surprise, turns out I can do this one, because I think the approach, you know, I read Syd Field’s Screenplay and a number of other books on screenwriting, was quite prescriptive, compared with say what was available on writing a novel. And ok, I’ve just got to put this thing in a three-act structure, do this and this and this. This could be doable. And I probably had more talent than I realised at it, but less than what I might’ve hoped for.
So I went through this whole screenwriting thing, and by the end of it, just to jump the story ahead a little bit, by the end of it, The Rosie Project had been my school project. I think if you’ve got to learn something, you’ve got to do formal classes in something, it’s really important to have something to apply those new skills to. So you go home at night, or you’re sitting in class, and they say ‘This is how you make a character realistic’, or ‘If you want someone to relate to a character you should introduce them in the first ten minutes’. Right, wow! I don’t have my character Gene introduced this way, I have to change that. So you’re immediately thinking, ‘How can I apply it to what I’m working on?’
Nic: And that, as someone who teaches writing, I stress with my students whenever possible. Whenever we do an exercise, try and apply something you’re working on. So it’s great to hear that.
Graeme: So I thought I’m going into this course with something specific to apply it to, until that thing collapses under its own weight, or whatever, and then I’ll try something else. But it never collapsed under its own weight, basically because — one thing stayed solid, all sorts of things changed. I had this character of Don Tilman, this socially challenged — he wasn’t a geneticist, he was a physicist to start with — a socially challenged scientist who just stayed with me all the way. So even if the story changed enormously, he stayed at the centre of it.
And after five years, I had a screenplay that I couldn’t get a maker for, because everybody wants to adapt bestselling books. And at that point I thought, maybe I could be a novelist: a) because I’d written a short story, very early on in the course, and people had liked that short story, so that was nice; and b) because I sort of thought, what do you need in order to write a novel? And you need to be able to create characters, you need to be able to write dialogue, you need to have structure, a plot. I had all of those things in the form of a screenplay, so I felt that the jump that I was going to take now, was less than the jump I would have faced, a great deal less than the jump I would’ve faced, five years earlier.
Nic: And the three-act structure was often taught as being part of film, but isn’t the three-act structure just the structure of any story?
Graeme: Well, in the sense that you say a story’s got a beginning, a middle, and an end; or a setup, progression, development and some sort of resolution. But the idea that they will be proportioned as per the movie formula or recorder — half a quarter — I don’t think so necessarily. So The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect almost exactly followed that three-act structure, you can just about pick the pages where they do.
Nic: Absolutely, no question.
Graeme: In the first book it was deliberate, in the second book it was instinctive.
Nic: Well that’s sort of what I’m getting at. In a lot of cases, the more you understand the three-act structure, the more you write a novel or extended story, it becomes instinctive to write in that way, because we’re so used to stories in that way, particularly if we’re exposed to movies, but more and more in popular fiction.
Graeme: Yeah, the difference is that if you actually understand it explicitly, rather than just tacitly or instinctively, then you’re in a position to subvert it and to know what you’re doing. So The Best of Adam Sharp, my current book, is quite consciously and explicitly structured in two parts, Part One and Part Two. So it’s not a three-act structure at all, and it’s got the present time and the past happening on the page back and forth, so it doesn’t sit to it that easy. But I knew exactly what I was doing because I knew the three-act structure.
Nic: Exactly, this could not have been your first novel.
Graeme: That’s right, and in doing it, I knew what I was losing that I had to put back somehow. For example, just getting away from that three-act structure, is the other rule I alluded to, which says if you don’t introduce a character in the first ten minutes of a movie, it’s going to be hard to get people to relate to that character. I had a character Charlie in The Best of Adam Sharp, who doesn’t appear until the second half of the book. Yet I wanted people to relate quite closely to him, to his point of view. So you’re conscious that you’re breaking the rule, I think, what do I do? Well I’m going to meet you on page one, I’m going to foreshadow him on page one, so at least we know he exists. When he comes into the book he’s going to come in with a bang, and he’s going to be the hero for a little while so we start to relate to him. So you’re conscious of what you’ve done that’s against the rules, and you know that you’re going to have to compensate for that somehow.
Nic: I suspect you’re quite a planner in the early stages of developing a story, and drafting. Last week I interviewed Toni Jordan, one of your publishing housemates. stablemates.
Graeme: Oh yes, I’ve got to tell you she’s a pantser, she writes by the seat of her pants and she’s even going to advocate it! Which is a worse thing.
Nic: Which she did last week, so I thought it would be really good for you to get your point of view and your perspective on the opposite.
Graeme: Ok, so, essentially writers choose or can be divided into plotters and pantsers. The plotters lay out the plot in advance, and they know how the story’s going to end, how it’s going to progress, and so forth.
The pantsers sit down, and I had this discussion with Toni Jordan, Zadie Smith has written about this and just says she writes, basically. Ernest Hemingway says, ‘I’m gonna write one true sentence’, then he writes the next one. And Zadie Smith is writing that way, that’s her description of her own writing process. I don’t think she in any way advocates it as a way everybody should write. She’s giving an honest reflection of how she writes herself. And when she gets to the end, having crafted the correct number of perfect sentences, the job is done. There’s even an implication, in the article I read, at least the way I read it, was that she doesn’t even get edited. That this is it, this is the book.
Now what I would say is, if you’re a Zadie Smith, and you’ve got an Orange Prize under your belt and critical reception all round the world, and that works for you, don’t change a thing. Good work, Zadie!
But if you are somebody who’s come to me, and said, ‘Graeme, I’m having trouble writing. I’m on my third book, I always get to about thirty thousand words and I run out of stuff’. I’d say, ‘I bet you write by the seat of your pants’, ‘I certainly do, that’s the style of writer I am’. ‘Well, the style of writer you are, is an unsuccessful writer. The result you’re getting doesn’t work. I’m treating my cancer with herbs. It worked for him, is it working for you? Well, no! Well for God’s sakes, see a doctor’. Turn back to the things that have some evidential basis, some theoretical basis, or at the very least, try something different. And I keep running into writers, both emerging and established, who are exhibiting the exact problems you would expect from somebody who writes by the seat of their pants.
Part of it I think, is that the people who claim not to plan in almost any profession, I believe subconsciously plan. Zadie Smith talks about having the first two or three weeks. It’s really really hard going then you sort of break through. Now I would argue what’s been happening is, subconsciously, she’s run ahead.
Nic: Sure, I tend to agree with you. Do you know exactly where you’re going, before you start?
Graeme: I tell you what I have. Before I start writing, I have what a screenwriter would call a ‘scene breakdown’, that means every scene in the book, if you think of scenes as real time events happening, would be on a card, technically, but I’ve now got a Word processor. That means I’m talking about 120 or so, for a typical length novel, have to be practical about this, about 120 or so scenes, some of them might take place in more than one place or time.
But it would say something like ‘sitting at his desk, researching pub trivia, Adam gets an email from his long-lost love’. Now, I’m going to write a page about that, I’ll explore around it, but I’ll know that’s basically what that scene is going to do. Next one, ‘Adam thinks for a long time and considers his current circumstances and decides that he will reply to his long-lost love’, whatever, ‘Adam’s partner comes home, and he cooks dinner’, whatever. I’ve got that much detail. And that is pretty detailed, that’s enough to write a story from.
Nic: It is, and to be able to do that, you need to know your characters really really well, to understand their motivations and what’s going to happen. So, do things…
Graeme: It’s a lot easier than making all of that up as you go along, because a person who’s writing by the seat of their pants, they don’t know their characters really well.
Nic: I agree, but my question is, as you’re writing then, do you get to understand your characters more and come to a point where ‘Oh, I wrote that, but now I think they might do something else’. Do you have that flexibility, or do you know your characters so well that you know their motivations all the way through?
Graeme: It’s probably the most common question I get asked about planning. Do the characters sometimes take you to a place other than what you actually planned?
And the answer is, generally at the micro-level yes, and it doesn’t matter; at the big macro-level, almost never, except for the ending. Because often the ending is balanced on a knife edge, it could go either way. You want your readers to not know how it’s going to end, and I think that choice still remains for you, the writer. Happy ending, make all your readers happy; miserable ending, win some literary prizes. Whichever way you want to go, that last page will do it.
What I find is that the setup, the first act, tends to stay almost exactly as I’ve planned it. The middle half, often I end up changing the sequence a little, not a great deal. And the last act, that’s where there’s most change, because you’ve put so much in place now, that there’s a certain inevitability about what must follow.
But if I was to pick, structurally, the most common problem you get with people who write by the seat of their pants, is lack of escalation in the second act. It’s a storytelling convention if you like, it’s something that we expect, that it gets tougher for the protagonist. If Hercules has got seven labours, they’re going to get tougher and tougher and tougher. In real life, you say well, you know, they give me seven labours, no point starting with the easiest one leaving the harder one; while I’m strong, lets knock over the first one, the toughest one, and then the rest will be a doddle. Except no-one wants to read that story.
Nic: Do you change things in the second act because of the story, or because of pacing, you go back and ‘Oh, I think I need to change the pacing’?
Graeme: Escalation. It’s mainly escalation, I really want… and possibly picking a mid-point, to say ok, half the story for a second act, there’s a lot of complications that ensue, can we have complications ensue and then a big turnaround of some sort, which almost resets, that says ok, it’s a little different to what we expected.
Nic: Every one of your scenes has complications and conflict? Or they go out, or under what circumstances do you keep one in that doesn’t have complications or conflict?
Graeme: No, the first job of a scene is to advance the story, and potentially, to develop character. What we’re talking in screenwriting, a scene is only allowed in — because you have to be parsimonious when you’re writing a movie, because you get 90 to 120 minutes on the screen, you can’t carry a lot of fat. So your rule is, if your scene doesn’t advance the story or develop character, and I would say, if it’s only there to develop character, I’d say, ‘Can’t we develop that character, attribute or whatever, in the context of advancing the story?’ So I would be saying, anything that doesn’t advance the story isn’t earning its keep. And I write plenty of scenes like that, and it’s a beautiful funny scene, whatever, but really? Is it taking us anywhere? Could the reader skip it?
Nic: To what extent are your stories based on your own experiences, or is it more about observation, or how much is it about imagination?
Graeme: Ok, pretty much everything I write is inspired either by my own experiences or things I’ve experienced second-hand. In other words, people close to me have shared those experiences with me. So I’m not writing the Wolf Hall books as it were, my novels are largely contemporary novels told from, so far, from a male point of view, from middle class white male point of view, which is professional, the whole deal. So I am at that level writing from my own, fairly direct, experience. Obviously they’re not literally true, but the inspiration comes from things that have happened, and around it you may say what if?
Inspiration doesn’t come from a single story, I think that’s where people get it wrong. They say ‘Oh, The Best of Adam Sharp was inspired by a visit from your wife’s ex-lover. Wow! So all that happened, did it?’ and you go ‘No! That was just me saying what would happen if an ex-lover turned up? Now, ah, remember that story where so-and-so told me about this, imagine that happening’, and I guess you’re throwing all of those ideas and stories, and scenes if you like, into the mix.
Nic: Sure. In what ways do you believe you’re a better writer writing The Best of Adam Sharp compared to The Rosie books? Or do you think you were a better writer, or maybe a different writer? What did you learn from the earlier ones that you were able to incorporate or that you might not have been able to do?
Graeme: Certainly from my point of view as a writer, the best book I’ve written is The Best of Adam Sharp, the second best is The Rosie Effect, and the weakest is The Rosie Project. In other words, I think I’ve progressed.
The buying public would take the exact opposite view, in terms of sales. And that’s partly because they’re not buying necessarily what I regard on the things I’ve improved. I think the buying public is very interested in a terrific premise. I think comedy sells, real comedy, because it’s relatively rare in fiction, good comedy. You know, you pick on a character that people like, enjoy.
There’s an interesting book out at the moment called The Bestseller Code, which you might’ve seen. And one of their observations was that stories, the books that sell well, go between happiness and disappointment, if you like, they go high and they go low, and they do about the same with both. Whereas lot of us write books that sit below the line almost all the time, just various levels of despair.
But for me, my craft has certainly improved in The Best of Adam Sharp, I guess I’m able to move away from some of the more formulaic things that were in The Rosie Project. I’m dealing with much more complex psychological interactions, and I’m dealing with them in a context of people who are — for want of a better word — more neurotypical, if you like. And I always feel that in some ways, winning an Academy Award, if I want to use an analogy, for playing Rain Man, or whatever, is a little bit of a monte. So often people win for playing someone a bit unusual and nobody’s really out there judging how well is Dustin Hoffman representing someone with autism? They’re saying ‘Wow! What an amazingly different picture!’ Or look at Russell Crowe playing John Nash in A Beautiful Mind.
And in some ways it’s easier to write Don Tilman because I don’t want it to be a caricature, but he’s a very strongly drawn character. Trying to write more subtle people who all of us figure that we know people exactly like that, or can relate to them directly, requires I think a greater degree of subtlety. Particularly in the interactions.
Nic: Yeah. I’m assuming, getting controversial here, shoot me down, I’m assuming The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect — I read and loved them both — I’m assuming that they’re predominantly female readers, audience, Adam Sharp perhaps differently. Did you find it difficult being taken seriously in that genre as a male writer?
Graeme: Let me talk about the whole mess. If you write a book which is about relationships, and it is written in a popular fiction style rather than consciously literary style, and it has a reasonable dash of comedy slash humour, then the category of that is called chick lit.
And then if you look at the chick lit genre, it is written almost exclusively by women, for women, with a female protagonist.
Nic: Exactly. So obviously you’ve got a male protagonist, which is different.
Graeme: Ok. That actually gives you a massive writing challenge, because when I took The Rosie Project to my publisher, he said, ‘Who do you think are reading?’ I said, ‘It’s got universal appeal’, ‘C’mon, you can’t do that’. Well, ‘Alright, I think blokes like me’. ‘Try again.’ (Laughs) ‘Blokes like you are not going to buy books about relationships with a comedic flavour’, and so forth. He goes, ‘Your audience will be women’.
So the challenge now is that traditionally, you’ve got a woman writing a female protagonist, inside her head typically in first person or close third person a female protagonist for an audience of women. If she writes a male, stereotypically a bit cardboard, but what does it matter? He’s not the main character, and he’s not being judged by other men who might be sensitive to those things, relatively speaking.
Here I am, I’m trying to write for people who are traditionally reading chick lit. I’ve discovered that at least a significant proportion will read for the lead female character; they will read The Rosie Project not for Don Tilman, but for Rosie. Who I deliberately don’t introduce for about 50 pages, saying ‘C’mon, you’re going to relate to someone, here he is, here’s your man!’ But as soon as he comes on the page, they want to read it for Rosie. And they will judge me on how well I wrote Rosie, doesn’t matter about Don, they don’t know about blokes that well. They’re the ‘other’. So I got a challenge. I’m a male, writing a female, to be judged by a female audience. As well as of course, having to get the protagonist right, from my point of view.
Nic: So when you took The Best of Adam Sharp to your publisher and they said to you, ‘Who is the reading audience for this one?’, what did you say?
Graeme: I said, ‘I guess you’re going tell me it’s female’, they said, ‘You better believe it!’, and the advertising’s gone that way, and so on.
Nic: It has, but when I read it, because it’s got so much music in it, so much obsession with music, which is a very male thing, you know.
Graeme: A couple of blokes at the table and we can say that, let me tell you when I went to my female editor and I made that statement, I got a fairly serious blast. Women care about music just as much as men do.
Nic: Really? Oh, they do, but in a different way, obsessions…
Graeme: What do you mean in a different way? (Laughs). Then I started digging a hole for myself, because the moment you focus on any gender difference, you’re seen as being sexist or even misogynist, even though the people you’re speaking to is saying, ‘Oh the audience is going to be primarily female’.
Nic: I was just going to say that, exactly.
Graeme: I had a lot of trouble with Adam Sharp, I lost a publisher over it, in the US. Basically my publishers felt that the females in the book, that the book wouldn’t be appealing to females, because the women in the book were not the sort of women they wanted in the book. And I had the most extraordinary feedback on this. The Angelina character in the book, is, basically ‘We can’t believe that she would be holding a senior public sector position’. ‘Oh for god’s sake, she’s a lawyer, which is highly credible. She studied law, when we met her she’s studying law’. Anyway, I changed one thing and they accepted it.
Nic: And what was that?
Graeme: I made her less attractive.
Nic: Oh, Jesus!
Graeme: I kid you not. I had feedback, female editors again, saying, ‘We think Angelina would be more sympathetic if we saw her doing some chores around the house’. Can we see her vacuuming in her French holiday home, and so forth. So you get this sort of feedback that I just find quite extraordinary.
And one of my very good sounding boards here is my wife, a senior professional, she’s a professor of psychiatry. She says ‘The way they want to package a book sometimes – I’m not talking about Text Publishing – we’re talking overseas here, and to edit them, I would not read them’. They’re appealing to women, but not all women, and they’re certainly not targeting professional women that way.
I’ll tell you, I compromised Adam’s language and character and some of his thoughts, where I felt that I wasn’t taking too big a hit, where I felt the game wasn’t worth the candle, as it were, around his, particularly as, you’ve got a 26-year old guy, lower middle class to working class, from Manchester UK, who in the 1980s. When a beautiful woman walks into the room, is he going to have sexual thoughts about that woman? You better believe it! To me that’s authentic, but they just found that that made him a dirty unpleasant character. So there’s a push towards any males, in so-called chick lit, fitting the romantic hero mould, and I was very conscious not to do that with Adam.
Nic: Ok, that’s an interesting lesson. It sort of ties in with the next question I wanted to ask you, which is, as a relative latecomer to the publishing industry, what are your impressions of it? Coming in as a mature man as opposed to wet behind the ears, and what advice would you give to emerging writers about the publishing industry that might help them?
Graeme: It’s not about being mature and it’s not about being a man, it’s about the fact that I ran a business for 30 years, and was working as a business consultant for a lot of that time, so I had a lot of contact with other businesses. And I find the publishing industry quite extraordinary. I find it very set in its ways, and I’m making a global statement here. Most businesses I would deal with are tremendously conscious about measuring the effect of the initiatives they take, and so forth.
But you get sent on book tours, and you say, ‘What’s the value of this book tour?’ and you get an anecdote back, ‘Oh, back in 1972 we had a guy went on one and only five people were talking in the event, but one was a director and they made the movie! So you never know what might happen’. And you say, ‘Look, it’s all very nice but I’m actually taking time out of, that I could be writing, is this smart use of my time?’ And these are very expensive things to do as well.
So I think the publishing industry… Look, it’s changing. But when I first encountered the publishing industry which was in the 1990s, writing non-fiction, I could not believe that they had not moved with the times in terms of editing software, in terms of using tracking changes, and such like. And even today, I know that some publishers, they’re still expecting you to mark things up by hand, because it looks better, it’s always the way they’ve done it. I’m just gobsmacked, and in a way, the mature person, as an older person, should be more tolerant of that. Goodness knows if you’re in your 20s and you’re so used to doing everything on a computer, how on earth you’d cope.
Nic: I get a sense that as you go on, as you progress in your writing, your characters, characterisation, is becoming more complex. Your characters are becoming more complex. Is that fair? Psychologically and…
Graeme: Yeah, and that means the plots are becoming more complex. There’s a bit of technique I was taught fairly early on, which I think is not true. It was: simple plot, complex characters. The trouble is, that complex characters got to behave in complex ways. And the way you want to show complexity of character is not to write three pages of description, but to have three pages of that person doing stuff, which is possibly contradictory, ambiguous, whatever, and that means complexity at least at the finer detail of the plot.
So I’m interested in having complicated characters, I don’t want anybody to be evil or good in a one dimensional sense. Particularly The Best of Adam Sharp, I don’t want someone saying, ‘Well I was rooting for Angelina right through it and she won’ or whatever, ‘or lost’. I want people to say, ‘Wow, every one of those characters is someone that, there but for the grace of God, go I’ and still make it compelling reading.
Nic: A year or two ago, we spent some time together at Writer’s Festival and I was intrigued by the way that at every opportunity, every spare moment, even at the airport, you were scribbling notes, you were taking time to write and take notes, I wasn’t sure what you were writing but, do you ever escape from the writing process or was that just because you had an impending deadline at that time?
Graeme: Let me talk a bit more broadly, in answer to your question. Let’s go right back to what advice I might give to beginning writers, because this is a manifestation of that advice.
I would say to them, ‘Writing is a profession, not a lifestyle’. And if you’re starting this, if you’re a young person, perhaps in your 20s and you want to be a writer, then look to your friends who want to be doctors, dentists, lawyers, and look how hard they’re working and how much they’re going to have to learn before they can actually perform in that profession. Then think you’re going to have to do the same, because it is just as esteemed a profession, just as challenging a profession, and there’s less jobs. So you’re going to have to work hard at this.
The most useful thing I got coming into writing — I was an older guy — and the first thing I thought was, ‘I guess if I’m going to make it as a writer, I have to work just as work as I had to work to make it as a management consultant, for just as long’.
So when I was doing screenwriting, I made ten short films, I don’t know of anybody else who made more than two, only a couple of people did that. And not because I had this wonderful work ethic. But because I thought, ‘I’m never going to make it if I don’t work that hard’.
So now, and my wife is the same. We work as hard at our writing as we did at our original jobs. No harder, no harder. But if you’re sitting next to an accountant, or a doctor, or a lawyer on a plane, what do you reckon they’re doing? They’ve got their laptops open, they’re working, they’re not sitting there saying, ‘Oh, wait ‘til I get home to my special place and wear my lucky socks can I start doing any of this, and then, because I do it by the seat of my pants, I may not have any ideas today, I may have to go to the pub’. You have a way of working that says you can always work. So, I can always open my computer, I can go to the paragraph of my draft that’s in the weakest shape, and say, ‘Let’s make that paragraph better’.
Nic: Fantastic, fantastic advice. Which contemporary writers do you most admire?
Graeme: That’s too hard a question for me to answer. I used to read writers. I used to say, ‘Ok, it’s John Irving’, I’m going to read everything by John Irving. ‘It’s John Fowles’, everything by John Fowles. ‘It’s Joanne Harris’, I read everything by Joanne Harris. Up until the point of Philip Roth, was when I decided I wasn’t going to read anymore, by then, and that happens.
But these days I’ve been much more about reading individual books. And again, we’re talking about advice to writers and so forth, I would say, for goodness sake, yes you have to read, and I say that to myself.
But there’s a couple of caveats on that. One of them is, no matter how much you listen to rock music, you will not be able to play the guitar. It’s got to be an adjunct to practice. And I think these days, my reading is not so much for pleasure. I can’t now read, without reading very critically, without saying, ‘How is the trick done there, did this work?’ The last book I read was, a couple of days ago I read On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. Whilst I enjoyed the book, ‘Did you enjoy the book? I don’t know, I was…’!
Nic: Analysing it too much!
Graeme: Look, the man is doing this thing in three parts: present, past, present. And he is using an omniscient point of view. He’s in both the people’s heads at the same time, and he’s giving this context about what will happen in the future: ‘This is the beginning of the 60s, they were before the time when blah blah’… and he makes it work! I didn’t think that could work. I thought that sort of went out with Dostoyevsky, here he is making it work. So it becomes a lesson for you. And I think then it becomes less of what my favourite contemporary writers are. I’m really reading now, for learning.
Nic: Because music played such a major part in Adam Sharp, I’ve got to ask you, what are your three favourite songs?
Graeme: (Laughs). You’ve read High Fidelity, haven’t you? You know what happens, Rob gets asked, ‘What are your five favourite songs’. (Laughs).
Nic: (Laughs). Indeed I have, why do you think I’m asking you?
Graeme: What are my three favourite songs.
Nic: I was going to say five, but I’ve made it three to make it easier for you.
Graeme: You did that to be different, didn’t you, just so I wouldn’t immediately think Nick Hornby, High Fidelity. ‘Visions of Johanna’ by Bob Dylan, ‘Angelina’ by Bob Dylan. (Laughs).
Nic: (Laughs) I should’ve asked for five.
Graeme: I sound like Don Tilman: ‘Day one, we’ll be at the Museum of Natural History; day two, Museum of Natural History; day three…’ and she says, ‘Let me guess’.
Um, third song, look, Leonard Cohen only died a few days ago, and I would have to throw in a Leonard Cohen song. So my favourite Leonard Cohen song, it’s so hard. ‘Anthem’ is a very beautiful song, ‘Ring the bells that still can ring’. There you go.
Nic: Lovely, lovely.
Graeme: Of course, I’ll be like calling you up tomorrow, and saying, ‘No no, can we change that!’ (Laughs).
Nic: Exactly, my number two’s actually my number four. And I’ve just come up with this other one.
Graeme: I’m not much one for favourites.
Nic: All right. Just to end, have you got a favourite joke? Do you want to share a joke with us?
Graeme: Not really, but ok. (Laughs). You gave me a heads up, you made me think a whole lot about comedy and so forth. You know, Tim Ferguson, who was my comedy mentor, said, ‘Once you’ve learnt comedy, you won’t laugh anymore’. And there was a certain truth in that. You say, ‘I can see how this joke’s going to work’, there’s so many standard ways you can make a joke. So I’ve not laughed at a joke for a while, but the last one I remember laughing at, you’ve probably heard it.
A kid says, ‘Grandpa, Grandpa, tell us a scary story’. Grandpa says, ‘All right’. They’re tucked into bed, and Grandpa says, ‘Well, I was in the jungles of India, I’m in my tent, and I hear these scratching sounds, scratch scratch scratch, what can it be?’ And he says, ‘I get up and I gingerly open up the flaps of the tent, and looking straight at me, is a tiger. Roar! I shat myself’. The kid says, ‘Oh, so will I Grandpa, if I seen a tiger’. And he said, ‘No, no. Just then, when I said ‘roar’.
Nic: (Laughs). No, I hadn’t heard that, that’s fantastic. It’s been lovely chatting and getting insights into writing, from such a successful and popular author, so I thank you very much Graeme, for taking the time to speak to us on The Garret.
Graeme: Thanks Nic.