Graeme Simsion: Project Hollywood
It was a career change as dramatic as they come: Graeme Simsion was running an IT business when, at 50, he decided to become a writer. Now more than 1.5 million copies of his books The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect have sold globally and Hollywood is calling.
After running an IT consultancy for many years, how did your writing career begin?
At the age of 50, I decided I wanted to be a screenwriter. Shortly after I enrolled in the diploma at RMIT, we had to present a seminar related to our goals. My study partner and I called ours 'Cracking Hollywood', which was seen as a little ambitious for first year students. But – thanks largely to the prestige of the RMIT program – we managed to get some eminent guests including Jan Sardi, the Oscar-nominated writer of Shine. I guess that sent a message that we were serious, and I continued in that vein. You’ll recognise me as that annoying mature-age student who’s still asking questions after the class is over.
One day the head of school took me aside and asked, in what you’d probably call her pastoral role, “What if you don’t get your Hollywood film made? Will you be okay?”
But I’d learned a bit about goals since then. And my answer was: “It’s a dream, not an expectation.” I knew the odds that I wouldn’t make it. But after I started the RMIT course, I wrote and produced a bunch of short films. I saw one of my plays performed at the State Theatre. I had the privilege of working with Bud Tingwell on his last film. These weren’t just stepping stones – they were some of the most satisfying achievements of my life.
How did you make the transition from running an IT consultancy to writing?
I started my career with a degree in physics and then I got a job working in data modelling. I went from that to starting my own IT consultancy business, which grew to over 60 people.
Then I decided to make a short film. I got some good feedback from a film producer, so I sold my business and enrolled at RMIT.
The transition actually took a few years. I had to do two, almost three years of handover to help the new owners get the business going. Instead of enrolling in the screenwriting program straight away, I went and did a PhD in data modelling. But after immersing myself in the topic for all these years, I was over it. Finishing it and coming into screenwriting at RMIT was such a relief, it was the sort of education I really wanted.
The Rosie Project is about a geeky genetics professor and his unorthodox search for a wife – where did the idea come from?
I knew that good stories often come out of character, so I had searched my mind for what characters I knew well. I figured I knew geeks better than anybody after working in IT for so long.
Initially, I had written a screenplay [of the story] and I couldn’t sell it. So I decided to write it as a novel. I sent the book out to several publishers, but it was resting in their slush piles. Then the book won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. The award got the book moving and it was published. Once it was released, the novel took on a life of its own.
At a certain point the book and its sequel became more important to me than the screenplay and film. As it happens, it now probably will be made into a film, and I’ll be very happy if it does, but it’s no longer a driving force in my life.
At the moment, Sony Pictures has The Rosie Project movie in development. They are investing in it, and they have producers, directors and rewriters on board, but it doesn’t have a green light to go ahead yet.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates was a fan of the books and asked to meet with you – how did that happen?
Bill’s people got in touch with my people and said, “Bill would like to meet Graeme.” So we were able to fly into Seattle on our way home from London and I spent an hour or so chatting with Bill and Melinda about the books. I said to Bill, “It’s really funny, I spent 30 years working in information technology, I was at the top of my field and I never met you. Now I write a comedy and we’re sitting in a room chatting!”
I value their opinion, but they are people like other people. What I like most is that Bill is male, a senior executive, and a recognised intellectual, and those aren’t necessarily the people who would pick up a book called The Rosie Project, which is marketed as a romance in the US.
Why do you think people have responded so strongly to Don’s character?
I was surprised by how much people said they fell in love with Don, because while writing the screenplay I was constantly told this character is not sympathetic enough. But in the book we see the world from his point of view. We’re inside Don’s head, so we understand where he’s coming from, so he’s become a very relatable character.
When was the moment that you knew you had made it?
It hit me when I walked into Sony Pictures Studios [previously the historic MGM Studios] where they’ve got the rainbow backdrop from The Wizard of Oz. This is an iconic place in Hollywood, and there are executives and producers sitting around and I’m the central guy, who’s never worked as a screen writer in my life!
It was an extraordinary, surreal experience. I’d been catapulted from RMIT to Sony Pictures on a Hollywood production. I’d never worked on Neighbours, or done any of the apprenticeship-type stuff that you do, and now I’m a member of the Writers Guild of America, so I get to vote in the Academy Awards!
What does success mean to you?
Being able to do the things I want to do, to achieve the things I want to achieve, to make a difference. There’s a sense of getting myself into a position where I have the ability to do things as the opportunities arise rather than having some single life goal. The individual things I want to do have changed as I've got older. Right now, being able to write and reach an audience is foremost in my mind, but that may change. I’m a little like the guy who uses his three wishes to ask for a hundred more!
What was the motivation behind writing the sequel, The Rosie Effect?
Initially I wasn’t going to write a sequel. Romantic comedies are essentially a film genre and famously don’t have sequels. But I felt that I had been gifted a character, Don Tillman, who had a lot of life still in him, and was a great vehicle for tackling other issues.
For some people these books are a light comedy and for others it’s profound and they actually tackle important questions: there’s no reason why comedy can’t do that. I am always trying to write a book which has something to say, even though not everybody will engage with it. The sequel asks the bigger question: what do you have to do to make a relationship work?
How did your career in information technology influence your career writing fiction and screenplays?
I think the most important thing is the ability to manage a big project. I’ve done a PhD thesis and I’d done big projects and learned the logistical management and the self-discipline and how to approach it. Writing a novel also requires project management – many people in creative writing struggle with that.
I also ran a business for many years and you really have to have a level of self-discipline and personal organisation to make that happen. Writing is not the hardest job I’ve ever done in my life. If you think writing is tough, go out and run a business - it is way tougher!
What advice would you give to someone who wants to make a career change?
The bad news is that if you want to make it in a new career, you have to expect to put in the same sort of effort as you did to make it in your original career. The good news is that you can draw on general skills – dealing with people, problem solving, communication – that are valuable in any discipline, you don’t have to learn them again. And with a little good luck with health, you have more time than our predecessors had.
In terms of becoming a writer, I have one absolutely essential piece of advice. Ask how good you are at what you do currently, and ask what it would take to get to the top of your field. That’s how much work it’s going to take to be a successful novelist. I’ve met so many people that weren’t putting in the hours to write a novel. I don’t condemn them for it, but it’s unreasonable for them to expect to make it if they don’t do the hours. Conversely, the people who did put in the hours are largely having success. The message is, it’s going to take a lot of work and it’s going to take a minimum amount of five years full-time.
I also think the relationships at RMIT were very valuable. I’d say form some relationships at RMIT and stay in touch, help each other, because we’re all coming into the same point in the industry.
In 2014 you were awarded an honorary doctorate in communications from RMIT. What did that mean to you?
Studying at RMIT was different from any educational experience I’ve had. I wasn’t the only mature-age student and I wasn’t the oldest!
It was an enormous honour receiving the honorary doctorate, because RMIT had been fundamental to this life change for me. To get it from RMIT was a bigger honour than getting it from any other institution I’ve been involved in. Honestly, I felt uncomfortable at first, because there are other people involved at RMIT who have a longer and more distinguished track record than I do. But I looked at it more broadly and said okay, I’ve done lots of stuff across communications throughout my career and it has been a constant in my life.
What are the values that drive your work?
My answer is the same as most people would give - being true to yourself, respecting others. I have a pretty strong sense of the social contract, of paying it forward: that we get to live as well as we do because of those who lived before us, and we have a duty to leave the world a better place, even though we won't benefit directly.
Graeme Simsion completed an Advanced Diploma of Professional Screenwriting, an Associate Degree in Professional Writing and Editing in 2013 and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2014.
Images: Graeme Simsion pictured at the Little Library in Melbourne Central. Photo by Emma Phillips.
This article was first published online at: https://alumnimagazine.rmit.edu.au/archive/autumn-2015/project-hollywood/ and in print in the RMIT Alumni Magazine in the Career Issue.