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 Hollywood is calling.
The author of The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect explains how he came to have Hollywood knocking on his door.
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.
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.
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 thinking writing is tough, go out and run a business – it is way tougher!
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-aged 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.