Portrait

For Rosie Project writer Graeme Simsion, the journey to overnight success started long ago.

By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

All’s Rosie for bestselling author Graeme Simsion

The writing friend I’ve dragged along to pre-award drinks nudges me. “There he is,” she says, discreetly gesturing towards a compact, unassuming man in his 50s wearing a crisp white-collared shirt, dark pants and a writerly black bowler hat. 

She’s studied with the author in a writing class at RMIT – in that six-degrees-of-publication way the City of Literature tends to be. She moves to introduce us, but the Next-Big-Thing bustle keeps a thrill of wellwishers closely packed around him. They chat excitedly, hands curved around champagne glasses, uniformly adorned in black-with-a-splash semi-formal wear.

Later in the evening, at the opening of the 2013 Emerging Writers’ Festival, Graeme Simsion’s well-shined shoes shuffle across the polished wooden floorboards of the Edge theatre. A broad grin stretches across his face. He reaches for the microphone, looks out at the eager audience. His speech is mostly numbers – an incredulous wide-eyed tally. On this exact date last year, he won the 2012 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript for his first novel, The Rosie Project. (He moves two metres to the right, on the large stage.) Exactly this many days later, he signed his Australian publishing deal. (He moves two metres back to the left.) This many weeks after that, the book was sold into its first foreign territory. (He continues the gentle pacing.)

The verbatim activity log stretches right up until present discussions around film optioning. The book has only just been released in Australia. Bright tomato-red copies are stacked high on a table by the theatre door. The wonder in Simsion’s voice at this unexpected journey is all the more delightful for his maturity of age. The audience looks on curiously: amused; captivated. 

A year later Simsion and I are double-billed together at Victoria University’s Rotunda in the West literature evening. Simsion climbs the steps to the small stage.

“Who here has already bought and read The Rosie Project?” he asks.

Half of the audience, mostly women in their 30s to 60s, put up their hand.

“Well,” he says, “Everyone has friends to buy for. My next book The Rosie Effect is also out in October, and it’s already available for pre-order.”

It’s hilarious, but it’s shameless. It’s pushy, but it’s funny. It’s weirdly charming. Simsion starts his story. He was working as a data modeller. (He looks out at the crowd.) Had a successful business. (He walks forward on the stage, leaning into the handheld mic.) But he’d always wanted to work in film. (He pauses.) He funded a short film himself. Made it with friends and family. (He smiles at the memory.) Then, he got the idea for what would become The Rosie Project

This is a different Simsion: a Simsion of international book tours and honorary degrees. A slick, polished Simsion. A whole-stage Simsion, whose facts and figures have now been inserted into extended authorial yarn. This is a Simsion as delighted about his journey as when he handed the award baton to me that first evening. But nevertheless, a Simsion changed. Eventually the circuit alters all of us, in this way.

Six months after our evening at Rotunda, we meet at Carlton’s hip new bar Heartattack and Vine, run by friend and fellow Melbourne writer Emily Bitto, in that six-degrees-of-publication way the City of Literature can often be. 

Simsion smiles a greeting as I pull out a seat. 

“Ask me something penetrating!” he begs hopefully, with the frustration of a man who’s answered one too many Good Housekeeping author quizzes. 

When I ask him what he has in mind he talks about the “tribalism of Australian politics”, his frustration that good policy has become less important than party line. We linger on politics, for a moment. A small ceramic cup is cradled in his right hand. His shoulders bow inwards towards each other as he gently sips the short black. One leg is crossed tightly over the other, as if his body’s trying to fold itself inwards; retract into its centre and precision-fold shut, like origami.

There’s still an enigmatic uncertainty about Graeme Simsion: even as he confesses he harboured Miles Franklin hopes for The Rosie Project; even as he chats about book endorsement by Bill Gates; being on bestseller lists in places as far flung as Israel.

“It was loved by everybody, including the critics,” I remark of The Rosie Project

“Actually, The New York Times gave it a bad review.” Simsion’s reply is at odds with his playful grin and raised eyebrows – as if he’s well aware what a miracle it is to appear in The Times literary pages at all, but is nevertheless still digging at the thorn.

What’s refreshing about Simsion is his candidness. He tells me about three men turning up to a Melbourne reading, eagerly introducing themselves as old high school friends. 

“The thing is, I remembered them – they actually used to beat me up at school!”

He speaks about both the privilege and monotony of touring; the staring-into-hotel mirrors-at-4am-start-days, chastising himself in third person: “Graeme, you’re living the dream. No one’s going to feel sorry for you.”

Simsion’s success is the stuff of which dreams – and millions – are made. Acclaim may have been quick but the journey, it seems, started some time ago.

“Tell me about 20-year-old Graeme Simsion.”

“Actually, if you’ll indulge me and let me be 21 instead, I’ll tell you a story…” Exuberance emanates from his eyes. They radiate an insurmountable energy; are disconcerting in an intensely emotive, James Baldwin-like way.

The story he tells me is early-20s-white-middle-class-male-travels-country-in-Kombi-with-mate-on-coming-of-age-pilgrimage. The very ordinary kid, from the flatlining Melbourne suburb of Glen Waverley, fancies he can turn himself a phrase, grabs pen and paper while on the road.

“It was heavily autobiographical. I was reading a lot of Hemingway at the time. So I thought… Well, I suppose I was probably trying to be Hemingwayesque. It was bad. I showed it to my mate and he just read it and straight away said, ‘Nup.’ ”

His eyes sparkle. His shoulders quiver with laughter. He runs a hand over his closely cropped grey-brown hair, shakes his head in genuine amusement at the greenness and inexperience of his younger self.

What’s striking about this story, given there’s no dearth of this kind of first fiction on bookshelves across Australia, is that for almost three decades, until the wildly successful Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion was the kid who’d put down the pen.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2015 as "All's Rosie". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.

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