Buist can’t help but giggle and nod as he makes an admission: as a child and teenager he was something of a nerd.
“Oh yeah, I think so…” he says. “I was good at maths and science, in the radio club, I was a ham radio operator, all that sort of stuff.” In the prototypical nerdish trajectory, the New Zealand-born town planner’s son was at university at only 16.
The daughter of a pathologist, Buist studied medicine at Monash but did her Masters and Doctorate at the University of Melbourne. Her MD thesis was on childhood trauma as a risk factor for postnatal depression and after she qualified she worked in the mother and baby unit at a psychiatric hospital.
For all that, there was still the tug of writing. “On our first wedding anniversary we said to each other: ‘What do you want to do in the next five years?’ and I said: ‘I’d like to write a novel’. Then at the next one he said: ‘Am I going to keep hearing it for the rest of our days?’”
Simsion told his wife: “Just one page … if you only write one page a day, in a year you’ll have a novel.”
Of course it wasn’t that easy. She’d just had a baby and was going back to work – and, she says, she had a fear of rejection. But she remembered a study in a retirement home in which residents were asked their greatest regret: “Not one of them said they wished they’d spent more time at work. It was all about not taking risks.
“I thought I don’t want to get to 80 and regret that I never put that novel in. So I thought dammit, I’m going to do it, and I did – and got rejected.” But she forged on. In 2010, while on a sabbatical at Yale, she began filling in the two-hour train commute between there and New York by writing erotic fiction as Simone Sinna, a “porn star” anagram of her married name. Erotica publisher Siren Bookstrand snapped up her first attempt, Embedded, and two more.
“It gave me a great opportunity to practise story,” she says. “Lots of sex too – if you can’t write about sex as a psychiatrist, who can – but I found it really restricting. It’s actually not erotic at all; it’s very naughty Mills & Boon.”
Meanwhile the two had collaborated on an ultra-low-budget movie based on one of Buist’s rejected novels and Simsion – author of two books on data modelling – had caught the screenwriting bug. He sold his business and enrolled in a screenwriting course at RMIT. The Rosie Project began life as a screenplay that eventually won an Australian Writers’ Guild award for Best Romantic Comedy.
The birth of the novel was less than straightforward. On a New Zealand holiday with their son, Simsion and Buist began kicking around an idea, inspired by a friend “who was not a hundred miles from Don Tillman in personality”. They workshopped it as a romantic drama, but Simsion soon found it worked better as a “laugh-out-loud rom-com”.
Buist, meanwhile, had an unsubmitted manuscript – “143,000 words, and just garbage” – from an idea Simsion had given her years earlier about someone searching for their biological father through surreptitious DNA testing. Simsion, now enrolled in a professional writing course, reclaimed the idea, but threw out his original plot, keeping only the main character of Don.
“I always knew the heart of the story was the Don Tillman character,” he says. “Laugh-out-loud comedy comes out of character and very few novelists have been gifted even one such character in a lifetime. You’ve got Bridget Jones, you’ve got Rumpole of the Bailey, and perhaps you’ve got Don Tillman.”
The US sports writer Red Smith used to say writing is easy – you just sit down at a keyboard and open a vein. Simsion disagrees. He carefully plans his stories, storyboarding and laying out scene by scene in a literal pack of cards, before he begins writing. It’s a process.
“That means,’’ he says, ‘‘I can concentrate on telling the story rather than what the story is.
“That writing is very pleasurable … writers who talk about the agony of creation, OK it’s a personal experience but as a job being a full-time writer is not the toughest gig in the world.
“It’s very tough trying to fit it around your day job.” He looks at his wife and smiles. “My heart goes out to you if you’re trying to be a psychiatrist by day and a fiction writer by night.”
BY GARY TIPPET