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Interview: May 3, 2017

Graeme Simsion follows up his international bestsellers THE ROSIE PROJECT and THE ROSIE EFFECT with THE BEST OF ADAM SHARP, in which a piano-playing IT consultant must choose between his current partner and his lost love. In this interview conducted by’s Amy Haddock, Simsion discusses the role of music in the novel (and reveals the two songs he thinks would serve as the perfect soundtrack for the past and present storylines), the difficulties of writing female protagonists in a love story, how the title “The Best of Adam Sharp” came about, and the joint novel he’s working on with his wife. Many readers came to know your character, Don Tillman, the brilliant and socially inept professor of genetics, in THE ROSIE PROJECT and THE ROSIE EFFECT. What would you want to say to fans of those books to set them up for this new journey?

Graeme Simsion: It is a new journey --- new characters, new dilemmas, new decisions to make. Don’t come to it expecting a “traditional” romantic comedy like THE ROSIE PROJECT, and do expect to be challenged --- even confronted --- a little. That said, it’s not a “difficult” book --- readers don’t seem to have any trouble keeping the pages turning --- and it’s again a story about love and relationships from a male point of view, with a bit of humor. I mean, it’s the same guy writing it.

BRC: Adam Sharp is such a likable character, and we get to see his growth throughout the book. As a gifted pianist, his song repertoire seems to be the way he often communicates thoughts or feelings. In writing this book, what came first for you --- the music or the characters?

GS: Not everyone finds Adam likable! But I think he’s very human and, like most of us, has made some poor decisions --- and lived to regret them. He’s emotionally a bit closed (he’s a guy!), but popular music, both playing and listening, is his emotional outlet.

I had the idea of writing a book with a “soundtrack,” and also a book about someone reconnecting with a long-lost love --- two distinct projects --- for a long time. I can’t remember which came first. The key decision was bringing them together. Much the same happened with THE ROSIE PROJECT when I brought together the idea of a socially awkward man looking for a partner with the story of a woman looking for her biological father.

The characters in the book came before the songs. I then chose songs that fit the story, that were largely (I hoped) familiar, and (third criterion) that I liked. Not all the songs made it to the third criterion.

BRC: When we first meet Adam, he has hit a midlife crisis of sorts and spends a lot of time weighing what is and what was. Why do you think we, as humans, have a tendency to romanticize the past rather than live in the present?

GS: I’m only an amateur psychologist (!), but I’d say we tend to simplify the past; it saves the problem of dealing with complexity! “I hated high school but I loved football,” even though I might have had some good moments at school and broken my arm playing football. When it comes to love, we tend to idealize, even at the time. Adam lost a relationship while it was still at its romantic peak --- and that’s what he remembers. His current partner, Claire, who’s been with him for 20 years, has to compete with a love that is forever young and unencumbered by day-to-day practicalities.

BRC: The structure of this story takes place moving from past to present with a few jumps back and forth in time. How did you navigate that in writing the book? Did you start from the flashbacks and move forward, or approach the storytelling in a different way?

GS: I studied originally as a screenwriter, and I use cards to plan the scene-by-scene plot. So I had the ability to shuffle it around. That said, the flow I ended up with came very naturally, and most readers don’t have any trouble following the story.

If I’d told it strictly chronologically, we wouldn’t have met Adam’s current partner, Claire, until halfway through, and I think that would have detracted from our ability to relate to her. I also wanted to get Adam’s dilemma (“My current partner or the Great Lost Love?”) on the page right from the start, so the first half would be more than just a conventional love story.

BRC: Often in books, the male character drives the romance, but in this book Angelina holds her own and often calls the shots. She's a strong female protagonist --- intelligent, focused, career-minded and loyal. Where did your inspiration come for this character? Was there an aspect of her that was challenging to write, especially as it relates to her flaws?

GS: Angelina was inspired by a number of women I know, not least my wife, who is Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne (i.e. intelligent, focused, career-minded --- and also loyal). I want all my characters, male or female, to be complex, flawed, sometimes weak, sometimes heroic.

But I do find it challenging to write the female character in a love story --- and here I had to write two! I’m aware that many of my readers will be female --- the opposite gender to the narrator and main character, Adam. If you turn it around, it’s equivalent to a female writer of conventional female-narrated romance trying to satisfy male readers --- and I think we know how well that generally goes. (Give a conventional romance to a male reader, and they’re likely to find the male hero too…heroic --- one-dimensional, idealized and not like anyone they know.)

So it’s a great challenge to write women in romantic situations who will be convincing to other women. I had feedback from an editor (female, I’d add) that Angelina would be more appealing if we could see her do some housework. I wouldn’t expect to get that comment about a senior male professional. (I responded by having Angelina tell us why she damn-well wasn’t doing any housework on vacation).

We’re currently negotiating movie rights for THE BEST OF ADAM SHARP, and I’m particularly excited to have strong interest from a prominent female actor who wants to play Angelina, just as we had --- for a while --- a prominent female actor keen to play Rosie in THE ROSIE PROJECT. That’s a nice affirmation that you’ve made the character interesting and real.

I try to provide some background for people’s flaws, particularly if they are central to the story. Angelina was given less attention in her family than her brother and sisters. Adam felt he had to hold his parents’ failing marriage together. Claire lived in the shadow of a sister who died young.

BRC: Music is a character in this book and an intertwined piece of Adam and Angelina's story. Do you have a song that feels like the perfect "title track" of this book?

GS: I wanted the book to have a soundtrack --- music that played in readers’ minds and added another dimension. It’s a novel in two parts, and I guess the Monkees hit “Daydream Believer” would capture the feel of the first, as well as Adam’s Manchester accent. As for the second, Joe South’s “Games People Play” (the title of which comes from Eric Berne’s popular psychology book) would pick up the Sex, Lies, and Videotape flavor. And both songs are from Adam’s favorite ’60s-’70s period.

BRC: The book’s main characters are shaped by their upbringing (as we all are). As they interact with each other, they draw out or soothe each other's insecurities rooted in those memories. Was there a piece of writing the romantic relationships dynamic that came more easily than another?

GS: I can tell you what didn’t come easily! There are two notable sex scenes, the second of which is a bit confronting/transgressive/awkward. They took a lot of reworking to get the right feel. In the second, I wanted the reader to relate to the awkwardness, but still believe in the dynamics --- and not feel the awkwardness was bad writing.

It helped that I believed in all of the relationships. Interestingly, the one that came without any effort, almost in the background, is the buddy relationship that develops between Adam and Angelina’s husband, Charlie, even though they are now love rivals.

The ending came easily, and I guess that gives me some confidence it was the right outcome. It could have gone differently.

BRC: Relationships in this book are extremely layered --- as Claire would say, "all of the above." What takeaway do you hope readers are left with in contemplating their own paths less traveled?

GS: Different people will take different things from the story. I want to encourage readers to think rather than tell them what to think. But here are some of my thoughts.

When my father was nine, in England, his mother died. His father employed a German nanny to look after the children and, with war clouds looming, married her so she could stay in the country. Later they migrated to New Zealand where I was born, and I knew them as my grandmother and grandfather, an exceptionally devoted couple whose marriage lasted almost 50 years --- until my grandfather’s death.

In THE BEST OF ADAM SHARP, I tell the story of a colleague of Adam who fell in love with a girl in Poland and married her after knowing her only a short time. Many years later, Adam looks him up on the web and finds that he and she are still together. He says, I had always thought of Bob as the man who seized the day, a role model for what I had failed to do. But after forty years, he was something more: the man who, with his wife, had turned that opportunity into a life. Time and hard work.

And, in a moment of clarity, as he considers his options, Adam says: Lost love belongs in a three-minute song, pulling back feelings from a time when they came unbidden, recalling the infatuation, the walking on sunshine that cannot last and the pain of its loss, whether through parting or the passage of time, reminding us that we are emotional beings.

BRC: Courage is often in the quiet choice rather than a big stand, full of bravado. The characters here have their own moments of bravery in deciding their paths forward. How would you define love in its purest form, absent from the dysfunctional way we often interact with it?

GS: That’s nicely put. Love, for me, is ultimately about wanting the best for the other person and acting on that. As Charlie says, “love is a verb.” So the courage --- the test of love --- can entail sacrificing your own desire for the other in the interests of their happiness.

BRC: Do you believe in the concept of a "soul mate"?

GS: I believe in soul mates, and I’m lucky enough to be married to mine, but I think it’s more about something you become than someone you find.

BRC: How did you come to land on the title “The Best of Adam Sharp”?

GS: For a while, the working title was “The Candle,” and I wasn’t completely happy with that. The book is full of ’60s and ’70s music, and I was searching for a Herman’s Hermits song that turned out to be on a collection called The Best of the 60s. That was a common style of album title back then and seemed to fit. The Essential Adam Sharp was my second choice, but not as “period.”

BRC: Having come from the IT world of technical writing, now with three fiction books under your belt, what --- if anything --- about your writing journey has surprised you?

GS: It’s hard to go past the commercial success; I hadn’t set my sights any higher than getting published locally in Australia. But I’ve also been amazed and gratified that the Rosie books have changed some attitudes towards autism and helped some individuals with autism and their families. I never set out to do this, and I feel genuinely humbled by it.

BRC: I'm curious: If you could pick a moment in musical history to be an eyewitness to, what would you choose?

GS: THE BEST OF ADAM SHARP, page one: My route took me past the Radisson Hotel, once the Free Trade Hall and scene of a seminal moment in popular music. May 17, 1966. A heckler shouts “Judas!” to the young Bob Dylan, who has returned after the interval with an electric guitar, and he responds with a blistering rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone.” My father was there, in the audience, eyewitness to music history.

I’d have settled for any of the performances on that tour.

BRC: As book clubs around the world pick up THE BEST OF ADAM SHARP, what drink would Charlie say is the ultimate pairing?

GS: Beaujolais (but not Beaujolais nouveau --- the real stuff). And, if you’re being selective (as Charlie would be), a Beaujolais from Fleurie, where he, Adam and Angelina have dinner together.

BRC: What are you working on now, and when might we expect to see it?

GS: A joint novel with my wife, Anne Buist, titled TWO STEPS FORWARD. It’s a romantic comedy set on the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrim walk in France and Spain. An American artist on a spiritual journey to come to terms with the death of her husband meets an English engineer --- bitterly divorced --- walking to build commercial interest for some hiking gear he’s invented.

It’s scheduled for publication in Australia in October 2017. The US date hasn’t been set yet.