Q&A with Graeme Simsion, Guest Judge of the 2018 Fiction Edition

10 August 2018

Q&A with Graeme Simsion, Guest Judge of the 2018 Fiction Edition

Fiction Edition 2018

Graeme Simsion is a Melbourne-based writer whose debut novel The Rosie Project won the 2014 ABIA Book of the Year and sold more than three million copies worldwide.

Before becoming an international bestseller, Graeme’s day job was data modelling and IT consulting. Now, he writes screenplays, short stories, novels, short plays and produces the occasional film.

Luckily for The Big Issue, Graeme also found the time to guest judge our Fiction Edition where he helped us pick the stories that made it into the magazine. In this Q and A, he talks about the judging process and offers some advice to writers.

Graeme Simsion with Big Issue Editor Amy Hetherington (left) and Books Editor Thuy On (right).

Why did you want to get involved in The Big Issue Fiction Edition?
I’ve read it; I’ve been published in it; I enjoy reading new fiction, particularly Australian fiction. Beyond that, something that’s come out of my background in screenwriting is being able to take satisfaction from being a part – even a small part – of a creative project. In movie-making, the result is the sum of many contributions. So I get a kick not only out of my “own” writing, but also out of helping to bring others’ work to publication. It’s something I can continue to do when the creative well dries up – my retirement plan.

What was the process like?
Surprisingly engrossing. I’d expected to find a lot of experimental work with little conventional story; potentially interesting but often hard work if you don’t engage. Instead, I found the storytelling overall strong and largely mainstream, with the story concept and quality of prose being more important in choosing the shortlist. Remember, I was working with a longlist of 30 stories rather than the full set of 400-plus submissions!
For me, the best few stories stood out, and I was gratified to find that my top 10 or so aligned very closely with those of the other judges.

What do you look for in a short story?
As I read, I looked specifically for concept and content (is the story addressing something important, interesting, thought-provoking?); quality of storytelling (structure, engagement, point of view, etc) and quality of prose. A month later, I reviewed the extent to which the story had stayed with me. 

What do you particularly like about the short story form?
Think about a piece of music/song you love. Now imagine it stretched to 10, 20, 50 times as long. Unless you’re a prog-rock nut, it’s not a great idea. It’s the same with stories: some are best suited to a short format, just as some may work better as plays, movies or poems.

Were there any notable themes or trends among this year’s entries?
#MeToo. Many of the stories featured sexual assault, or, less often, non-sexual abusive behaviour on the part of men towards women. With so much recent writing on the subject, the challenge for the author is to offer something new: a different setting; an unusual perspective; a fresh insight into the causes and impact. The best stories did this.

Was there a standout story/stories?
Of course. They’re the ones that made it in! On first reading, I rated Korean Lessons highest overall. My vote for the best comedy writing was The Hunt.

Any tips for writers thinking about entering next year?
Check out Natasha Buzzacott’s The Blowies: half the length of all the other stories. It earned its place for its fine writing (I rated it first equal for prose and the length was right for the story), but editors often have a space to fill and a shorter piece just might jump the queue.

Similarly, editors want to publish a diversity of stories. In the marketplace, crime, scifi, fantasy, comedy and romance take a huge share of the market and any of these can be written with insight and style. They’re likely to stand out from the pack more than a story of domestic turmoil (which, before you pile on, is a fair proportion of what I write!).

Why do you think short stories are popular again?
The obvious answer is short concentration spans. But I think there have been some excellent (and awarded) collections that have whetted the publics’ appetite. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil. Helen Garner’s two recent collections. The late John Clarke’s non-fiction pieces. And Alice Munro picking up a Nobel Prize.

What was the first story that you had published?
The Klara Project Phase 1, a “work up” piece for what became The Rosie Project, published in The Envelope Please (2007).

What impact do you think The Big Issue’s Fiction Edition has on the Australian literary scene?
I have no idea how it’s regarded by the “literary scene”, but I do know that the people I mix with look forward to grabbing a copy when it comes out. From a writer’s perspective, it’s a great place to be published – highly visible, properly judged, widely read.

How important is this sort of exposure to writers?
For new writers, in particular, it’s hugely important. The jump from unpublished to published is the biggest most of us will make. And then, to be in a publication sold on every street corner… inestimable. I got a big kick out of being included a couple of years ago, even though I had a novel or two out there.


The Big Issue's 2018 Fiction Edition is out now.