Novelist and Screenwriter Roger Simpson on AI, His Career Journey and Advice For Writers Today
Posted on: Dec 07, 2023
Roger Simpson is best known for the smash-hit TV series Halifax: Retribution starring Rebecca Gibney. Despite being one of Australia’s leading screenwriters, he confesses writing his first novel was “terrifying.”
Throughout his career, Simpson has traversed almost every genre, including comedy/crime cult classic (Good Guys, Bad Guys), police drama (Stingers) and young adult sci-fi (Silversun).
He’s found success in almost every medium, with his stage play “The Trial Of Paul Gauguin being long-listed for the National Playwrights Conference in 2016.
Simpson also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Australian Writers’ Guild (AWG) in 2021.
That first book, the Jane Halifax novel Transgression, published in October of 2022, isn’t a first book in a traditional series sense. With a third book to follow, each story functions as a self-contained, stand-alone narrative. However, Simpson suggests readers new to the Halifax world start with the sequel, Resurrection, stating: “It gives the best background to Jane Halifax.”
You started your writing career in the theater. How did those beginnings lead you to where you are today?
I started in the theater because that opportunity presented itself in college. I got into student revue as a writer/performer doing SNL style satire. That led to comedy gigs in television, which in turn led to children’s television, then dramatized documentaries.
In those days, I saw myself as a dramatist rather than a novelist and graduating to TV drama—in particular cop shows—was the aim. I thought Hill Street Blues was the best show I had ever seen.
Is there any advice you received early in your career you’ve kept with you since?
Be original—don’t copy current successes. Don’t follow trends: try and get out there and create them. There was no Fleabag or Killing Eve before those projects came along. Obviously, I’m a bit of a fan of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Which leads me to my second piece of advice: “It doesn’t matter what age you are, think young.”
You’ve won an astounding nine AWG awards. To what do you credit your enduring success?
You have to constantly reinvent yourself to stay fresh. Even with the Halifax franchise I created more than 20 years ago, the remake, Halifax Retribution, was nothing like the original 21 telemovies. The Jane Halifax books Transgression and Resurrection are a further progression as well. Drama needs to reflect the world in which it is set. It needs to be modern and relevant to the current audience.
Not that it needs to be issue-based. As Frank Capra famously said, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union,” but the subtext of drama needs to be real and relatable to the time, politics and social milieu of the current viewer or reader. It can be set in the 15th century, but you are writing for a contemporary audience, not students of history.
Interestingly, you’ve called writing novels the “best of the three forms.” What do books give you that TV and film don’t?
Film and television are collaborative forms. The screenwriter is important in film, but not as powerful as the director. Similarly, in television, the writer is always answerable to the producer who has to deal with the networks, which is why I became a producer in television and moved away from film after being monstered by two directors.
But the book is undeniably a writer’s form. Publishers and editors are a very important part of the process, but there is a connection and intimacy between writer and reader that you simply can’t achieve in the other two forms.
Of course, if things go wrong, there’s no one else to blame—the director for misinterpreting the script or the actor for missing the tone, but at this stage in my career, I’m relaxed about that. I can take the blows.
You’re a self-described “structuralist” and have shared how critical outlining is to your process. Can you walk us through what a “typical” day might look like?
I never start drafting until I know the ending of what I’m writing. Or, put it another way, the reason I’m writing the piece in the first place. Until I can answer those two questions—where I am going and why—I just draft and redraft the story and refine it down to a synopsis until it is perfect. Well, as near to perfect as I can manage before the actual writing begins, which itself is a process of discovery.
When writing a book, I aim [for] 1,000 words a day. With a film or TV script, that equates to about five pages. I find the normal writing day is about four to five hours of proper writing. After that, the brain starts to hurt, so I tail off the day by reading what I have written and planning what I will write the following day. [Taking] weekends off is essential, especially if you have a family.
A project for me has three stages: storyline, first draft and editing. For a book, I allocate three months to stage one, six months to stage two and three months to stage three. Writing a feature film is similar.
Television is the same process, only on steroids and done much more quickly to feed the voracious monster, which is why we have teams of writers and a writers’ room. TV can take all you have to give and more, so you need to factor in holidays and [having] a life.
On the subject of life—how are you thinking about the emergence and use of generative artificial intelligence?
There was an interesting documentary made in Australia that matched AI against human creativity. AI was asked to paint three portraits and three artists were asked to do the same. At the end of the exercise, the six works were put on exhibition and the public was utterly unable to distinguish the AI paintings from the human ones.
The same exercise was repeated with photography and again, the audience could only guess which was which. Then AI was asked to write a stand-up comedy routine and have an actor go up against a real stand-up comedian. The AI-generated script failed miserably. Nobody laughed.
I’m not saying that they won’t teach AI one day how to write better gags and think more like a human being, but comedy requires something beyond logic and algorithms: it is probably the most human emotion we have.
Creativity and originality are distinctly human traits—as are unpredictability and the ability to surprise and delight and to swim against the current. Until AI can do that too, I remain cautiously optimistic that writers are not about to be replaced. Copywriters and the authors of financial reports and travel guides [perhaps]. But creative writers, I think, are going to be okay and comedy writers most of all.
With this cautious optimism in mind, what advice do you give writers starting to hone their craft today?
Writing is a muscle. You need to use it every day and train it like an athlete would. It won’t happen overnight—you have to keep the muscle supple and fit.
Practice and repeat, practice and repeat, again and again, until the process is second nature. The good news is that, unlike the athlete, the older you get, the better you get.
That’s such a powerful reframe. To wrap things up, what have you read or seen lately you’ve particularly enjoyed?
As a structuralist, I admire great form combined with originality. So, Angels in America and Hamilton for the stage, The Deer Hunter and No Country for Old Men for the cinema, The Larry Sanders Show and Breaking Bad for television. As for books, Underworld by Don DeLillo and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Tahlia Norrish is an Aussie-Brit actor, writer, and current MPhil Candidate at the University of Queensland’s School of Sport Sciences. After graduating from both The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Distinction, Acting & Musical Theatre) and Rose Bruford College (First Class Hons, Acting), Tahlia founded The Actor’s Dojo — a coaching program pioneering peak performance and holistic well-being for actors.
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