The Rosie Project is a global phenomenon, a debut novel, now out in paperback, which has been published in 32 countries, and optioned by Sony for the big screen – deals that have netted advances of over $1 million for Australian author Graeme Simsion. I caught up with Simsion in London just after Christmas, having read the book when it came out in hardback in 2013, and absolutely loved it.
A laugh out loud funny novel, The Rosie Project is arrestingly endearing, featuring the brilliant yet socially challenged professor of genetics, Don Tillman. And this character is the book’s genius – Professor Don Tillman is an expert on Asperger’s Syndrome who doesn’t realise that he has the condition himself. Don has decided it’s time he found a wife and the opening line gets us straight into the story I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which Don approaches all things, he designs the Wife Project to find his perfect partner: a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey to filter out the drinkers, the smokers, the late arrivers. Rosie Jarman is all these things. She also is strangely beguiling, fiery, and intelligent. And while Don quickly disqualifies her as a candidate for the Wife Project, as a DNA expert Don is particularly suited to help Rosie on her own quest: identifying her biological father.
Simsion’s big break came when he entered The Rosie Project manuscript for a competition – the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. He told me, “My concern was to get it read. It was a literary award and I didn’t see my stories as being literary – I didn’t expect to get any recognition out of the competition, but I hoped that as the judges were people in publishing, they might say, from a commercial perspective, Charlie down the corridor might be interested in this; and that’s what happened.” As it turned out The Rosie Project won the $15,000 first prize, but, as Simsion says, “the important thing was getting shortlisted.” Three months later, the book was been sold to Melbourne based publisher Text, for publication around the world, earning Simsion ”comfortably more than $1 million” in advances.
Telling me about writing the book, Simsion explained that he had given up his job in order to do a screen writing course – in fact he had sold an extremely successful international IT consultancy – and he wanted to come up with a story to apply the screen writing techniques that he would be learning to. He explained, “All good story comes out of character, to me at least. I decided here was a character I wanted to write about – it was inspired by a friend of mine, but it became nothing like him. I work-shopped the idea walking with my wife in New Zealand over four days.”
And that screen writing course was to prove crucial. I’d read that Simsion had written the first draft of The Rosie Project in four weeks, but as he explained, “That’s the romantic story. I did write the first draft of the novel in 4 weeks, but I had a completely written screen play that I’d worked on for 5 years to work from; it had been my school project. While I was studying screen writing, I learned the craft, so by the time I sat down to write the novel, I had worked on it with a producer and I sat down with the characters clear, the plot clear and even some dialogue. I only had to add my character’s inner word and some prose… I was conscious of trying to write it cleanly. There isn’t that much description in the whole book – Elmore Leonard says you should leave out the bits people skip, and Don is not a man who is into the aesthetics of his environment, so describing a tree or the way the rain settles on it, isn’t in his character.”
Coming from a technical background, structure is an essential element in Simsion’s writing. He told me, “I’m a planner. I recognise I need time planning, problem solving, thinking. I don’t write every day, I spend time making notes, then outlining so when I sit down I know exactly what I’m going to write. If I have a problem in the book I know I’m to going to work that out at my computer, I’m going to work it out walking, thinking it over. There is an intense period where I write the first draft, but perhaps the subplot doesn’t work, then I get away from it and think about it.”
Simsion says, “I’d go stir crazy if I was locked up writing all the time. I’m a full time writer now, but that doesn’t mean full time writing. The public relations side is important, and I love it. Before I was writing full time, I fit my writing in around my work – when I was working [outside writing] I’d be in London or The Hague and be fully focused on my client for perhaps three days, I’d fly home, have two days getting over the jetlag and then have say three days full-on writing.” Indeed, when I met him, Simsion had just flown in from New York where he’d been working on the first draft of book two – another Don Tillman book. “I had about half the book drafted and I had twenty days in New York, so I thought okay, that’s write 2000 words a day or no drink. I like going out in New York with my wife and it was an incentive. My wife was horrified, she’s a psychiatrist, she said ‘You can’t use alcohol as a reward!’
‘I’ve arrived in London with a rough draft, but I will only give my editors something that I’m happy to get published. I want the editor to find the problems I can’t find.”
I was delighted to hear that we’ll be seeing more of Don Tillman in the next book. Simsion told me, “I felt that I’d gained some expertise in the romantic comedy genre, and there aren’t too many authors in that space, suiting men as well as women. So I wanted to do that again. I’ve two other books drafted that are love stories, following that formula – for want of a better word – that are nothing to do with Don Tillman, but hopefully with a touch of humour, that will be books three and four.”
Writing humour can be very difficult as not everyone’s sense of humour is the same – I asked Simison if this was a challenge? “Don Tillman makes it easy,” he replied, “Humour is very hard to write, it would be incredibly tough to write a sitcom from scratch, but it’s easy when you have the characters. Don Tillman makes it easy to write. A lot of people find the book funny, and there is a concensus about the funny scenes, but there are people who find other parts just as funny, and that’s great. I don’t want to be categorised as a writer only of humour, but it’s a great thing to have.”
As a mother of a nine year old who has Asperger’s, and a board member for Asperger’s charity As I Am, I was intrigued to find out how he had so brilliantly captured the protagonist, Don Tillman. Tillman is a refreshing and positive role model for anyone touched by Asperger’s, and Simsion was tremendously concerned not to mock or make fun of anyone with the condition, as he explained, “I gave it to people with Asperger’s to read, and have had tremendously positive feedback. Don struggles with certain things, but he’s a hero, and we’re inside his head.”
As anyone effected by Asperger’s knows, there are many variations and nuances to the condition, yet Simsion captures Tillman perfectly. I wondered how he’d achieved this. He explained, having worked in IT for many years (and holding a PHD in Design Theory), “I’d worked with a lot of people like him and had a real sense of how people like him think. In the technical industry you have a mindset when you’re working on a technical problem – not looking at the emotional aspects, or trying to be tactful, you’re just trying to find a problem, looking at the facts. No-one is trying to send you subtle messages – you’re trying to find the right and the wrong.
‘I didn’t read any text books on Asperger’s – I used elements of people I knew, until I had Don down. I didn’t want to make him Mr. Asperger’s, I wanted Asperger’s to be an element of his character.”
Winding up our chat (Simsion had a jam packed schedule) I asked him for his tips for new writers, and here they are:
1. Get help
“The reason I put it at number one is that writers have a vision of writing that they are going to site in an attic alone, but I think you need help, you need guidance to let you know if you can write. You need to get feedback on your writing and learn theory and technique. I’d strongly recommend doing a practical sort of course or progamme.”
2. Write for publication.
“It encourages you to finish work, not to leave it half done. The day you get something ready to send, you always spot something that needs doing, and that’s part of the craft of writing.
And if you want to be a novellist, enter short story competitions. When you make a submission to a editor or an agent they’ll see that you’ve won such and such a competition, or been published in Vanity Fair and they’ll read it.
3. Make it better.
“The third thing is something I’ve learned from Design Theory. One of the critical things is, you can always make something better. Do not believe those people who say you need to keep it fresh. There are lots of ways to make it better – leaving it to one side and coming back to it, reworking it. Don’t send out your novel until you’re pretty sure it’s perfect.”
The Rosie Project is an unforgettable book that will keep you hooked to the last page. Taking the reader from Melbourne, Australia, to New York and back again, it’s a pacy read that opens up the world of genetics as much as it does Asperger’s – and the cocktail scene is priceless. If you are looking for a great New Year read that will help you forget the January weather, The Rosie Project is a must buy!
(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin