This feature interview was first published in The Big Issue no. 425
The main character in the novel, The Rosie Project, has difficulty understanding social cues. ‘Wherever Don goes, chaos will follow’, says the author, Graeme Simsion. Don Tillman is a professor of genetics at the University of Melbourne, undertaking a self-assigned ‘Wife Project’, a 16-page questionnaire designed to help him find a life partner. Don is fit, successful, and possesses a variety of impressive skills. Social interaction, however, is not so straightforward for Don and although he never acknowledges it, the reader firmly suspects that he exhibits characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome.
‘It started off inspired by a friend of mine’, Simsion explains. ‘I’ve known this guy for over 30 years—we go jogging together—and he can be hard work at times. He’s got an opinion on everything.’ Simsion’s friend also has a particular way of speaking, which the author channelled when he began writing Don: ‘He uses computer words, like “this meal has a fault”, or “I’ll initialise my eating procedure”‘. Simsion’s friend, too, has had a tough time socially in his life. He eventually found a partner, but Simsion says, ‘for a guy who was fit, intelligent, wealthy’, it was a struggle.
Simsion did research into Asperger’s syndrome for The Rosie Project, mainly through first-person accounts of people with Asperger’s, or those living with them. ‘I made a very conscious decision that this [book] would be in first person,’ Simsion says, ‘Don is highly functioning enough that we can relate to him.’
Simsion was clear that he did not want Don to be the kind of character who ‘helped [other characters] grow because they [had] met him, which you see in a film like Rain Man.’ Being inside Don’s head (essentially an unreliable narrator) makes for good humour, as the reader can interpret certain social cues, or subtleties of language, that Don misses. Don’s first date with Rosie is thwarted, for example, by his showing up to a fancy restaurant in a Gore-Tex jacket and then, under stress, proceeding to ‘disarm’ the bouncers with his aikido moves.
The contrast between Don’s competency in some areas and his ineptitude in others makes for classic comedy. But it also makes for depth of character, since Simsion makes Don work for his skills. In one of the best scenes in the book, Don appears almost heroic when he manages to remember, and mix, a massive number of cocktails at a function. (It’s part of a surreptitious scheme to collect genetic material for a side project with Rosie, who is trying to identify her real father.) But Don’s cocktail knowledge, while extremely impressive, is not ‘magic’. Don has spent hours and hours with a cocktail book, testing and memorising recipes. Simsion says he didn’t want the knowledge and skills to come to Don easily. ‘There’s this cliché that if you have Asperger’s or autism you’ve got a gift.’ From his reading, and from talking to people—mainly people who have autistic children—Simsion found that this idea of giftedness is one stereotype many struggle against. ‘Don’s very focused, but he’s not magic,’ Simsion says, ‘I tried to make him human.’
Though the author has had incredible pre-release success with The Rosie Project, selling the rights into more than 30 countries, he, too, has had to work hard for it. After a mid-life career change (Simsion is from a science and business background), the project began life as a screenplay, which Simsion wrote during many years studying screenwriting. The project has changed significantly since its inception. One influence on the story’s eventual tone and shape was the romantic comedy genre, particularly classic screwball comedies. These films also helped with the development of the female character, Rosie. Simsion watched many of the classics, including His Girl Friday (1940), Bringing up Baby (1938), Philadelphia Story (1940), Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960). He particularly noted the strong female characters featured in many of the films, and thinks of Rosie as being more in line with a Katherine Hepburn style character, than female characters in contemporary romantic comedies.
But there is a somewhat traditional binary in the book, in that Rosie is the more impulsive and emotional character, while Don is the rational one. Simsion admits that some female readers have likened Don’s logic to that of ‘all blokes’, not just those with Asperger’s. Although the point is that Don is often ‘kidding himself’, says Simsion, when he believes he’s acting rationally. For example, when Don says, ‘I made a rational decision to go and see Rosie at the pub and help her find her father because that was good use of my time’, the reader thinks: yeah, right…
But it could also be said that there’s a Don and Rosie inside all of us: the side that tries to make the best and most profitable use of time, and the side which encourages us to ‘stop worrying about it’, and is open to new experiences. One of the reasons the book is so successful, and humorous, is due the reader’s recognition of these warring aspects.