The Rosie Project
April 18, 2014
About this Book
The Rosie Project is Graeme Simsion’s debut novel about Don Tillman, a sensible yet socially inept professor who decides to take a scientific approach to finding a life partner. Dubbing it the Wife Project, Don expects that the search for his true love requires the same calculated logic he uses throughout his life. Don, who has the developmental disorder Asperger’s syndrome, assumes that his ideal match is someone he can be with without ever changing anything about himself. Then Don meets Rosie, a free-spirited woman who fails to meet his compatibility requirements. But Don soon realizes that in order to find the perfect mate, he needs to be flexible.
Extended Interview Videos
VOICEOVER: And now, an eight original production.
VOICEOVER: "Books & Co." is made possible by the Virginia G. piper center for creative writing. Serving writers and readers in the Phoenix metropolitan area, the state of Arizona, and the world.
ALBERTO RIOS: Welcome to "Books & Co." Bienvenidos, todos. I'm your host, Alberto Rios, and we're joined today by Graeme Simsion, talking about his remarkable book, "The Rosie Project." Welcome, Graeme.
GRAEME SIMSION: Thanks very much.
ALBERTO RIOS: I can't wait to get started. I just had so many -- It's not that I had questions, I enjoyed the book, and what is baffling to me, though, is you have a main character here, Don Tillman, who while he does not say it, we recognize and you have it on the first page, we know he's got something characteristically ingrained in his behavioral patterns, probably Asperger's.
GRAEME SIMSION: I think that's a fair statement, yes.
ALBERTO RIOS: And I'm laughing. Is it OK to laugh?
GRAEME SIMSION: Yeah. It is OK to laugh. But it took me a lot of time to work that out. I originally -- This is a drama, so I had my Don Tillman character from the beginning. A guy who struggles socially, who probably does have Asperger's syndrome, though I wouldn't have used that term at the time. A guy who really struggles socially, and it's easy to write a drama of course about someone who struggles, but I discovered that my little scenes I was writing were making people laugh. And a couple people said, why don't you make it a comedy? I thought we're going end up laughing at a guy's disability. And the way I would look at it, I thought it through, Don our character, would not see his different wiring as he put it, as a disability. Don would say, sure, I'm wired differently but it's not better or worse. But if you want to know, I think it's better. I wouldn't want to be like you. I'm happy with the way I am.
ALBERTO RIOS: He does think it's better. We get that.
GRAEME SIMSION: His problem is not with himself, his problem is with society. Making life difficult for him with all their silly rules and so forth that don't suit him. His view is that the whole world was like him, life would be wonderful. And they would not fit in. We're not laughing at Don per se. We laugh at the unexpected. If I say, an American, an Australian and a Canadian walk into a bar, you know there's a joke coming and you know what's going to happen. The American is going to do something, the Australian will do something similarly and the Canadian is going to break the mold. And we're going to laugh because --
ALBERTO RIOS: I'm laughing already.
GRAEME SIMSION: And we don't know which way the Canadian broke the mold. The Canadian may have shown up the two of us as the idiots or have done something stupid. It's the unexpectedness that's blowing us away. Don brings the unexpected.
ALBERTO RIOS: Similar to structuring music, the blues, oddly enough, that one, two, and an unexpected third, I haven't thought about it.
GRAEME SIMSION: It's rule of three. That third -- First line we know, we know the second line, it's a little variation, and they knock us over with the third.
ALBERTO RIOS: What's interesting to me, we're not laughing at Don Tillman. And it's first person narrative, so we're hearing this story through him. You have these very I think occasionally clever ways of coming back and educating us about certain things. You mention Asperger's syndrome on the first page, but it's only because it's an accidental almost lecture he's got to deliver as a favor to his friend Gene, so he's delivering this, and much later on in the book you oddly enough talk about an oncologist who does not diagnose cancer in himself, and then you say, people who are good at what they do often don't see it in themselves. I read that as a reflection --
GRAEME SIMSION: exactly right that. Comes from real life. My wife is in fact a doctor, and she's got plenty of stories about people who have had diseases in themselves or families and their own special -- They're too close to them.
ALBERTO RIOS: There's a medical anecdote about the inventor of stethoscope, who was listening to some kids playing at an old rotted out tree, you know center part of a tree, and he invented a stick that was hollow, and he could listen to people, and he became the father of chest medicine. But he couldn't ever turn the stick on himself, and he ended up dying of an undiagnosed chest --
GRAEME SIMSION: wow.
ALBERTO RIOS: Isn't that -- So you have those moments here in this book where they are unlikelies. I am just going to characterize that. Unlikelies. But Don Tillman lives them, brings them to the front and we end up both laughing and respecting them. That set of rules -- The idea of eating a same meal every Thursday or whatever, is planned, what --
GRAEME SIMSION: let me say, we talk about unlikelies, and as a writer you're not allowed to be too unlikely. The rule is you're allowed to suspend disbelief once, but after that things are expected to flow logically. More so than in real life. In real life you get hit by a bus, that could happen. That would be a terrible ending to the book. So you have to make things plausible. An Don fact the reason why Don is given the Asperger's lecture-- Sure, he's doing a favor for his Buddy but his buddy thinks maybe this is -- We should do research on Don, you might recognize something.
ALBERTO RIOS: We're laughing, even from the beginning at him not recognizing this. Because I think we get his sensibility almost from the start. Which I think you do quite masterfully. We know he is thinking in a way that is regimented and is going to affect his life, but it keeps him going. I see that too. I don't have any trouble understanding this way of thinking.
GRAEME SIMSION: We all do a little of it. The idea of the starrized meal system, eating the same thing every Thursday, a former girlfriend, her mother was a single mom, bringing up four kids, she had to hold down a job, she had no time to come up with gourmet meals or anything like that. That's what she did. Sunday night was the roast, Monday night was the leftovers, and so on. And I think they got reasonable balanced meals.
ALBERTO RIOS: My mother did that when I was going through school. We had cheese whiz years when we got cheese whiz -- The first day of the school year, we got that forever. This character, we can't say enough about Don Tillman. I think he's a reasonably new character in literature. We're used to reading about somebody, you called them atypical, maybe as medical stories, or as struggle stories, all that sort of stuff, but he is his own character. His own self. And he lives true to that state of being. And we end up -- I don't want to give anything away, but we end up enjoying I think this character.
GRAEME SIMSION: I think a big part of it is telling the story in first person. So we are inside. If we watch Rain man, for example, this started as a screenplay, but if you watch a film like Rain man, you're watching the Dustin Hoffman character from the outside. You're seeing how difficult it must be for Tom cruise to deal with him, but you see very little -- You see very little of what goes on inside his head. So for me it was really important to tell the story from Don Tillman's point of view. How he saw the world.
ALBERTO RIOS: Which I think you do persuasively and various things come to bear that are not in our mind-set of how you would go about doing something. But he does them and they do and they don't work.
GRAEME SIMSION: Yeah. Sometimes you've got the unexpected. And the unexpected is that Don does not do it the conventional way. And we have that sort of AH moment. Of course he would do that. And that helps with the humor. But sometimes it will work for him surprisingly well and sometimes it isn't.
ALBERTO RIOS: What's exciting, he's reasonably analytical about both his failures and successes both.
GRAEME SIMSION: Oh, yes. He's got some insight. He knows he's wired differently. He's quite rigorous as a scientist. I think that helps make him more sympathetic. He's not entirely insightless. He doesn't say he's got Asperger's, but I would say that Don when he does the Asperger's lecture, he does see something in himself there, but he doesn't want to go there. He doesn't want to put a diagnosis on himself and I think we can understand that.
ALBERTO RIOS: I'm sure you've been asked about "Big Bang Theory" and Sheldon on that show. But and I want you to talk about that. But I think there's a more complex character that we've seen in small parts in literature who kind of we see parts of in Don Tillman, I'm thinking of -- Maybe these are esoteric choice, but like professor Panine, or john Kennedy's Toole Ignatius Reilly Confederacy of Dunces, these atypical characters who nevertheless find their way.
GRAEME SIMSION: Yeah. I it this atypical character is a staple if you like of literature, and certainly is humor. If you want something to be funny, you want your character to be a little bit off center. Because they will generate the unexpected. They will do what we didn't expect them to do. And it may be because they're just plain stupid in some way, and typically that's actually balanced. Popular culture, most of these comedic characters are in sitcoms.
ALBERTO RIOS: Right. True.
GRAEME SIMSION: They've got some special power, or -- A particularly -- We ball -- They're balanced by some other strength.
ALBERTO RIOS: Are you asked about Sheldon in ""Big Bang Theory."
GRAEME SIMSION: Not so much -- I'm on twitter, and the number of tweets, people reading the book say, I feel like I'm inside Sheldon Cooper's head. I couldn't stop thinking about Sheldon Cooper. I have never watched the "Big Bang Theory".
ALBERTO RIOS: I find that intriguing. I'm glad in many ways to hear that. I think that's an easy comparison.
GRAEME SIMSION: To be honest I've watched maybe three to five minutes of it because my daughter is a fan, and she said, you've got to see this. And everybody was talking about it. For me, I don't see Don Tillman when I see Sheldon Cooper. And I think what it is, what people see is like these guys probably both have Asperger's, and what they see is the Asperger’s -- And they don't see past that. And I think we need more characters who have Asperger's, so eventually instead of noting how similar they are, we start to see beyond that and say, these guys are all different.
ALBERTO RIOS: I think that's a great observation. I think in that show, in the comedy show, I don't mean this to be pejorative, but they're one-liner quips. You go the distance here in the book. There's a big difference.
GRAEME SIMSION: We're spending all our time with him, we're in first person, it's a novel. So the guys on "Big Bang Theory" are doing what they can within the limitations of the medium, and I'm sure they're doing it brilliantly, certainly the success for the show would suggest they do it. I'm using a different medium, and we have this ability to be inside his head.
ALBERTO RIOS: Intriguingly enough that is a show about science, he is a geneticist and involved in science. You come out of a background in the sciences, high technology.
GRAEME SIMSION: It's even closer than that. Don -- I originated as a physicist, and I only changed him to a geneticist because I welded on this other big subplot, which is about Rosie, the love interest's search for her biological father. In order to do that, to assist with that he needs to be a geneticist. But I coincidentally, because I started thinking about this book about the same time as "Big Bang Theory" came to our screens in Australia, made him a physicist and that's where my first degree is.
ALBERTO RIOS: Too perfect, right?
GRAEME SIMSION: You write what you know. You write what you know. So I wrote him as a physicist. Particularly when it was drama I had this idea it would be educative. People would learn about quantum theory, all sorts of things. So it would be very worthy in that way. But switching to Genetics I've had a hobby level at least, so it wasn't hard to get my head around. And of course genetics is about people. So people can relate to it more closely than physics.
ALBERTO RIOS: I'd like to take a moment to remind our viewers that you're watching "Books & Co.," I'm your host, Alberto Rios. We're joined today by Graeme Simsion, talking about this wonderful book "The Rosie Project." As we go on and think about this, I'm wondering if there isn't an incipient literature in science. Is it telling stories that we can't read? So what I mean by that is, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Isn't that just one in zero with words and more punctuation?
GRAEME SIMSION: That's how Don might tell it.
ALBERTO RIOS: It's kind of true.
GRAEME SIMSION: He might have said the situation was binary. Or the situation was a paradox.
ALBERTO RIOS: And it would have meaning for him in a way as we follow through in the book, starts to make more sense to us. It may not be elegant in the way that we would think of it, but it is perhaps more elegant to him to reduce it to something like that.
GRAEME SIMSION: Well, I think it's an interesting point. I think the reason it happens is that relatively few people, at least the ranks of writers are not filled with scientists. When I was studying, I studied screen writing initially and went on to study creative writing, and I did not meet I don't think a single science graduate in that time. I met law graduates, a few people who had been through computing because so many people go through computing, but science into writing, creative writing is not a natural path. So one of the reasons I chose Don Tillman as a character to write about was that I felt that in the past characters like him had been written in a very superficial sort of way. A geek, a nerd, yes, I'm a fine arts major, and over on the other faculty or in the cafe there were these nerdy guys and they looked and acted like this. But not any sort of intense knowledge of what it was about. Where’s that was my background. Write what you know.
ALBERTO RIOS: This book has gone through a lot of iterations. You said I think maybe it began in another -- It had a different name, for example.
GRAEME SIMSION: Yeah. One stage it was called "the face of god." [laughter] It was a pretension physics thing, the nature of the universe and so forth. And then it became "the Clara project." And in Australia we say project you see, so Rosie project has a nice euphonic.
ALBERTO RIOS: Interesting, we you know that is a poetic sort of sense of ability to add to this I think maybe we don't catch that.
GRAEME SIMSION: Certain things get lost in translation. Then it was Clara project. For quite some time. For 2 1/2 years it was "the Clara project" as a screenplay. It's a very first incarnation was short story. So I say it came from a screenplay, but the first thing I wrote was a short story, which is a scene which survived to the final book. I did that to work up the Don Tillman character. Then I did "the face of god" which became "the Clara project" and 2 1/2 years in I threw the whole thing in the trash and the only thing that survived from that was the Don Tillman character, which is heart of the book, and that scene.
ALBERTO RIOS: Very interesting. I love, you have a lot of sort of in humor, and I love that he's a geneticist and his best friend's name is Gene.
GRAEME SIMSION: Total coincidence. He was called Gene and he was a physicist. Truly. I remember --
ALBERTO RIOS: OK.
GRAEME SIMSION: He was his best Buddy and I was talking to my close friend, I said I'm looking for a name for this character, and he said Gene. I thought this sounds good, the physicist. And Don is an academic --
ALBERTO RIOS: it adds up. I think there's a number of things like that. Whether they're on purpose or accidental, it doesn't matter. It's fun, I think they add up and they add something to the tenor of the book. I'm wondering, though, if the book has gone through a lot of it rations, and you say you studied creative writing and you got advice and feedback, this is a good question for writers. When do you stop listening to the advice?
GRAEME SIMSION: Well, OK. I guess it's two questions. When do you stop trying to make it better, that's one. I study design theory at one stage and I think it's a form of design. And one of the sort of principles of design theory is you can always make any sort of complicated design better. There's always room to improve. So I can make this book better. But at a certain point you have to draw the line. And that's a pragmatic choice. I got to the point of diminishing returns or I need the money or Im totally over this thing.
ALBERTO RIOS: Right.
GRAEME SIMSION: So one is can you make it better. I think the outset is always yes. In fact, when the first print came off and I held it in my hands for the first time, I opened a random page, I thought oh, no, I should have swapped those two paragraphs and I'd have a better impact. And I said it to the editor, but -- And I did a reading on book night in the U.K. of just a passage and you know, because it was so important how I read that three-minute passage, I went through and practiced it, and I got the pen out and started making changes. Just a tiny bit. But when you stop listening to advice, I think advice is a crucial part of making it better. But the have to learn who to trust. And when you find people who you can trust, you listen to them very, very hard.
ALBERTO RIOS: That part about wanting to fix and wanting to change, spoken as a true teacher which you said you have been. I'm wondering what made you think about writing a book to begin with. This was not your milieu at the time, or maybe it always was?
GRAEME SIMSION: It's a bit of both. When I was around 21, I started thinking about writing a book. I was always quite good at English and I was reading Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller and I thought this can't be so hard. Because they write deceptively simply. So I had a go at about 21. Showed it to my Buddy, I was driving a van through Australia, and I showed to it my Buddy and he said, I think you made a good career choice with information technology. Stay right there. And it was awful, just terrible. But I always nursed the idea of writing a novel I guess in the same way so many people do. I think it's a common dream. But I didn't really -- Do anything concrete about it until I enrolled in a screen writing class, at which time I was 50.
ALBERTO RIOS: It was screen writing class?
GRAEME SIMSION: I enrolled in a screen writing class. What happened was that I made a fantasy film. I read a book by a film critic called "the unkindest cut" he tried to make a low-budget movie, and he tried to do make a movie for 7000 dollars to emulate Robert Rodriguez and it's an amusing tale how he ends up shoveling money into this and putting his marriage on the threat, and the end of the film was not particularly successful. And I was just cap ticket sales have a lotted by this idea of doing something on a low budget. We took our video camera and we made this 97-minute film with great help from my wife, and I adapted a manuscript she had written, she had ambitions of being a writer which has resurfaced. But we found an agent, and I said, you know, you may never see this in print but on the screen. So we made this terribly low-budget film casting our friends, but part of that was I wrote the screenplay. And it took me four months. To do it I read a book about writing screenplays, it changed my life.
ALBERTO RIOS: Syd field screenplay.
GRAEME SIMSION: That's right. And I just followed a little paint by numbers, but that's what I needed. Between pages 24 and 26 there will be a first act turning point, at this point the hero will have lost everything. I grabbed my wife's manuscript -- Shoveled it --
ALBERTO RIOS: design theory.
GRAEME SIMSION: Put it all -- I read six more books on screen writing just to tie it up. I was pretty proud. When the film was made it had its strength and weaknesses and some of the acting was awful and so on. But Sue Medlynn, a producer, saw it, one of the participants, the director took a film class. And she said, hey, the screen writing you were doing, and it was me. And that was the seed. At that stage I was running a consultant business, I was chief executive, president, and I sold that business and I enrolled in a screen writing class.
ALBERTO RIOS: So this can be done. You're the exemplar.
GRAEME SIMSION: I was 50 and the only experience I'd had in fiction was adapting that story of my wife's. And after that I just worked away at it.
ALBERTO RIOS: That's a great story. You have to want to, right?
GRAEME SIMSION: Oh, yeah. And you've got to have some character along the way. I gave myself a year. I thought at the end of the year I haven't had any feedback that I've got any talent, because I think it's easy to kid yourself, but I've got to get away. In that first year I got some positive feedback from teachers, I -- My story ended up being highly commended in a writing competition, so it was exciting for me. I didn't write any pros against that five years, but that was a very important stepping stone for me that little short story.
ALBERTO RIOS: You don't forget that reinforcement.
GRAEME SIMSION: You need it. There are some people who just will keep on pushing against the odds despite all negative feedback because they have an enormous self-belief. Self-belief and dilution, it's a thin line between them. We hear about the ones who were right.
ALBERTO RIOS: I want to finish by talking about something in the book that's almost classical. You have Don Tillman often acting as echo or as Greek chorus, he's repeating back things to Claudia, Gene's wife, his best friends, that Gene has told him, he's sort of just reports them. And he's acting like an echo of what Gene says will work. And of course he's giving information to Gene's wife, and she sort of knows it, doesn't want to know it. So you have an odd curious delivery system there of information. It comes through him very innocently.
GRAEME SIMSION: It comes through him as being unreliable as a writer, wanting to deal with exposition in a practical sort of way. Don has no filter as well. He's not particularly worried about tact or social conviction. It comes straight through. So I was conscious of doing that, but there's a little screen writing sensibility happening there. You want to do things in dialogue, you want people to see it come through and you want it to do more than convey information. You want it to tell something about Don, to have some subtext. So I was doing it reasonably consciously, but your analogy was great, a chorus.
ALBERTO RIOS: I think it's effective. I think you do it through the guise of a character, in a way I again would -- Would I revisit this thing I started out with in the beginning, you've got a reasonably new character to literature, and he embodies a lot of things we may have seen parts of, but this is a 21st century character. So I think you've done a good job with that. I want to thank you very much for this engaging discussion.
GRAEME SIMSION: Thank you Alberto.
ALBERTO RIOS: And I want to thank our viewers. You've been watching "Books & Co." I'm your host, Alberto Rios. We've been joined today by Graeme Simsion, talking about his wonderful book "The Rosie Project." Please join us again next time when we'll be bringing you another good book. Thank you.
VOICEOVER: "Books & Co." Made possible by the Virginia G. piper center for creative writing. Serving writers, and readers in the Phoenix metropolitan area, the state of Arizona, and the world.