Chaos, Comedy and Romance: An interview with Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project is one of the most awaited books of 2013. Since winning the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript last year, it’s been a whirlwind journey. Text Publishing debuted the book this month; rights have already been sold to over 30 countries for over a million dollars.

Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion

Professor Don Tillman, an associate professor of genetics, lives a highly regimented life. So, it’s only logical that when he decides to find a life partner, he embarks on it in an unusually planned fashion: The Wife Project. He devises a complex questionnaire designed to find the ideally compatible mate: organised, punctual, logical and healthy living. But along the way, he stumbles on Rosie – a feisty feminist smoker who is habitually late and works in a bar – and entangles himself in her quest to locate her birth father. Although he considers her ‘the world’s most incompatible woman’, Don enjoys Rosie’s company more than anyone he’s ever met, and finds himself uncharacteristically breaking rules and routines (and trying new things) in order to spend time with her. Chaos, comedy and romance ensue.

We spoke to Graeme about the book’s journey to publication, the evolution of Don Tillman’s voice, the laws of comedy (and screenwriting), and writing a character who seems to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

It’s strongly implied in your book that Don has Asperger’s Syndrome, from the opening pages, but it’s not explicitly said. You’ve talked about wanting him to be more a person who has characteristics than a diagnosis. Is that that led you to that approach?

Yes. I made a very conscious decision not to say he had Asperger’s. When I first ‘took Don out’ in a short story, in my class at RMIT, all the questions were about Asperger’s, not about my character. I thought, let’s just put this whole thing aside. Let’s just present Don. And if you want to sit there and say ‘Don has Asperger’s’, then you be the diagnostician.

The Victorian Premier’s Award judges, when they wrote up their decision, said ‘Don Tillman has undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome’. And I thought to myself, ‘undiagnosed, except by the judges of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards’.

I read you saying somewhere that a lot of men have a bit of Don in them.

Yes. From what I’ve read, it seems that men already have a head start on the spectrum. And whatever happens genetically (and perhaps environmentally) pushes them further along it. Whereas women start further back. You do have women with Asperger’s, but it seems to be a lot less obvious and common than it is with men.

Yes. And it presents in different ways.

Again, when I’m talking about Don being given an outing, one of the women in my class said, ‘For goodness sakes, he’s just a bloke. Every bloke I’ve been out with has been like this’. And lots of men have said, ‘I can see things in there that are me’. Particularly analysing situations, being problem-oriented, not picking up on how other people are responding, not picking up on social cues. These are very traditional male characteristics.

What was behind the creation of Don, and in particular the idea of him being a character who had poor social skills but was highly intelligent?

I have a very close friend – a really intelligent man – who struggled for a long time to find a partner or get past a second or third date, or even a three-month relationship. He did find a wife and their story is very interesting. I made a short film about it that was shown at the Bondi Film Festival recently – a documentary film.

I was going into the screenwriting course at RMIT back in 2007. I wanted an idea to take into that, and his real-life story was the starting point. I moved away from it very quickly, but his manner of speaking – which comes from having an IT computer background – I channelled for Don. That’s probably the one thing from him that’s left in the final story. He’s not the real Don, I hasten to add. In fact, there’s probably more of me in Don than there is in him.

You had been working on this project for six years – so I suppose it’s undergone quite an evolution in that time?

When it started, it was a drama. Because I like to lighten things up, it had a few moments of comic relief, and I realised those moments were quite strong. When I realised that the shape of what I was doing was very close to the genre of romantic comedy, I decided to take it down that path.

I had a really big ethical question to ask, which was: Are we laughing at a disability? Are we holding up someone who has a disability they can do nothing about and laughing at it?

I ran the manuscript past a lot of people who were from Asperger’s families, including a couple of people who are self-diagnosed with Asperger’s - and without exception I got a very positive feedback from those people about the portrayal.

Also, I think that stories, whether they be dramas or comedies, are typically about someone setting out to do something for which they are not as well equipped as they may not like to be. If they are manifestly under-equipped, then it’s comedy. And Don is manifestly unequipped to handle social situations, just as some people are manifestly unequipped to handle a physical confrontation. (Like in The Karate Kid.) So, they set out to do something about that.

I try to push the line throughout the book that Don is different rather than in any way inferior, but his differences mean that he’s going to have to make some changes if he wants to achieve certain things.

'If the character is good enough, the comedy will happen almost automatically. And that’s what I found with Don, that he’s an intrinsically comedic character.'

'If the character is good enough, the comedy will happen almost automatically. And that’s what I found with Don, that he’s an intrinsically comedic character.'

I think you really did a terrific job in terms of that rounding that out. You’re on his side. One of the things I thought was interesting was that there are moments when Don seems to commit a huge social faux pas, but actually he’s using his ineptness as an excuse to get out of something, or to put off something he’s not ready for. I thought that was one element that really helped to round him off as a character.

Yes. People have said to me, ‘Don’s just absolutely honest’. In my mind, he isn’t. Don is a great rationaliser. He uses science to rationalise his behaviour. A rational decision is to do this.

He’s a caricature, or an extreme version of the man – typically – who’s out of touch with his emotions and yet they are driving him. So he’s being quite heavily driven by his emotions, but he’s madly rationalising it.

The idea of him approaching what is seen these days as an entirely emotional situation – finding a partner – with the opposite (entirely logical) was a great comedic device as well.

Of course, it’s now very topical, because internet dating has really popularised an approach that was once the province of very specialised dating organisations. Lots and lots of people are essentially doing this. They’re making a list. So this is essentially taking that idea and pushing it.

It was hilarious that women started to like his questionnaire because they felt it was nice to have someone listening to them. Have you had any response from women readers about that?

No. I have been wondering if anyone will take offence to the fact that he quite clearly objectifies women. You can’t ask for someone to objectify a woman much more than Don does. He takes all the emotion out of it and says, ‘here’s the list of characteristics this person must have’. But he’s not objectifying them in the traditional sense. It’s not a sexual objectification. So I wondered how women would respond to it. But so far it’s been quite a positive response, including from quite a lot of women who would describe themselves as being strong feminists.

I think that the fact that you write in Rosie’s response – which is exactly that – really helps, because you’re acknowledging within the book that women might respond in that way.

I hope that she is the voice from the other side, if you like. And then Claudia is the moral centre. Claudia is the gentle voice of reason, whereas Rosie’s fairly strident. She’s got some issues, too. The hardest part of writing the book was Rosie.

I read that she’d completely changed from the character you wrote?

Yeah. It was ‘The Klara Project’. Klara was much more the sort of woman you’d expect Don to end up with. She was a nerdy Hungarian doctoral researcher in physics. And it made it too easy. Of course they were going to end up together, once they got their heads together! In the earliest incarnations of The Klara Project, they actually moved in together partway through the book. It was boy gets girl, boy moves in with girl. It was an examination of their domestic life. There was lots of fun to be had, but I wanted to write a character who was gutsier.

It’s interesting that you started with someone very like Don, because one of the threads of the book seems to be that the thing you think you want often isn’t what you want at all. Rosie’s the opposite of what he thinks he wants.

I would never have been allowed to write it in a screenwriting course without having the basic rule that the hero sets off wanting one thing and has to learn that he needs something else. Don’s want is one thing, his need is another. And his want is the perfect woman who will accept him exactly as he is. But he needs to make some changes in order to find someone who accepts him.

So that idea was something that suits both Don and telling a story?

Exactly.

It struck me that Don’s impaired understanding of social skills is a really handy narrative device for comedy. It throws up so many funny situations, like where he reads things literally. I wondered if you were looking at creating someone who had those social deficits partly because it was a great way of creating a comedy?

No. Because I started this as a drama. Don started out as a fully-formed character. I was very wary of making him comedic. But then I found that as soon as I was able to open myself to comedic possibilities, Don was just a great character for that.

I threw away a lot of scenes, and I learned that I could throw them away with confidence and replace them with something else, always knowing that whatever happened in a dramatic sense, Don being in it would add the comedy. So I never had to write a scene for comedy. Every scene advances the dramatic story and the comedy is incidental. It just flows.

THE ROSIE PROJECT Trailer

The official trailer for The Rosie Project.

So it was the character leading you towards comedy, rather than comedy leading you towards that kind of character?

Absolutely. Tim Ferguson from the Doug Anthony All Stars was my situation comedy teacher at RMIT. And he’s a very smart analyst of how comedy works. He pointed out if the character is good enough, the comedy will happen almost automatically. And that’s what I found with Don, that he’s an intrinsically comedic character – whatever you wheel him into.

For example, the ball scene was originally quite short. Because it came out of a screenplay, where time is quite tight. You’ve got your 90 minutes, you get on with it. And my editor said, I want you to wallow around in this a bit more, I want more to happen. So I just added more stuff that might happen at the ball, and because Don’s there, it’s just going to be funny.

Was it fun writing some of those bits? They’re so fun to read.

Absolutely. I loved writing the book. I really enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed this whole journey.

It sounds to me – you keep referring back to it – like the RMIT course you did was incredibly beneficial as well.

It was fundamental. Absolutely fundamental. The book would not have happened without the course. Not just for discipline, which is important. Not just for knowledge, techniques that you learn, but the feedback that you get, the camaraderie.

So you would definitely be on the side of creative writing courses being a good thing?

Absolutely. If you want to progress at something, you need three things at least. You need to know the principles and so forth, whatever your field might be. Think about it. You’re a plumber, an engineer, a doctor. You’re going to need to have knowledge, you’re going to need to have practice, and you’re going to need to have feedback. On top of all that, you need the discipline of 10,000 hours. A writing course is one of the easiest ways of getting all that bundled up in one package.

And of course you need talent. But I don’t think it’s talent that holds people in writing courses back. It’s putting in the hours. 10,000 hours is one of those figures that’s bandied around a lot – for a professional to achieve excellence, for expertise to be gained.

That’s a lot of time. That’s 2000 hours for five years. And I didn’t see anyone putting in anything like that amount of time. People say, ‘I’ve read a lot of books’. That’s like saying ‘I’ve listened to a lot of music, therefore I can learn how to play the piano very quickly’. You won’t learn to play the piano without putting in a lot of time.

Most people have other things in their lives. They’re trying to earn a living. So they have pretty good excuses, or reasons, but if you don’t put in the hours, you’re not going to get there.

One of the key things about this book is Don’s voice, isn’t it? So obviously you were developing that voice right from when you created the character in 2007.

Yes. And like I said, that voice came from a good friend of mine I’ve known for 30 years, and we see each other pretty regularly, and I can picture his voice.

In fact, I got him to read the first chapter and record it for me. And he sounded exactly as I’d imagined the voice in my head; it was quite wonderful. I’m inclined to talk about it being an official audio recording. But that may not be the voice the person reading the book hears, and it might be quite off-putting for them to hear that voice.

That’s the thing about a book, isn’t it, as opposed to a screenplay – that everyone can imagine their own version of that character, based on their experiences or desires.

Particularly a book like this, which is extremely lean in terms of description. You don’t know what colour the trees are, or anything. You know the weather, but that’s about all. I’ve stripped it of everything else, because that’s Don’s point of view. You’ll just have to fill it in yourself as you read it.

Has that got anything to do with it starting as a screenplay, or is more to do with Don’s voice?

It’s got a fair bit to do with mine. A lot of people, particularly male readers of the book, have said to me, ‘Oh it’s great, it doesn’t waste any time on description, I hate description, I just skip those paragraphs’. And sometimes I think authors putting in a lot of description are being quite self-indulgent, or catering to quite a narrow audience. There is an audience for a book that concentrates on action, dialogue, emotions, but not on literary description.

One thing I liked about the book was the many moments when the reader knows more than Don. It’s nice for the reader to be able to see things that the character doesn’t.

Yeah, it’s all from Don’s point of view. So the only way we can know things more than Don is for us to be smarter than Don. Which means more socially aware.

One of the huge decisions in writing the book – which I took very quickly – was to write it in first-person. And most stories you see about somebody with a syndrome – or if you want to go further, a disability – are written from the point of view of another character, be it a film, whatever.

Just as Rainman is from Tom Cruise’s perspective. We’re asked to identify with Tom Cruise, not with Dustin Hoffman. And I wanted us to identify with Dustin Hoffman, as it were. I thought it was really important to be inside Don’s head.

Image from *Rainman*. 'I wanted us to identify with Dustin Hoffman, as it were. I thought it was really important to be inside Don’s head.

Image from Rainman. 'I wanted us to identify with Dustin Hoffman, as it were. I thought it was really important to be inside Don’s head.

I guess from the point of view of reading a comedic novel, too, it works better anyway.

You’ve got the unreliable narrator. You are buying depth and humour off the character’s mistakes. But we also understand how Don works and how he’s reached his various conclusions.

As I was reading this for the first time, intensely curious as someone with experience of Asperger’s, I was curious as to how I would react to the portrayal. And I found it fascinating because there were a few times when I thought I wasn’t going to like it. There were those key words that raise my hackles, like ‘affliction’. But every time that happened, a few pages on that would be knocked down. I thought that was very clever and wondered if that was something you were deliberately setting up – raising those kinds of stereotypes and knocking them down.

It’s quite deliberate. I always think something’s more powerful if you put both sides on the table and you argue. I come from a background of teaching skills to consultants. And I would always say that rather than knock your client down with your argument, your first job is to express the client’s different argument as clearly (and aggressively, if you like), as you can. To show that you’ve understood them. I wanted to see those different views.

There is one change I will make in the reprinting. Don uses the term ‘idiot savant’ at one point and I don’t want him using that term. It’s not a correct term. But later on, the head of a medical institute uses the term ‘idiot savant’, and that will stay, thank you very much. It’s a discussion point. Would the head of a medical institute use an out-of-date term insensitively? I say yes.

That’s interesting. Because the one thing where I have to admit I questioned was whether teacher in the school who was teaching a class of Aspie kids would really be so uninformed and insensitive. But then I had to think about some experiences that I’ve had in schools, and I thought ‘okay, maybe’.

That term ‘Aspie’, there’s been controversy around that. Do we want to make Asperger’s something that people are proud of, and identify with?

This is always an issue with any form of difference. Deaf people, for example. Do you want the form of community that says Auslan is at least as good as English or better, or should we teach them to lipread? You can go back to homosexuality, too. Is this part of your identity and a positive thing, or is it something you’ve come to fix?

Julie, the teacher, and the parents have said, We don’t want you celebrating and jumping on top of the desks and saying ‘Aspies rule!’ I wondered how parents of kids with Asperger’s would feel about that scene, because it’s quite challenging.

As the parent of a child with Asperger’s, I thought it was a great scene. Especially because I was going through this process of being annoyed and having my hackles raised and then enjoying Don’s journey – him thinking it was an affliction at first, reading more about it, and then changing his mind. I actually read that tiny passage to my son and he thought it was hilarious.

Actually, I gave a copy of this book to my dad, who is Asperger’s, and he’s telephoned me three times already to tell me how much he loves the book, and to go over scenes.

That’s really important for me, because I feel a great affinity with that group of people and I would just hate to be writing something that was insulting or disempowering. I like to feel that it’s the other way around.

In fact, I have a guy who was involved in the film side of things and wanted to know from the screenplay whether my portrayal was realistic. So he went to a guy in his apartment building, who is well along the autism spectrum, and asked him, ‘Is that what you would do?’ He said, ‘No, I’m not a geneticist’. It took half an hour to explain what feedback he wanted. ‘Would someone with Asperger’s Syndrome who had qualified as a geneticist – would they do this?’ Eventually, he said ‘yes’. The answer didn’t take very long, but formulating the correct question for someone who had a very literal interpretation was.

Graeme Simsion with Casey Bennetto, Ted Baillieu and his fellow category winners at the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards dinner 2012.

Graeme Simsion with Casey Bennetto, Ted Baillieu and his fellow category winners at the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards dinner 2012.

I wanted to ask about your path to publication, and what it was like to be in the path of editors and publishers after so long driving the project yourself.

The path to publication was really straightforward. Once I was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, I had already popped the book into a couple of slush piles, so I contacted those publishers and said ‘Hey, guess what, I got shortlisted for the Premier’s Award, does that help?’

I had a couple of publishers come on board at that point and say they were very interested. Another one came out of the slush pile after I won the award. So, I had lots of publishers interested. I come from a business background, so I said, ‘Give me your best offer by the end of the week and I’ll make a decision’. So, we had a number of conversations, and Text made me a fantastic offer - and I’ve had no reason to regret running with Text.

Alison Arnold, who became my editor, was in fact the person I’d met from Text when she came along to talk to our school. So it was great to have had that connection. And she’s been terrific.

I think the concern is – Is the person who’s editing me helping me to make it as good as it can be in my eyes, or do they have a different vision for it? If it’s the latter, then you’re going to be in trouble.

You seem to have a real affinity for that screwball romance genre. I wondered if you’re a fan of that kind of writing, or if you did any particular research.

Remembering that this thing developed as a film script, my research was films. I looked at the romantic comedy genre and watched a lot of romantic comedies. And then, as a further part of research, I went back and looked at some of the older screwball comedies, going back to the 1930s. Bringing up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, those sorts of films. They were different from the modern romantic comedies. They were much more comedic. And the women were stronger.

In those old screwball comedies, there were two powerful personalities that met, and I really liked that. I liked the plot twists and so forth – and the way that they were genuinely funny. As distinct from now, when romantic comedies tend to be light romances.

Did that research you did feed into the research Don does, watching romantic films?

I was really conscious that I had created a really archetypal romantic comedy and I wanted to reference it. At the end he says, ‘I’ve been living in a romantic comedy’, because he’s researched it. I wanted to acknowledge, wryly, that I knew what I was doing.

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