Plans Go Awry in Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project
An exclusive Authorlink interview with Graeme Simsion,
Geneticist Don Tillman may be the most socially inept and regimented character since Sheldon Cooper, but when he’s told he would make a great husband, he embarks on The Wife Project to logically find the perfect woman. When Rosie Jarman shows up as a presumed applicant, he assesses her as unacceptable, but is intrigued by her project and gets thrown into wild adventures outside his regimented world trying to collect DNA to prove which of many doctors is her father. Along the way, he discovers there is more to life than following a schedule on a white board.
|“But I think the strongest reason we’re drawn to Don is that he’s on a mission that most of us can relate to. . . ”
AUTHORLINK: Despite his quirks, Don is a highly likeable character. What do you think makes him so endearing? And why are we drawn to someone who doesn’t fit in?
SIMSION: Thank you! I wanted him to be likeable and for a while my mentors didn’t think I’d achieved that. He’d be pretty annoying in real life. But for starters, Don means well. There’s not a nasty bone in his body and he cares a lot about his (few) friends. He’s even concerned that he hasn’t hurt the security guards who have behaved aggressively toward him. He’s different, and therefore interesting. Many of us know people who are a bit (or a lot) like Don, and Don gives us an idea of what may be happening in their heads.
He makes a lot of social mistakes – but who hasn’t said something they’ve regretted on a date? Who hasn’t felt like the odd one out, in the wrong place, not competent? So we empathize with him – we feel his pain. And we take just a little pleasure in knowing there are people who get it even more wrong than we do.
But I think the strongest reason we’re drawn to Don is that he’s on a mission that most of us can relate to, and, despite being poorly equipped for it (and knowing it!), he gives it his best shot. He risks everything, including his job, doesn’t complain, and never gives up.
AUTHORLINK: You were an IT consultant – Anything in common with Don? If so, did it influence your approach to writing?
SIMSION: I met plenty of people in IT who had a lot in common with Don! In fact Don’s character came from that experience, rather than any research into people with social challenges. Like many people attracted to IT, I was better with ideas and things than with people and emotions, but, like Don, I’ve got better with practice. At least I like to think so. My decision to write in first person meant that I had to be able to experience Don from the inside, rather than as someone observed – perhaps through the eyes of another character (think Rain Man, where we are with the Tom Cruise character rather than Rain Man himself). To achieve that mindset, I used a combination of channeling the voices of colleagues who were a bit like Don (one in particular) and adopting the mode of thinking that I would use in tackling an IT problem – logical, technical, impersonal.
More broadly, the experience of working in IT influenced my approach to writing, in particular story construction and editing. In IT, we work in teams, and are expected to subjugate our own egos in order to achieve the best result. I really enjoyed getting help and criticism from others (most of the time) and working with my editors at Text Publishing and at Simon & Schuster for the US version.
|“My writers’ group said “Don should drive everything” and I think they were right. “
AUTHORLINK: Don changes in the story, but did your concept of Don’s character change at all as you wrote him?
SIMSION: A little. Initially he was not quite as driven – he was more passive. So, for example, Rosie was the one to suggest a second date. My writers’ group said “Don should drive everything” and I think they were right. But with that exception, Don has been the stable center of a story that changed enormously over five years.
AUTHORLINK: What was the first element of the story that came to mind – the character, the wife project or what?
SIMSION: The character of Don. In fact I wrote a short story, originally titled “The Jacket Incident” about Don going on a date without any wife project, as a “warm-up” to explore the character. That incident survived, with some changes, right through to the publication of Rosie. So, despite the title (which also went through changes), I’ve always seen The Rosie Project as being primarily about Don.
AUTHORLINK: Your screen play of the Rosie Project won the 2010 Australian Writers Guild/ Inscription Award for Best Romantic Comedy Script before you turned the story into a novel. What was different about writing in the two formats?
SIMSION: What was similar was characters, plot and dialogue, and it was great to have these clear in my mind as I started writing the novel. Moving to first person for the book meant that I couldn’t have things happening away from Don, so I had to do a bit of plot tuning to achieve that, and I added a little more complexity to the whodunit aspect. The big differences were in the description of Don’s inner world, through having access to his thoughts, and of course the business of crafting the prose. Neither was too difficult – at least compared with the five years I had spent on the movie version. I had needed to understand what was going on in Don’s head in order to write the screenplay, even though it was not all on the page. And the prose is very much Don’s voice, which I’d had to invent in order to produce the dialogue. Much of the comedy in the book comes from Don’s “man from Mars” reflections whereas in a movie we rely more on the physical and visual and on performance.
Interestingly for me, some of my attempts to make the story less “movie-like”, such as summarizing dialog and offering more back-story through Don’s reflections, were less than successful and I found myself reverting to the original.
|“Once you have characters, consider giving them a practice run in a short story – “
AUTHORLINK: Any advice for writers who would like to write a comedy?
SIMSION: Work very, very hard on character. If you’ve got comedic characters (or even one comedic character), the comedy will come very naturally: it won’t require forced setups that sacrifice the plot or require people to behave out of character. (The most popular comedic books are memoirs – with the author at the center). The reference point for me is the comedy that we are most familiar with – TV Sitcoms. Creating a series (which essentially means the characters and a broad setting) is very challenging, but with them in place, writing a single episode is much easier. Once you have characters, consider giving them a practice run in a short story – see how they work.
That said, there are techniques for writing comedy and you’d be crazy not to know them. My mentor Tim Ferguson’s The Cheeky Monkey is essential reading.
|About Graeme Simsion:
Simsion is further developing his debut novel’s screenplay with Sony Pictures, while writing its sequel along with a few short stories to avoid getting stuck in the same style, a real danger when writing a second Don Tillman novel. He lives in Australia with his wife and two children.
About Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.