Meet Don Tillman: he is good-looking, likes to cook, works out and has a job in genetics research – but the only thing stopping the women from queuing around the block is his social awkwardness and high standards. Don decides it’s time to find a wife and comes up with a foolproof plan to find the ‘perfect specimen’ in the form of a survey, but when Rosie shows up at his office he can’t think of anybody more unsuitable. She smokes, she drinks, she is a waitress – and she wants his help in genetics expertise to find her father.
The Rosie Project is touching and laugh-out-loud funny – think The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time meets Silver Linings Playbook. Author Graeme Simison tells us the thought-processes behind his debut novel.
How did you get Don’s voice right? Did it take a long time?
I started by channelling a friend’s voice – an information technology specialist I’ve known forever. I added a few tics – ‘greetings’ comes from someone else – and of course the underlying personality was different. The voice evolved a little, but it was very close right from the start and made writing quite an easy process.
Did you do any research into autism or Aspergers?
I studied physics, worked in information technology for 30 years and did quite a bit of teaching and research at universities. What more did I need? Seriously, I got most of Don’s personality from people I’d met rather than Asperger’s texts and memoirs. I did look at a couple of these, but I was well down the track and they didn’t really influence Don’s character and voice at all. Recently I’ve found the move from a classification mentality (Asperger’s – yes or no?) to a spectrum concept (how much?) interesting – and I think valuable. But I’m speaking as a layman without specialist knowledge or family links.
At no point do we find out if Don has been diagnosed with having a learning/behavioural disability – was this something you decided to leave out?
Absolutely. It was very deliberate. I found that as soon as I said that Don had (for example) Asperger’s, people focused on that rather than the whole person. I was not trying to present a bunch of symptoms; I wanted a character we could identify with. I still get people saying: “but people with Asperger’s don’t drink alcohol/have sex/enjoy gourmet food” and I say, "fine, then Don doesn’t have Asperger’s. Read on.”
Would you be comfortable with Don joining the likes of Mr Rochester and Heathcliff to be one of the all time great literary heartthrobs? Do you think he would be comfortable with it?
What author, what debut author wouldn’t be delighted at such a prospect? I’d be happy him to be up there with Rumpole of the Bailey. Don, I think, has more mundane ambitions: he’d like to contribute to science and make a successful marriage. The latter is tough enough without the burden of being every woman’s dream.
If you had to create your own Marriage Project questionnaire, what would be your first five questions?
1) What is your job (or desired job if you’re not in the one you want)? Of course it’s a cliché but it does tell you an awful lot about the person – down to things like how much they’re likely to travel, whether they’re intellectual or physical, whether they’re focused on people or things...
2) What are your ambitions? For me, a marriage works best if partners can support each others’ ambitions, projects, dreams. I want to know what hers are and whether I can be part of them.
3) Are you happy with uncertainty and change? I’ve made some big changes in my life, and my wife has been fantastically supportive. If she’d been worried about me quitting my day job, I wouldn’t be writing this now.
4) Which relationship is more important – that with the children or the relationship between the partners? (I guess you want to know the ‘right’ answer – for me, it’s ‘both’. I’ve seen too many marriages wither because everything was about the kids – and that’s not good for the kids!
5) Do you drink wine (what do you like and how often?) I know, I know, but it’s a lifestyle thing and I don’t fancy sitting with a glass in my hand facing a stern look.
At the heart of it, The Rosie Project is a simple love story. What came first – the story about a genetics professor helping a girl find her father, or Don?
Don. The original story was quite different – a drama with a different love interest. It was called The Klara Project and Don was a physics professor. Besides the change in profession, Don has stayed the same while the story around him has changed.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion is published in hardback by Michael Joseph, £12.99.