A resident of Australia, Simsion will visit Connecticut bookstores twice this week—R.J. Julia on Tuesday evening and Bank Square Books on Wednesday afternoon—to present his debut novel, The Rosie Project (Simon & Schuster, $24.00). (See event details below.) His screen adaptation of the book won the Australian Writers Guild/Inscription Award for Best Romantic Comedy Script and has been optioned by Sony Pictures; the manuscript itself sold in auctions in over 35 territories. Simsion is a former IT consultant with an international reputation; he sold his successful consulting firm to become a full-time novelist, and is currently at work on a sequel.
Already an international sensation, The Rosie Project was published in America last and has earned starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Publishers Weekly; Simsion’s contemporaries have also been enthusiastic in their support of the book. Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, praised, “Don Tillman helps us believe in possibility, makes us proud to be human beings, and the bonus is this: he keeps is laughing like hell,” while Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee and Gold, noted, “The Rosie Project is an upbeat, quirky, impertinent gem of a read. As the novel makes its logically irrefutable progression, readers will become enchanted by what may well be the world’s first rigorously evidence-based romantic comedy.” Further, R.J. Julia owner Roxanne Coady has called the book “the hottest fiction debut this fall.”
From the publisher:
MEET DON TILLMAN, a brilliant yet socially challenged professor of genetics, who’s decided it’s time he found a wife. And so, in the orderly, evidence-based manner with which Don approaches all things, he designs the Wife Project to find his perfect partner: a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey to filter out the drinkers, the smokers, the late arrivers.
Rosie Jarman is all these things. She also is strangely beguiling, fiery, and intelligent. And while Don quickly disqualifies her as a candidate for the Wife Project, as a DNA expert Don is particularly suited to help Rosie on her own quest: identifying her biological father. When an unlikely relationship develops as they collaborate on the Father Project, Don is forced to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie—and the realization that, despite your best scientific efforts, you don’t find love, it finds you.
Arrestingly endearing and entirely unconventional, Graeme Simsion’s distinctive debut will resonate with anyone who has ever tenaciously gone after life or love in the face of great challenges. The Rosie Project is a rare find: a book that restores our optimism in the power of human connection.
Now, Graeme Simsion gives us a lesson on the logic of love—and literary aspirations …
1) What initially inspired the idea for THE ROSIE PROJECT? Also, can you tell us how the story evolved from screenplay to novel?
I worked in information technology and academia for a long time and met many people who were better with things and ideas than with people. Most authors, in my experience, are themselves very focused on people and don’t “get” characters like my protagonist Don, nor portray them sympathetically (I have to concede there are some notable exceptions). But I thought a sympathetic story about a socially-awkward person, presented from his point of view, would be a little different and connect with a wide range of readers.
I have a close friend – an IT expert – who struggled for a long time to find a partner, and his story provided the initial inspiration, though it changed a great deal as it developed. The original plot and characters, with the exception of Don Tillman and the Jacket Incident sequence, were completely replaced, and the tone changed from comedy to drama. There is no real Don Tillman!
The story developed over five years in screenplay form. But when it was done, I felt there were some things I could not do in a screenplay and that could be done in a novel – notably the portrayal of Don’s inner world. And I’d always wanted to write a novel. I had thought it was beyond me, but I now had plot and characters and even some dialogue. The step forward was not as big as starting a first novel from scratch. And, practically, the prospects of getting a novel published were better than those of getting a movie made.
2) Screenplay and manuscript represent vastly different means for storytelling. How did one form influence the other? Did you find that plotting was difficult, given the fact that the story largely deals with structure versus spontaneity, or did that somehow aid the process?
From a structure, plot, and character perspective, I found the two media quite similar – more similar than either is to staged drama. The plot in the book is a little more complex, but the structure is basically the same. The structure was driven by the screenplay, if only because the screenplay came first. The characters in the novel are exactly as they are in the screenplay. So a lot was constant. The theme of structure vs. spontaneity, and other themes such as ideals vs. reality, play out similarly in both. The big difference was the ability to explore Don’s inner world, and this is what novels do well. So that was where I focused my efforts. Don’s thoughts are such an important part of the drama, the comedy and the ideas explored in the novel.
3) Romantic comedies are often viewed as clichéd, and yet your book stands out as both original and satisfying. How did you go about attempting to achieve this balance – and what do you find to be the key(s) to crafting a story that delivers the goods for rom com readers without falling into overly familiar territory?
I have a longstanding interest in creativity (going back to when I worked in database design!) and know that constraints such as the conventions of romantic comedy can be a plus – just as using conventional scales and rhythms to write music is a plus. The reader or listener knows the rules, has a head start: they can focus on what you’ve done that’s different rather than learning from scratch. So the idea with a rom com is to work (mainly) within the conventions, but to look for new angles. For me, most of the originality came from character, and from some reasonably serious underlying themes about how we deal with difference, uncertainty, and imperfection. I don’t think rom coms have to be dumb or that they can’t explore important ideas. Rom com is just a shape, a template.
Interestingly for me, modern rom coms have not always been funny – many of the iconic rom coms are more like light dramas with occasional comedic moments, often coming from secondary character. There aren’t a lot of big laughs in Sleepless in Seattle. I was inspired by the old screwball comedies like Philadelphia Story and Bringing up Baby which had a strong emphasis on comedy, and comedic chemistry between the lead characters. I was always looking for the comedic moment, be it a structured sequence or a left-field observation from Don.
4) Your protagonist, Professor Don Tillman, is an extremely intelligent yet socially awkward man who understands evidence as opposed to emotion. Tell us: how did you capture and maintain this unique perspective – and do you feel that he may represent a new type of hero for readers?
I’m often asked how much research I did into Asperger’s Syndrome, as many people inside and outside that community identify Don as having Asperger’s. My answer is “I spent 30 years working in information technology” and that’s true. Don was drawn from my work with real people. To inhabit Don, I just imagined myself working on a technical problem – and taking that attitude into the social world.
I’m very resistant to Don being seen as the definitive Asperger’s character: socially awkward people come in all shapes, as do gay, rich, old, smart and tall people. I think it’s important that we have many characters of all of these kinds in literature, so we can move beyond seeing their similarities to seeing their variety. There are similarities between Don and Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and Sheldon in Big Bang Theory – but also big differences.
And “hero” is a broad term – we need good guys, bad guys, flawed guys, the whole range.
5) You are about to begin a book tour in the United States. How do you see this as enhancing the relationship between writer/reader/bookseller – and what do you view as being the role of the bookstore within its community?
I am a big advocate of the role of the bookstore in the community. In Australia, where The Rosie Project was published eight months ago, independent bookstores have kept it in the top 10 right from the first week through their personal recommendations. As a new author, I’m very conscious that I do not have the same “brand” as established authors, so have to rely on booksellers to introduce my work to readers. I’m enormously grateful for their efforts.
I’ve attended numerous events at bookstores, some of which are the cultural hub of their community – a role not always restricted to books and reading. There’s definitely a role for online booksellers, but they can’t host events, bring people together, and form a personal relationship in the way a bricks-and-mortar store and its staff can.
I’m very keen to help that relationship in the US and will be visiting as many stores as I can in October and have made a personal decision to return in December with my wife to do more visits.
With thanks to Graeme Simsion for his generosity of time and thought and to Julia Prosser, Assistant Director of Publicity at Simon & Schuster, for facilitating this interview.
The author has two local appearances scheduled this week:
Tuesday, October 8th, 7pm – R.J. Julia Booksellers – This event is free and open to the public. Books will be available for purchase/signing. Reservations are required and can be made online or by calling the store at 203-245-3959. R.J. Julia is located at 768 Boston Post Rd. in Madison.
Wednesday, October 9th, 12pm – Bank Square Books – This is a luncheon event. The cost is $24.00 and includes a signed copy of The Rosie Project, a catered lunch, and discussion time with the author. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the store at 860-536-3795. BSB is located at 53 W. Main St. in Mystic.