‘The Rosie Project’ by Graeme Simsion is a quirky and endearing story about Don Tillman, a genetics professor with autism who embarks on The Wife Project in an attempt to meet his ideal life partner through a detailed questionnaire. Instead, he meets Rosie Jarman who fits none of his very specific criteria – she smokes, drinks alcohol, doesn’t eat meat and is late for everything. However, Rosie’s quest to uncover the identity of her biological father leads Don on an eventful journey of his own.
I was lucky enough to have the chance to interview Graeme Simsion about the process of writing ‘The Rosie Project’ and the inspiration behind the story:
1) You have said that the story is loosely based on a friend’s struggle to find a partner. Has he read The Rosie Project? If so, what does he think of it?
Yes. I have to add that the story has moved a long way from its original form, and now bears very little resemblance to that of my friend. But Don’s voice and a couple of incidents were inspired by him. So he was the first person to read the manuscript outside my family. He texted me from a plane (he’s a techie guy, he can do that sort of thing legally) on the way to a conference in Los Vegas.
“This is the greatest book I have ever read. I have tears in my eyes. You deserve a Nobel Prize.” I hope he’s on the committee…. The book is dedicated to him and his wife.
2) What (or who) was the inspiration behind the character of Rosie?
If you’d asked me that question right after I finished first re-draft of the story that included Rosie, I would have said “nobody – she’s a technical creation”. That was the way it felt. The original love interest for Don had been Klara, a nerdy Hungarian physicist who was a perfect and obvious match, if only he could handle the relationship. But I threw that draft away and invented Rosie, a character who ticked none of Don’s boxes but who met deeper needs. And she, in turn, had to have needs that Don could meet. I worked with my wife, a psychiatrist (who also writes erotic fiction under the name Simone Sinna) on the character, building a backstory that would lead to the qualities and needs I wanted.
It was only later, on reflection, that I realised that I had incorporated bits and pieces of several people I know or have known – fellow writers, my daughter, ex-girlfriends and just a little bit of my wife. But there’s no single inspiration. I’m not expecting to be sued on that one.
3) The Rosie Project was initially written as a screenplay. How do the different processes of writing a screenplay and writing a novel compare?
Two big differences between a novel and a screenplay.
One: A novel allows access to characters’ thoughts – their inner world. This was a big deal in The Rosie Project, transforming the story as we inhabit Don’s head rather than viewing him from the outside. It allows constant observational comedy as Don, the unreliable narrator, shares his ‘man from Mars’ view of conventional society and society’s conventions.
Two: A novel is a complete work; a script is only a template for others to add their creative input – notably performance, production design, music. Comedy in the movie will come more from performance than observation.
The processes of writing are, for me, similar. Screenwriters generally collaborate more but I work with my wife on plot and character when writing a novel also. Screenwriters are typically structure freaks – in writing a novel, I’ve continued that habit and plan before I start writing.
4) The Rosie Project is now being turned back into a screenplay for the upcoming film. Is the new screenplay completely different from how you wrote it originally?
Not yet! My starting point was the original screenplay, but I’ll be working with Sony (I’m still the screenwriter) to improve it. I don’t feel bound to faithfully mirror the book: some things work better on screen that in a book and vice versa and retaining the spirit of the characters and story is more important to me than scene by scene fidelity.
5) Do you have a favourite chapter or passage in The Rosie Project? What was the most enjoyable part of writing the novel?
I like the Aspie kids passage, because it happens early in the book and has a lot of work to do in establishing character, situation and tone, as well as having to be entertaining and comedic in its own right. So it’s a writer’s passage! There’s a conversation on the plane to New York where they talk about the psychological damage that Rosie’s stepfather has done to her: even though they’re talking about Rosie, they’re actually exploring the issue of Don’s psychological difference and the fact that he wouldn’t want to change it. I was quite pleased with doing it that way rather than through obvious direct conversation.
The best part of writing the novel was the first draft. I knew the story, and could concentrate on the details – so there was unexpected comedy arising every few minutes.
6) Did Don’s voice come immediately to you or did it evolve a lot during the writing process?
Don’s voice came to me immediately, inspired by (but not totally in imitation of) my friend’s. Quite early on, I made a deliberate change, to make Don more positive – full speed ahead, all problems can be solved – and that did affect the voice.
7) What is your favourite book?
Too hard! I’ve had different favourite books at different stages of my life, and few have stood up to re-reading as I’ve got older. One of the most influential books was The Plague by Albert Camus which I read for school at fifteen in terms of getting me thinking about a philosophy of living – but I haven’t read it again! A long list would be dominated by non-fiction that has opened my eyes: Jared Diamond’s first two books are good examples. I loved Hofstadter’s Gödel Escher Bach when I was a computer specialist and it was a bit of a cult book in that community. The two books I’ve opened most often: Paul Reps‘ Zen Flesh Zen Bones and Patricia Wells‘ French Bistrot Cooking: when we lived in France, it was our only cookbook.
Many thanks to Graeme Simsion and FMcM Associates.
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion is published by Penguin, 2nd January 2014, £7.99 paperback