“When I sign books for men, I often put ‘there’s a little bit of Don Tillman in all of us’,” says Graeme Simsion.
We’ve met to talk about Don – his hugely successful comic character, an on-the-spectrum Australian genetics professor. Don burst on to the fiction charts in The Rosie Project last year, wielding questionnaires and schedules in his quest to find love. Inevitably, meeting a spirited young woman named Rosie soon derailed his methodical plans.
The Rosie Project was a smart rom-com that achieved two rare feats: it was honestly, truly, laugh-out-loud funny, and it appeals equally to both men and women. Equally – but differently. “Women laugh at it more than men do: they laugh at everything Don does, whereas a man goes ‘that’s reasonable – that’s reasonable – well, that’s a bit over the top …’” elaborates Simsion over breakfast at the Delauney (his friendly but firm breakfast requirements – dry muesli with “no dairy”, fruit salad, a large bowl – suggest there’s a smidge of Don in him too). “The outstanding example, to me, is Melinda Gates reading it, laughing her head off, giving it to Bill, who writes on his website ‘this is a profound novel’. For him it’s insightful – the woman is like, ‘Oh god: it’s you!’”
If Simsion is guilty of a bit of name-dropping, it’s forgivable – the 58-year-old has had quite the whirlwind success with Don and Rosie, who hit bookshops again this month in the sequel, The Rosie Effect. It’s all a far cry from Melbourne-based Simsion’s former day-job as a data modeller and IT consultancy manager. It all started when he made his own low-budget movie; after an industry insider praised the screenwriting, Simsion sold his company and enrolled in a screenwriting course in 2007. By the end of the course he had his characters, his plot, his unique comic voice, but no funding.
And so Simsion turned The Rosie Project into a novel. His manuscript won a prize for an unpublished literary novel in 2012, which attracted a publisher. Soon, it was a word-of-mouth best-seller in Australia, and it’s since gone on to be sold in 42 countries, shifting over 1,500,000 copies worldwide.
No wonder a sequel started to look like a smart move. But was he wary about returning to Don? “I was a bit nervous, so I wrote a couple of chapters just to see: is he still there?” He very much was, and Simsion decided that a character like Don is the sort of gift you don’t get too often. “If you get the story right, you don’t have to worry about creating humour: wherever he’s going, it will flow, it will be funny.”
He had concerns, however, that critics might be sniffy. “To be blunt, I was very confident my readers would come back at least once, but I could have blown my reputation as an author. But fairly early on I decided – in my humble opinion – that the second book is stronger than the first.”
But The Rosie Project was, unabashedly and formulaically, a rom-com. What’s the sequel to “happy ever after”? One word: pregnancy.
He had actually been working on another novel – working title The Candle, which he describes as a Nick Hornby-esque observational comedy about long-dead romance rekindled over the internet. But once The Rosie Effect was conceived, as it were, at a dinner with a friend who was celebrating her pregnancy, he was happy to dive back in. There’s likely to be a third instalment in a few years time too.
Don is funniest when he mis-reads a social situation; we cringe, but we root for him too. And what could bring a greater set of challenges than parenthood? “It’s about dealing with the complexity of society and the rules – often very trivial – that we are surrounded by. Don Tillman is uber-clunky: he needs to analyse every one, so he makes visible to us just how many rules there are.”
Simsion is a father of two children, now in their early twenties; his wife, Anne, is a psychiatrist and author. He’s candid about how he just writes from his own life, but asking if his own experiences influenced the novel seems loaded: in The Rosie Effect, Don goes into meltdown at the very news of the pregnancy, gets arrested for “observing” children, and instigates an utterly maddening dietary regime … Simsion’s answer, happily, is rather sweet.
“The original starting point was this talk I give to men about to become fathers for the first time: ‘Your partner is going to be totally focused on the baby for a while, she will not have a lot of time for you and her – you are going to be responsible for that. Take it upon yourself – date night or whatever is now your job. Make it happen.’”
Simsion has also been busy revisiting that original screenplay for The Rosie Project – Sony bought the rights, and asked him to provide a script. “The story is very close to the novel, but they’re different media – I wasn’t all about protecting the book. I wanted to tell the best story I could on screen, and if that was different to the book, then so be it,” he says.
Excitingly, they’ve already been thinking about dream casting – the “obvious names”, he says, cool as you like, are Steve Carell, Paul Rudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jude Law. For Rosie, “the go-to person for everything at the moment is Jennifer Lawrence, but she’s already played a role not a million miles away in Silver Linings Playbook. For me, in my head, Rosie looks like Carey Mulligan.”
Don would no doubt make an attractive role for an actor: good-looking, academically brilliant, a whizz at cooking and cocktail making, but also with a condition that makes him “other”, that an actor could sensitively portray. Which must have been an issue Simsion faced too. “I had ethical questions I had to answer: are we laughing at a disorder?” He took this very seriously, and asked friends with personal or familial experience of Asperger syndrome to read drafts. Fortunately, they loved it.
Still, he was a bit nervous of a backlash after publication – but the book has been “fabulously” well received by the Asperger’s community, he says. “They think it’s authentic. A number of people from that community have actually bought the book to give to friends, to say ‘this is what it’s like’. And it’s affectionate – it’s not cruel.”
That’s partly because Don was inspired by a lot of people he worked with, and became friends with, over a 30-year career in information technology. “It wasn’t conscious, but behind my writing is a love and affection for these guys. I didn’t want to beat up on them.” And, he insists, Don-alikes are not exactly unusual: “Almost everybody who comes to a book launch seems to know somebody like Don.”
The Rosie Effect, by Graeme Simsion, Michael Joseph, £14.99