Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013: Maximum Shelf: The Rosie Project

Simon & Schuster: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Simon & Schuster: The Rosie Project by Grame Simsion

Simon & Schuster: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Simon & Schuster: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project

by Graeme C. Simsion

Few debut novels garner the kind of attention Graeme Simsion's has. As soon as The Rosie Project was shortlisted for Melbourne's 2012 Victorian Premier's Literary Award in the unpublished manuscript category, publishers began to sit up and take notice. That Simsion went on to win the award was icing on the cake compared to having his manuscript picked up not only in his native Australia, but in more than 30 countries as well. The Rosie Project also became a sought-after property for film developers. While readers may sometimes do well to avoid an over-hyped property, take our word for it: this laugh-'til-you-snort gem deserves all the hype.

Don Tillman knows that under ordinary circumstances, he would have no trouble finding a relationship. "I am thirty-nine years old, tall, fit, and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income as an associate professor.... In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing." Unfortunately for Don's love life, that statement perfectly demonstrates his personality: analytical, logical and largely unable to anticipate or correctly respond to human social behavior. Don lives his life according to a rigid time-maximizing schedule. He's gone so far in his routine as to create "the Standardized Meal System," which involves eating the same seven dishes in the same rotation every week so that he can minimize cooking and shopping time. Unsurprisingly, his pet peeve is tardiness. Due to his immunity to the subtleties of human interaction, Don boasts only two friends: Gene, a fellow professor with a mission to bed a woman from every country on the globe, and Gene's wife, Claudia, who is beginning to balk at their open marriage. While both have advised Don on matters of the heart and even set him up on dates, Don's lack of a social filter kills the mood every time. In fact, Don is so socially unaware that he fails to recognize when women are trying to flirt with him and unwittingly rebuffs them. During one of these advances, Don has an epiphany: Why not develop a testing instrument that will find his ideal mate scientifically, a questionnaire that will filter out unsuitable candidates? So begins the Wife Project--and so ends the unlucky ladies' attempts to get oblivious Don pay attention.

However, the course of true love never did run smooth, particularly when one attempts to obtain it via survey questions. In the midst of Don's struggle to find Miss Right, he meets Miss Completely Wrong. Rosie isn't the health-conscious, rationally detached, non-smoking, non-drinking, conservatively dressed professional woman Don intended to find, but when she tells him that she doesn't know the identity of her biological father, Don's curiosity as a geneticist gets the better of him. He offers to help her find the truth, all in the name of science, and not because he finds Rosie strangely alluring despite her unsuitability--or so he tells himself. In no time at all, Rosie begins to turn Don's carefully calibrated world on its head with her spontaneity and joie de vivre. Can a free spirit like Rosie ever see through Don's pocket protector to the heart underneath? More importantly, can Don turn loose of his narrow world view long enough to confront his feelings for Rosie?

In a telling moment, Don addresses a group of children with Asperger's syndrome. While the group's facilitator insists that the "Aspies" need to change if they're ever going to enjoy normal relationships as adults, Don posits that they are more likely to be focused, organized and creative thinkers who won't struggle to distinguish between rational thought and their emotions. While Simsion uses the experience to set up the idea that people with Asperger's syndrome actually have some advantages over the neurotypical, he also allows the incident to pass with no comment from Don or any other character on how closely the Asperger's profile mirrors Don's personality. Far from dancing around the issue of a possible disability, Simsion's omission serves to assert that while Don's eccentricities are not without effect, the lack of diagnosis or intervention has not kept Don from building a successful life. He is different, but not disabled, and his differences have carried him forward professionally even if they have held him back socially. While Don's social missteps and innocent tactlessness drive the story's humor, one never gets the sense that Simsion is making fun of Don; rather, he pokes fun at the rest of humanity--irrational decisions, unnecessarily complicated nuances of courtship, apparent aversion to punctuality and all.

While Simsion's charming hero is unconventional, expect a traditional romantic comedy with sly nods to film classics of the genre. Sometimes touching, sometimes thought-provoking and always hilarious, The Rosie Project is a feel-good novel that, just like your favorite romantic movie, you'll want to enjoy again and again. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Simon & Schuster, $24, hardcover, 9781476729084 , October 1, 2013

Simon & Schuster: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion: A 'Fish Out of Water' Story

photo: James Penlidis

Graeme Simsion, Ph.D., is a New Zealand-born Australian author, screenwriter, playwright and data modeller. He was the owner of a successful consulting business who decided, at 50, that he would become a writer. The Rosie Project is his first book. Simsion is now a full-time novelist. He is married to a psychologist/erotic fiction writer and once gave a conference presentation dressed as a duck.

How does it feel to have gotten so much interest in your first novel?

After winning the Victorian Premier's Prize for an Unpublished Manuscript in June of 2012, I had strong interest from local (Australian) publishers and found myself managing a bidding process--I don't have an agent. It concluded with an agreement with Text Publishing, an outstanding publisher in my home town of Melbourne. The advance was nice to have, but not an amount that was life-changing. I still needed to keep my "day job" of running seminars on data modeling (database specification) and consulting skills.

Then, in September, Text took the manuscript to international publishers and everything changed. In two weeks, I had deals with a dozen publishers, including the bigger countries: the U.S., the U.K., Germany, Canada, France, Italy, Brazil and offers from another 10 or more. This time the financial amounts were at a different level, and I made a decision to give up my day job and become a full-time writer. Currently we've sold to 35 countries, with three more in play right now.

But you asked how I felt. Gobsmacked, at the interest. Unburdened, to be quitting the day job that I enjoyed but had been doing a long time. Excited, that I would have time to realize whatever potential I had a writer.

Don has many traits that are characteristic of Asperger's Syndrome. Was his character development informed by research into that condition, or do you know a real-life version of Don?

I worked in information technology for over 30 years. During that time I also did teaching and research at several universities. So I met many people who were, in one way or many, a lot like Don. Go to the mathematics department of any university and you'll find Don's kin. He's only unusual to people who don't work in science and technology!

I did some research on Asperger's Syndrome only after I had developed Don's character, and it did not influence that character. In fact, its main use has been in supporting an answer to the question "Does Don have Asperger's?" I'm not a psychologist, but I'd guess that most psychologists would answer "yes."

I made a deliberate (and important) decision not to describe Don as having Asperger's Syndrome. When I first brought Don, as a character in a short story, to a workshop, and described him as a man with Asperger's Syndrome, everyone focused on the syndrome rather than the character. I got comments in the form of, "But people with Asperger's don't drink/do martial arts/wear socks." I really understood the plea to "see the person, not the disability." Even now, people will say to me, "You've got him wrong...  people with Asperger's would rather continue their routine life than find a relationship," and my response is, "If that's true of all people with Asperger's, then Don doesn't have Asperger's."

More broadly, it does bother me that some readers want to make Don a representative of all people with autism/Asperger's. I think there's room in this world for many different heroes (and villains) with Asperger's--it's not about who has nailed "it" best.

Finally, many reviewers have commented on the fact that Don does not realize he has Asperger's syndrome--and regard it as the least believable part of the story. On the contrary, Asperger's has historically been diagnosed in children rather than adults, and was not a common diagnosis until the 1990s. My wife, a professor of psychiatry, confirms that if Don had presented with psychiatric problems as an adult, it's unlikely that Asperger's would be on the "differential diagnosis" list.

Also, Don might choose not to be put in a box. Amongst adult "Dons" that I know, virtually none acknowledge having Asperger's, though I think this is changing with greater awareness and acceptance.

How did you balance using Don's quirks to create humor with respecting him and not taking away from his romantic appeal?

I was very concerned not to make fun of people who were different--at least not in a way that added difficulties to what might already be a difficult life for them. My argument was essentially that Don is different, not disabled, and that his story is a "fish out of water" one--a stranger in a strange land. Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles. In these stories we laugh both at the protagonist for his ignorance of the local customs, and with him when he shows up the flaws in those customs or uses his own background to cut through them ("this is a knife.") It's a balancing act.

And Don is a hero. Like all good heroes, he has to overcome not only external challenges, but his own weaknesses--one of which is his lack of social skills. We relate to him, because all of us have made a social faux pas, or messed up a date. As for the romantic appeal, he's competent, fit, intelligent, in stable employment, good looking (at least to Rosie), honest and persistent. Not a bad start!

There's interest in turning The Rosie Project into a film, and the book certainly pays homage to the rom-com film genre. What are some romantic movies that you love or that inspire you?

Sony Pictures (Columbia) optioned the film rights, including the screenplay on which the book is based (also written by me) in April 2013. I was inspired more by the old screwball comedies, the precursors to the modern rom-com, than recent movies: Bringing up Baby, His Girl Friday, The Philadelphia Story, The Apartment.... In modern rom-coms, I'm a fan of Hitch, It's Complicated, Groundhog Day and, to throw in a couple of less-fêted movies, Eagle vs Shark and Run, Fatboy, Run. I love the modern French farces--The Dinner Game, The Closet, The Visitors, Heartbreaker.

Reading a romantic comedy that's written by a man and narrated from the male perspective isn't an everyday occurrence. Did you write it with an aim toward cross-gender appeal?

I wrote it to tell a story that I thought everyone could relate to. I think most of us have a bit of Don in us or know someone who has. I never thought of it as a story for women, and, indeed, in its original form as a screenplay, I saw it as a "date movie." It's only when publishers get involved and tell you that most fiction is bought by women....

What can we expect from you in future?

I have a three-book contract with Text Publishing, and have drafted two more books, both "mature age" love stories. But I've put both aside to work on a sequel to The Rosie Project. And of course I'm working on the screenplay for the movie--having come full circle from writing the story originally as a script. --Jaclyn Fulwood

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