Graeme Simsion: lesson from a screen

Vani Gupta

Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion: “Most of us have a self-improvement ethic; we would like to be better people.” Picture by James Penlidis

Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion: The Rosie Effect

Graeme Simsion’s novel The Rosie Project, and its sequel The Rosie Effect, chart the adventures of Don, a genetics professor who displays multiple markers of Asperger’s Syndrome throughout his questionnaire-based search for a spouse.

“ ‘Professor Tillman, most of us here are not scientists, so you may need to be a little less technical.’ This sort of thing is incredibly annoying. People can tell you the supposed characteristics of a Gemini or a Taurus and will spend five days watching a cricket match but cannot find the interest or the time to learn the basics of what they, as humans, are made up of.”

Don Tillman, the protagonist of Graeme Simsion’s novel The Rosie Project, and its sequel The Rosie Effect, constantly has to deal with the shortcomings of the people around him.

In the Rosie novels, readers follow the experiences and adventures of Don, a genetics professor, who displays multiple markers of Asperger’s Syndrome throughout his questionnaire-based search for a spouse.

Discussing the wide appeal of the original Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion notes Don is a person determined to make a personal transformation. “I think that’s something that all of us relate to,” he says. “Most of us have a self-improvement ethic; we would like to be better people.” Despite the uniqueness of his outlook, Don’s determination intrigues readers.

Graeme Simsion talks openly about his approach to writing, with many practical pieces of advice for authors. He says his background in screenwriting gave him “a very strong sense of story”. For The Rosie Project, he began with a template of a romantic comedy, then asked himself, “What would Don do in this scene?”

That said, not all of Mr Simsion’s success can be put down to his screenwriting expertise. Despite its many advantages, he notes that it doesn’t teach one to write well. He goes on to say the how of writing is a personal thing, although it is eventually between writer and editor.

`The comedy of Graeme Simsion’s books is an element that has contributed to their success. He says that most “laugh-out-loud comedy” is often performative. People seek television, movies or stand-up comedy, rather than turning to books.

He says he was careful to ensure The Rosie Project dealt with Asperger’s in a respectful way. Don is somebody “I would hang out with, who I would have a good relationship with,” he says. The comedy in the novel does not come from laughing at Don, or his ‘Aspie’ tendencies.

As Don himself says, “Asperger’s isn’t a fault. It’s potentially a major advantage. Asperger’s Syndrome is associated with organisation, focus, innovative thinking and rational detachment.”

Not a lot of research was needed to create the character of Don. “I’ve lived enough that I can largely draw on real life,” Graeme Simsion says. He has friends and colleagues who, like Don, do not have a diagnosis of autism (Asperger’s was recently amalgamated into the umbrella term ‘autism spectrum disorders’) yet, like Don, they sometimes engage with social norms in a slightly different way.

All of the Rosie characters are lively and entertaining, with layers that are revealed across the span of the book. Graeme Simsion cares about the professions of his characters. The Rosie books touch lightly upon aspects of evolutionary psychology and give insights into Don’s work as a geneticist.

Even minor Rosie characters are well-rounded. The writer gave careful thought to the supporting cast, saying his screenwriting background made him aware that each character needed to go on his or her own journey. As he says, “You can’t just place characters on the page to do something and then walk off, because actors won’t be happy with that.

“Let’s imagine that Jennifer Lawrence wants to play Rosie,” he says. “She’ll want to know her character’s motivations, and where the character is coming from. She can’t just be present for Don’s purposes.”

“Screenwriting makes you look at the story from every character’s perspective, and make them realistic.”

Graeme Simsion notes that Rosie makes a bigger journey than Don in the first novel. She views the world very differently to Don, has her own problems to deal with, as well as her own strengths. And she doesn’t fall head over heels in love at first sight.

Yet another screenwriting tip dispensed by the writer: use as few major characters as you can, because it gives you a richer part for somebody to play. The contradictory charisma of Gene perhaps stems from him being a composite of two originally separate characters. As Graeme Simsion says, Gene has “all these skills that Don wishes he had, but he uses them for evil rather than good. I imagine Gene as the dark side of Don”. He is at times helper, and at other times hapless. This “part good, part bad” personality makes him more like “real people”, the writer says.

Although not all of Graeme Simsion’s characters grow as people, they all change in the eyes of the reader, as in the sequel, The Rosie Effect.

In order to keep track of these story arcs and provide the carefully planned complexity of the characters, the writer plans his novels on cards, a method common for screenwriters. Screenwriting teaches writers a lot about story shape, he says. He points to long-form television writers as examples of today’s best storywriters. He calls it “the smartest writing around”.

Many of the television shows he mentions, such as Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and Game of Thrones (although the latter originated from a novel), are also known for providing rich character arcs. This is mirrored in Graeme Simsion’s work – you don’t find any ill-formed, ‘small’ characters in his stories.

The Rosie Project began its life as a screenplay, became a best-selling novel, and has recently been re-written as a screenplay for Sony Pictures.

Amongst its many accolades, the novel won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript in 2012, the Australian Book Industry Awards’ 2014 Book of the Year, and was recently long-listed for the 2015 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

“Just because the structure is a romantic comedy, it doesn’t mean it can’t be intelligent or well-written,” the writer says. Referring to the cultural cringe that causes works of romance to sometimes be overlooked, he asks, “Is it more important to cry, or to laugh and be uplifted?”


Graeme Simsion is speaking at the Sydney Writers Festival with Anne Buist on Friday 22 May, 10-11am, Pier 2/3 The Loft and Sunday 24th May: The Books that Exploded (and Why We Fell in Love) with Liane Moriarty and Terry Hayes, 3-4pm, Roslyn Packer Theatre.