I’d always wanted to write a novel, but didn’t think I had the ability. When, at 50, I made a mid-life career change, I decided to enrol in a screenwriting program rather than creative (prose) writing. I had previously written a screenplay for a feature-length film made purely for fun, so I thought I could do that. So The Rosie Project was my school project over five years. Two factors drove me to adapt it into a novel: the first was that with a story in place, I thought the jump to writing a novel was not so great so I could achieve that ambition; the second was to get more attention for the script to help fund the making of the film.
How difficult was it to adapt it as a novel?
I found the “reverse adaptation” very straightforward. In fact, I realised that the story was perhaps better told as a novel. I was able to work quite quickly – the first draft took only four weeks. I already had a clear plot, characters and dialogue. The big addition was Don’s inner world – his thoughts. Although these were not on the page in the screenplay, they were very clear in my mind, so quite easy to add. They are, in the novel, an important source of comedy. In a film, you can generate comedy from physical movement and expressions and from timing – these tools are not really available to the novelist. So in the novel, the main source of comedy moves from the external world to what’s happening in Don’s head.
Did you do a lot of research on Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism?
I did read a couple of technical books and a couple of memoirs but their influence on the character of Don Tillman was minimal. My first degree was in physics – lots of science and maths! Then I worked for many years in information technology and also taught and did research at several universities. So I met many people who were technically very capable and often had “left field” ideas, but who struggled with understanding and communicating with other people. I guess today, many of these (mainly male) guys would be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, but that diagnosis really only became popular in the 1990s.
Is Don Tillman based on anyone in particular?
They say a character is a third someone you know, a third yourself and a third made up. A particular friend, an information technology guru, had a dramatic true-life story around his quite-focused “Wife Project” and this was the original inspiration for the script. Initially I channelled his voice, but Don soon took on its own character. I was also a bit of a nerd in my youth, and a bit beyond. And I added in mannerisms and stories from others – “greetings” and “I’m in human sponge mode” come from colleagues.
How do you feel about using autism / Asperger’s as a source of humour?
Don is a person with big strengths (high intelligence) and weaknesses (poor social skills). I see him as atypical rather than disabled. Most stories, drama or comedy, require the hero to overcome a weakness to achieve their goal. Comedy arises when the hero is seriously under-equipped for the journey. And sometimes Don’s view of the world makes more sense than ours. So far, the novel has been very well received by people with Asperger’s, their families and organisations. Many have commented that they appreciate the socially-challenged person being the hero and the person we identify with rather than someone for the real hero to learn from (as in, for example, Rain Man). No doubt there will be other views but if the book prompts discussion, all the better.
Does Don actually have Asperger’s? You never say he does in the book.
That was a very deliberate decision. As soon as you say “Asperger’s” or “Autism”, people, in my experience, focus on the syndrome rather than the character. Don is not a bunch of symptoms – he’s a quirky guy who probably would be diagnosed as being on the Autism spectrum – but I don’t claim to be an expert. The citation for the Victorian Premier’s Award said Don had “undiagnosed Asperger’s” and I say “undiagnosed except by the judges of a literary award.” If, reading The Rosie Project, you note that Don drinks alcohol, and you think (as one psychiatrist friend did) that “aspies don’t drink”, then, in your diagnosis, he doesn’t have Asperger’s. Fair enough. Read on.
Where did the Rosie character come from?
The original story was titled The Klara Project, and Klara was a nerdy Hungarian studying for her PhD in physics. There was a plot around plagiarism and Don helping her out. About 2 ½ years into the project, I decided that Klara wasn’t a strong-enough character – she didn’t require such a big change and effort from Don. And he didn’t learn as much as I wanted him to. So I replaced her with the antithesis of what Don was looking for – to see how far he could go. I didn’t consciously base her on anyone but there are elements of a couple of people I know in there.
Have you ever met anyone like Gene? I mean, really? At a university?
What happened to the screenplay?
We have had firm offers from production companies in UK, Australia and the US. I’m very confident we will do a deal and have every hope that the film will be made.
Who would you like to play Don?
I don’t answer this question, because it puts an idea, and not always a good one, of what Don is like in the heads of people who read the book. One of the joys of reading is to use your imagination. But I want the film to be laugh-out-loud funny – genuine comedy. So the most important factor is the comedic chemistry amongst Don, Rosie and the director.
Will there be a sequel?
I am working on one now.
Your wife writes erotic fiction. How does that work?
She writes under the name Simone Sinna – and is currently working on a mainstream novel. We work well together – we discuss story ideas, review each other’s work, and know that if the other person is on a roll, it’s our turn to make dinner. Or order in.
How does it feel having rights for The Rosie Project sold in 35 countries?
It’s great that people in such a range of cultures – from China to Iceland - can relate to the story and particularly to Don. On the financial side, I’ve been able to give up my day job to focus on writing.
What was your day job? What exactly is data modelling?
I was an information technology specialist focusing on data modelling, which is basically specifying how data will be organised and represented in a database. I wrote a couple of books on the subject – one is entering its fourth edition. In the 80s I founded a consultancy that I sold in 1999 – and after that I focused on teaching data modeling and consulting skills around the world. I met quite a few people like Don.
What advice would you give to writers?
I’ve written a few things about this on my blog, but basically I work with a plan, which I update as I go. If you’re writing well without a plan, I’m not going to suggest you change, but if writing without a plan isn’t working for you… And good writing is re-writing. You can always make it better. Enrol in a writing class or join a writers group or both – for feedback, knowledge sharing and encouragement. Write for publication.
How do you think The Rosie Project compares with The Big Bang Theory / The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time / One Day?
I haven’t seen / read any of them. Deliberately. Once I realised I was working in the same territory, I avoided reading them so as not to be hamstrung by worrying about copying. Sometimes different writers just end up at the same place, coincidentally or because some things are just common to certain types of people. Of course now people thrust Asperger’s-themed books at me to review...
What do you read?
Not much fiction when I’m writing. In the past I read a lot – typically taking an author and reading all of his / her works until I got exhausted – when I was in teens / early 20s Hemingway, Camus, Solzhenitsyn, Kurt Vonnegut… later Philip Roth, John Irving, Joanne Harris, Rose Tremain, John Fowles.
As an adolescent, I read science fiction – lots and lots of it. The most recent books I’ve read were Addition by Toni Jordan (a book Rosie has been compared with) and Waiting for the Barbarians by J M Coetzee.
What books influenced The Rosie Project?
Many years ago (I’d have been in my teens) I read a 1950s book that was a huge hit in Australia – They’re a Weird Mob by Nino Culotta (John O’Grady). It was the model of a humorous book, first person, about a fish out of water, an Italian in Australia. I never consciously drew from it, but in retrospect it probably provided the first model for Rosie. I like John Irving’s ability to create character and plot that seem just a bit heightened – but never actually incredible.
Don is a bit of a foodie – and a wine buff. Where did that come from?
Me. I like to cook, eat and drink. I do a lot of travelling – in the past with seminars, now with the book – and an interest in food and wine fits well with travel. And I was keen to give Don some characteristics that were not traditionally associated with Asperger’s.
Find out more about The Rosie Project.