Richard and Judy ask Graeme Simsion

Richard and Judy ask Graeme Simsion

When did you first appreciate the comic potential of Asperger’s?

Long before I’d ever heard of Asperger’s! A lot of humour is based on people’s differences, whether it’s the Englishman, the American and the Australian walking into a bar or Crocodile Dundee fetching up in LA. Or, for that matter, the kids in the schoolyard making fun of the geek. I was a bit of a geek at school, so was often on the receiving end – ‘appreciate’ is perhaps not the best word, but I learned what made people laugh and sometimes deliberately played up to it. It’s not (or shouldn’t be) about laughing at people’s superfi cial differences. It’s our different world-views. Observational comedy – ‘What’s this about?’ – has the observer setting themselves up as an outsider and offering a fresh look at our behaviour: we laugh at ourselves and at the unexpected. Don Tillman is ideally placed to do this. He’s an outsider, but intelligent, blunt and totally sincere. It wasn’t until after I had created Don Tillman that I thought about Asperger’s. Don didn’t come out of a textbook; he was inspired by people I knew in my technology and academic careers, and he’s not meant to represent everyone with Asperger’s, let alone autism. Don is happy with who he is (though now that he’s looking for a partner, he’d like to improve his social skills) and can give as good as he gets.

Obvious question: do you suffer from the syndrome? At all?

I have a fulfilling and well-paid job as a writer with a bestselling book. I’ve been happily married for twenty-four years with a couple of great kids. I’m in good health and have good friends. So ‘suffering’ hardly applies to my life. I’m not trying to be cute here: as soon as we say ‘suffer’, we are characterizing difference as disability. Sometimes it is, and the term disability is now used broadly to include such things as an inability to fit in. Fair enough, but it’s a moot point if it’s the result of others’ intolerance. The psychiatrists have now incorporated Asperger’s into the autism spectrum, so the question would now have to be: ‘Are you autistic?’ Answer: no, because I’m not ‘suffering’, and that’s a requirement for diagnosis. Psychologists are less focused on the idea of illness or disability, and still recognize Asperger’s as a way of being ‘wired differently’, as Don would say. After being asked the obvious question many times (prompted, I presume, by the Don Tillman character rather than any of my own behaviour) I did the Baron-Cohen test online (www.aspergerstestsite. com/75/autism-spectrum-quotient-aq-test/). I’m well below even the ‘borderline’ score. That said, I studied physics, worked in information technology, and seem to have succeeded in portraying an Aspergian from the inside. ‘Ha!’, you say. But now I’m a novelist, making up stories, and thoroughly enjoying meeting new people at signings and talks. Hardly fits the stereotype. People are complex. But what about Don? Prior to his Wife Project, he is secure in his job, friendships and health. Technically he doesn’t fulfil the psychiatric requirements. I did the Baron-Cohen test on his behalf and he scored 43, which is well into Asperger’s territory. But . . . people are complex.

Your story is extremely un-location specific – we assumed it was set in London until a character settles a bar bill in dollars. (And not US dollars.) Was this geographic vagueness intentional?

In the US version, there’s a minor change to make the location clear, as there’s a Melbourne in Florida as well as in Australia. But I’ve always seen The Rosie Project as a story about people and not about place. Don’s world-view is of functional things and ideas – he’s less attuned to his environment than most of us. So, when he tells the story, he doesn’t give us much detail. This was actually a challenge in writing: to tell the tale as Don would tell it but to satisfy the reader with some information about the setting and people’s appearances. My approach was for Don to tell us about things that had an impact on him (e.g. rain requiring him to wear a jacket) and allow us to fill in the gaps, at least to some extent. Of course, there’s a long segment set in New York, and the change of location was important. It gives him the freedom to reinvent himself away from his routines and the people who expect him to behave in a certain way. As a visitor, he tells us what he sees, so the reader probably has a stronger sense of place here than in the chapters set in Melbourne. I didn’t want to tie Don to any nationality or tradition. He is Australian, but his deadpan humour comes from something deeper. In the movie, he’s likely to be American and I don’t think the story will lose or gain anything significant for that change. I’m English by descent, a New Zealander by birth and Australian by naturalization, and I’ve made Don similarly vague in his identification.

The Rosie Project started life as a screenplay. (You say Cary Grant would have made the perfect Don.) If the book were to transfer to screen today, who would be the ideal Don and Rosie?

It’s not a hypothetical question: Sony Pictures have optioned the rights and I’m currently working with them on the screen play. So, if all goes as planned, some of the best casting directors in Hollywood will be applying themselves to the problem. And it’s the favourite question at book signings. I don’t like to name names because I think a book should stand alone, without the author creating a separate image in the reader’s mind. If I say ‘Steve Carell’ then some readers will start reading the book with The 40-Year-Old Virgin in their minds – and I think that detracts from the experience. The Washington Post picked Paul Rudd for Don. These guys are both outstanding comedy actors with the ability to portray something deeper, and that’s a pretty good brief for Don. Or turn it around – a great drama actor with the ability to play comedy. It’s important for me that Rosie is similarly strong – not a ‘manic pixie dream-girl’ stereotype but someone with clear wants and needs of her own, able to match Don but to take as much from the relationship as she gives. And she has to be a comedic foil – a Katharine Hepburn to Cary Grant. Jennifer Lawrence, Carey Mulligan, Melissa George? I’ve made a number of short films and am constantly amazed by what a left-field decision from a casting director can do. I’m hoping to be surprised and amazed – in a good way.

Leave a Reply