About The Author
New Zealand born Graeme is a writer of screenplays, short stories, novels and plays. An occasional producer of films, primarily those for which he is screenwriter, he is also a data modeller and a teacher of consulting skills (for both students and practitioners) and a frequent conference presenter. He lives in Australia.
His first novel, The Rosie Project, features Don Tillman, a socially challenged genetics professor who has decided the time has come to find a wife. He draws up meticulous plans for finding the right woman but these do not account of Rosie Jarman, who wants to enlist Don's help on an altogether different quest...
The sequel, The Rosie Effect, picks up Rosie and Don's story some 10 months into their marriage, throwing hilarious new challenges at Don as Rosie drops the mother of all bombshells.
Frances Gertler talked to Graeme about 'geeks' and why those with 'non-standard' personalities are becoming more accpeted; the challenges of writing a funny book about someone with Asperger's and why he gave a conference address from the top of a ladder dressed as a duck.
Questions & Answers
Where did the idea for the book (and its predecessor, the screenplay) come from?
The story was inspired by a friend who had struggled to find a partner. But it changed enormously over five years, notably from a drama to a comedy. The Rosie character and the search for her father were the result of a complete rethinking two and a half years into the writing process.
How did its being a screenplay affect your writing of the story as a novel?
I worked directly from the screenplay when writing the first draft of the novel, following the same sequence and lifting whole chunks of dialogue. You see the evidence of screenwriting discipline in a story that is quite tightly structured and built around scenes and sequences. It's recognisably a romantic comedy. The key thing I added to the novel was Don's inner world, using the first-person, and I think that's the important thing that you get in the novel which can only be conveyed indirectly in a screenplay.
Why do you think there is such an appetite for writing and reading, and indeed, watching, programmes about such issues as autism and Asperger's? Is it because they are better understood and no longer swept under the carpet, are the conditions more prevalent or readily diagnosed or is something else at play here?
I think most of us know someone who has difficulties with empathy and social interaction, whether or not they've been formally diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. So there's that element of familiarity. There's also been a lot more recognition of autism / Asperger's in recent years both in diagnosis and in the media, and I think that ties to an interest in understanding rather than just laughing at the stereotypical nerd - a longstanding stock character in books and films.
Do you think we have become more or less tolerant of what Don calls the 'constructed social norms' to which those who have Asperger's simply don't conform? After all, Rosie is socially challenged too, but she would not be given a label in the same way that others like Don might be.
In an earlier draft, I included a gay man with the full stereotypical set of affectations, making a rather heavy-handed point that his social behaviour, which might have been mocked some years ago, is now something that's pretty widely accepted. Why should we not similarly accept Don's 'non-standard' personality? I'm pretty positive about the direction of change - I think that 'geeks' in particular are much more accepted and valued, at least in part because of their role in successful technology businesses.
How difficult was it to write what is a very funny book without appearing to be making fun of Don or people with Asperger's? Did the first person point of view help with that?
I was determined that Don would be the hero of the book - not just someone for the real hero to learn from. The latter is too often the fate of unusual people. The first person point of view certainly helped, making us privy to Don's logic and really giving us little choice as to who to identify with. I do make fun of Don, but I think with respect. He's a traditional comedic hero, setting out on a mission with manifestly inadequate skills. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and we relate to someone who sets his goals high and never gives up.
Of the many comic scenes, which is your personal favourite?
Probably the scene with the Aspie kids, as it's so important in establishing Don's character - a truth-teller, good-hearted, at least partially blind to his own limitations, and at odds with the conventional world.
What kinds of research did you have to do into Asperger's? Did observation come into play as well?
I read a couple of books on Asperger's and a couple of memoirs. Honestly, they didn't make a lot of difference to the book. I drew more heavily on my experience in information technology and academe. There are plenty of people a lot like Don in these fields. And I didn't want Don to be just a bunch of symptoms.
The questionnaire that Don constructs for potential partners is presented as manifestly ridiculous and yet, isn't it just a variation on what dating organisations, online sites etc are doing, albeit perhaps more discreetly?
Quite. It's interesting that there are plenty of self-help manuals around on making relationships work - far less on making a good choice in the first place. Don's questions are 'ridiculous' firstly because Don himself has unusual preferences and second because he doesn't really know what he needs. Not so different from most of us!
How does it feel to have sold rights to more than 30 countries? When did you know you had a winner on your hands?
It's fantastic that so many different cultures can relate to Don and his story and a wonderful opportunity to engage with people from those cultures in publishing and promoting the book. I knew I had a winner when Rosie was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript (which it subsequently won). Until then I hadn't known how the literary community would respond.
You have been known to give conference addresses from the top of a ladder, dressed as a duck, and once engaged a group of chartered accountants in community singing. Is there a closet performer inside you bursting to get out on stage?
I've been giving seminars, often on quite dry topics, for many years. I've always looked for creative ways to get the message across and engage an audience. I've no desire to take that to the stage or stand-up comedy - I know my limitations. Writing suits me much better.