Rosie Project was originally a screenplay. What’s the story there?
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.
difficult was it to adapt it as a novel?
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
you do a lot of research on Asperger’s Syndrome or Autism?
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.
Don Tillman based on anyone in particular?
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.
do you feel about using autism / Asperger’s as a source of humour?
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.
Don actually have Asperger’s? You never say he does in the book.
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.
did the Rosie character come from?
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.
you ever met anyone like Gene? I mean, really? At a university?
happened to the screenplay?
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
would you like to play Don?
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.
there be a sequel?
am working on one now.
wife writes erotic fiction. How does that work?
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.
does it feel having rights for The
Rosie Project sold in 35 countries?
great that people in such a range of cultures – from China
– 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.
was your day job? What exactly is data modelling?
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.
advice would you give to writers?
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.
do you think The Rosie Project
compares with The Big Bang Theory
/ The Curious Incident of the Dog in
the Night Time / One Day?
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
do you read?
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.
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.
books influenced The Rosie Project?
years ago (I’d have been in my teens) I read a 1950s book that was a huge hit
– 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.
is a bit of a foodie – and a wine buff. Where did that come from?
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.