Australian novelist Graeme Simsion found unexpected success with his first novel, The Rosie Project, a romantic comedy starring an uptight geneticist and a free-spirited young woman.
In The Rosie Effect, Simsion returns to the life of Rosie and Don as they struggle to turn their marriage into a lifelong love affair.
The Rosie Project was something of a surprise bestseller—had you always planned to continue the story of Don and Rosie?
On the contrary, I had made a firm decision that there would not be a sequel. I had tied up all the loose ends in the tradition of the romantic comedy happy ending, and was well advanced with a new novel when I changed my mind. A number of readers and critics had commented that the happy ending was unrealistic—Don and Rosie would struggle in a marriage. Of course they would! Everyone does at times. I wanted to explore this and show that they could make it through in their own ways. I also felt that we had more to learn about Don: that I hadn’t really plumbed the possibilities of this character. I struggled for a while to find a way into the story—then, one evening at dinner we were celebrating the pregnancy of one of my writers’ group . . .
The book explores what happens after the “happily ever after.” Was it hard for you to put your characters through these difficulties, or exciting to explore what happened next?
Overall it was exciting. Don is a great character to write: you put him in a challenging situation and just ask yourself, honestly, what would he do? But I wanted to take Don and Rosie to a very low point, to where their marriage was in real jeopardy. That meant having both of them lose faith in the relationship. We are in Don’s head, so we understand why he is doing what he does. But we only see Don’s view of Rosie, and if we take this at face value, it’s easy to judge her harshly. I knew some readers would lose their empathy for Rosie, but hoped that most would ask themselves “Really, if I was in her position…?”
Why did you decide to move Don and Rosie to New York, and what challenges came up because of that?
It was a carry-over from The Rosie Project, where Don and Rosie’s visit to New York allows Don to re-invent himself away from his routines and the expectations of others. In a restaurant, a fellow diner tells Don that there are so many weird people in New York that everyone just fits right in. So, at the end of the story, I moved Don and Rosie to New York, to allow him to continue his own re-invention. I didn’t plan a sequel! So when I started writing a sequel, there they were, in New York, and I decided to play the cards I’d dealt myself.
Rosie seems closed off and unapproachable to the reader as well as to Don for much of the book, whereas in the original she was the more accessible character.
Ah! See response to earlier question about putting characters through difficulties.
We are looking at the world through Don’s eyes—and this is how Rosie appears to him. And she’s not in every scene: Don is the protagonist here. We’re all accustomed to the chick-lit genre, which is where we expect to find books that focus on regular domestic relationships, but almost invariably the protagonist is female. I guess we’d not be surprised in the male partner was invisible, at work, closed off, unapproachable when the protagonist was having a drink with her female buddies—but when we reverse the genders, we notice the absence of the woman.
I know some readers are also bothered by what seems to be a change to the bubbly Rosie we saw in The Rosie Project, but let’s remember that (a) the honeymoon is (literally) over; (b) Rosie has taken on a challenging workload and is now pregnant; (c) Rosie’s nemesis, Gene, has moved in with them and Don is spending a lot of time in his company (d) much as we may love Don, he’d also be a difficult guy to live with at times!
I think (a) is pretty important. The Rosie Project was about falling in love. The Rosie Effect is about making a long-term relationship work. The tones of the books reflect these different moods—and different challenges. The psychologists tell us how important communication is to the success of a relationship, but most of us don’t do it as well as we could. Don and Rosie are no exceptions. What the two stories do have in common is that we should see that these guys are fundamentally compatible—and we sometimes want to bang their heads together!
Don interprets deceit differently than many people and can’t stomach even “little white lies.” How does that complicate his relationship with Rosie?
Deceit is a recurring theme in the The Rosie Effect. I think “can’t stomach” is a bit strong: Don just finds these white lies puzzling and unnecessary—as illustrated by Gene’s lie about Don having doggy do on his shoe. I don’t think the small stuff complicates his relationship with Rosie: that’s the sort of thing she can find refreshing and amusing—cute. It’s when Don decides that deception is warranted (in keeping his arrest from Rosie) that complications arise. He’s uncomfortable with what he’s doing, worried he’ll be caught. He withdraws, Rosie senses this, and the downward spiral begins.
It’s clear why people on the autism spectrum might relate to Don, but can you tell us about other readers who relate to him in unexpected ways?
I didn’t expect so many women to “fall in love” with Don. I wanted readers to be sympathetic, empathize, but, “I’d give up being a vegan if I could marry Don”; “Is there a real Don and can I have his email address?”; “Rosie doesn’t deserve Don!”—no, I didn’t expect that. Don, for all his intelligence, decency and “cuteness” would be hard work! Okay, he is a romantic hero, but he’s a long way from a conventional one.
I’ve had very interesting feedback from women married to men on the spectrum. They find the portrayal of Don realistic, but not necessarily funny. Some do, some don’t. All who I’ve spoken to have related to the portrayal of Rosie in The Rosie Effect: “Sometimes you just need space away from the verbal barrage”; “I’ve done extreme things like threaten to leave just to provoke an emotional response.”
I do have a problem with women who seem to relate to Don as a pet rather than an intelligent adult. And they’ll say, “Rosie knew what she was getting herself into (so she should suck it up)”. Said no marriage counselor, ever. These guys are in an adult relationship, and that means negotiation, change, and give-and-take. Don’s quite capable of all of these.
What made you decide to write about Rosie’s pregnancy instead of writing about Don’s reaction to the baby after it was born, which seems like the more obvious plot choice?
Many reasons! The question that drives the story is, “Can Don and Rosie make their relationship work in the face of the sorts of stresses that couples are likely to encounter?” So I wanted to focus on Don and Rosie, not Don and Rosie plus baby. With a baby in place, Rosie would have been less available (and with good reason).
The pregnancy provided opportunities to explore the theme of how we deal with advice and information (something that causes us all stress, but Don in spades). Yes, I could have done this with child-rearing too, but I’m looking at a third book for that!
The character of Gene is the opposite of Don—it’s easier for him to fit in with other people, but he makes a lot of decisions that seem unethical. How does his character help you develop Don’s? Why do you think these two very different people have such a strong bond?
I don’t think they’re as different as they look. As Don points out when he confronts Gene about his infidelity in The Rosie Project: “You’re similar to me. That’s why you’re my best friend.”
I see Gene as the dark side of Don—a man who was probably as much of a geek as Don at school, but learned to fake it till he made it. I mean, what sort of man in his mid-fifties is “collecting” women? What’s he trying to prove? Why the interest in collections? I think unusual people have a choice of finding a place that accommodates them or changing to fit it with broader society. Don and Gene represent those two different choices.
One reason Gene likes Don is that Don relies on him for advice. Who else would listen to Gene on social behavior? (Although he’s chosen to study and teach it for a living.) That’s a simple take: I like to think that in The Rosie Effect we see Gene in more depth.
You did a lot of readings and appearances for The Rosie Project. Any fun fan stories? What do you like about meeting readers?
I love meeting readers. It’s affirming to know that my stories are reaching people, and I continue to be amazed about what readers bring to the table—things they find in the book that I perhaps put in unconsciously, or that they simply constructed themselves. Interestingly, I don’t see any differences in how readers in English-speaking countries, at least, respond to the book.
I have lots of stories about people who have family members or close friends on the autism spectrum—some funny, some moving, some uplifting.
“Hi, my name’s Ben and I have Asperger’s. I have a problem with your book (long pause). Page 27, line 23. Don says he doesn’t want a partner who’s mathematically illiterate. The word is innumerate. Don Tillman would not make that mistake.”
“My brother had difficulties all his life, and was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s in his 40s. The family read books and went to seminars to learn to be more supportive, but it was only after he passed away and we read The Rosie Project that we understood what it was like to be him.”
“We always thought my dad had Asperger’s and we thought it’d help if he acknowledged it. We gave him books on the subject and he kept saying, ‘That’s not me.’ Then we gave him The Rosie Project. He read it and announced, ‘I’m coming out!’
What are you working on next?
I’m currently writing a novel about a love affair re-ignited after 22 years.
Carrie Rollwagen is a bookseller and author in Birmingham, Alabama.