Who is Don Tillman?
That is the question I have been asking myself at both a conscious and sub-conscious level ever since first reading the best-selling novel The Rosie Project and its sequel The Rosie Effect which were written by Australian author Graeme Simsion.
While you often suspect an autobiographical element in a novel , when it comes to the Rosie Series, this suspicion takes on a pressing importance. At least, it did for me. You see, the novels are both written in the first person and the story is told through the eyes, the mouth, the pen of Don Tillman and this voice is maintained almost too well throughout. That voice never falters, which is either a huge credit to the author or he is, or a significant chunk of him, is Don Tillman. Generally, it wouldn’t really matter. Who cares if a novel is largely auto-biographical?
However, the case of Don Tillman is a little different. You see, Don is hardly your average Aussie bloke and is at the very least quirky. While he has no official diagnosis in the books, readers have labeled him Asperger, or on the autism spectrum. Given the insights and understanding which Simsion shows into Don’s character, it then raises the issue of whether these descriptions apply to Simsion as well. After all, he does seem to understand its quirks intimately and from the inside out.
Then again, does it matter?
So who is Don Tillman?
The simple answer is that Don Tillman is an Associate-Professor of Genetics who has an obsession with detail, is highly scheduled and to say he struggles with social situations is a major understatement. He is looking for a wife and having failed dismally at conventional dating, has taken a practical approach to the task. He has devised a questionnaire to screen for possible wife candidates which will quickly eliminate unsuitable prospects and it is hoped, yield the perfect wife. It is Don’s quest to find a wife using this questionnaire which forms the plot of The Rosie Project.
The longer answer about Don’s identity is much more complex.
Naturally, when it comes to searching for the inspiration behind a character, you have to begin with the author and dig to ascertain just how much of the book is auto-biographical.
Well, last Thursday night I had the opportunity to explore this question in the flesh when I attended an author dinner with Graeme Simsion. I have met numerous authors, mostly through the Sydney Writer’s Festival, but I was particularly intrigued to meet Graeme Simsion. I wanted to judge for myself whether Graeme was Don. Actually, judge is a bad choice of words. I was more intrigued and that wasn’t to judge Simsion as a person but more as a writer. As I said, Simsion captured Don’s voice so well that it either made him Asperger’s himself or he was an absolutely brilliant writer. If he was that good, I wanted to find out more about his techniques. Learn from him. Particularly as we were spending the night together. ..just ignore the rest of the people in the room!
Sometimes, as is the case with the Rosie Project, the characterization is so strong that you know it isn’t made up. The author has captured an insight into the human condition which could only ever come from being inside the character’s head, inside their skin and indeed inside their soul. They know those little iddy biddy details about what makes that character tick at such a microscopic level that they are more than standing in their shoes. They are wearing the same skin and even their hearts beat as one.
If you have ever watched the hit TV series Big Bang Theory and observed the character of Sheldon , you can really see this synergy in action. I find it very hard to believe that actor Jim Parsons isn’t a Sheldon in real life. He plays the role too well and they seemingly wear the same skin.
I had that same sense reading The Rosie Project. That Don Tillman and Graeme Simpsion had to be one and the same. After all, the story is told so convincingly in the first person that it came across like reading Don’s private journal. How could somebody who wasn’t Don-like ever pull that off? That was a big question for me not only as a reader but also as a writer.
So is Graeme Stimson Don Tillman?
Simpsion, however, denies that he is Don. Rather, he says that a jogging buddy provided the inspiration for Don and the infamous jacket incident is based on something which happened to himand that the book is based on true incidents. Yet, while Simsion denied that he is Don, he admits to having some geek-like traits and concludes:
“There’s a bit of Don in all of us.”
Indeed, this is the books’ appeal.
While we might not be Aspies ourselves, we’ve all made those terrible social gaffs where despite our best intentions of doing the right thing, we’ve screwed up. We’ve tried to buy that perfect anniversary present but in the end only end up causing offence and score a black eye when it flies back to us return to sender. We say and do the wrong thing and most of us despite our carefully crafted public facades are real screw ups and we are not laughing at Don. We are laughing with him. Not necessarily because we’re on the spectrum ourselves but because we’re human. We might not have gone berserk about wearing a jacket in a restaurant or gone and filmed children in a public playground to understand how to be a better parent, but we’ve all made a serious social gaff at some point and Don reassures us that’s okay. We are not alone. Indeed, it could have been worse…much, much worse! Thank goodness there’s Don!!
However, before these truths hit home, it’s more than likely that we quickly identified someone we know as “Don”. That person who is a bit quirky and we’ve debated or even diagnosed them as being “on the spectrum”. Don is our Dad, a work colleague, our husband, a friend or even all of the above. Not that they necessarily recognize themselves in print. More than likely, they laughed through the book like the rest of us and missing themselves in the mirror.
Well, at the dinner, Simsion happened to mention that Melinda Gates had passed the book onto Bill and I came across this review on his web site:
“Melinda picked up this novel earlier this year, and she loved it so much that she kept stopping to read passages out loud to me. I started it myself at 11 p.m. one Saturday and stayed up with it until 3 the next morning. Anyone who occasionally gets overly logical will identify with the hero, a genetics professor with Asperger’s Syndrome who goes looking for a wife. (Melinda thought I would appreciate the parts where he’s a little too obsessed with optimizing his schedule. She was right.) It’s an extraordinarily clever, funny, and moving book about being comfortable with who you are and what you’re good at. I’m sending copies to several friends and hope to re-read it later this year. This is one of the most profound novels I’ve read in a long time.”
Do you think perhaps Melinda was sending him a message? Gee, I don’t know…
This, of course, brings The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect back to me.
It is certainly no secret that I absolutely love these books and have almost been flagging strangers down in the street recommending that they read it. With all the millions and millions of books in this world and given that my house is bursting at the seams with books, what is it about this book?
Personally, I related to the chaotic, seemingly disorganized character of Rosie in The Rosie Project. Rosie is spontaneous and chaotic like myself and I pictured her as a bit of a wild character with black lipstick, locks of wild red curly hair which she swirled into some kind of crazed order on top of her head and probably wearing vintage clothing or black. She was definitely more creative than scientific in how I perceived her.
However, my perceptions of Rosie changed in The Rosie Effect where just a few lines of dialogue given by the members of her study group revealed that Rosie is more like Don than I’d thought. That it’s more than likely that Rosie is on the spectrum as well.
That’s when it all hit home. Aside from these very cleverly arranged lines of dialogue, we had only ever seen Rosie through Don’s eyes and as I’ve already established, Don has a “different” point of view.
I will write more about what I learned about Graeme Simsion the man and the writer in my next post. As you can see it was a very productive evening and I even left buying another set of books to give away to some treasured friends.
Have you read the books and if so I’d love to hear your reflections!
PS I was researching dyslexia tonight and came across this spelling of Asberger’s which made me laugh: “My son has mild arseburgers”. Someone commented: “arseburgers” – a minced rump steak?
 Bill Gates, http://www.gatesnotes.com/Books/The-Rosie-Project, July 12, 2014.