Some people might call it dating. Don Tillman, the quirky hero of the comedic novel "The Rosie Project," is searching for the solution to the Wife Problem. Specifically, Tillman wants one but can't find a woman who finds him appealing, despite his brilliance as a genetics professor.
To describe Tillman, the creation of Australian debut novelist Graeme Simsion, as "socially challenged" would be a compliment. Perhaps Tillman has some version of Asperger syndrome, yet he's never been diagnosed and doesn't think he has a problem. "He would say he's wired differently than the rest of the world," Simsion says.
The novel is already an international best-seller, set to be translated into more than 35 languages, and optioned by Sony for a possible film. The country's independent booksellers selected "The Rosie Project," released in the United States by Simon and Schuster on Oct. 1, as their top pick for the month's Indie Next List.
The book has become something of a local phenomenon with readers, with more than 87 holds placed on the novel at the Salt Lake County Library system, and all eight copies currently checked out at the Salt Lake City public library.
At The King's English Bookshop, where Simsion will read on Saturday, Dec. 7, the book is considered one of the season's "porcupines" because so many store employees have planted bookmarks recommending it in a display copy.
The store has sold more than 200 copies of "The Rosie Project" in two months. "We've been selling it hand-over-fist ever since it came out," says Anne Holman at The King's English. "Here, booksellers are saying 'I'm buying 10. I'm buying 12. I'm buying it for everyone I know,' and that's really rare."
The novel's comedic tone and the voice of the male narrator set it apart. In Britain, the novel might fall into a genre considered lad lit, along with novels written by Nick Hornsby and Tony Parsons. "Booksellers say to me: 'We recommend your book because people say they want to read a fun novel,' " Simsion says.
Tillman applies logic in his quest for a wife, setting aside what he refers to as the traditional dating paradigm, because "the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences." Instead, he creates a 16-page survey to filter out less-than-perfect matches: drinkers, smokers and the chronically late.
That's until Tillman meets Rosie, a graduate student and bartender who doesn't fit his criteria, but he falls under her spell anyway. Along the way, he volunteers to help with her own quixotic quest: to find her biological father.
The gem of the story was based on the dating experiences of a friend, says Simsion in a phone interview from Melbourne before a book tour to promote the American release of the novel.
The story began as a dramatic screenplay, but Simsion was heartened when he discovered scenes that made readers laugh in his writing workshops at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
Two years ago, he began reshaping the work into a novel. "I could write it in Don's voice, and that changed the story," Simsion says. "He's an unreliable narrator, and we get to see Don's view of the world, and we also get to fill in the gaps."
Simsion says he met many versions of his Tillman character while working in the fields of academia and information technology, many of whom he describes as "more comfortable with things and ideas rather than emotions."
"People love the character, especially women," says Simsion, of the responses he's received to the novel via Twitter and email. "Men relate closely to him. I say to men: 'We all have a little bit of Don Tillman in us.' "
Simsion's wife, a professor of psychiatry who also has published erotic novels, helped him as he worked to shape the Rosie character. "It was really important that Rosie wasn't just a manic pixie dream girl, a cardboard cutout, that she wasn't just there to serve him," Simsion says. "That took a lot of work."
Simsion is grateful to the writers, teachers and editors who helped him in the five years he spent writing "The Rosie Project," and passes along the advice he received to others who are hoping to change careers.
Get help by taking classes and joining writing groups. "You're going to work just as hard at your writing as you did at your first career," he says. "If you count the number of people who are making a living writing fiction in the world, and then count the number of people who are making a living as a neurosurgeon, there's more neurosurgeons."
'The Rosie Project'
Australian debut novelist Graeme Simsion will read at The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m.
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