When I read The Rosie Project, I had heard a lot about it. It’s one of those books which will grip you from the very beginning until the end. I loved Don very much. But I was unaware of his state of mind. I sat down with the very busy Mr Simsion and spoke to him about Mental Health…
Q. For those who have yet to read your book, could you please tell my blog readers a little bit about it and the aspect of Mental Health which is involved.
A. It’s a romantic comedy (hopefully an intelligent one) about a genetics professor’s search for a life partner. Don Tillman is a man so socially awkward and “odd” that he’s never had a second date. The character was inspired by people I met studying and working in physics and information technology. Though I didn’t study Asperger’s syndrome, I’ve been assured by experts in the field that “Don Tillman has Asperger’s” – which in today’s terms means he’s on the autism spectrum.
It’s a moot point whether Don’s autism qualifies as a mental health problem. Although the psychiatric manual DSMV lists autism as a disorder (in the previous version, Asperger’s syndrome was treated separately), it requires that “Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning”. Until Don decides he wants to get married, he’s happy enough as he is, and I’ve chosen to portray him as a member of a minority – a man ‘wired a bit differently’ rather than someone with an illness. I believe this is how Don sees himself, and would want others to see him. One of the underlying themes of the book is how we deal with difference. There are a few references to unhelpful attempts to medicalise his condition.
Q. What does Mental Health mean to you?
A. For me, personally, it means the ability to “be myself”, for my mind to operate to full capacity without impediment. I’m aware that sounds rather vague, but it’s analogous to physical health – I want full use of my body without the restriction of illness and injury.
Q. In terms of including MH into a Fictional world, how did you find the process?
A. Not difficult, because I was not writing consciously about MH, but about a character who I perceived as different but OK.
But I did have to look at the issue of comedy: are we laughing at illness or disability? It’s a very tricky question: everyone has limitations, strengths and weaknesses, and they are the stuff of drama and comedy. Where do we draw the line? In this case it wasn’t so hard: what we laugh at is Don’s unexpected behaviour and his view of the world – neither of which is ‘wrong’ – just different. I love and respect Don – I’m on his side and believe he has something valuable to offer.
Q. Why did you chose to involve MH and did your writing process change?
A. I’m interested in writing about unusual people, sympathetically. My main concern in writing was to get the reader to inhabit Don’s world, to see it from his perspective. So I chose first person, and worked hard on Don’s voice.
Q. Which books about MH have you read?
A. Lots – but nothing on autism / Asperger’s until after the Don character was fully-formed. My partner is a psychiatrist and we talk MH all the time.
Q. And finally, if one of my blog readers is a sufferer of MH, what would your advice be to them?
A. I’d probably quote the serenity prayer. All of us have strengths and weaknesses and few of us have bodies and minds in perfect condition. Some of it’s genetics, some upbringing, some environment. The best we can do is understand our capacity and limitations and build the best life we can within those.