"Three men walk into a bar …"
Graeme Simsion, author, screenwriter, information systems consultant, wine distributor and father-of-two, isn't setting up a joke. Instead Simsion's explaining how he successfully created a character we laugh with rather than at.
That character is Professor Don Tillman, the socially awkward, possibly Aspergeric geneticist whom readers met in Simsion's best-selling award-winning 2013 novel The Rosie Project. In Simsion's debut novel, Tillman enlists the help of his best friend, the philandering Gene, to find a wife.
Like the best romantic comedies, readers are kept guessing to the end but they get a happily ever after – and, given the stellar reception to The Rosie Project, a sequel where Don and new wife Rosie move to the United States.
The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect have been published in 40 countries, selling more than five million copies. Now, there's a third book, The Rosie Result, where Don faces the challenges of fatherhood when their 11-year-old son, Hudson, has problems at school.
"Getting the humour right has always been important and it's a very, very fine line to write," says Simsion. "I love Don Tillman and I love the guy who inspired him. They're both very decent men and Don is there as a decent person we can relate to and laugh with rather than at.
"The comedy is based around the unexpected and the twists. It's like those 'three men walk into a bar' jokes, we sort of know what the first and second men will say but what the third will do or say is the surprise. It's situational comedy where we're laughing at what happens rather than 'Don is being an idiot.'"
On the contrary, with his rational observations about the world, Don – despite his many quirks – often comes across as the most sensible person in the room. So it is when he encounters the modern Australian schooling system where Hudson, a sci-fi and computer boffin, comes to the attention of teachers for all the wrong reasons.
Simsion says he didn't intend the Rosie books to be a trilogy and there's been a gap of five years between books two and three in which he's written two other novels, one in collaboration with his wife, psychiatrist Anne Buist.
But continuing calls for a prequel about Don's school days lead him to write The Rosie Result. He felt it was too difficult to write about Don's younger years given they were in the 1970s and 80s and the world has moved on exponentially since then.
It's even moved pretty fast since The Rosie Project was published. Six years ago, Simsion says he could get away with writing about a man who might be on the autism spectrum without using the term or mentioning Asperger's syndrome.
"But there's no way I could do that now," he says, speaking from Melbourne where he's starting a publicity tour to promote the new book. "There's no way today you could be having discussions about a boy like Hudson and not raise the possibility of him being on the spectrum, so I had to acknowledge it."
Are we too quick to label people who don't fit prevailing ideas about "the norm"? Simsion's judicious in answering the question, which is probably best dealt with early in The Rosie Result when Don and Rosie attend an autism conference and hear differing views on the subject.
Telling Hudson's story provides a way for Don to reflect on his own youthful experiences – so readers get elements of a prequel - and in that, there's more than a glimpse of Simsion's own schooldays.
Auckland-born Simsion says by and large kids at his primary school treated him fine but teachers were another matter. He describes some as bullies who, in the days of corporal punishment, wielded the threat like a weapon.
"It left searing memories above and beyond anything else."
Moving to Australia, Simsion found making friends and fitting it more difficult but set out to re-invent himself. He acknowledges that meant altering his behaviour and playing down his own natural intelligence and curiosity about the world.
In an essay entitled Rewiring, he writes: "If I could talk to my younger self now, I'd encourage him to think in terms of developing skills – social skills and coping skills – rather than becoming someone different. But I wasn't there. And the 12-year-old didn't see the problem as merely a deficit in capabilities."
Does he think schools, and teachers, are any better today?
"My own children are in their late 20s now so they were at school in the late 1990s and early 00s and, from what I could see, schools were making more efforts to value diversity but it's always interesting to me to see how these things work out in reality," says Simsion. "But, even if something does start out as 'lip service' , it has a way of being taken up and becoming reality. Maybe it's 'fake it until you make it' in action!"
Social media's the place he thinks could do with being a kinder place. Twitter was his main research vehicle for The Rosie Project; he signed up, stayed in the background and observed the conversations that took place because going to a conference or reading an academic paper only brought "sanitised views" of the debates about autism. On Twitter, he could clearly see what made people angry and grasp the differing views.
But Simsion stresses that The Rosie Result isn't just a book about autism and education. He's right – a large part of the trilogy's success is because they're extremely humorous and about the stuff of everyday life which impacts on us all.
"It's about an adult negotiating adult problems; getting married, having and raising a child and trying to set him on a path into the world … I do think one of the themes of my books is forgiveness; people screw up and I think we have a culture, particularly on social media, of a 'gotcha mentality' where we're too quick to judge and too slow to forgive."
* The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion (Text, $37) is out now.