Bonnie Garmus credits her success with Lessons in Chemistry to her decision to write while feeling angry.
Bonnie Garmus, a highly skilled copywriter in the technology industry, was inspired to write her first novel Lessons in Chemistry after a difficult day at work. Despite presenting a million-dollar campaign to a room full of male colleagues, she was met with silence. Garmus recalls the frustration she felt when a man she had never met before took credit for her ideas by repeating her entire presentation. Her colleagues praised him for his “brilliant” ideas, ignoring her contributions. We meet in her Chelsea apartment, where the American author now resides.
“Hey, Bonnie, remember we have to have that thing by five,” a colleague reminded as she walked away. In a fit of anger, she returned to her desk and wrote the initial chapter of Lessons in Chemistry instead. “I did it while on the clock,” she exclaimed, slamming her dining table-turned-desk. “Well, thank you! That was the smartest financial choice I’ve ever made.”
The man’s name may still appear on the campaign, but Garmus ultimately achieved success. Her poignant story about a hesitant 1950s TV chef has become a fixture on the bestseller lists since its release last year, selling over 6 million copies worldwide. Lessons in Chemistry has been translated into 42 languages, received prestigious accolades such as Author of the Year at the Nibbies (known as the publishing equivalent of the Baftas), and was even adapted into a stylish television series featuring Brie Larson that premiered this fall. The novel had 38 offers from studios before it was even published. All of this for a debut author at the age of 66, whose previous manuscript had been rejected a staggering 98 times. Now, when she calls her daughters, instead of “Mum,” their phones display “global phenomenon.”
Throughout my life, I have faced discrimination based on my gender. However, on that particular day, I truly felt that if I were not a woman, the situation would not have occurred. This led me to create my own role model. I wondered what she would have done if she were in my shoes. This resulted in the character of Elizabeth Zott, who had a minor role in a book I gave up on many years ago. Despite being a chemistry expert, a single mother, and an outspoken atheist, Elizabeth Zott becomes an unlikely television star in the 1950s with her show “Supper at Six.” Her unconventional views and teachings on cooking as chemistry and the power to change one’s life spark a quiet revolution among American housewives. “Cooking is chemistry,” Elizabeth Zott proclaims to her audience. “Chemistry is life. Your ability to transform everything, including yourself, begins here.”
Garmus sensed that Elizabeth Zott, who always refers to her protagonist by her full name, was sitting beside her at her desk. She did not show any sympathy towards me. In fact, it seemed like she was implying, “You think you’ve had a tough day? I’ve had a tough decade!” This piqued my curiosity even more. Elizabeth Zott has had to deal with childhood trauma, discrimination (including having her work stolen), rape, and grief, among other challenges. However, her determination to be recognized as a legitimate scientist remains unwavering.
The book evokes a sense of nostalgia similar to popular TV shows such as Mad Men, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and The Queen’s Gambit (which the author has not seen), along with the influence of renowned American chef, Julia Child. In terms of publication, it shares similar elements with David Nicholls’s One Day: a romantic comedy with elements of tragedy, written so skillfully that it bridges the gap between popular and literary fiction. Like One Day, the eye-catching cover of Lessons in Chemistry seemed to be everywhere and everyone was recommending it as a must-read.
Garmus consistently believed that she was creating a novel with literary or feminist themes, rather than a romantic comedy. She has also received angry letters from romance enthusiasts who are upset with the unconventional approach. It is rare to find romantic comedies that incorporate the concept of abiogenesis, which is the focus of Zott’s doctoral studies. Garmus clarifies that abiogenesis refers to the emergence of life from non-living matter and is considered one of the most intriguing chemical mysteries in history.
Garmus grew up in southern California as the youngest of four sisters. Her father was an entomologist and often had to travel for work, while her mother was a nurse. When her mother became pregnant, she gave up her career but returned to work once her daughters all moved out. She even volunteered to work at the Aids ward, making her the first nurse to do so. Years later, Garmus read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique from the 1960s and realized that her mother’s life was portrayed in the book. This came as a shock to her, as she had not fully appreciated or respected her mother’s sacrifices and the limitations society had placed on her. As a tribute to her mother, Garmus decided to base her story in 1950s California, and her novel Lessons in Chemistry is dedicated to her.
Garmus possesses the graceful athleticism of someone who regularly participates in competitive swimming and rowing. The family resided in Switzerland before relocating to London in 2017, where Garmus would start her day with a swim in Lake Zurich at six in the morning. Despite growing up in the dry California desert, she appreciates the British climate and its unpredictable weather. Photos of her two daughters, Sophie and Zoe, who were both adopted from China, can be seen. Similar to Zott in the book, Garmus used to slip notes into her girls’ lunchboxes every day as a way to check in and remind them that their family is always there for them. Her husband, David, who has a background in mathematics and works in the tech industry, is currently upstairs during our interview.
Her dog, 99, is politely ignoring us as she sits in a basket on the floor. 99 is a greyhound racer who is often mistaken for the model of Six-Thirty, the talented dog from Lessons in Chemistry. However, Six-Thirty is actually based on Garmus’s previous beloved dog, Friday, who she describes as a mix of Einstein and Gandhi. Garmus mentions that Friday would have been sitting with us during our conversation. As readers of the novel may know, Six-Thirty narrates part of the story from his perspective. Despite initial doubts from her agent and others, Six-Thirty has gained a large following. Garmus’s current dog is named after her late best friend, Helen, who passed away in 2011. They used to call each other 86 and 99, after characters from the TV show Get Smart. The sudden loss of her friend greatly impacted Garmus and influenced her writing style, particularly in terms of how she handles death in her stories.
On the bookshelf behind us, there is a line of international versions of Lessons in Chemistry. She takes out the German edition, which was well-received in that country and has a more literary appearance. The Russian edition also features a photo of a woman from the 1950s on the cover, although the author mentions jokingly that she was not paid for its use. However, she did donate the promised advance to support Ukraine. She is particularly fond of the retro, neon-colored Estonian version, which shows a woman’s face with a spoon and spatula covering her eyes. One notable absence is the American edition, whose cover depicts a cartoonish woman peering seductively over glasses against a flamingo pink background. Elizabeth Zott would not have approved. “I received so many complaints about that cover,” she recalls, mentioning an online event with hundreds of female American doctors. “They all held up their books and had thrown away the covers. I said, ‘I’m with you!’ and removed the cover. Female scientists do not want to be insulted like that.” Initially, Zott was not described as beautiful, but halfway through writing, Garmus decided that she had to be attractive. After all, an angry female chemist would not be portrayed on TV if she wasn’t good-looking.
One of the reasons why the novel is popular is because many women can identify with Elizabeth Zott in various ways. During a virtual book club with Korean women, someone asked if all the characters were Korean, remarking that the story felt very “Korean”. The author had a similar interaction with Turkish readers.
Zott is similar to a typical woman, but she is not the writer, even though they both share a love for rowing and a habit of putting pencils in their hair. Garmus doesn’t enjoy cooking at all. “To me, it’s a task. I admire people who are skilled in cooking, as I think it’s a unique talent.” She had to self-teach chemistry before focusing on her novel. She soon realized that searching “1950s chemistry” online was not effective, so she purchased a basic textbook from eBay. While she didn’t go as far as setting up a laboratory in her kitchen like Zott, who uses a Bunsen burner to make coffee, Garmus did accidentally set her kitchen on fire when an experiment went wrong.
She believes that everyone should have a basic understanding of chemistry. This is because chemistry is known as the central science as it has connections to all other scientific fields and has an impact on our daily lives. In her book, she uses chemistry as a unifying concept. The story explores the parallels between cooking and chemistry, romantic relationships, and chemical reactions. The precision of chemistry does not allow for mistakes, as even the slightest imbalance can result in explosions. This idea also applies to societal issues, such as racism, sexism, and ageism, which arise when there is an imbalance in power dynamics. This is not a natural occurrence, but rather something that humans have created.
As a former copywriter, she learned the skill of simplifying difficult topics and adding humor when appropriate. But the most valuable lesson was how to pretend. She explains, “Being a copywriter is all about feeling like a fraud. You constantly have to pretend to be someone else, an authority on a particular subject.”
After practicing her writing skills – “copywriters are very focused on perfecting their craft” – she didn’t have the energy to work on her novel in the evenings. Instead, she woke up at 5am to write before starting her day job. Most of her novel was written while she was living in Switzerland. When she and her partner moved to London for his job, she joined a creative writing course offered by literary agency Curtis Brown, not only to finish her novel but also to make new friends. However, she feels guilty for her classmates who are still struggling to get their work published: “I feel terrible, really terrible.” Recently, a friend informed her that “the odds of getting an agent are only 1 in 10,000. It’s almost impossible.” But Garmus was that one person: her agent, Felicity Blunt (sister of actress Emily Blunt), took her on as a client based on her potential.
Her original title was An Introduction to Chemistry. The night before the Frankfurt book fair, Blunt called and said she had to change it – the novel was coming up as nonfiction on the database. “She said: ‘What about Lessons in Chemistry?’ And I said: ‘OK.’ Thank God for her.”
There has been a lot of discussion about Garmus being significantly older than most first-time literary successes. However, her age was never brought up in the numerous conversations with editors during the competitive process of acquiring her novel. Garmus points out that readers do not typically consider an author’s age when choosing a book, and she personally enjoys reading works by deceased writers regardless of their age.
Does she ever regret not starting sooner? “But I did!” she exclaims, reminding me of her unfinished novel and the 700-page manuscript she poured her heart into, but struggled to find an audience or publisher. “You can’t expect anyone to read a 700-page debut novel,” the final agent – number 98 – informed her. Sadly, she still faces this challenge. With Lessons in Chemistry – just over the recommended 350 pages – she aimed to prove to herself that she was capable of writing another book. “I never felt pressure to accomplish things at a certain age. My own pressure is simply to finish what I start.”
“You know,” she says, referring to her “gradual success,” as she likes to call it, “I have been a copywriter for 30 years. You’ve been reading my work for decades, you just didn’t realize it,” she continues with a hint of annoyance. “I always had a desire to write a novel, but as a woman, it seemed impossible. I had financial responsibilities, two children, a traveling husband, a rowing team to coach, and volunteer work… There simply wasn’t enough time.”
Even though she was excited about her novel being adapted into a miniseries, she cannot conceal her dissatisfaction with the final product. Despite its visually appealing presentation, she expressed, “it deviated from its original fiercely feminist message and became more of a sitcom. I don’t believe it captures the essence of the book. My overall opinion is that it is an adaptation and that’s acceptable.”
A year ago, Garmus stopped working her day job. Despite traveling, her daily routine remains mostly unchanged. According to David, she still works seven days a week and no longer takes days off like she used to. They both work together at the dining room table, with David wearing earplugs to block out Garmus’ habit of reading aloud to herself. He often jokes that she is the only one who doesn’t realize the success of her novel, and Garmus admits there may be some truth to that statement.
She has already begun working on her next novel, and although she is not trying to replicate Lessons in Chemistry, it will contain a similar combination of tragedy and comedy. When it comes to the pressure of meeting expectations, she has learned from her past experience with major tech companies not to pay attention to unproductive criticism. “I simply disregard it. That is someone else’s agenda,” she explains.
Sarah believes that the key to the success of Lessons in Chemistry is its passionate writing, which she feels was lacking in her previous efforts. She reflects, “I now realize that writing while angry was a wise decision.” Had she not experienced that frustrating meeting, she may not have written another book. However, the intense emotions from that day fueled her desire to tell this particular story.
Bonnie Garmus and Lisa Allardice will be discussing Lessons in Chemistry during a Guardian Live event on Tuesday, February 13 at 8pm GMT. Tickets can be purchased through the link provided.