‘It was smart to write when I was so angry’: Bonnie Garmus on the winning formula behind Lessons in Chemistry | Fiction

‘It was smart to write when I was so angry’: Bonnie Garmus on the winning formula behind Lessons in Chemistry | Fiction

Lessons in Chemistry, ­Bonnie Garmus’s hit first novel, came about because of a bad day at the office. A highly experienced copywriter in the tech industry, Garmus gave a presentation for a million-dollar campaign to a room full of male colleagues. It was greeted with silence, she recalls when we meet in the Chelsea flat where the American author now lives. “Finally, this man who I hadn’t met before speaks up: ‘Well, I’ll tell you what I think we should do!’ Then he basically just read my entire presentation, start to finish.” When she pointed out that she had already said all that, he ignored her as if she wasn’t there. “That’s brilliant!” all her colleagues congratulated him.

“Oh, Bonnie, don’t forget we need that thing by five,” one team member called out as she left. She stomped back to her desk in a fury and wrote the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry instead. “I did it on their dime,” she says, banging the dining table that also serves as her desk. “Well, thank you! That’s the best financial decision I ever made.”

That man’s name may still be on the campaign, but Garmus gets the last laugh. Since it was published last year, her bittersweet story about a reluctant 1950s TV cook has been a fixture on the bestseller lists, selling more than 6m copies worldwide; Lessons in Chemistry has been translated into 42 languages, won major awards including Author of the Year at the Nibbies (publishing’s Baftas), and was adapted into a stylish show starring Brie Larson that aired this autumn – the novel had 38 options from studios before it was even published. All this from a 66-year-old debut author whose previous manuscript had been rejected no fewer than 98 times. When she calls her daughters, the phrase “global phenomenon” now flashes up on their phones, instead of “Mum”.

“All of my life I’ve encountered sexism, but that day I really felt like if I hadn’t been a woman it wouldn’t have happened,” Garmus says. “I decided to write my own role model. What would she have done in that situation?” The result was Elizabeth Zott, a character who had a three-line part in a novel Garmus abandoned many years ago. Chemistry whiz, single mother and outspoken atheist, Elizabeth Zott seems an unlikely 1950s television celebrity, but her show Supper at Six starts a quiet revolution among American housewives. “Cooking is chemistry,” Elizabeth Zott tells her audience. “Chemistry is life. Your ability to change everything – including yourself – starts here.”

Garmus felt that Elizabeth Zott – she always calls her heroine by her full name – was sitting next to her at her desk. “And she did not feel sorry for me. In fact, I felt like she was saying: ‘You’ve had a bad day? I had a bad decade!’ And then I was really interested.” Childhood trauma, discrimination (including the theft of her work), rape and grief are just some of the ordeals Elizabeth Zott must navigate, yet her determination to be taken seriously as a scientist never falters.

The novel taps into the nostalgic vibe of TV shows Mad Men, The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (neither of which Garmus has watched) and The Queen’s Gambit – with a dash of the original American celebrity cook, Julia Child. But in publishing terms, it has the same winning ingredients as David Nicholls’s One Day: a romcom spiked with tragedy, so smartly written it straddles the divide between popular and literary fiction. As with One Day, the distinctive cover of Lessons in Chemistry suddenly seemed to be everywhere and everyone was telling you to read it.

Garmus always felt she was writing a literary or “feminist” novel, not a romcom, and she has received letters from romance fans furious at the way it breaks the rules. And there aren’t many romantic comedies that include the theory of abiogenesis – the subject of Zott’s doctorate. “Abiogenesis is life that arises from non-life forms and how that works,” Garmus explains. “It is one of the greatest chemical mysteries of all time.”

The youngest of four girls, Garmus grew up in southern California. Her father was an entomologist, often away for work; her mother was a nurse, who gave up her career when she became pregnant. She returned to work the minute her daughters all left home, becoming the first nurse to volunteer for the Aids ward. Rereading Betty Friedan’s 1960s classic The Feminine Mystique many years later, Garmus realised that here was her mother’s world. “It was a shock to me that I had not appreciated or respected what she had done, that limits had been imposed on her by society.” She decided to set her story in 1950s California; Lessons in Chemistry is dedicated to her mother.

Garmus has the elegant ranginess of someone who regularly swims and rows competitively. Before moving to London in 2017, the family lived in Switzerland, where Garmus would swim in Lake Zurich at six each morning. After her childhood in the California desert, she loves the British climate – “some of us like bad weather”. There are photographs of her daughters, Sophie and Zoe, now grown up, both adopted from China. Like Zott in the novel, Garmus used to sneak notes in her girls’ lunchboxes each day: “Kids go off to school and you just don’t know if they’re having a good day. Our kids especially faced some prejudice and some prying questions. I just wanted to leave them with the sense that your family is looking out for you.” Her husband David, a mathematician by training who also works in the tech industry, is hiding upstairs for our interview.

Politely ignoring us in a basket on the floor is her dog, 99, a sleek greyhound racer often mistaken as the model for Six-Thirty, the linguistically gifted mutt from Lessons in Chemistry. In fact, Six-Thirty is based on Garmus’s previous beloved dog Friday – “a cross between Einstein and Gandhi” – who would have been sitting by the table following our conversation, she says. As fans of the novel will know, Six-Thirty narrates some of the story, or at least it is told from his perspective. Many, including Garmus’s agent, were sceptical, but Six-Thirty has a big following. Her current real dog is named after Garmus’s best friend, Helen, who was killed in an accident on her way to visit her in 2011 (they called each other 86 and 99 after the spies in the American sitcom Get Smart). The shock had a big influence on her in terms of the ruthlessness with which she dispatches characters: “Because that’s how death happens sometimes.”

On the bookshelf behind us is a row of international copies of Lessons in Chemistry. She pulls out the German edition – the novel did particularly well there – which has gone for a literary look. The same 1950s photograph of a beautiful woman is on the cover of the Russian edition, although Russia never paid her, she says with a laugh: but she gave the promised advance to support Ukraine. She particularly likes the retro neon-coloured Estonian take, which shows a woman’s face with the eyes covered by a spoon and a spatula. One notable absence is the American edition, the cover of which has a cartoonish woman peeking seductively over glasses on a flamingo pink background. Elizabeth Zott would not approve. “I got so many complaints on that cover,” she says, recalling an online event with several hundred female American doctors. “They all held up their books and they’d all thrown away their covers. I said: ‘I’m with you!’ and I took the cover off. Women scientists don’t want to be insulted like that.” Initially Zott wasn’t beautiful, but halfway through writing, Garmus thought: “This is ridiculous, she has to be beautiful. They’re not going to put an angry woman chemist on TV if she’s not attractive.”

Part of the novel’s appeal is that so many women relate to Elizabeth Zott in different ways. At a virtual book club with Korean women, one of the audience asked if all the characters are Korean – “this is so Korean”. She  had a similar experience with Turkish readers.

Zott may be a kind of everywoman but she is not the author, despite a shared passion for rowing and habit of sticking pencils in their hair. Garmus doesn’t even like cooking. “For me, it’s a chore. I love people who are good at cooking, because I think it’s a special talent.” She had to teach herself chemistry before getting serious about the novel. She quickly realised that Googling “1950s chemistry” wasn’t going to work, so she bought herself a basic textbook from eBay. If she didn’t go quite as far as installing a laboratory in her kitchen like Zott, who makes her coffee on a Bunsen burner, Garmus did set fire to her kitchen when an experiment didn’t go to plan.

Brie Larson in the TV adaptation of Lessons in Chemistry.
Brie Larson in the TV adaptation of Lessons in Chemistry. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Now, she thinks everyone should learn chemistry. “They call chemistry the central science because it touches every other science and every aspect of our lives every single day,” she says. “So that became this unifying theory in the book.” The novel plays on the idea of cooking as chemistry, romantic chemistry and also chemical volatility. “Chemistry is very precise. It’s not forgiving: any slight imbalance causes explosions,” she says. “As soon as you ignore those laws of chemistry, you get imbalance, and you get racism, sexism, even ageism. Men and women in the workplace have problems because there’s this gender imbalance. It’s not natural. We created that.”

Her background as a copywriter taught her not only to make complex subjects accessible, entertaining and funny if possible, but, most importantly, how to fake it. “Copywriting is 100% imposter syndrome,” she says. “You are always masquerading as somebody else, as some sort of expert on something.”

While it may have honed her skills – “copywriters are all fixated on craft” – after a day’s writing the last thing she felt like doing was working on her novel in the evening. So she got up at 5am to write before work. Most of the novel was written in Switzerland; when she and David moved to London for his work, she signed up to a creative writing course run by literary agency Curtis Brown, as much to make friends as to finish her novel. The only downside to her success, she says, is how bad she feels for those classmates who are still struggling to get published: “I feel horrible, really horrible.” A friend told her recently that “there’s only a one in 10,000 chance to get an agent. It’s mission impossible.” Garmus was that one: her agent, Felicity Blunt (sister of the actor Emily Blunt), signed her up on spec.

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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.”

Much has been made of the fact that Garmus is a good deal older than most debut literary sensations. But in the many conversations with editors during the bidding war for the novel, her age never came up. “Nobody picks up a book and says: ‘I wonder how old this author is?’” she says. “I read dead writers all the time. I never say: “‘Well, this guy has been dead 300 years, why would I read him?’”

Does she sometimes wish she’d started earlier? “But I did!” she points out, reminding me of her half-novel and the 700-page manuscript she says she loved, but which she couldn’t get anybody to read, let alone publish. “You can’t expect anyone to read a 700-page first novel,” the final agent – number 98 – told her. She still can’t, she says sadly. With Lessons in Chemistry – weighing in at just over the recommended 350 pages – she wanted to prove to herself that she could write another book. “I never felt this pressure to get things done by a certain age. My pressure on myself is just to get things done.”

“You know what,” she says of her “not-overnight success”, as she calls it, “I have 30 years’ writing experience as a copywriter. You’ve been reading me for decades, you just don’t know it,” she continues with Zottian indignation. “I always wanted to write a novel, but I couldn’t see how women did it. We had bills to pay. I had two kids, my husband was on the road, I had a rowing team, I volunteered … There was no time.”

While she was thrilled to have the novel turned into a miniseries, she can’t hide her disappointment with the end result. Although the show looked great, she says, “it shifted from something that was fiercely feminist to more of a sitcom. I don’t think it mirrors the spirit of the book. My whole feeling is it’s an adaptation and that’s fine.”

Garmus only gave up her day job a year ago. Apart from the travel, her life hasn’t changed that much. As David puts it, when he comes downstairs for coffee, she still works seven days a week but she used to occasionally take a day off. She doesn’t do that any more. They both work at the same table in the dining room; David wears earplugs because Garmus has a habit of reading aloud to herself. He always says that she is the only one who doesn’t realise the novel is a success. “And I think there’s some truth in that,” she admits.

She has already started on the next novel, and while she is making no attempt to follow Lessons in Chemistry, it will have the same mixture of tragedy and comedy. When it comes to the burden of expectation, one lesson she learned from the big tech guys she used to work with is not to listen to unhelpful feedback. “I just ignore it. That’s someone else’s agenda,” she says.

If there’s a secret to the appeal of Lessons in Chemistry, she thinks it’s that it was written with passion, a spark she felt was missing in her previous attempts. “I have decided that it was smart to write when I was so angry,” she says. “If I hadn’t had that awful meeting that day, maybe I wouldn’t have written another book. It just lit a fire under me about telling this story.”

Bonnie Garmus discusses Lessons in Chemistry with Lisa Allardice in a livestreamed Guardian Live event at 8pm GMT on Tuesday 13 February. Tickets available here.

Lessons in Chemistry is published by Penguin. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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