Image of Bonnie Garmus next to a cover of her book Lessons in Chemistry

Bonnie Garmus interview: ‘I had to teach myself chemistry from a 1950s textbook’

Author Bonnie Garmus on the terrible day at work that prompted her to write her debut novel Lessons in Chemistry and the inspiration behind Six-Thirty, one of the most inspirational dogs in fiction. 

After a meeting at work left her in a bad mood, 64-year-old Bonnie Garmus decided it was time to finally put pen to paper: “I sat down and felt like Elizabeth was there with me and I began to write my first chapter.” The result was Lessons in Chemistry, a story about 1960s America in which Elizabeth Zott, a talented chemist, is forced out of her research job and becomes the star of a popular cooking show. But instead of teaching housewives how to make dinner, she teaches them how to change their lives.

Another inspiration for the Garmus was re-reading Betty Friedan’s 1963 classic The Feminine Mystique, which prompted memories of her mother and inspired her novel’s setting. “I could remember these housewives having to do so much work and take care of so many kids, and it was never recognised as work,” she says. As a mother of two daughters, she wanted to write something that has resonance for women today, too: “It occurred to me that my daughters weren’t going to have the same job opportunities or be paid the same as men. And they would always, always have to walk home looking over their shoulder. And that’s still true in every corner of the world today."

When did it occur to you that you might want to be an author?

Well, I had wanted to be an author since I was five years old, maybe earlier. My daughter found this little book that I wrote when I was probably four. But I had started another novel, which is where Elizabeth Zott came from. She was a very minor character but I never finished that book. Then I wrote another novel, and that didn't go anywhere. And then I wrote this one – and Elizabeth came back. But you know, it's funny, because I know there are all these people who can work and write novels. But since I was working as a copywriter, coming home and writing more was not what I wanted to do. And then there’s having kids, walking the dog, exercise – I don't know how people do it.

Your debut novel is being adapted for Apple TV. How does that feel?

'Some of the darker parts are always really hard for me to write. I get really upset when I write them'

It's over-the-top. It's really wonderful, though. It is like giving the child you've raised over to someone else to finish, so that's a little frightening. I have had the pleasure of working with Susanna Grant, who wrote the screenplay for Erin Brockovich, and Brie Larson will star as Elizabeth. So I think I'm in really good hands.

What was the hardest part about writing your book?

Some of the darker parts are always really hard for me to write. I get really upset when I write them but I think they're necessary. Darkness is part of everyone's life no matter what.

But the hardest part was actually keeping the science confined within the 1950s and early 1960s. I could not use Google to research because you can't mention things that have been discovered in 1970. It's really hard when you're reading something, and it mentions, you know, a reaction and you think, okay, ‘when was that reaction discovered?’ Would it fit the timeframe? So I had to teach myself chemistry from a textbook from the Fifties.

Elizabeth Zott is a brilliant scientist but does she understand the politics that surround her?

'You know, animals don't really lie So I really wanted to bring that out in him and also stand back a little and comment on the choices we make'

She's clueless. She really doesn't understand why everyone just doesn't read science books and understand how the world actually works at a molecular level, because that is really basic to our human understanding of what we're here for and how we live on this earth and all the animals that are here with us and all the plant life and everything. And we often go against it. And we're paying the price for that now.

I don’t recognise the people in our governments as people who are working in everyone's best interests. We're not really thinking of science in a world which operates on science. It does not operate on religion, or misogyny, or racism or anything – the Earth spins because of science. And I wish that we would respect those laws of science – follow them and allow that to shape our society.


There is a very special character in this book called Six-Thirty, can you tell us more about him?

'I love people who write big stories: Donna Tartt; and oh, gosh, Hanya Yanagihara. I think these people are not only tremendous storytellers, their craft is impeccable.'

Okay, well, Six-Thirty is the only character in the book who actually is based on somebody. He is based on a dog I had named Friday who was a really intelligent dog. She had been badly abused but she could learn and she knew a lot of words.

But what I really wanted to do with Six-Thirty was have a voice from the other side of the animal kingdom commenting on us, loving us, but being kind of fed up with us. Commenting on how ridiculous we can be and how much we lie. You know, animals don't really lie. So I really wanted to bring that out in him and also stand back a little and comment on the choices we make.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Oh, I have a huge list. As a kid the authors I admired the most were Roald Dahl and Louise Fitzhugh, who wrote Harriet the Spy. But then I read Dickens and Tolstoy.

I love people who write big stories: Donna Tartt; and oh, gosh, Hanya Yanagihara. I think these people are not only tremendous storytellers, their craft is impeccable. And the craft in a novel is what attracts me to a book. And I love looking at their sentences on the page – if I feel the rhythm, I know I'm going to stick with it.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times

Oh, I've re-read The Secret History three times.  And I re-read it three times because I cannot believe her sentences. I think she writes so well and it was her debut novel. I think writing like that is really hard. It is a craft.

And I remember it was Maya Angelou who said she was always infuriated when people said, 'Oh, you're just so good at it' and she said, 'No, I'm not good at it. I rewrite every single thing I do.' It is so hard to just stick with writing and make it work.

What’s your most surprising hobby?

Well, I like cold water swimming a lot. You know, actually, it's the UK’s fault as I picked up that habit in the UK. I think you guys like to ‘do’ cold – cold water swimming, wild swimming, just in skins. So now unbelievably, I swim just in a swimsuit in the ponds in the winter, but then in the summer, I use a wetsuit for longer swims. I'm a rower too, but I haven't been rowing at all since being in London.

Was that the inspiration for Elizabeth's passion for rowing?

Yeah, because I loved it and also it was the only thing I didn't have to research. I thought ‘Oh wait, I know this sport. I can write about it.’ And I think rowers are just a strange bunch of people that I love. You know, if you're not a rower, you have no idea why these people are so excited about water conditions and getting up at dawn to be at the boathouse.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

You know, it is really terrible. My husband and I sit at the same table and we work there all day. Then in the evening, we shove our books and our computers aside, and we eat there. So it's not ideal. But we're so used to it now. And it's really quite comfortable. So I don't have an office or a desk or anything but for me I need real silence. I can't work with noise. 

One time, I thought, 'Okay, I'm going to be like other authors, and I'm going to go write in a cafe.' And, then I realised I read my stuff out loud and it suddenly occurred to me, 'Oh my God, these people have to listen to me.' And I'm just so surprised no one came over and said, 'Would you shut up?'

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Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin

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