‘I got mad and started this book’: 21 Questions with Bonnie Garmus

The author of Lessons in Chemistry on Roald Dahl, cold-water swimming, and the book that inspired her to climb a literal mountain.

That you probably hadn’t heard of Bonnie Garmus a year ago speaks to the author’s meteoric rise. Identified as one of the most anticipated debut novels of 2022 at the start of the year, Lessons in Chemistry was released in April to rapturous praise from now-peers like Elizabeth Day, Maggie Shipstead, and prolific reader, Nigella Lawson. It’s currently being adapted for television, with Brie Larson set to star.

The book, written after what Garmus calls “a bad day at work”, tells the story of Elizabeth Zott, a talented chemist in 1960s America forced out of her job by misogyny. But she unexpectedly lands a job as the host of a popular TV cooking show, Zott’s life – and the lives of housewives across the country – are changed.

In interview, Garmus is every bit as effervescent as Zott, cracking jokes and telling tales of the difficulty – and, often, the absurdity – of being a woman in a patriarchal world. Below, in our 21 Questions about life and literature, Garmus opens up about the books and authors that changed her life, cold-water swimming, and a male author who tried to eat her lunch.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Kazuo Ishiguro because he wrote the most perfect novel of all time, The Remains of the Day.

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

Matilda by Roald Dahl. It's a very subversive book, especially for children. When I read it, I just thought, “You can do anything, you can write anything.” There just weren't stories like that for kids back then. The other one like that was called Harriet the Spy – also very subversive. They’re completely transgressive books for a young child to read. I loved them.

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

'Matilda is a very subversive book; when I read it I thought, "You can do anything, you can write anything."'

Okay, this is going to sound weird, but my favourite book was The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. She was a true feminist, and I read a lot as a kid. I just remember being so struck by that book. I ended up reading it two more times as an adult.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

There was a hiking book called A Woman’s Place about women climbing the Annapurna mountain range. Inspired by that book, I… climbed the Annapurna mountain range – part of it. I was 24.

(How old were you when you read it?)

23 – oh, how foolish we are then! I quit my job. I went to my boss and I said, “I'm going to do this trek in the Annapurna range. And he said, “How are you going to do that? You don't have any vacation.” I said, “Well, could you just – I could just go for like 8, 10 weeks. 12 weeks max. He was like, “You have a job!” I went. It was the greatest.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

When I was just out of college, I didn't have a job that summer and I couldn't find one. The only job I could get was selling vacuum cleaners door to door, and I only lasted two days because on the second day, I broke the vacuum. You had to bring it around. I plugged it in and it just went vrn… vrn, got caught on someone’s shag carpet and created a hole. That was it. They fired me.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

There's a writer in the United States, Laura Kasischke, and she told me if you're going to write humour, balance it with darkness – it's called ‘duende’. I took that really seriously, and I think it has really really helped my writing.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

Does this count? I've read Grimm’s Fairy Tales probably 50 times. As an adult I read it too, because I wanted to. I thought, “Oh, my God, they got away with everything! They’re killing children. They're killing everything! It was really instructive to me just to see how far you go. I read them incessantly as a child. I was sort of dark that way. The bloodier the better, you know, the more outrageous the better. And when I started to really think about writing, I was always drawn to those stories because they have a very simple arc, but an interesting one to study. Those tales are unafraid.

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

Sense and Sensibility. I never read it. I watched it, and then I thought, “Okay, I'm going to read the book now” but I never have. But I have told people I've read it.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______

I would be an Olympic swimmer. My idol is Lewis Pugh. He's an open water swimmer. He's swam the Antarctic and everything. And I love to swim; I love open water swimming. If I was really good like that, I would do all the big swims.

What makes you happiest?

Being with my dog and my family. This dog didn’t inform Six-Thirty, but my old dog did. I’ve always loved dogs.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

'I have become a cold-water swimmer since I moved to the UK'

My most surprising passion and hobby is the same thing: I have become a cold-water swimmer since I moved to the UK. I found myself at the Hampstead ponds breaking through the ice to get in and swim without a wetsuit in the middle of winter – something I never saw myself doing in a million years. Yeah, now it feels like “Well of course we’ll get in.” I showed up at the ponds with a wetsuit and the other women were like, “No. What, you think it's gonna hurt?”

What is your ideal writing scenario?

I like it to be rainy and grey, so I'm not missing anything. I like to have complete silence. I like to just let my mind drift.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

I used to work in scientific publishing years and years ago, and I was at an author lunch, and I was sitting next to the author, an astronomer. At some point during the lunch, he started eating off my plate. So I said, “Excuse me, what are you doing?” And he was very brash, and he said, “Well, you know, I'm hungry. I should be able to eat whatever I want.” And I said, “But this is my food!” My boss was sitting there, my editor, and he goes, “Let him eat your lunch.” And I said, “No!” That was the weirdest encounter. He kept eating my lunch and he kept telling me mine was better than his. Then he offered me the leftovers of his lunch. I was so hungry – I had just done a big swim – so I was like, no I'm not going to share my lunch with you. It was so weird.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

I would have Margaret Atwood over. I would love to talk with her. I so admire her writing, and I love her spirit. I just think she'd be one of the most interesting people I can imagine. I would ask her how she kept going, after she got rejected. She just kept going.

What’s your biggest fear?

My biggest fear might come true: that, if we keep going this way, the world will end because of climate change because we're so stupid. I worry that we won't figure this out or take it seriously soon enough.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

I would want to fly. I'm really tired of planes and traffic – and driving in London. Yeah, I think it would have to be flying.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

That’s easy – it’s Ayanna Lloyd Banwo’s book When We Were Birds. I really, really enjoyed that. I think she writes with so much grace and power. The construction of her sentences, which is what I always look at when I read, is just really impeccable.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

No, because it falls in!

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Coffee, because I'm an American. [Laughs] Yeah, no, coffee. I was raised on it.

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

I have to go back again to Roald Dahl. I would say Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I think it's really well-crafted. It has a great ending. It has outrageous characters. It does everything right. And again, it’s subversive.

What inspired you to write your book?

A bad day at work; a bad mood. I had been in a meeting, and there was some misogyny in the meeting, and I just thought, “How much longer are we going to waste time like this, with these kinds of situations where you're not allowing women to speak, you're not allowing these other ideas to come forward?” That's the day I got mad and started this book.


Lessons in Chemistry is out now.
Image at top by Flynn Shore
Photo: Stuart Simpson / Penguin

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