Author Q & A and Recorded Interview
Earlier this month I had a wonderful conversation with Bonnie Garmus about her bestselling debut novel, Lessons In Chemistry, her writing and more. Here is the Book Nation Book Club recorded interview and a written Q & A as well.
About Bonnie Garmus
Bonnie Garmus is a copywriter and creative director who has worked widely in the fields of technology, medicine, and education. She’s an open-water swimmer, a rower, and mother to two pretty amazing daughters. Born in California and most recently from Seattle, she currently lives in London with her husband and her dog, 99.
Author Q & A
Q: Where in London do you live and how long have you been there?
A: I live in South Kensington, and we’ve been here five years.
Q: Is Lessons in Chemistry getting as much attention there as it is here – are the audiences different?
A: It is getting a lot of attention here—in fact, it’s currently the best-selling UK hardback of 2022 and is currently #1 in Ireland, Germany—and I think number 2 in Australia. I’d say the audiences are quite similar—very broad in terms of both age and gender. It’s remarkable to hear from readers and realize fifteen-year-old boys and ninety-two-year-old women are enjoying the same book.
Q: Tell us a bit about your career, when you knew you wanted to become a writer, and how long it took you to get published.
A: I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first book at age five: it was one page long and had no plot. I wrote another at age twelve; then took a stab at my first adult novel at age 45 or so but didn’t finish it. I went on to write a different book which I loved, but it got soundly rejected by agents 98 times (it had a length problem). Then came Lessons in Chemistry. The entire time I was working as a copywriter/creative director—which was good because I was always practicing writing (which is critical), but bad because the last thing I wanted to do in the evening was write. So I convinced myself to start novel writing early—at 5 a.m.
Q: Elizabeth Zott is a feminist before her time. She is brilliant and beautiful and persistent. She says what she means and lives her life and makes decisions based on evidence. Where did you get the idea to write about her?
A: I wanted to create someone I could look up to—a woman who knew who she was and didn’t waste time doubting herself. It was incredibly fun to have her in my head because I do doubt myself all the time. People sometimes assume I must be Elizabeth Zott, but the truth is, I aspire to be more like her.
Q: Elizabeth is a chemist – what kind of research did you do to brush up on your chemistry?
A: I bought an old chemistry textbook from the 50s and taught myself basic chemistry. I couldn’t really use Google because it was too easy to introduce a reaction or element that hadn’t been discovered yet.
Q: What made you decide to have Elizabeth host a cooking show and did you base the show on Julia Child?
A: I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’d never seen Julia Child (my husband finally made me watch an episode some months ago and I couldn’t believe how great she was.) The truth is, I rarely watch cooking shows because I don’t enjoy cooking. Some might even say I’m bad at it. But I do love and respect people who cook well. Cooking is chemistry and the people who excel at it are excellent scientists (whether they know it or not!).
Q: Do you cook often and would you consider publishing some of Elizabeth’s recipes as an addendum to the novel?
A: Despite my iffy cooking, I continue to split cooking responsibilities with my husband. He’s an excellent cook—thank god! As for the cookbook—I’ve thought about it, but for now I have so many other writing projects,it’s pretty far down the list.
Q: Elizabeth wants to make history doing research but she loses her job because she is an unwed mother. Even though she is smart, it is her beauty that gets her the opportunity to host a cooking show. The men are using her for ratings but she rebels and does what she wants as often as possible. What was it like to write this character?
A: You correctly identified why Elizabeth is hired for TV: her looks. My goal was to show how beautiful women were punished in different ways. Back then, a beautiful woman had a very small chance of being taken seriously; her contributions were trivialized at a higher rate; her “prettiness” made sexual harassment a given. Elizabeth is a threat, a source of jealousy, a sexual object. But she is never just—as she puts it—Elizabeth Zott. And that is the only person she wants and plans to be.
Q: Calvin really falls for Elizabeth and they develop a sweet relationship. Real chemistry. What drew him to her?
A: His mind. Calvin and Elizabeth are lonely people and part of that loneliness stems from their intellect. From their first, long, technical conversation, he realizes she’s not just bright; she’s his equal. And that’s the great thing about Calvin: while all the other men fear Elizabeth’s intelligence, he embraces it.
Q: She doesn’t want to marry him or receive any help with her career. How hard was it to write that relationship?
A: It was hard! But Elizabeth doesn’t turn down marriage because she doesn’t love Calvin, but rather because she knows all of her contributions will be attributed to him. Which is not fair and never has been; a relationship should not benefit one partner while punishing the other. So she simply says no to the marriage, thinking she can still be with the man she loves. But society doesn’t see it that way and life is unpredictable.
Q: You could have chosen any extra-curricular activity for Calvin to enjoy – why rowing?
A: I’m a rower and I needed something in the story I didn’t have to research (seriously). But I also wanted rowing to serve as a contrast to Calvin and Elizabeth’s highly uncooperative work environment. Rowing is a very collaborative, cooperative sport—the boat doesn’t move unless people set aside their egos and row as one. I often think we’d all have an easier time at work if we could bring a rower’s mentality to it.
Q: When Calvin dies, Elizabeth is tested emotionally. She has a hard time, especially when she finds out she is pregnant. Did you get her reactions and behavior right the first draft or did you have to revise?
A: I revise constantly. But in terms of those scenes, I had a good idea of how difficult this would be for her because she’d already made it clear she knew didn’t want to be a mother. And yet what choice did she have? Abortion was illegal (and unsafe); her paycheck was gone; her research was terminated; she had no partner. How was she to survive? I knew the only way was for Elizabeth Zott to continue to be who she was—which was someone who refused to live by others’ nonsensical standards.
Q: How did you come up with the name 6:30 for the dog and what inspired you to name your own dog 99?
A: 6:30 is named for the time he joins his family—at least that’s what he thinks. He then goes to believe that’s how all of his family members are named. By the way, 6:30 is the only character in the book based on a real being—our dog, Friday, who died some years ago. As for 99, she was named for my best friend who also died, but in a tragic accident. She and I had been calling each other 86 and 99 since we were kids (from the TV show Get Smart). When she died, I felt like a part of me died, too. But when we adopted our dog some years later, I decided to resurrect the name and it’s made me very happy. I feel like I got a piece of my friend back!
Q: 6:30 learns language and is a very smart dog. (btw I am sure my dog knows lots of words – although he is deaf now so I try to use hand signals – and he asks to do his puzzle everyday) Elizabeth treats the dog with the assumption that he has great knowledge. Why include the dog’s perspective?
A: I wanted 6:30 to serve as an anthropologist—as a voice from the other side of the animal kingdom who can’t understand why we lie so much and make so many dumb decisions. We tend to define intelligence only in human terms, but why? An octopus has nine brains. Maybe we should turn the planet over to them.
Q: Maddie, the daughter brings her lunch to school and everyone wants what she is eating. Tell us what inspired you to write Madeline?
A: I wondered what it would be like to be raised by a woman like Elizabeth—someone who refuses limits—who encourages unlimited exploration. And sure enough, Mad is a bright, curious child. But she’s also wise. And that wisdom comes, not from her mother, but from 6:30.
Q: Harriet, the neighbor was great support for Elizabeth and really singularly represented friends and family – which Elizabeth didn’t have. Why did you choose to just give her that one female relationship?
A: Harriet was raised to believe she was never good enough—and the magazines she read had a lot to do with that. So I wanted to pair her with a woman who not only never read those magazines, but knew she was good enough. They’re opposites, but they’ve both suffered in similar ways and come to realize—at the same time—the power of female friendship.
Q: Elizabeth’s producer at Supper at Six, Walter, provides the male friendship. Was it important for Elizabeth to have that man friend?
A: There’s a notion that men and women can’t be friends, but I’ve always disagreed with that. I love writing Walter because he was “man enough” to realize that even though Elizabeth was ruining his career, he respected her reasons for it.
Q: What would you like people to walk away with after reading Lessons in Chemistry?
A: I hope people will consider what it might be like if we lived by the laws of chemistry rather than by society’s flimsy rules. Because while society is resistant to change, chemistry isn’t. And we desperately need to change.
Q: Lessons in Chemistry was chosen for the GMA April Book Club Pick and since then it was picked up for tv. How did you find out the book would become a series on Apple TV and do you have any involvement with the show?
A: Actually, it was picked up before the GMA announcement! (The book wasn’t even in copyedit yet.) Lots of studios bid on the project; I settled on Aggregate Films. Then Brie Larson called me on zoom to discuss the role of Elizabeth Zott. Can you imagine? She attached herself to the project and Apple TV+ decided to run with it. I’m not doing anything for the show minus reading scripts and offering notes (which they are not obligated to take). The series will be different from the book—as it should be! And I have a great showrunner and amazing producers. To say I’m lucky is the understatement of the year.
Q: What is your next project?
A: Another book!
Q: What have you read lately that you recommend?
A: I just finished reading a book that will be out in October called, Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North. It’s by Rachel Joyce who wrote The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. This continues the story, but from his wife’s point of view. I loved it.