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Bonnie Garmus strikes a chord with Elizebeth Zott's inspiring tales in Lessons in Chemistry

An experienced copywriter, Garmus’s novel has all the right ingredients — humour, wit, pacy narrative and of course the feisty story of Elizebeth Zott, who ignites the minds of American homemakers with her cookery show

Farah Khatoon | Published 25.02.24, 11:05 AM
Bonnie Garmus at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2024

Bonnie Garmus at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2024

Pictures: Jaipur Literature Festival

California-born and London-based Bonnie Garmus is neither a chemist nor has any interest in the culinary arts but what led her to write her debut novel Lessons in Chemistry — which chronicles the life of a single mother, a chemistry wizard, who starts a revolution in America in the 1950s with her television show — was the decision to stop being part of a sexist workplace. An experienced copywriter, Garmus’s novel has all the right ingredients — humour, wit, pacy narrative and of course the feisty story of Elizebeth Zott, who ignites the minds of American homemakers with her cookery show. It is the combination of these and more that made Lessons in Chemistry a New York Times bestseller and earned multiple awards including the British Book Award Author of the Year 2023, Hay Festival Book of the Year 2022, Paul Torday Memorial Prize 2023 and more. The book has sold six million copies, has a readership in 42 languages and has even been adapted as an Apple TV+ show.

We caught up with Garmus at the Samsung Galaxy Tab S9 Series Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this month and talked about the story behind Lessons in Chemistry, her dog who’s part of the narrative and why sexism has incredible endurance.


Lessons in Chemistry took off quite well, earning many awards, being adapted for screen, and translated into more than 40 languages. That’s an incredible feat for a debut book. How do you feel about it?

It’s been very surreal to me and still is. I never thought the book would be published, let alone be widely read, so I’m thrilled that readers all over the world have responded to it. We’re up to 42 or 43 languages now — I’m unsure of the final count — but I can tell you that I believe its success stems from a global yearning for change, rationality, and respect — and not just between the genders, but between all people regardless of race, religion, sexuality, and age.

We heard the story of how you ended up writing the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry after a bad day at work. Can you take us through that moment?

I was presenting my concepts for a major campaign, something I’d done at least a hundred times in the past as a creative director. And per usual, because this was technology, I was, once again, the only woman in the room. Following my presentation, which I’d thought had gone very well, there was no feedback — absolutely zero response. It was strange. When the room remained quiet, I prompted the others to tell me what they thought. That’s when a man in the meeting insisted that he had much better ideas. He then proceeded to reintroduce all of my ideas as his own, including reading from my PowerPoint slide which was still being displayed. The other men in the room clapped and told him he was brilliant. I protested loudly but it was as if I didn’t exist. When I left the meeting, I was pretty angry. Walking down the hallway, I began to wonder how many other women around the world were having the same day I was having. Five minutes later I started writing Lessons in Chemistry.

How has the journey been so far with the first novel?

The journey has been surprising, gratifying, long, exciting, and sometimes exhausting! I think most writers are private people, so suddenly being in the public eye has also been a major transition for me. But I love hearing from readers and am grateful to those who have spread the word. I really love feeling connected to people in every corner of the world. That’s the best part.

The book is set in 1950s America. What made you choose that decade as the setting for the novel?

I chose the 1950s and early 1960s because it was such a wildly sexist time period — the time of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. I wanted to reassure myself that we had moved forward as women in the world since that time. And we have, but not nearly enough. Sexism has incredible endurance.

Tell us about your experience of sketching and developing the character of Elizabeth Zott. How was the process? Did you give it direction or did she carve her path?

When I wrote Elizabeth Zott, I was writing my own role model. Her voice was very clear in my head, I admired her from the very start. She was single-minded, rational and stoic. That said, it was also very clear to me that she would be getting in plenty of trouble because she was so rational and stoic. But writing a character like that allowed me to comment on the growing state of irrationality in the world, and via a character who would normally, because she was a woman, be dismissed. People listen to Elizabeth Zott because she’s interesting, inspiring and powerful. But she’s also courageous and she doesn’t back down.

You also included your dog in the narrative. What was the idea and how important was it to the narrative?

I think we humans tend to judge intelligence based on our definition of the word, and that is complete folly. The other animals we share the earth with are also thinking, and decision-making creatures, they also experience emotion, they also face difficulty. So it was important to me that I add a character from the other side of the animal kingdom to comment on us — to let us know what they think of our stupid decisions and choices. And yes, the character is based on my dog, Friday. She’s gone now, but she was a highly intelligent, highly empathetic dog who surprised us, despite her brutal beginnings, with an infinite capacity to learn and love. I hope we’ll all stop underestimating the other species in the world. After all, we may need to call on them to save us from ourselves.

The book’s flavour — witty, funny, bold — impressed critics. How much of your traits are in the book or the character?

I hope I’m a little bold and funny, but mostly I hope I’m honest and open. For me, the craft of writing is the most important part of the novel. That’s why I write and rewrite because I want to get the rhythm down, I want to bring the reader with me.

Are you a foodie or have an interest in culinary art?

Just like I’m not a chemist, I’m not a cook or even a foodie. But I do love to eat, and I very much admire chemists and cooks for their special talents. Luckily, my husband is a great cook. So whenever he cooks, I clean up. I’m not sure it’s a fair trade, but he seems happy with it!

Last updated on 25.02.24, 11:06 AM

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