After a decades-long career as a copywriter, Bonnie Garmus has found a new gig. Her debut novel, "Lessons in Chemistry," arrived in bookstores in April 2022. Now in its 56th week on The New York Times bestsellers list, it has been translated into 40 languages.
This fall, "Lessons in Chemistry" will be an Apple TV+ series starring Oscar-winner Brie Larsen. And it's made Garmus, at age 66, something of a literary rock star. The adoration from fans is still a bit of a novelty; when Garmus sent out her first finished book, it was rejected 98 times.
Smith asked, "Did you want to give up?"
"Oh, yeah," Garmus replied. But the thing with writing, I think, is so important for people to realize is that the only one who says it's over is you. It's never over. Just because 98 people reject you, it doesn't mean that they were right."
Garmus set that first book aside, and after a frustrating meeting at work when a male colleague took credit for one of her ideas, she started writing a new novel: "I was supposed to be revising what I was working on. And instead, I wrote the first chapter of 'Lessons in Chemistry.' So, I now call that 'constructive anger.'"
"Clearly it was good – it fueled your fire," said Smith.
"Yeah, yeah. I could hear her in my head. I knew she wanted to tell me that her decade was even worse."
Set in the 1950s and early '60s, "Lessons" is about Elizabeth Zott, a chemist and mom who hosts a cooking show that ends up teaching women about a lot more than food.
Some reviews have called the book subversive, with which Garmus agrees: "Yeah, I think Elizabeth Zott is entirely subversive. And when I was writing it, I wanted the tone of the book, the writing style, the voice to be subversive."
In what way? "I just thought it would be really interesting to have a character who took herself seriously and never thought about what she looked like, never doubted herself. Basically, I was writing my role model!"
Garmus didn't have to look far for inspiration – her mom was a nurse who had to stop working when she got pregnant. "Lessons in Chemistry" is, in part, for her. "It's in honor of my mother, for sure," Garmus said. "My mother would tell you she would not like the swearing. But she would really approve of the message of women being more of who they really are."
Garmus herself is a wife and mother to two daughters. During the five years it took her to write the book, she kept her full-time copywriting job, and taught herself chemistry, even trying some experiments from a decades-old textbook, "The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments."
"One of my neighbors saw flames through the window and called the fire department," Garmus said.
"Anyway, I learned the hard way. You should really take this really seriously!"
But not everything she wrote about required research, like the fact that Garmus made Elizabeth Zott a rower: "Well, I had to put something in the book I actually knew about!"
Garmus started rowing in her late 30s in Seattle. It's a sport that involves early mornings, grueling workouts, and brutal weather, so it makes sense that tough-as-nails Elizabeth Zott rows, too.
Smith asked, "Is this kind of a masochistic sport?"
"Absolutely!" Garmus laughed. "We used to say before every race, we join hands in the boat and we'd say, 'To the death.' Because you do want to go all the way; you don't want to give up."
Seems in rowing, and in writing, dogged determination pays off. When Garmus finished "Lessons," she found herself in the middle of a bidding war. For a woman used to rejection, it was too much. "The whole time, in the back of my head, I didn't believe it," she said. "And so, I had this weird habit where I go to bed and then I get up in the middle of the night and go to my computer and look at email and see if I'd imagined the whole thing, because I have a pretty good imagination.
"And I think the third night I did this, my husband literally grabbed my arm and pulled me down. He said, 'I'll save you a trip; it's real.'"
It's real, all right. In fact, readers tell Garmus the story of Elizabeth Zott inspired them to change their lives – take up rowing, go to law school.
And the story of Bonnie Garmus – who'd wanted to be novelist since the age of five – has a pretty powerful lesson, too.
Smith said, "One of the messages of the book is you can change your story, you can own your story. That's kind of you, too."
"Yeah, it's me, too," said Garmus. "I think it's everyone, though. That's why so many people see themselves in the book. So, yeah, you can change your story."
To watch a teaser for the Apple TV+ series "Lessons in Chemistry," premiering this fall, click on the video player below:
For more info:
- "Lessons in Chemistry" by Bonnie Garmus (Doubleday), in Hardcover, Large Print, eBook and Audio formats, available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Bookseller.org
Story produced by Kay Lim. Editor: Lauren Barnello.
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