Interview | Author Bonnie Garmus on creating a powerhouse of a heroine in her bestselling novel ‘Lessons in Chemistry’

The novel was also adapted into a TV miniseries starring Brie Larson as the protagonist Elizabeth Zott

February 29, 2024 01:28 pm | Updated 01:28 pm IST

Bonnie Garmus worked as a creative director and copywriter for many years before she became an author.

Bonnie Garmus worked as a creative director and copywriter for many years before she became an author. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Lessons in Chemistry by debut novelist Bonnie Garmus has certainly left an indelible mark — it’s the kind of book that stays with you, fuelling ideas, and forcing certain conversations to the fore. It’s impossible to read it without drawing parallels with your own reality and lived experiences. A novel of hope, resilience, and ultimately, triumph, it has an interesting origin story too. Sharing her journey with her first book, Garmus, 66, expands on conversations around feminism, sexism and storytelling. Edited excerpts:

How did you take a bad day at work and channel that experience into ‘Lessons in Chemistry’? Was there always a part of you that wanted to write fiction?

Yes, I’ve always wanted to write fiction. I wrote my first book at the age of five (it was very short and very bad), a full book at 12, a big book (700 pages) in my 50s (which never went anywhere), and this book, which I also wrote mostly in my 50s. But the rest of the time, I was working full-time as a creative director and copywriter. I found it difficult to be employed as a writer and then find the urge to write again when I came home from work. So in order to finish my book I had to get up 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. and write before work. Novel writing doesn’t pay well — 98% of novelists make less than minimum wage. So quitting my day job was out of the question.

As for the anger that drove the first chapter, I think anger is valuable, but in women, it is often described as rage. Men are assertive, women are aggressive — a classic example of sexism. The work meeting that fuelled the impetus for this book was another classic example of sexism. When I left the meeting, I was pretty angry. I began to wonder how many other women around the world were having the same day I was. Five minutes later, I started writing Lessons in Chemistry.

Why did you choose that time in history as a setting for Elizabeth Zott? Or did she appear fully formed to you?

I chose the 1950s and early 60s because it was such a wildly sexist time period — the time of Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. I wanted to reassure myself that we had moved forward as women in the world since that time period. And we have — but not nearly enough. I could hear Elizabeth Zott’s voice very clearly. I was writing my role model; a woman I could respect. She was not fully formed when I started, but she became consistent to me quickly. Her stoicism shines through: she’s smart, responsible, rational, and has incredible heart.

There’s a certain understanding of what a ‘rom-com’ will do, an expectation. And ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ is most definitely not a romantic comedy. But it’s sometimes been dressed as one. Was that, at least in the beginning, a part of this journey at all?

The cover of the U.S. edition of ‘Lessons in Chemistry’.

The cover of the U.S. edition of ‘Lessons in Chemistry’.

The German cover of ‘Lessons in Chemistry’.

The German cover of ‘Lessons in Chemistry’.

I never saw the book as a rom-com and was surprised when my American publisher presented that cover to me. I didn’t like it. I thought it implied the book was lightweight and girly, but my editor and publisher insisted they would never put a “chick-lit” cover on my book — that I was overthinking it. They wanted to make sure people knew it was a “fun” book, which it partly is, but it is also very dark and literary. I come from advertising; I know the peril of deceptive images. Nevertheless, authors have very little power when it comes to covers, so my concerns were dismissed.

I still get complaints about that cover on a daily basis, both from romance readers who feel they’ve been deceived — they wanted a rom-com and got something entirely different — and from women scientists who refused to read the book because the cover belittled them. And male readers believe it’s not for them. In fact, the book is for everyone. It’s been a long, arduous journey to get people to see past that image. I think the U.K. and German covers are much better.

How did you choose the voices in the book — the lenses through which we see Elizabeth Zott — and what guided those choices?

The other characters in the book made themselves known to me one by one. Each reflects on their experience with an opinion of Elizabeth Zott. Some hate her, some admire her, some can’t figure her out, others are fully committed to her. Elizabeth Zott is a catalyst; she changes everyone she comes in contact with, so it was important to me that readers saw her from these other angles. That way we could watch their transformation without noticing that she, herself, changes very little.

She’s inspired so many people. What did you pick up from your own creation — did she surprise you? Are there lessons she taught you?

Elizabeth Zott continues to inspire me and surprise me. Because of her, I’m less likely to give up or give in. I’m also far more aware of the need for personal perseverance and endurance. Elizabeth Zott is not a victim. She doesn’t whine; she doesn’t pout. She acts. She stands up for what she believes is right and does not waver. Most of all, she’s rational. She bases her decisions on actual evidence and events — not fake news, opinion, or societal constructs.

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