The author talks about becoming a literary star at 64, sexism in the workplace, and her fear and anger at the US removing women’s abortion rights
Of course, Garmus didn’t have to keep her job. The 65-year-old gave up her 9-5 in advertising after the book became an instant hit upon its release in April, topping the bestseller charts. It is now distributed in 37 countries and adapted for a TV series with Brie Larsen.
Bonnie Garmus thought no one would want to read her book. “Friends asked me what I was working on and I said, ‘I’m writing this novel about a chemist who becomes a cooking show host in the ’60s.’ The idea just worked,” she says dryly. “I just told a bunch of friends and stopped because their faces were like, keep your day job.” Cut to a few years later and her debut novel Lessons in chemistry is one of the hottest books of the year and destined to be strewn on sun loungers all summer long.
This will come as no surprise to the book’s growing list of fans (Nigella Lawson, for example, reported that she was “devastated to have it finished”). Wonderfully funny and crisply told – and with the uncompromising chemist and single mother Elizabeth Zott in the main character, an inimitable heroine.
When she is fired from her job at a research institute despite her apparent brilliance, Elizabeth sets out to change the world through a TV food show. Her producers may want her to teach the country’s housewives how to cook, but she’s far more keen on encouraging them to rebel against the limitations society has placed on women. “Your ability to change everything — including yourself — starts here,” she tells them.
The novel skewers the hideous injustices (and worse) that Elizabeth faced as a woman then trying to break into a male-dominated field – injustices that resonate all too strongly today. “I think we all have Elizabeth Zott in us,” says Garmus. “Many of us have been held back, slandered or abused along the way. Elizabeth resonates with people because they look at her and go, me too.”
Garmus grew up in Southern California but has spent the last five years in London, where she now speaks. The book, she says, came about because she knew all too well what it felt like “to get dumped and passed over when you’re not a man.” She started working on it right after she got back from an annoying meeting she had while working for a company in Seattle.
“I presented my ideas and they were completely swept aside until finally one man said exactly what I said and everyone called him a genius,” she says. “It wasn’t the first time this had happened. I think we women get used to this kind of misogyny in meetings. I just couldn’t shake it that day.”
Garmus “always wanted to be a writer” and wrote her first story at the age of five, about – no doubt to Elizabeth Zott’s dismay – a princess. “My kids found it in our basement,” she says, “and taunted me mercilessly.” Her father was a scientist who studied insects, a job that moved the family around the country.
She studied English at university, but then fell into scientific writing before finally founding her own company as a creative director. Meanwhile, in the background, she tried to write fiction. She previously had two failed novels under her belt Lessons in chemistry came, including a 700-page attempt that she joked was denied “about 98 times” by agents. (“You should never submit a 700-page book as a debut author,” she advises. “Let me save everyone a lot of time.”)
she sat Lessons in chemistry in the 1960s, in part because her mother was a homemaker at the time, raising Garmus and her three sisters. “It’s kind of a salute to the mothers I grew up with in my neighborhood and how much they sacrificed for us,” she says. “They raised a generation of feminists, so I think our mothers were doing something a little bit subversive back then, that is, don’t be like me – don’t settle for that.”
Her mother, Mary, to whom the book is dedicated, was a nurse before giving up work to have children. “My mother probably would never have called herself a feminist,” says Garmus. “But she did talk about her time as a nurse and I could tell that was the most meaningful part of her life.”
After Roe v Wade was knocked over, Lessons in chemistry‘s searing portrait of a world where women are treated as second-class citizens feels heartbreakingly apt. Garmus was a teenager when the court decision was first made. “I remember when Roe v Wade passed. I thought it was one of those great moments in history where we’re marching forward and women are making real positive change in society. I don’t feel that way now. I feel like the United States is very backward, and that’s nothing to be proud of. You will see a lot of headwinds.”
Like too many people, she has personal experience of the hideous consequences when women are deprived of the right to legal, safe abortions. Her voice lowers as she explains that one of her mother’s friends died after an illegal abortion. “It’s one of the saddest things I can remember. My mother was very upset about this. I was really upset about that. This woman was desperate. She had five children. She just couldn’t afford to have another one.”
“The idea that a woman has no control over her own body is one of the most ridiculous concepts I’ve ever heard,” she continues. “I’m angry. My friends in the United States are angry. I have two daughters and they’re angry. But we’re not defeated.”
Garmus’ daughters are 28 and 30 years old. She and her husband adopted her from China when they were very young — an experience she says inspired the novel’s message that the families we make for ourselves are more important than biological bonds. Elizabeth Zott and her daughter Madeline gradually connect with other people in their community who don’t quite fit in, from single fathers to housewives who loathe their husbands.
“There’s a lot in the book about ‘found family’. And that’s one of the reasons why,” says Garmus, referring to the adoption. “Also, one of our daughters is gay and she has many friends whose families have rejected her for being gay or trans or whatever. Just imagining being rejected by your family for something biologically normal is hard to imagine. Well I like the idea of found family. Your friends always have family with us.”
She is excited Lessons in chemistry strikes a chord with her daughters’ generation. “This book resonates with young women who I feel need to know: let’s not go back there. Let’s move on. Let’s fight forward.”
Another thing she enjoys is how she became a debut novelist at 64 in a youth-obsessed publishing world. “What’s great is how a lot of young people have been saying, ‘Thank God you’re in your 60s because I’m in my 20s/30s/40s and I still haven’t written this book that I know I have I have it in me.’”
She pauses for a moment before fixing me with a piercing look that’s easy to imagine Elizabeth Zott throwing at her viewers. “The truth is, old age is just another one of those societal ideas about what to do and when. I love being this breakout writer at 64 because it validates Elizabeth Zott’s point. Don’t pay too much attention to society. It will hold you back.”
Lessons in Chemistry is published by Doubleday for £14.99