Lessons in Chemistry author Bonnie Garmus: ‘Anti-female bias is ingrained in our culture – it needs to be exposed’

We all know what it’s like to have a bad day at the office. There are very few of us, though, who manage to channel that anger into something constructive. A smash hit debut novel, for example. But after one rage-inducing meeting while working as a copywriter, Bonnie Garmus did just that. 

The only woman in a boardroom full of men, she presented her pitch, only for a senior colleague to parrot her work back as if it were his own. “My ideas were taken by a man and no one in the room defended me, even though I had worked with some of these men for a long time,” she recalls. “And after I left that meeting, I just thought, ‘how are we still here?’ As I was walking back, I thought, ‘how many other women in the world just had the meeting I had?’” When she reached her desk, her head was full of “this cloud of women who had been held back for decades, centuries, and how much it sets our world back to not use half of the population to the fullest. I was pretty mad by the time I sat down and instead of working on the assignment that was due that day at 5pm, I ended up writing the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry.” 

Upon its release last spring, Lessons in Chemistry won effusive praise from the likes of Nigella Lawson (who said she was “devastated to have finished it”) and topped the bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic – surely a satisfying feat for a writer who grew up in California (she speaks with a soft Golden State accent) but has more recently made her home in London. Millions of readers around the world have picked up a copy, and the book has earned 66-year-old Garmus a clutch of awards. This summer, she was named Author of the Year at the British Book Awards, which counts Marian Keyes, Bernardine Evaristo and Richard Osman among its previous winners; when we speak over Zoom, I  spot the trophy, shaped like an oversized fountain pen nib, perched on the shelves of the book-lined office she shares with husband David. And this week, the first episodes of the Apple TV+ adaptation landed online, starring Oscar winner Brie Larson as Elizabeth. 

Dressed simply in a brown jumper, her shoulder-length silver hair worn in a half-ponytail, Garmus makes for galvanising conversation; after less than an hour in her company, I feel like I could probably have my own shot at rage-writing fiction. Set in the Fifties and Sixties, Lessons in Chemistry tells the story of Elizabeth Zott, a chemist who is forced out of her hard-won job at a research laboratory after her colleagues learn she is pregnant. Undaunted, she becomes a mascot for chronically underestimated housewives across the country when she lands a role at a local TV network, hosting a cooking show called Supper at Six. Elizabeth refuses to condescend to her female viewers and, much to her bosses’ bafflement, the programme ends up as a trojan horse, smuggling scientific knowledge and feminist ideas into American living rooms. Oh, and she has a psychic (or, at least, preternaturally empathetic) dog. The novel alternates lively wit with righteous anger, propelled by the sheer force of Elizabeth’s character, who feels like a talisman for anyone who has ever signed off an email with a self-deprecating “no worries if not!”

Apple’s TV adaptation is among this year’s most anticipated releases. The screen rights were speedily snapped up in a bidding war, more than a year before Lessons in Chemistry had reached a single bookshop.  Larson, who Garmus describes as “a force of nature”, video-called the author beforehand to try and win her over. “At the end of our call, she said, ‘Bonnie, can I be Elizabeth Zott?’ I felt like we were getting married, you know, ‘Yes, I do!’” Garmus is pragmatic about the fact she doesn’t “have any skin in the game” when it comes to the show. “I didn’t write the series, and I didn’t do anything for the series,” she says. “I did get to read the scripts near the end, at the last minute, and they said I could make notes. Then our agreement was that they could just throw out my notes, and I think that’s fair … It’s their version of [the story], and I have my version. I think they can both live side by side.” 

When she started working on Elizabeth’s story after that rough day at work, Garmus wrote her protagonist as a role model. “She is very rational, and I feel like rationality has taken a backseat to our culture. We can’t afford that. So for me, it was really [about] writing a woman who wasn’t going to apologise every time she wanted to say something, but who also based everything she said on evidence and absolutely refused to give in to the illogic that guides the workplace, our world, our governments. Just simply, her favourite word is ‘no.’” She set Lessons in Chemistry in the world of science “because science knows better – science knows that this kind of discrimination [in her character’s case, based on gender] has no biological basis. So for it to happen in science, it’s kind of ironic.” 

Real-life stories of women being overlooked in that industry still get her riled up. Garmus is currently serving as a judge for the Royal Society Science Book Prize, which celebrates the best in popular science writing. It’s a role that required her to diligently work her way through more than 50 potential contenders, while appearing on the literary festival circuit and somehow finding time to work on her second novel. As one of the panel’s resident fiction writers, she was looking for books written “with empathy for people who don’t have the [scientific] background”, without leaving readers “buried in jargon and technical detail that doesn’t really help anyone”. One of the shortlisted titles is The Exceptions by journalist Kate Zernike; the book explores how geneticist Nancy Hopkins and her female colleagues at Massachusetts Institute of Technology successfully campaigned for the university to acknowledge discrimination against women in science. Garmus had already read it, to review it for The New York Times. “I was on a plane, and I was getting so exercised and so angry about how this woman was being treated, I was pounding on my tray. And then I thought, OK, you’re on a plane, stop doing that.” 

But Lessons in Chemistry’s message goes beyond the world of science, too. When she was writing, Garmus thought about her mother’s generation, the women that Betty Friedan had discussed in her trailblazing 1963 work The Feminine Mystique. “All these women with all this talent, and then they became housewives,” she says. “And there were a lot of frustrated housewives in my neighbourhood … where they were at home with 50 million kids running around. They didn’t have the opportunity [to do more] and they just weren’t taken seriously. I have to admit that even when my mom used to talk about her career as a nurse, I didn’t take it seriously. I’m ashamed to say that, but it’s true.” 

It sounds like Garmus’s mother, Mary, had shades of Elizabeth Zott in her. She eventually renewed her nursing license in her fifties and returned to work, “even though everybody else was 25, and she was [named] nurse of the year”. She also volunteered to work on the hospital’s Aids ward in the Eighties, when the stigma surrounding the disease was at a peak. “I realised my mom would have made a great doctor, but they never would have considered her for that sort of thing,” the author notes. “And she actually thought that she couldn’t do it, because that was always the message – that you [weren’t] capable.” 

Some people have called the book “the ultimate revenge novel”, with Elizabeth enjoying a success forged in the crucible of relentless knockbacks (like Garmus herself, whose 700-page first attempt at fiction was turned down by 98 agents). But the author reckons that’s too simplistic a view (although she does admit “there’s a part of me that hopes that karma is real”). “It’s not like sexism died in 1963. [Elizabeth] has not set the world to rights.”

And it’s important, Garmus adds, that we don’t become complacent about the progress women have made since Zott’s era – not least because recent events have shown it’s all too easy for that progress to be taken away. “In the United States, they managed to roll back Roe v Wade – that’s a basic human right,” she says. “So that’s really frightening.” When she speaks about present-day misogyny, I can feel the frustration sparking off her even through the computer screen. “The fact that you can still read about women surgeons being sexually assaulted in a surgical suite, or about [Laurence] Fox [who, a week before our conversation, had been taken off air after making misogynistic remarks about a female journalist] – these things are so ingrained and they need to be brought into the light, they need to be exposed,” she says. “[Biases against women] are not scientific, they have no basis in reality, but they are part of the culture. So it’s our culture that needs to be fixed. And women do have to keep speaking up – it’s so much tougher for women in other parts of the world, and for women of colour … They face a lot more uphill battles.” 

Publishing is an industry that often seems in thrall the youth; thanks to a steady stream of headlines swooning over twentysomething wunderkinds who have managed to land a six-figure deal fresh from university, it’s all too easy for aspiring writers to feel like they’re washed-up has-beens if they haven’t had a hit novel by 30. Having published her debut at 65, Garmus is something of an anomaly – but she says she was “so naive” to the fact that her age might become a talking point.

“I didn’t know that age would matter at all,” she explains. “I had no idea it would become this big thing because I have never, ever picked up a book and wanted to know how old the author is … I think there’s a lot of pressure on younger people that they have to succeed by a certain age. And it’s not true. It puts a lot of terrible pressure on someone. And I think actually, it prevents people from experimenting and breaking a bunch of rules because they think, ‘well, to break in [to the industry] I probably have to follow this formula.’ You don’t have to do that, you don’t have to have an MFA [in creative writing], in fact, a lot of MFA writing starts to sound alike … The more diversity, the better.” 

In fact, the self-knowledge that comes with age means that Garmus hasn’t been rattled by “difficult second novel” syndrome. “People keep saying to me, ‘Oh, you must be really afraid to write your next book. Because what if it isn’t as good?’ And I say, ‘I’m not afraid at all’,” she reveals. “But I could see how somebody who’s 28 would think, ‘Oh no, now I have to be better each time.’ Because they don’t have that confidence that comes with age, where you go: ‘I don’t really care what people think.’ When you’re older, you just say, ‘Oh, I’ve learned that I don’t have to care. Life will go on. People will like it, or they won’t like it, but I will live through it. And I will be fine.”

Bonnie Garmus is a judge for the 2023 Royal Society Trivedi Science Book Prize. The winner will be announced 22 November.

I have never, ever picked up a book and wanted to know how old the author was

Bonnie Garmus

Force of nature: Brie Larson plays Elizabeth Zott in ‘Lessons in Chemistry’

Bestseller: ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ has been read by millions around the world

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