How former Seattleite Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel became a bestseller
Sun., Feb. 19, 2023
Bonnie Garmus, photographed in New York on Nov. 3, is the author of “Lessons in Chemistry,” about a chemist battling a sexist 1950s establishment. (FRANCES F. DENNY/New York Times)
“If I could have dreamed it,” said author Bonnie Garmus, “I wouldn’t have dreamed it quite this big.”
Speaking on the phone from her home in London, the 65-year-old former Seattleite is living a writer’s dream. Her acclaimed debut novel “Lessons in Chemistry,” published last spring, has spent 39 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list for hardcover fiction, as of the Feb. 19 list, and recently sold its 1 millionth copy in all formats. An Apple TV+ adaptation, starring Academy Award-winner Brie Larson, has been filmed and will likely air later this year.
Though she’s lived overseas for 12 years (due to a corporate transfer for her husband’s work), Garmus considers Seattle home; the couple still own their Madrona house and spend Christmases here with family. She’ll be back on Feb. 23 for a “Lessons in Chemistry” event at Seattle Public Library, presented with Third Place Books, in which she’ll chat with Nancy Pearl about her book’s remarkable journey.
Taking place in early 1960s California, “Lessons in Chemistry” focuses on Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant chemist frustrated by workplace sexism who unexpectedly finds herself hosting a cooking show. Though it’s Garmus’ publishing debut, it’s not her first novel: Garmus calls it “my 2.5.” Despite working full time as a copywriter and creative director, she wrote half a book in Seattle, years ago – “I knew it wasn’t going anywhere, so I stopped doing that” – and then another book while living in Switzerland. Determined to find a publisher for that book, a 700-page epic, Garmus submitted it to nearly a hundred agents. No. 98 was the first to write back, sending a “really harsh email” admonishing her for writing a book of such length.
“She said, ‘I love this voice, it’s really good, but who do you think you are to write a 700-page novel as a debut author?’ ” Garmus remembered. “I cried for about 10 days until I realized she probably had a point.”
A lifelong writer – she wrote her first book at age 5 – Garmus wasn’t about to give up, and soon a moment of frustration in the workplace provided unlikely inspiration. Years ago, she was in a meeting in the Bay Area, and encountered “outrageous sexism. I was so mad that day.” Elizabeth, a very minor character in Garmus’ unfinished first novel (“she was only three lines long”), popped into her head.
“She seemed to be saying, ‘I have a much worse story to tell than your bad day at work! It’s bad, your day is bad, but my day – my decade – was worse.” Right then and there, at her desk, Garmus wrote the first chapter of “Lessons in Chemistry.”
“I just thought, is this really how far we’ve come, after all these years? Is this it?” Garmus said. She wrote the book “wanting to reassure myself that we’ve moved forward in terms of equality.” A small child in the early 1960s, Garmus didn’t remember much of that time period, but thought of her own mother. “That had been her time period at home. Those women at home were always called ‘average’; it bothered me then, and it bothers me now.”
With some research into midcentury chemistry and cooking (and no, she never watched “Mad Men” – “I worked in advertising, I didn’t want to watch my work at night”), Garmus steadily worked on her book over the years. (The only character based on real life: Elizabeth’s wise dog Six-Thirty, inspired by her late and beloved rescue mutt Friday, who was “basically Einstein mixed with Gandhi.”)
Upon moving to London several years ago, she signed up for a writing course at the literary agency Curtis Brown – where what would become “Lessons in Chemistry” came to the attention of agent Felicity Blunt. “She came to talk to me specifically,” Garmus said, “and I was certain she had mixed me up with someone else. I kept waiting for her to tell me how much she liked my murder mystery.” Though the book wasn’t yet finished, Blunt signed on as her agent. “I guess that was the first miracle,” Garmus said, “and the others followed.”
From there, the good news kept piling up: Blunt took the book to the 2020 Frankfurt Book Fair, warning Garmus beforehand that quite possibly her quirky novel would meet with no success. “Felicity is a great agent because she never gets your hopes up,” Garmus said. But quite the opposite happened: The book was the hit of the fair, selling to Doubleday in the U.S. in a reported seven-figure deal, as well as to numerous other markets. (As of now, it has been published in 40 different languages.)
And other queries were coming in too – from Hollywood. “We ended up negotiating that in January, after the book had been picked up and signed in October. Before it was published it was already a done deal in Hollywood, which is shocking.”
Though Garmus had hoped to write the series herself, she was talked out of doing so by her agents, who explained that promoting the book would mean “more on my plate than I could possibly manage, and to write a series too would be impossible.” But she’s been reading and making notes on the scripts (by Lee Eisenberg, an Emmy nominee whose credits include “The Office”).
“I’m really excited about it. The series is very different from the book because it has to be – the book isn’t linear, the series has to reorder things and change things. It’ll be a different animal. As a writer you have to be willing, ready and able to walk away from it and just say, whatever happens, happens. You do have to give away your child and have someone else finish raising it. They’ve been wonderful and I’m sure it has the same spirit.” Though an air date hasn’t been officially announced, Garmus expects it will premiere in the fall.
Busy with promotion on the book, she’s nonetheless at work on her next novel. And, as an “overnight success” in her 60s, she’s happy to be considered a role model. “I think it is really funny in our society, we think there’s a certain age you have to do things by, and accomplish things by,” she said. “It’s simply not true unless you are an athlete or perhaps a major runway model. But the rest of us can really do anything we want, at any age.
“I was just at an event where all of us sitting up on stage were in our late 50s or 60s, and we had all of us just published, three of them to great acclaim. All the people in the audience were young, and I’ve learned this, it’s such a relief to them to know that you don’t have to be in ‘30 under 30.’ You can take your time.”
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