Bonnie Garmus joins Zibby to talk about her debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry, which has already been optioned for Apple TV by Brie Larson and is this month’s GMA Book Club pick. Bonnie shares how the process of selling this book differed drastically from her previous novel (which was rejected ninety-eight times), where she learned the chemistry included in the story, and what moment in her professional history inspired her to write the first chapter of this project. The two also chat about how cooking is a form of chemistry and what Bonnie is reading right now.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Bonnie. Thank you for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Lessons in Chemistry.

Bonnie Garmus: Thank you so much for having me, Zibby. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: I love it. Can you please tell everybody what Lessons in Chemistry is about? What inspired you to write it? By the way, if you’re listening, I would encourage everybody to check out Bonnie’s website, which I think is now my favorite author website that I’ve seen. I love it. I love the colors. I love the video. I love this retro theme. I’m kind of just obsessed with your overall branding of all of it.

Bonnie: That is so kind. My daughter designed the website, so I’ll pass that.

Zibby: No way. That’s great.

Bonnie: I know. I’m lucky. Lessons in Chemistry is a book about a woman named Elizabeth Zott. She’s a chemist in the late 50s, early 1960s. She gets fired from her research job because she’s pregnant, which you could not be at that time. She very reluctantly takes a job I think most people would love as a TV cooking show host, but Elizabeth doesn’t love it. Even though she’s supposed to be teaching cooking, what she does instead is she teaches chemistry. That is because cooking is chemistry. Naturally, this is not what her producers had in mind. There’s a lot of trouble with that, but the housewives at home eat it up. Eventually, everyone else does too because really, the show is not about cooking. It’s really about personal empowerment. I think that’s probably the best summary I can give of the book.

Zibby: I love it. Even Lyndon Johnson was eating it up, right?

Bonnie: That’s right.

Zibby: Fictiously. I love how it even came to be. Elizabeth was upset that her daughter, a precocious young reader, was losing weight because she wasn’t eating these carefully crafted meals she was making with the optimal nutrition from all of her intense intellectual research. Yet her daughter was losing weight. She went to confront the dad. This is not giving anything away. This is at the very beginning. Then the dad of the friend who was eating all the food, she confronts. He’s like, oh, how about I give you a show? If only it worked that way today.

Bonnie: I know. Exactly. It was super fun to write that scene especially.

Zibby: Elizabeth is just such a cool woman. She is a fabulous character who you develop so well. She’s obviously this strong, beautiful — the bright red lipstick. Her stature, it flies off the page like somebody you want to stand up straighter to be around.

Bonnie: Thank you.

Zibby: Tell me how you came up with her. Where did she come from? Where did this book come from? Maybe I should back up.

Bonnie: I’m always a little embarrassed to say this. The book came from a bad mood. I’d been in a meeting at work. I had been presenting some concepts. It was a room full of men. After I did it, there was a little bit of discussion, but really nothing. Then another man said exactly what I had just said, and everyone went, now that’s a great idea. This sort of thing, of course, still goes on. I came home. Well, I went back to my desk. Instead of working, I wrote the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry. I think I wrote Elizabeth because I wanted somebody who I could look up to. I really wanted somebody to personify this woman who would just go, no, no, no. That was her.

Zibby: Wow. Did it work? Did you feel better?

Bonnie: I felt better after I sold the book.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Wait, tell me about your career and writing in general. You were a copywriter at an agency. Was that your whole life?

Bonnie: No. I started out in publishing, actually, in scientific publishing. I was only there for four years or so. Then I moved on. I did a little bit of tech writing, but to be honest, I was terrible. My boss actually told me that my writing sounded sarcastic. I think he was right because I would write things like, and then you do this. Well, you know what to do. So that didn’t work out. Then I started doing copywriting. I didn’t actually work for any agencies. I probably worked for all agencies. I worked for, I don’t know, thirty of them, plus a lot of design firms. I kind of ended up specializing in technology and in medical technology and then also in education, so a lot of different clients. That was good for me.

Zibby: What were some of your favorite campaigns or something? Tell me something fun.

Bonnie: I wrote this campaign, actually, for Microsoft tons of years ago. It still has these legs to it. It was a recruiting campaign. They were really having trouble getting good people in because they were competing with every other technology company at that time. This is way back in the nineties. I wrote this campaign for them from this point of view of, what you do with your work really matters. What you do with your life really matters. It isn’t a question of coming into a software company and hopefully getting benefits or whatever. It’s really a point of pride. If you’re really going to be writing code for a billion people, you really need to do a good job. It was this voice that they loved. They said, that’s it. That’s it. For some reason, that campaign is still around. I still get updates from people. Oh, I just saw that. It’s so funny.

Zibby: Wow, that must feel good, for all the naysayers.

Bonnie: Exactly. I worked for a lot of people. You kind of got the idea I didn’t always love who I worked for, but I loved a lot of the projects I worked on. I loved the teams of people outside of these companies. That was great.

Zibby: Then all of a sudden, you become a novelist. You just got upset and wrote a chapter. Please tell me there was more to it than that.

Bonnie: Oh, yeah, there was.

Zibby: Otherwise, I’ll be very jealous. That sounds pretty amazing.

Bonnie: No, every copywriter is a novelist. We all want to be, of course. I did write another novel before this that was rejected ninety-eight times. You have to be really tough as a writer. You just have to take rejection. That’s the beauty of copywriting. You get rejected so often that you develop —

Zibby: — Is that why you named your dog ninety-nine? Is it?

Bonnie: No, no. Ninety-nine is actually named after a friend of mine. We grew up calling each other numbers. I named my dog after her.

Zibby: Okay, it was rejected ninety-eight times.

Bonnie: Yeah, ninety-eight times. You can’t really give up with writing. You have to just keep going, and so I started this other novel. This character had actually been in yet another novel, but as a minor character. I felt like that day, she was sitting there saying, tell my story, so I did. It was great for me to be able to just sit there and listen to what she had to say, which was a lot.

Zibby: Wow. Then how long did this whole process take you?

Bonnie: Forever. I keep forgetting how long this was. I think it really took me about five years to write the book. You know how it is. You know because you’ve got kids. You’re working full time. How do you do all of this stuff? I applaud women who — I don’t know how you’re doing it. You’re so busy. You’re able to do all of this stuff. You have a publishing company too. That is a lot. That is amazing. Good for you. It took me about five years. Then it takes a while. Once you sell it, then you have to go through the whole publishing process and all that. All told, seven years.

Zibby: How do you feel with it coming out?

Bonnie: I feel fantastic, both scared and fantastic. It’s just a dream come true for me, honestly. It really is.

Zibby: Congratulations. It’s so fun. It’s so great.

Bonnie: Thank you.

Zibby: What did you do while you were waiting for this to come out? Did you ever revive the other novel? Did you start a new novel?

Bonnie: I started a new novel, but the pre-publication promotion on this has been so intense that I haven’t — I shouldn’t even say this. I haven’t worked on that for four months now, maybe five. I’m really excited about that one too. I really love, already, the protagonist of that novel. I love some of the characters. I can feel them. I’m one of those people, I don’t write from an outline, but I can hear the characters talk to me. I just have to be around to listen to them.

Zibby: Are you one of those people who, you go on a walk and that’s when you hear all your voices or inspiration? Does it come throughout the day? Are you at your desk and then it comes through your fingertips?

Bonnie: Oh, I wish. You know what I do? It sounds very magical in a way, and it’s not. I picked up this technique from copywriting. I would have a problem in copy, which was frequent, trying to think of some sort of concept. I would go to bed and think about, I have to solve this problem, and then let my brain work on it. Then I’d wake up at three AM. I’d write down the solution. Then when I actually got up and looked at it, it would either be like, oh, my god, you’re a genius, or it would be, oh, my god, stop waking up at three. That’s what I do with my characters. Sometimes they appear to me and start talking. Everything sounds so much better in the dream than it does on paper. I do a lot of rewriting, a lot.

Zibby: That’s fun too, though. It can be fun sometimes. What was the selling process like for this book versus your last one? Were you scared going into it after the rejections, or did you feel much more confident? What was it like?

Bonnie: I didn’t have to sell it. That was the bizarre thing to me. We had been transferred here to London. I didn’t know anybody in London, so I was kind of lonely. I took this online writing course at Curtis Brown. It was just Write to the End of Your Novel. For me, of course, I don’t really expect it to teach me how to write, but I love the support of the other writers. I was on this online course. I did not write to the end of my novel, but I really liked the instructor, who was Anna Davis. I liked what she had to say. She’s just really sensible about writing. I can be very idiotic about writing. That was very helpful. Then I decided to try to get into their in-person writing group, which was just three months long, one night a week. I got into that because I wanted to meet people in London.

Suddenly, I was in this group of writers. It’s nice to be around writers. We all kind of have this personality of, I’m going to be rejected. Life is really hard. I love the sad sacks. Oh, great, we’re all in one room. It was a really great group of people. I still hadn’t finished my book, but I was getting closer. I was about two thirds of the way through. At the end of that course at Curtis Brown, they throw a little party for you. Some of the agents came. This woman, Felicity Blunt, came up to me. She said, “I love your book.” She signed me before it was done. It was a very, very happy story. Did not expect that. I have to tell you, I was so excited after she signed me even though it wasn’t done that on the way back from her office, I accidentally dialed the emergency number on my phone. My phone was in my pocket. I didn’t realize what I had done. There’s this, on the Apple phone, “call emergency.” I did. I didn’t know. Then suddenly, my phone was ringing. I thought, who is this? It just said “emergency.” Then it was an emergency operator saying, “Mam, is there an emergency? We’re calling you back.” I said, “I just got an agent.” She said, “Good for you. Have a nice day.”

Zibby: That’s really funny.

Bonnie: It was a good day. It was a good day except for that.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I just love it. Tell me about more of the chemistry/food/cooking side of the book and your own familiarity with all of that. Did you research any of that? Did you know about it? Do you love to cook? Tell me all about that.

Bonnie: I had to teach myself the chemistry. I’m not a scientist. I kind of liked doing it. I used a textbook from the 1950s. That turned out to be really smart to do but also frustrating because science marches on. I like to use a lot of metaphors in my writing. Occasionally, I would write a metaphor. I would explain what was happening chemically. Then I’d realize that one of the interactions had not been discovered until 1968, and I’d have to scrap it. I will say I learned basic chemistry. I’m definitely not a chemist. I did have two PhD chemists read it and make sure that it was right. In terms of cooking, this is also a little bit embarrassing. I’m not a great cook. I don’t even say I would like to cook, but I love people who cook well. I have so much respect for them. To me, it’s really an art. I know people who cook well. They say, oh, it was nothing. To me, it’s not nothing. They’ve done something that’s very creative but also extremely scientific. The great thing about cooking, which I don’t really think most people think about when they go into the kitchen — I think about this now every day. When you apply heat to something, you’re igniting a chemical interaction. Because of that chemical interaction, you’re breaking bonds. Then you’re creating new bonds. Then you put it on a plate. You put it on your table. You call that dinner. You have created something that no one else has ever created. You can follow a recipe if you want, but yours will always be a little bit different. That’s because your ingredients will be different. Your tastebuds will be different as you taste it. It’s always an experiment. You are always, always a chemist in the kitchen.

Zibby: I love that. My husband is an amazing cook. I talk about it all the time because I’m so grateful.

Bonnie: I know. Me too.

Zibby: I watch him do it. It tastes so good. He’s not even stressed out about it. I feel like when I try, I can follow a recipe because I’m a relatively intelligent person and I can read, but I can’t improvise. I always wished I could be one of those people who could just grab all the ingredients. What do I have? What am I going to make? No.

Bonnie: That’s me too. My husband, we trade off every other night cooking. That means every other night, we get a great meal. I always feel like, here you go. For me, I read a recipe. Then I start to put it in the oven. Then I read that last line that says “marinate overnight.” Oh, god. I never read it all the way through. Whatever. I just really have so much respect for people like your husband and like mine who can cook like that because that’s not me.

Zibby: Me too. What about the being on camera and doing a show? Is that something you’d ever wanted to do yourself, or no?

Bonnie: Never. Absolutely not. It’s so funny. You know how people say write what you know? I just never do that. I think part of that is from being a copywriter. You have to immerse yourself in a thousand different products and companies and people. You never write what you know. What I love is that exploration in writing and learning new things. No, I would never, never want to have a cooking show or be on television like that. I don’t think I could handle it too well.

Zibby: Someone was just telling me — who was that? — yesterday — this shows you how my mind is working these days — how they would never want to write memoir because that would just be like reliving what they already knew. Escaping into new worlds is what attracts them to writing.

Bonnie: That’s so interesting.

Zibby: Right? I thought that was interesting.

Bonnie: Yeah, that really kind of nails it for me, I think. That’s sort of how I look at it too.

Zibby: I feel like all of it is an escape. I feel like if you’re tapping into that interior voice, then you’re having a relationship with the computer, in a way, you and the page. Then you’re already out of whatever’s going on outside of this little ecosystem here. I’m pointing to my computer.

Bonnie: Exactly right.

Zibby: First of all, did you consider doing something like casting an Elizabeth and doing a sample show as some accompaniment to this? I know you have the trailer, which is amazing. It’s just so visual. I wanted to see an episode. I wanted to watch. What is she doing?

Bonnie: You will, definitely, because it’s being made into a series.

Zibby: There you go.

Bonnie: Brie Larson is starring as Elizabeth Zott. It will be an Apple TV series.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry I didn’t know that. I must have known that at some point. I am so sorry. Congratulations.

Bonnie: I sometimes don’t even believe those words when I say them out loud, so don’t worry. All the time, I feel like I need to wake up soon and realize I imagined this whole thing. They’re starting production. They’re starting to shoot in summer. It will be released next summer, hopefully.

Zibby: That’s so exciting. Were you a part of that? Did you get to adapt it? How involved were you?

Bonnie: I’m not involved too much. I talked with the main writer. When I first talked to all these production companies about them adapting this book, some of them wanted to make a movie. Some of them wanted to make an ongoing series and have Supper at Six at the center of each episode. I really saw it as a limited series, basically because of how the book ends. That’s how it’s been developed, which I feel really good about, eight episodes, each an hour long. Then Brie Larson asked for an exclusive read and then asked if she could be Elizabeth Zott, basically. She’s amazing. We had this really nice Zoom visit. I felt like we were getting engaged. It’s like, will you play my character? Okay. She’s just great. I feel extremely lucky. I’m going to go to the set this summer and watch some filming.

Zibby: Where are they going to shoot it?

Bonnie: I based the book in Southern California because that’s where I grew up. They’re shooting it there. That’s kind of nice for actors and people who live there. They don’t have to travel. They can go home for dinner. That’s where it’s being shot.

Zibby: My husband, he’s a producer. They just shot a movie in LA. It was great because we have a place there. He could just stay home and go to the set and then come back home at night.

Bonnie: Oh, that’s amazing. Can you say what movie it is?

Zibby: Yes. It’s called Wildflower. It’s really great. It’s a dark coming-of-age comedy about a girl raising her mentally disabled parents. It’s funny. It’s fabulous. It’s really fabulous.

Bonnie: That sounds wonderful.

Zibby: I saw a rough cut or whatever you want to call it, director’s cut. I don’t even know. Now they keep coming back with tiny tweaks. He’s like, “Watch this one.” I’m like, “I can’t even tell what’s different. Show me the end product.” I got to go to the set. It was really cool. I actually have a cameo in the movie as a science teacher, on brand for this book.

Bonnie: That’s great. Congratulations. How fun.

Zibby: It was fun. You’ll have such a blast. Wow, so cool.

Bonnie: I’m really looking forward to it. It’ll be fun. This whole thing has come to life like this. I would’ve never ever predicted it, ever. I’m much more like the — we call our writing group The Baby Seals because we’re used to be clubbed to death. It’s really interesting not to have that club, like, oh, this isn’t good, or whatever.

Zibby: How are the other people in the writing group doing?

Bonnie: We have a couple of people who are signed by agents. Two of the other people have books out.

Zibby: Exciting. Tell everybody to think about Zibby Books. Send us your books.

Bonnie: Of course, I will.

Zibby: Amazing. Just out of curiosity, what do you like to read? Do you like to read? I’m assuming you like to read. I shouldn’t.

Bonnie: I hate to read. No, I’m kidding. I love to read. I read all the time. When I’m writing fiction, though, I switch to nonfiction because I can’t enter somebody else’s world too closely. I will say, I finished this book by a fellow Transworld author here in London. I have it sitting right here. It’s called The Second Sight of Zachary Cloudesley. I think it’s brilliant. It’s coming out in June. That’s the ARC. It’s a cross between Dickens and Harry Potter and I don’t know. There’s this feminist character in it. It’s so good. I can see this one being — show this to your husband. It needs to be made into a movie. It’s really, really good.

Zibby: Awesome. That’s great. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Bonnie: Rewrite as much as you can stand because that’s where you’re really going to develop your voice. Look rejection in the eye. Just know it’s part of it. It’s part of the game. We all end up feeling kind of kicked around and beaten up at the end of the day, but it makes you so much stronger. Just don’t give up. I’m living proof. Do not give up.

Zibby: Bonnie, congratulations. I’m so excited for you. It’s just so great knowing now it’s a series. This is such fantastic news. It’s so well-written. It’s really exciting. That’s all.

Bonnie: I really appreciate this. I was so excited when they said, Zibby Owens wants to have you on her podcast. I’m like, oh, my god. You have a tremendous — I love your podcast, so I was so excited.

Zibby: Thank you. That means so much. Thank you.

Bonnie: I love the books and the color behind you. It’s so beautiful.

Zibby: Thank you. It goes all the way around the room.

Bonnie: It goes all the way around the room. So you actually sorted them by color?

Zibby: Mm-hmm. Sorry, I’ve told this story a lot. I had COVID about a year ago. After spending nine days in bed, I hadn’t seen anybody else. I came in here. I took every book out of these shelves and put them on the floor like I was in A Beautiful Mind or something. Then I started with one shelf. Actually, I started because — I used to have my books horizontal. My husband said, “You know –” I was starting to run out of room. He said, “You’d have a lot more room if you put them up vertically.” I was like, “No, I wouldn’t.” He’s like, “Try one shelf.” I did the one shelf. I grabbed all the white books. I was like, first of all, he was right, as he always is even though I fight it all the time. He was right. We fit more books. I thought, oh, why don’t I just mix and match? The next shelf, I’ll make this color. Then hours and hours and hours later, I was on a step stool. It was a whole production. It’s stayed sort of untouched over there this whole time.

Bonnie: It’s just beautiful. I love it. It’s such a clever idea. Now you know, sorting books by cover — I worked in a bookstore for a very short period of time. How many people come in and they go, I’m looking for this book. I don’t remember the author’s name. I don’t remember the title, but the cover’s green.

Zibby: That’s how I look for them. That’s just how my mind works.

Bonnie: It’s gorgeous. It’s very beautiful.

Zibby: If you’re ever in New York, come on over. We can have some coffee.

Bonnie: I’m going to be there in April.

Zibby: Great. I’ll be here.

Bonnie: That would be great. I’d love to meet you in person. Anyway, thank you so much.

Zibby: Thank you for coming. Best of luck. We’ll stay in touch.

Bonnie: Thank you, Zibby. Buh-bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



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