Every woman has had an experience like it— or 50, author Bonnie Garmus ventures. It was 2013 and she was a creative director at an advertising agency in the Bay Area when she, the only woman in a pitch meeting for a major technology campaign, received no feedback for her presentation. Then, as she tells it, one of the vice presidents in the room, a man, essentially regurgitated everything she had just outlined and got full credit for the campaign.
“I put up a fight because I’m not exactly a shrinking violet,” she says. “And everyone ignored me. I basically stomped back to my desk. But you know what? It was a really great thing in a way because I was in such a bad mood, that instead of working on the deadline that I was supposed to be working on, I sat down that day, and I wrote the first chapter of ‘Lessons in Chemistry.’”
The book follows Elizabeth Zott, a gifted chemist-turned-reluctant TV cooking show sensation who is navigating life as a widowed mother while contending with a sexist 1950s establishment. The emotional thrust of the book didn’t need much research. But when it came to the science element, Garmus bought a book on eBay and taught herself basic chemistry from the ‘50s. “The fire department had to come twice for the amount of flames in my flat. So, I made some mistakes, but once I got into the chemistry, I was so glad I was forcing myself to do this because if I had not done it, I would have never realized chemistry rules us all,” she said.
Published in March 2022, a few days before she turned 65, “Lessons in Chemistry” is Garmus’ debut novel. It quickly became a bestseller, remaining on the New York Times bestsellers list more than a year after publication and has been translated into 40 languages. It’s a welcome and unexpected outcome for Garmus, who said the first book she finished and tried to get published was rejected 98 times.
On Oct. 13, the TV adaptation of “Lessons in Chemistry” will premiere on Apple TV+ and star Oscar winner Brie Larson, who is also an executive producer.
“When I started writing Elizabeth Zott, I was writing my role model,” Garmus says. “Because that day in the meeting where I was saying, ‘Hey, wait, those are my ideas! Hey, everybody!’ and no one was listening to me, and later when I started writing her, my constant theme in my head was, ‘What would Elizabeth Zott do? She was always a little more bold than I was. She doesn’t apologize for anything she says. So it’s great to be in her head.”
In a video call from London, where she lives with her husband and their dog, a greyhound named Ninety-Nine, Garmus spoke about having her work adapted for television, ceding control of the fictional world she created, and having Stanley Tucci create a cocktail for her.
Is it a surreal experience seeing something you wrote become a visual thing?
It’s so surreal. But you know, it’s less surreal in one important way, which is that because it’s not the novel, it’s an adaptation, I can look at it as a completely new thing. And that is so much better than saying “no, no, it has to be exactly like the book.”
Book adaptations are a fundamental part of the Hollywood content machine. Was that ever a goal? Is it something you hoped would happen?
I never imagined ever that this could happen. And when they asked me later on who I saw in the roles when I was writing it, I said no one because I never imagined it would get this far. What happened was the book started to get a lot of interest during the publishing auctions. I think we had 16 bids in the United States from publishers, and my agent, Felicity Blunt, called me and she said, “We’ve got to find a U.S. publisher; you’ve got to decide, but in the meantime, is this a bad time to tell you that I’m getting a lot of calls from Hollywood?” So, it was a shock. And then suddenly, she said, “You have a film agent now.” And I said, “I do?” There were like 38 different studios who were interested, and it was just very overwhelming. But I will say Brie Larson Zoomed with me and she said, “I want to be executive producer, and I want to bring this to life.” I have incredible amount of respect for her.
But for me, it was the writer who was going to be taking it on — Susannah Grant [“Unbelievable,” “Erin Brockovich”]. She is one of my heroes when it comes to screenplays and limited series. Her work is impeccable. And so having her writing the series, I felt like I could not have found a better person.
You sometimes hear of authors who are, with good reason, very protective and possessive of the work that they’ve created. And they want as much control as they can and want final say on the script. What did you want out of this experience?
Well, at first, I did want to be involved in the scripts. I did want to be one of the writers on it. This is how naive I was — my publishers all said, “You have no idea what’s about to hit you with book promotion. You’re not going to have time to brush your teeth, much less work on the script while your book is coming out. That’s impossible.” And at the time, I thought, I don’t know. I mean, how hard would it be? Well, they were 1,000% right — maybe 2,000% right. I’ve been on the road for a year and a half; I’ve had very few breaks. Now, I can’t imagine adding that on. Also, I didn’t have any experience taking something from a book, which, of course, the writer is just married to. You know as a writer that you’re going to have to let them bring their vision to it too. Because I created this world in my head, I know how everyone looks. and I know how everyone talks, but they’re doing the visual part of it. And you got to let them do it.
How would you describe your level of involvement in the season?
Oh, it’s really next to nothing. They’re very generous and I’m called a co-executive producer, but I did nothing. The only thing I did was — if I’m being really honest — I read the last scripts. Lee Eisenberg took over for Susannah Grant and Hannah Fidell because they were both off the project by then. He was very generous. And he said, “I’m going to send you these and please feel free to write notes. And please know our deal is that we can ignore your notes.” And I said, “You know what, I am fine with that. I get that. You’re taking it into a different direction, and I get it.” So that’s what we did. I wrote all over the scripts. Sometimes I go, “Oh, my God, no.” And other times, I’d say, “This is great.” But honestly, I knew as a creative person to another creative person: Let me let you do your work. Let me not get in your way. And so I think Lee and I had a really good relationship that way.
As with most adaptations, there is some rearranging to the story. There are some additions, there are some tweaks. Did you have any stipulations? Like, look, I know this is going to be an adaptation, and some things are gonna be different, but these are things that are really important that I would like to keep intact?
I wanted to keep everything intact. This is why I had to remove myself. I mean, this is where the novelist can get in everybody’s way. I’m used to being edited, I think it’s really nice just to say to another creative person, “You have a vision, let’s see what your vision is. Let’s see what you want to do.” Also, there are a lot of people. I’m used to working on my own. They have 9,000 people working on this. They have different motives, and they have different things that they’re trying to do. And I respect that.
Have you watched any of it? Does it still feel like it’s the world you created? Or does it feel totally different in your view?
Well, I just saw a rough cut. I will say Brie Larson really immersed herself in this role. And I really appreciate all the work that she put into that because when she walks out on that stage, when she’s just Elizabeth Zott at work, that’s who I saw. And it was really amazing for me to see that on the screen. It was like, “Wow, there she is.” It’s a different animal. And so I would say to any viewer, this is their rendition. It’s different from my vision, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not as good at all.
Because the series won’t come out for another month, it’s hard to get into specifics without spoiling for both readers and non-readers. But one thing I will say is I was curious about how they would work in Six-Thirty, which is the name of the Elizabeth’s dog in the book. You wove in his perspective throughout the novel. And the series did find a way to include that.
We all knew, no matter which studio I talked to, they all said, “Six-Thirty — that is the hard one.” And I knew it was going to be hard. It is so much easier to write that in a novel. I had the easy job there. So I really respected the fact that they wanted to keep it and that they weren’t going to have like the dog move his mouth or anything. Because Six-Thirty doesn’t talk, he only thinks. I think it was a really hard thing to pull off. And I’ll be interested to see how audiences feel about it. There are three characters of the fan favorites in the novel, and that is Harriet Sloane, Elizabeth Zott and Six-Thirty, and Mad coming in a close fourth. So with those four, I hear from people all the time, readers are like, “They better not change …” And I don’t know how I would have brought him on the screen. I think they did great with what they were trying to do.
Tell me more about your conversations with Brie before filming? And were you able to visit the set at all and see her bring Elizabeth to life?
I got to talk with Brie — there were no agents on that Zoom call. Brie has great empathy. And she’s able to bring that empathy to the screen. When I watched her face change, when she was reacting to different people, that’s when you see a great actress. I was really astonished and so happy to see how how seriously she took the role, and how she just kind of immersed herself in it. I really have a huge, huge amount of respect for her.
But, yes, I did go to the set, but unbelievably — so, I’d had all the COVID shots. I had a PCR test before I flew. I land in Hollywood, they do another PCR test, and it says I’m COVID positive. I couldn’t go to the set! I’m in the hotel room. And I’m just there for five days. And then after five days, my husband and I were changing flats in London, and I needed to come home and the CDC says you can leave after five days. So I had to fly myself home. I missed the whole thing.
What do you hope viewers will take away if they haven’t read your book? What do you hope viewers take away from Elizabeth’s journey?
I really hope that people see that men and women have always been exactly the same in so many important ways, including intellectually, but that keeping anybody out of science or any other career, based on their religious belief, based on their gender, based on the color of their skin, based on their age, all of it is wrong. And all of it, the most important thing is, is that [it] is completely unscientific. And that is why I put Elizabeth Zott into the science world because science knows that none of this flies in the science world, and yet it still reigns, this kind of sexism. And we need all the smart people we can get on all these problems that we have.
Do you think there’s more of Elizabeth Zott’s story to tell? Would you want to revisit her at some point?
I revisit her every day because I’m never going to get off this book promotion. I’m trying to write another novel. People keep asking me if I’m going to write a sequel and right now the answer is no because I started on this other story that I really like and I really feel like those characters are like “Me! Me! Me! Me!” Characters are really demanding. But I do think maybe down the road, I would tell a little bit more of what happens to her and what happens to Mad because it’s not like when it ends in the book, everything’s fixed now. Patriarchy! Obviously, we’ve seen the “Barbie” movie. We have a long way to go as women in this world. And I think we need constant reminders. And we need a guide.
Would you want to be more involved next time, if the time allowed? If you weren’t busy with book promotion?
Yeah, I would definitely want to be the lead writer. I’ll say, I’m pretty good about listening to other people’s input because it really does help. I would definitely want to work on it if I were to do this again. But I know my publisher is going to go, “Oh, what about the book promotion?”
As you mentioned, Felicity Blunt is your agent. She is also the sister of actor Emily Blunt and the wife of Stanley Tucci. Has Stanley ever made you a cocktail?
Yes, he has. He is the one, by the way, who developed the cocktail in the reader’s guide. I did not develop that cocktail. I’m not much of a mixologist. The only thing I do is drink wine. Felicity told me I had to have a cocktail for the reader’s guide, so I said OK. I made one up using the web. Then I sent it out. And I guess Stanley made it at home and went, “Oh, my God.” [contorts face] It was around 10 o’clock at night; Felicity called me, which I thought was kind of late to call. She said, “Bonnie, someone wants to talk to you about your cocktail.” And then she moved to the side and Stanley is standing there with these limes going, “It was bad.” He redid the entire cocktail for me in the next hour. He’s just the greatest. And so it is his cocktail, which I have called “The Cocktail for the Disenchanted Woman.” He was the one who saved it because apparently mine was treacle.
I’m sure you get asked a lot about what books you’re reading these days. But what TV show has had your attention recently?
I was a huge “Succession” fan. I loved the writing of that show. I drove my husband nuts. Every five minutes I’d pause and go, “The show is so well written.” It’s so out of the box, so unexpected. And I just loved the whole thing. I love Roman, of course. He is just hilarious, but all of them, honestly, are so good. I was sitting at a restaurant in Chicago and one of the actors walked in and I almost had a heart attack. I thought, “Oh, my God, get a hold of yourself.” And then I was in Dubai, and Brian Cox was there; we were both there for the literary festival. We were both standing together and they were trying to direct us where we were to go. And I said, “You know, you can’t swear here.” He was great. He probably thought I was crazy.