Bonnie Garmus: “I was the queen of rejection”
Most aspiring authors would give up the will to write after 98 rejections, but not BONNIE GARMUS. The first novelist tells Lynn Barber on the female rage that led her to write Chemistry class and the rescue dog who became one of the book’s most beloved characters. PHOTOS: ANNIE BUNDFUSS
These days, it’s pretty amazing for a 64-year-old woman to see her first novel published, let alone in 35 countries. Especially if the woman is a privileged white American with no tragic story to tell. But then Bonnie Garmus Lessons in Chemistry is quite an amazing book. It has sold over 75,000 copies in the UK since its release eight weeks ago and was number two in The Sunday Times list of bestsellers. I can’t remember being so excited about a first novel since Donna Tartt’s. The secret story almost 30 years ago. Which, by the way, says Garmus, is also one of his favorite books.
But, given that she’s obviously a born writer, I wondered how she could bear to wait so long. So I went to meet her at a photographer’s studio in West London where she was examining clothes racks for her shoot. She is tall, slim, athletic, in jeans and sneakers.
She is also friendly, which is a big surprise. Elizabeth Zott, the protagonist of her novel, is never friendly: she is difficult, picky and suspicious of strangers, especially journalists. Of course, she is fictional and Zott, I quickly realize, is not a self-portrait.
She’s a chemist who, strapped for cash, is forced to host a daytime cooking TV show. However, she presents her cooking as a lesson in chemistry – “combine a tablespoon of acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride” – and, surprisingly enough, her audience swallows it. But her real message is about empowering women.
The novel is set in 1961 “when women wore shirt dresses and joined garden clubs and drove legions of children in cars without seatbelts without thinking twice” and when, above all, they were supposed to to be full time housewives, cooking, cleaning and caring for their beloved children while my husband was away on his important job.
Garmus wrote her novel then because it was when her mother was a full-time housewife in California caring for her four daughters (Bonnie is the youngest) and she realized how his mother must have felt frustrated. She had been a nurse before the wedding and would return to it later, but as Garmus grew up, she was stuck in housewife mode.
Putting the book together then made it much more difficult for Garmus to get the chemistry right – there was no point googling it as it would include developments unheard of in 1961. So she did her research by reading chemistry textbooks from the years 1950, then asking two scientific friends to verify this. She knows a bit about the subject, having worked for a science editor after college, then being a writer specializing in technology, medicine and education. But his original degree was in English Literature, so why did did it take him so long to write his first novel?
In fact, she says Chemistry class was not his first; she wrote another novel several years ago and sent it to 98 agents who all rejected it. “The problem was that it was very long, and an agent said you didn’t have to write 700 pages as a newbie author.”
So, rejected, discouraged, she continued her day job as a freelance copywriter in Zürich, writing speeches, campaigns, video scripts and presentations for her mostly male clients. One day, in a meeting with a group of men, she offered her ideas and, “Everyone ignored me. Then one man repeated the ideas and everyone said, “Wow!” And it had happened many times before, and it was just one too many times, so I thought, “Damn it” and I went home and wrote the first chapter of Course.’ So she started from a position of feminist rage? ‘Exactly.’
She was about two-thirds of the way there Course when she developed terrible writer’s block. She and her husband had moved from Seattle, Washington (where they still have a home) to Switzerland and then to London, and “I was a bit depressed because we had moved again and I didn’t know anyone in London. “. . Then one of my daughters [she has two] sent me a link to [literary agency] Curtis Brown, who has writing lessons, and said, “You should take one of his classes and finish your goddamn novel, mom.” And it was very helpful and got me out of the rut. Then I took an evening class, which was great because I wanted to meet other writers. We have all become friends and keep in touch. When Felicity Blunt [Curtis Brown agent married to actor Stanley Tucci] saw my work, she signed me.
Blunt sent the book to publishers and it ended in a 16-way auction. ‘No one was more surprised than me – I was the queen of rejection. Two nights before the auction, Felicity said, “You know I like your book but I have no idea what it’s going to do, so don’t get your hopes up.” Then she called me after the auction, saying, ‘OK, delete that, all these publishers are listed now.’
Apple TV has also signed on to do a TV drama, starring Brie Larson as Zott, which will be released next year. Garmus hasn’t seen the scripts yet but tells me, “They’ve said a number of times that they want to stay true to the book, so hopefully it turns out okay.”
His only contribution was to send them photos of lurchers to help them cast one of the protagonists, Six-Thirty, a dog and the book’s only character, Garmus says, pulled from life. “She was based on a rescue dog called Friday that we had in Seattle who was really smart, always listening. It was obvious that she had retained the words. When we went to Switzerland she did an obedience test and got 100% even though it was in German!
Friday died in Zurich a few years later aged 17, and when the couple moved to London in 2017 for her husband’s job, they adopted a retired greyhound named 99 (below).
Despite all his years spent abroad, Garmus still considers Seattle his home. “We really loved this place, but we like to go back.” She’s waiting to get her new UK visa under the ‘exceptional promise’ category, which is pretty good for the 65-year-old (her birthday came just days after her novel was published).
All those publishing deals mean she’s bound to make a lot of money, but it won’t change her life because “My husband and I believe that if you have money you should give back, so we have tendency to give a lot”. “I think we sometimes overdid it!
Her husband used to work for Google but now runs his own business and the couple mainly donate to climate change research. Garmus also donates money to the homeless and worked at a soup kitchen in Tottenham Court Road in London. “I’ve always really enjoyed working with homeless people because there’s a lot of stigma around it, but sometimes the reasons for being homeless are really tiny.”
One thing Garmus shares with Zott is a passion for rowing. She was set to join a rowing club when lockdown hit but hopes to do so when her book tour is over. She still uses an erg (ergometer, rower) five days a week. ‘I’m kind of to hate erging – most rowers do – but I guess I’m addicted to it.
She also enjoys swimming all year round, which she does in Hampstead Ponds in North London. “The first time I went there I took my wetsuit but they said, ‘We don’t wear wetsuits here. And I said, “But it’s cold!” But then I really enjoyed it. When we lived in Switzerland, I swam across Lake Zurich every morning, but it was in wetsuit.
Zott is fiercely anti-religious. Is she? “I am a humanist. I’m a huge Richard Dawkins fan. I grew up in the church, my parents were very active members, but when I was eight I started to question that. I was a big reader and didn’t think Bible stories were very good compared to Greek, Norse, or Native American myths. We lived near a Navaho reservation and loved some of their culture. I remember thinking that Bible stories were very anti-woman.
She is keen to encourage girls to go into science, technology, engineering and medicine because “these are the highest paying jobs in the world and they have the most impact on our lives, but they are not yet than 30% of women”. But her own daughters, now in their twenties, have taken a different path: one is a designer/illustrator, the other works for a University of Michigan think tank called Poverty Solutions.
So she didn’t push them into science? ‘Nope. I am not a scientist. My husband was, he was an astrophysicist, my father was, he was an entomologist – and my mother was what I consider a scientist, which is a nurse. She went back to nursing after the kids grew up and I was really proud of her because that was when AIDS was getting huge and no one in the hospital wanted to work with AIDS patients , but my mom volunteered for it. And one day I went to get her and found her holding a young man’s hand in bed, and he was blind and covered in sores. There were other young men in the ward and I kind of stood in the doorway and said, “Oh, I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I came to get you, Mom. . And I’ll always remember what he said — “I know it’s your mom, but now it’s all our moms too” — because most of their families had dumped them. It brought tears to my eyes. Mine too.
Garmus is already writing her next novel, although she is currently interrupted by publicity for this one – she will then travel to Germany and then to the Hay Festival. She is now what she always dreamed of being: a full-time author. It took her a long time to get there but, like rowing, like swimming, she believes in perseverance.
Exit Rooney Where Etienne King? Sally Rooney
UK or USA? I like both. I love the English countryside and your NHS
John lewis or Ikea? john lewis
Mojito Where mint tea? Mojito
Cake Where cheese? Both! i am a good eater
Radio 2 Where Radio 4? I like Women Hour but i was just on radio 2 so i love them both
Netflix or party? Evening – I to like theater
Cat Where dog? Oh, dog, of course
Course in Chemistry by bonny Garmus is published by Doubleday, £14.99*
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*TO ORDER A COPY FOR £12.74 UNTIL JUNE 13 GO TO MAILSHOP.CO.UK/BOOKS OR CALL 020 3176 2937. FREE UK DELIVERY ON ORDERS OVER £20