13 Apr 2024

Bonnie Garmus: how a bad day at the office sparked a glittering new career

From Saturday Morning, 9:05 am on 13 April 2024
Bonnie Garmus

Bonnie Garmus Photo: Supplied

Bonnie Garmus had been a successful advertising creative for decades when she started writing the worldwide bestseller Lessons in Chemistry. 

That day, Garmus says a surge of anger about sexism overrode the rejection she'd felt when her previous book "didn't go anywhere".

"For other writers, you should always realise that when you are filled with passion or anger - whatever shape the passion takes - it might be a good time to write it down," she tells Susie Ferguson.

Bonnie Garmus is appearing at the Auckland Writer's Festival next month.

On this particular day, Garmus did something she'd done hundreds of times before - present her ideas for a new ad campaign.

In a meeting at a big technology company, Garmus was the only woman. When she finished her presentation, the room was silent.

"I asked, 'Well, you know, are there questions? Does anyone have comments?' And there was nothing.

"Then a few minutes later, a man in the room said 'I have completely different ideas. I don't think we should do that at all. This is what I think we should do…' Then he proceeded to read my PowerPoint slide, which was still up by the way, and he claimed all of the ideas as his own.

"I protested and not a single person in that room stood up for me, not a single person who I worked with for over 10 years said 'You know, she just said that', and I was pretty upset.

"When I went back to my desk that day instead of working on what I was supposed to be working on, I sat down and I wrote the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry."

Despite what's been written, 'rage' isn't a word Garmus has used to describe the state she was in that day.

'Rage' is an "unfair word" usually applied only to women, she says, and, in this case inaccurate.

"I was mad and I had a right to be mad. I wasn't, you know, out of control. I was angry for a very good reason.

"That day as I left that meeting, I thought 'All right, how many other women in the world just had the day I had?' I certainly faced misogyny and sexism in my career, endless times. But that day in particular, I thought 'this is it'. I think that that is a really strong place to write from."

Garmus says she made her central character Elizabeth Zott a chemist so she could also be a 1950s TV star. 

"In order for a woman to be on television at that time, she either had to be one of those sort of adjunct women who would say here's what's behind door number two or she could teach something that was home-related."

Learning "old chemistry" in order to write the book was a real "mountain to climb", Garmus says, because we now know so much more.

"We don't quite realise sometimes the periodic table keeps evolving. We keep finding new elements and we keep learning more and more about our Earth and how it was created and how it works. Chemistry is called the central science for a reason. It touches every other science and it is kind of the 'mother science' they call it.

"Learning old science is quite hard because you can't google it and accurate new science will always seep into it. I had to learn old science from an old textbook and that was a challenge. Chemistry itself is a challenge."

Cooking is 100 percent chemistry, she says, and 1950s and 1960s home cooks were actually very high-level chemists.

"Anybody who cooks well is an extremely good chemist, whether they know it or not, because they are creating interactions and creating new dishes based on those interactions. And it's not easy."

Lessons in Chemistry. Book cover.

Lessons in Chemistry. Book cover. Photo: Penguin Random House NZ

Garmus set Lessons in Chemistry in this period because at that time, she was trying - unsuccessfully - to "reassure" herself about the progress of women in the decades since.

"Women are still paid less. They're treated differently. And all of this is completely unscientific because there's nothing wrong with a woman's brain. We have never been incapable. We have never ever in our lives been less, but we've always been treated as less.

"I think we still have quite a ways to go and we need to be quite vocal about that."

Chemistry is the science of balance, Garmus says, and sexism, racism and ageism indicate a societal imbalance.

"All of these things are completely... well, they're inaccurate. They're a sign of scientific ignorance.

"And so I personally think that if we were all a little bit more educated in science and children were taught genetics and chemistry at a very young age, many of these things would start to fade away, because children would be raised knowing that these things don't actually exist. They're things we've made up."

Garmus loves that Lessons in Chemistry is required reading in some boys' schools now.

"One kid said [the book] had kind of opened his eyes and he realised 'Oh, there is a pattern of treating women differently. He said 'I'm in a chemistry class and to be honest, me and my friends have always thought that girls weren't good enough to do chemistry'.

"He said 'I went home and I realised, Oh my gosh, my mom's a doctor. She did chemistry. What am I thinking?'

"Now is the time to teach boys that sexism needs to go away right now. When they're 20 it's too late, 30 way too late."

Six-Thirty - the dog in Lessons in Chemistry - is the only character in the book based on real life, Garmus says, and inspired by her late rescue dog Friday who was "a cross between Einstein and Gandhi".

"This was a dog that had been extremely badly abused by another human. And the fact that she gave us humans another chance doesn't mean that she was weak. It means that she was strong and that she saw potential I think in the human race. She knew a lot of words. We did not teach her those words. She taught herself the words by watching our mouths and listening to our conversations and then constantly demonstrating to us what she knew. When we were transferred abroad to Switzerland she learned German. I mean, dogs are really smart.

"We, as humans, absolutely must stop believing that these animals that share the earth with us are somehow less than us. Every single animal on this earth processes information and makes decisions. We are not the only animal who does that. And so I really wanted to bring that point across that the animal kingdom - the rest of it - has an opinion about us and how we act. We're the only species on the Earth destroying the Earth, the others aren't doing it.

"And we also don't seem to remember that we always measure intelligence in terms of human intelligence. That is not the only kind of intelligence out there. So it's really important ... to remember that all these other species have abilities and skills that we will never ever have."

Garmus says she had prepared herself to see quite a different version of her story in the 2023 TV drama Lessons in Chemistry.

"When you do hand your book over to Hollywood, it hurts, it's hard, but that's what you do ... They have a different medium. And so they want to take it in different directions. They want to do different things."

She was given the opportunity to give notes on the scripts before filming began but says her suggestions were not taken up.

"I thought the script was going too far in the direction of romance and less in the direction of feminism. It seems like those were sort of getting watered down in a way that was more ... I don't know, palatable to the American diet.

"It just seemed like she wasn't going to be as fierce and as sure of who she was."

Some people really like the Lessons in Chemistry TV series, she says, and some people absolutely hate it. Scientists have been disappointed because, unlike in the book, a lot of the scientific information isn't quite correct.

"Hollywood takes liberties, and sometimes they have to move a story forward in the way they see fit. I'm not going to sit here and say 'Well, I just think they did a horrible job'. I don't think that, I just think that they did a different job. It's not the character I created, but they wanted to create something else and you have to let them do that. That is other creative people putting their spin on it."

Garmus is surprised such a big deal is made of the fact she was in her early 60s when Lessons in Chemistry was published but is happy it's giving others hope that creativity can be a long game.

"The people I hear most from about my age are young people, young people who have already given up in their 20s because they haven't accomplished what they think they have to accomplish by a certain age. They seem grateful to hear that life goes on and that life doesn't end, that there's no timeline.

"You determine your timeline, not someone else."