By Sharon Seitz
In “Lessons in Chemistry,” Elizabeth Zott is a brilliant young chemist and single parent who comes up against sexism and abuse in academia and the workplace in the 1950s and 1960s. After losing her science job, Zott reluctantly hosts a cooking show called “Supper at Six.” But rather than present as a perky, pretty hostess, Zott rattles the network and goes off script, teaching the chemistry of cooking and empowering her mostly female audience to view themselves differently.
When Bonnie Garmus, 64, began her novel debut, she didn’t imagine it would make the New York Times spring reading list or be optioned for an Apple TV+ series starring Academy Award winner Brie Larson. Garmus, who grew up in Riverside before moving to Bogotá, Colombia at 13, just needed to channel her inner Zott de ella during a strategy meeting at a technology company where Garmus’s ideas de ella were met with silence by the male attendees.
“Then suddenly, a few minutes later a man said, “Well, I have an idea,” recalls Garmus, who has worked as a copywriter and creative director. “And he presented everything I had just said. And no one said anything. I just thought, “How many more times will this happen in my lifetime?”
In a recent video interview, Garmus explained that Zott had been a minor character in another book she had shelved. “But sitting there that day, I really felt like she was there saying, “You know, here’s what I would have said. Here’s what I would have done.” So I went back to my desk and wrote the first chapter of “Lessons in Chemistry.”
While the novel focuses on serious themes of misogyny, feminism, family, and self-worth, it never gets didactic. The characters are rich and original, the story sarcastic and humorous, and the novel with all its twists and turns, difficult to put down. Zott is aloof and amazing, rational and revolutionary. Like Garmus, you may even find yourself channeling Elizabeth, asking “Now what would Elizabeth Zott do?”
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q. You chose that time period as a tribute to stay-at-home moms like your mother, whose opportunities were limited and whose work in the home went unappreciated. Would the story be dramatically different set in the 1980s, the 2000s, or even today?
I should say that I think my mom’s work was appreciated by my dad. She had been a nurse and really missed it. But I don’t think anyone really took housewives that seriously. When I researched that time in history, I thought things had really improved. But I’ve gotten so many messages from women scientists saying to me, “I have some bad news on the science front. This is exactly how it is in my lab today. It’s still going on.”
Q. Elizabeth persists despite not being taken seriously by the scientific community, retaining her composure and remaining determined throughout.
I wanted to create someone who I wish I was more like. I’m a little bit more of the hard simmer, quick-to-boil person. I can be quite impatient. And so I had to make her more composed than me. She is so rational, so scientific. For her, getting angry about little things wouldn’t be the way to get what she wants. She would look to the end and figure out what she needed to do to get there. She just is not super reactive, like her I am.
Q. I admire her dynamism, independence, commitment, and fortitude. But sometimes she can be detached, rude, and arrogant. How important was it that Elizabeth be complicated and balanced?
The best characters are always flawed. She’s odd because she’s had an odd background. She kind of raised herself and taught herself everything. She’s friendless. She doesn’t know how to fit in with people. She’s really awkward. And the reason why I have so many other characters with so many different points of view was because I wanted their reactions from her to her from her to show us all of her dimensions from her.
Q. We even hear the inner thoughts of Elizabeth’s dog, Six-Thirty, and can often agree with his discerning points of view. Why make a dog such an insightful character?
One of the book’s themes is underestimation. Elizabeth is underestimated, but she never underestimates anyone else, including a dog. That’s part of the reason why I like her. There’s so much we don’t know, and I think that we judge everything by human definitions of intelligence. I wanted Six-Thirty to be this wiser character, but also be a bit of an anthropologist. So, you know, he’s looking at you going, “You know, these people, I love them. They mean well, but they don’t make a lot of sense.” That’s why I wanted him to just be a thinking dog.
Q. You yourself have a numerically named dog, 99. Is this a coincidence?
Six-Thirty is actually based on a dog I’ve had, but her name was Friday. She was a shelter animal who had been very badly abused. I really didn’t want to adopt this dog. And then she turned out to be this kind of brilliant dog who picked up a lot of language. We taught her commands from her, like sit and stay. But she would learn words we were using in conversation. I have a habit of saying, “I don’t know where my keys are.” And after a while, Friday would just look in all the usual places as if saying, “They’re right here.” She was just incredible.
And 99 comes from the show “Get Smart,” a TV show from the Sixties, When I was growing up in Southern California, I had a best friend and we spent all of our time together. We called each other 86 and 99. And we continued to do that our entire lives. She died 10 years ago in a tragic accident. I named my dog 99 for my friend.
Q. On her cooking show, Elizabeth dutifully teaches her mostly female audience how to cook quick, healthy meals but also goes rogue explaining the chemistry behind cooking. What were you trying to illustrate?
I wanted these women to say to themselves, “This woman thinks I can understand this. This woman thinks I’m capable. So I’m either going to pretend I know, or I’m going to learn.” And I think that was Elizabeth’s secret from her – she does n’t underestimate anybody. She imbues her audience with this feeling of capability and seriousness that they’re not getting from any other part of their lives.
Q. Aside from its feminist theme, the novel is also about finding one’s family. What does family mean in this novel and how important is it to Elizabeth?
Creating your own family was really important for me to get across in the book. I have two adopted children. I’ve always kind of struggled with people who say, “Oh, couldn’t you have some of your own?” That always rubs me the wrong way. And I always say, “You know, they are my own.” Just because you’re born into a family, doesn’t mean that that family fits you. And Elizabeth had a terrible family and it is very hard for her to connect with people. But she slowly builds a family, people who support her and she supports them.
Q. You shelved your first attempt at a novel, and also wrote a novel that was too long and rejected. How were you able to persist in the face of these struggles?
Elizabeth made me do it. Honestly, I thought, “I can’t write a character, I can’t finish it.” But I just had to finish it for her. She would have been disappointed in me and I really wanted to believe in the words that I was writing.
Q. If you had to add up Elizabeth Zott in three words, what would they be?
Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.