Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry, was published in March 2022 – a few days before she turned 65. But it was not the first book she wrote. Another book featuring the same protagonist, Elizabeth Zott, was “going nowhere” and another 700-page novel was turned down because “no one wants to read” so many pages from a debut author.

Garmus too persisted with her attempts to write a novel until it was finally published last year by Penguin Random House. An instant bestseller, Garmus won the 2022 Goodreads Choice Best Debut Novel Award with more than 64,000 votes. In August 2022, Apple TV+ announced that a new drama series based on the book starring and produced by Academy Award winner Brie Larson will make its global debut in 2023. For a late starter, Garmus says it is “impossible to get so lucky.”

But what is this book about? It the late 1950s and early 1960s, chemist Elizabeth Zott’s all-male team at Hastings Research Institute takes a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans; the lonely, brilliant, Nobel-prize nominated scientist who falls in love with her. But like science, life doesn’t always follow a straight line. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth’s unusual approach to cooking (“combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride”) proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. That’s because Elizabeth Zott isn’t just teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo.

Garmus spoke to Scroll about how women’s lives have changed over the decades and how it can be made better, the importance of female friendships, what writing the book taught her about grief and chemistry, and why her beloved pet dog is named Ninety-Nine. Excerpts from the conversation:

The book starts in 1961 and goes back and forth in time. Why did you pick this as the starting point?
The book goes on till 1962, so we start almost at the end. I wanted the reader to know how we got to this point in the story. So the book starts with a very depressed Elizabeth Zott, who is the main character, and hopefully, the reader’s interest is piqued enough in the first chapter to make them ask why she feels the way she does.

Early in the book, we read about Elizabeth getting sexually assaulted at her workplace. Not a lot has changed since then but unlike many women, Elizabeth is offered a way to restart her career…
Well, in the case of Elizabeth Zott, I don’t think she was actually thinking of it as a second chance. She was grabbing every opportunity that came her way – it was a different time and she insists on keeping the first chance and making the most of it. She defies what society says women should be like and the “normal” ideas that are presented to us about women and other people around the world – she rejects them on the basis of science. She rules her life with logic and rationality. What she says instead is, No, I will not put up with anything that is irrational or illogical and dictates what I can or cannot be. And she makes other women around her realise the same about themselves.

Many reviews have said Lessons in Chemistry is a funny book – that it offers many laughs. Although when I was reading it, I realised how much of it is rooted in grief. Elizabeth’s and Calvin’s childhoods, what happens later in their lives…What I also realised is even though grief is devastating, it still propels life forward. What role did you want grief to play in your book?
There will never be a person who will not experience grief in their life. I certainly have and so have you. It is a normal emotion and yet it is so difficult to live with. I think what I am trying to show with Elizabeth Zott is that, like her, all of us are survivors. She endured some really difficult phases and unfortunately, at some point, all of us will have to go through something similar. How do you make the days go by? How do you do it? I was really interested to see how Elizabeth would and how it would affect her for the rest of her life. In some ways, the grief – as tough as it was – made her stronger.

The gynaecologist Dr Mason says babies are “Nero”, “King Ludwig”, “tiny tyrant”, and “time bombs.” Elizabeth says raising a baby is “the most unscientific experiment of all time.” We read about women in the 1960s talking about abortions, childcare, and having children out of wedlock. I am reading the book in 2023 and abortions are still as controversial. Quality childcare remains a distant social dream. I found this parallel discourse of motherhood quite interesting. Was it always the idea to write about the not-so-rosy bits of caring for children?
Yes! Yes, it was a very conscious decision. I really wanted to contrast the time period of the late 1950s and early 1960s to now because I wanted to prove to myself that things had changed and they have changed but it’s not enough! Women all over the world are still fighting for the right to control their own bodies. Own bodies! Which to me feels quite backward. I mean, if men could get pregnant then we’d see a different attitude about pregnancy and what it takes to raise a child! Not every child enters the world loved, which is a big problem, and not all children will enter with a safe, loving home to live in, which is another huge problem.

I constructed the two time frames very carefully because I hoped readers would see that we have not come as far as we think we have. Some things have changed for the better, sure, but so much work remains to be done. I get correspondence from people all over the world saying how things haven’t changed nearly enough. You see this contrast very sharply in the book.

What I really like about books with female protagonists written by women authors is the special care with which female friendships are portrayed. Elizabeth’s friendships with Harriett or Ms Frask – and later the kinship with her audience – are quite unusual. What did you enjoy the most about writing about the other two women and their relationship with Elizabeth?
Women are treated as a minority, therefore it is all the more crucial that women support each other. This needs to be done throughout our lives and for women of all ages. What I wanted to show with the older neighbour Harriett was that she had the wisdom to offer what one acquires with age – she has certain knowledge that she is passing on to Elizabeth. And that is what women do…they share experiences, they advice, they pass things on. Ms Frask, on the other hand, was actually sexist – you will agree that women can be sexist as well and sometimes they perpetuate myths about female incapability without even realising it. I wanted to write about both to show that if one woman puts other women down then she is putting all women down. They are not helping us, or themselves, move forward. But of course, later Ms Frask has a change of heart.

“The homemaker is operating at an insane level of hyperproductivity.” This is true across cultures. You have noticed this in America and I, in India. Elizabeth at the end of each episode says “Children set the table – your mother needs a moment to herself.” Rest is an oft-neglected radical feminist idea but you persisted with it till the very end.
My big idea was that Elizabeth Zott would be so interesting on television that even children would watch her. I pictured the scene like this, the mother is watching Elizabeth on the TV and the child wanders in…they are so captivated by what they are seeing that they sit with their mother to watch the show. So think of Elizabeth as actually giving lessons to those children, the future generation, by basically saying, “Children set the table…” She is passing on the idea that the mother is worthy and she is deserving of respect and she is doing something really, really important for the family. Especially, at that time, children were raised to believe that father went out into the world to do important things while mother was just at home. She was just cooking, cleaning, and slaving away. This was not seen as worthy work but that is not true! I wanted Elizabeth to start transforming a new generation and she is not even actively doing it but that one dialogue at the end of every episode is actually quite powerful.

Another thing that struck me was the dialogue between religion and science. And more importantly, how chemistry can be a catalyst of female emancipation. In a way, this idea is very fundamental to Lessons in Chemistry. At what point in your life did this realisation strike you?
I had to study chemistry in order to write the book and it was a little more difficult than I thought it would be. The most important concept I came away with, that I hadn’t realised until now, was we are actually ruled by the laws of chemistry. The rules that we create as people are superficial and temporary. Chemistry pretty much determines our everyday lives – our attitudes, our emotions, everything around us is made up of atoms and molecules…including ourselves. The idea that someone’s atoms and molecules are not as good as yours is false. It really is that simple.

You wrote your debut novel in your sixties. How long has the book been in the making?
The book took me about five years to write. But I have been writing for a long time – I’m a copywriter by trade. My job requires me to write all the time. I started writing another book that had Elizabeth Zott in it but it was going nowhere! Then I wrote another book which was too long – nearly 700 pages – and everyone told me no one wants to read a 700-page novel by a debut author. Never go down that road! That was a huge waste of time but, in retrospect, not really since it gave me more practice writing a novel. Lessons in Chemistry, to tell you the truth, was inspired by a bad day at work. At least the first chapter. I tend to write about things that I’m passionate about, including things that irritate me so that day it was the irritation that became the inspiration.

We know why Six-Thirty is named so. What about your dog Ninety-Nine?
Poor Ninety-Nine is so jealous of Six-Thirty! Ninety-Nine came after Six-Thirty but she is the face of Six-Thirty on Instagram. She is actually named after a friend of mine. When I was growing up, I had a best friend and she and I called each other Eighty-Six and Ninety-Nine our entire lives. It’s from an old TV show called Get Smart and it just caught our fancy. But anyway, she unfortunately died. It was really tragic for me and when we got a new dog, we named her Ninety-Nine in honour of my friend.

How does it feel to have Brie Larson, an Academy Award winning-actor, play Elizabeth Zott?
It has been an unbelievable journey. It is impossible to get this lucky. Brie Larson is an incredible actor and I have seen a few stills from the show. She has really nailed Elizabeth Zott. I think people will be very happy watching her play this character. She is very powerful on the screen and extremely good at switching emotions. I am so lucky that she wanted to play Elizabeth Zott.

Bonnie Garmus and her pet dog Ninety-Nine.