Poured Over: Bonnie Garmus on Lessons in Chemistry
“And I think it’s just overall her humanity and her recognition of what other people could accomplish. If you just say the right things, if you create the right chemistry, that really drove me to her. And she does—she has her own chemistry with everyone in the book.” That’s Bonnie Garmus talking about Elizabeth Zott, the unforgettable center of Bonnie’s debut novel, Lessons in Chemistry. Bonnie joins us on the show to talk about her spectacular characters, never giving up (and the writing advice that helped her the most when she was stuck), having empathy for all of her characters (even the evil ones), a most extraordinary dog, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, rowing, what she’s reading now, how writing a novel is scarier than open water swimming, and much more with Poured Over’s host, Miwa Messer. And we end the episode with a TBR Topoff featuring book recommendations from Margie and Marc.
One of Our Best Books of the Year (So Far) for 2022.
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
On Animals by Susan Orlean
Rationality by Steven Pinker
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka
Poured Over is produced and hosted by Miwa Messer and mixed by Harry Liang. New episodes land Tuesdays and Thursdays (with occasional bonus episodes on Saturdays) here and on your favorite podcast app.
Poured Over is a show for readers who pore over details, obsess over sentences and ideas and stories and characters; readers who ask a lot of questions, just like Poured Over’s host, Miwa Messer, a career bookseller who’s always reading. Follow us here for surprising riffs, candid conversations, a few laughs, and lots of great book recommendations from big name authors and authors on their way to being big names. New episodes land Tuesdays and Thursdays (with occasional bonus episodes on Saturdays) here, and on your favorite podcast app.
Full transcript for this episode of Poured Over:
Barnes & Noble: Bonnie Garmus thank you so much for joining us on Poured Over. I have to ask before we get to Elizabeth Zott, before we get to Lessons in Chemistry, before we get to Six-thirty, one of my favorite characters, I need to ask something because as I was researching for the show, I learned that you are an open water swimmer. And I need to know which is scarier, writing a novel or open water swimming?
Bonnie Garmus: Writing a novel. Open water swimming has plenty of downsides. I’ve certainly done some things that I think were probably too risky. I once swam across the lake in Switzerland, and in the middle of it, I encountered a decapitated goat head, and its eyes were just frozen open. So that was bad. But there have been other things that I’ve run into. Novels, though, are so much scarier because they go on forever. It just takes forever it’s a marathon, whereas swimming, eventually you will reach the shore, probably within the same day. So that’s not so bad.
B&N: Lessons in Chemistry is set in California. Late 50s. Early 60s. And Elizabeth Zott is the center of this book, would you set the book up for listeners, please?
BG: Lessons in Chemistry is about Elizabeth Zott. She’s a chemist. And as you mentioned, the timeline is the late 50s, early 1960s. And she becomes the very, very reluctant host of a TV show called Supper at Six. Now, Elizabeth has been hired because she’s very beautiful, and she seems to make really good tasting food. But Elizabeth has really no intention of having a straight cooking show. So instead, what she’s really teaching is the chemistry of cooking. As I think most of us know, cooking is really chemistry. But naturally, this is not at all what her producers had in mind. However, Elizabeth isn’t one of those women who just says, oh, okay, I’ll do what you say. She continues down her path. And her show makes the women who watch it suddenly feel very capable. They realize that if they can learn chemistry, they can do almost anything. And so really, the show is a show about personal empowerment. And first it starts with housewives, but then it starts to sweep the nation. And soon I think everyone is watching this show. Men are watching it. Women are watching it. Children are definitely watching it. She has this impact on American culture where she says, feel free to say no to society, feel free to be who you are. But this takes some courage. And here’s the good news. Courage is chemistry. You do chemistry every day of your life. You’re good at it.
B&N: She really is revolutionary. And she’s also very funny, very deadpan. There are moments that where someone will say, Well, I loved what you just said it was very, and she’ll just look at them. Elizabeth really is on her own plane in a lot of ways. She’s ahead of her time. But where did she come from?
BG: She had been a minor character and another novel that I had started in a shelved and I didn’t know that much about her in that novel. I didn’t know that she had had a hit TV cooking show, the only thing I really knew was that her daughter Madeline was grown in that novel, Madeline had a child and the child found a cookbook with Elizabeth on the cover, and the child didn’t know who it was. And here was this very grim woman looking back from a cookbook cover, which is just something you don’t see. And so she questioned it. And Madeline was like, that’s another story. And that’s where she came from, from that book. So I didn’t know that much about her. Except for that she had a TV show. She was very depressed. And she was very, very different from other people. She was very plain spoken, which makes her kind of funny. I know. She’s not normal.
B&N: But also plain spoken in a point of time where that was not appreciated by anyone.
BG: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. Right. Yeah, I was really fun to write her character because she could say that things that I often wanted to say, or I would want other people to say, and she could do it.
B&N: She drops out of a PhD program and we’re gonna let readers discover that piece of Elizabeth’s story. But she falls in love with a fellow chemist has a baby out of wedlock, which is total scandal at the time. Yeah. But Madeline. Smartest tiny person west of the Mississippi.
BG: Exactly. And why is she so smart? In my opinion, she’s smart because her mother never underestimates her. Her mother never tells her who she is going to be. Her mother never does anything but allow her to explore the world. She exposes her to absolutely everything and she believes in her child.
B&N: And she reads her things like Popular Mechanics and Moby Dick with the assumption that Madeline will pick up on what she needs and Madeline is well on her way to becoming her mother’s mini me. There’s a teacher that doesn’t quite appreciate Madeline’s view of the world. And I have to say, Do what you will with that family tree kid. That was very funny.
BG: I really enjoyed writing the family tree portion of it. Yeah, I remember I had that assignment in school. And I just found the whole thing daunting. I thought it was very limiting. And it didn’t make much sense to me. So I loved bringing that up.
B&N: But again, here we have these wonderful loving characters, and they are their own family unit, there are a few friends that become part of their family unit as well. But they are not what we would consider a traditional family by any stretch of the imagination. And also, Elizabeth does rip out her kitchen while pregnant to put in a lab. But that’s Elizabeth, it makes perfect sense. How was it for you as the writer sort of constructing this world there is a tiny bit of research you’ve got to do to recreate America in this point of time. I mean, Elizabeth is obviously Elizabeth. Madeline is obviously Madeline. But you do have to give them a framework that has some echo of the actual history to it in order to make the setup work.
BG: Right. Well, I did do a lot of research. To be honest, most of my research was in chemistry. Because I’m not a scientist, I had to learn basic chemistry, but I had to learn it from a 50s textbook so that I could not go past 1963. And I can’t tell you how many times I did and then I’d have to scrap the whole interaction and metaphor and start over. But in terms of the setting, and everything, you know, I was a child back then I was a little younger than Madeleine, but I was a child. And I could easily remember Southern California at that time, I could easily remember the looks on the mother’s faces in my neighborhood. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that these women didn’t have any choice, really, they were all housewives, it really struck me. I mean, my mother was a nurse, and she gave up nursing to stay home with four kids. And I think at the time, I didn’t really, of course, appreciate all the labor that she did. I didn’t respect it like I should have. And so I wanted to write a novel that was kind of a salute to these women. Some of them were very well educated. And it was clear to me as I began to think about it later that a lot of these women hadn’t really wanted to do this. They did it. But it had not been their first choice.
B&N: Is that where the novel started for you? Once you got out of the original setup with the cookbook photo? And Madeline is an adult and Madeline is a child. Where did this start for you?
BG: To be honest, the book started for me, you know, the whole idea is I consider myself a feminist, obviously, but really an equalist I really believe in humanism, equalism and things like that. And for me, I had been sitting in a meeting one day, and I’ve worked a lot in technology. And in this meeting, it just happened to be all men. And after I had laboriously presented, I thought, in an entertaining and interesting way my concepts for this campaign that we were going to do, there was silence. And then there was some a little bit of discussion. And then a few minutes later, a man said almost exactly the same thing. And everyone said, What a great idea. I thought, you know, this has happened to me before I should be used to it. But instead, I was really enraged. And I went home, I was just in a terrible mood. And I sat down and I wrote the first chapter of this book. And the reason I did it was because I thought really? Have we really not changed from that time period?
B&N: And sometimes I do wonder I mean, ultimately, I think we can argue that yes, progress has been made to a certain extent. But oh, there are days Oh, there are days where you just look at the world and say, I’m sorry, what just happened here?
BG: That’s exactly right. And the men who have read the book have been incredibly great about it. You know, so many men have said, Oh my gosh, you know, this isn’t a book just for women. This is a book for men. And it’s really great for me, although one man said, Isn’t it great that we don’t have sexism anymore? And I said, Okay, hold on, hold on. He’s a good friend of mine. You know, I said, you realize that women are still going through a lot of this. He has a daughter. And I think, you know, suddenly he just went, Oh, would that happen to my daughter in a meeting and he started to get angry almost. And I said, well, it will probably happen to her. So it’s an awakening. I think for a lot of people, these are old issues, we have really improved, but we still have these artifacts of sexism and misogyny that we need to address.
B&N: Do you have a favorite moment in Lessons in Chemistry? There are a lot to choose from. But do you have a particular favorite?
BG: Oh, gosh, I have a lot of favorite moments. It’s often when people first meet, I love the first conversation between Elizabeth and Calvin. I really treasure the day that Elizabeth goes to interview for this job basically for Supper at Six. And she really has a very deep conversation with a man she barely knows. And he does with her as well. And even though they’re decades apart in age, they share something, they share a hatred for a teacher. And that is enough because both of their children are being tortured by the same teacher.
B&N: It’s a very, very excellent moment in the story. But here’s the thing. So you’ve got the idea of what you want to do and where you want to go and what you want to accomplish with the narrative. You’ve got these fabulous characters. I mean, Elizabeth obviously is the center of everything, but she has some sidekicks and she’s got some supporting characters that are really important and Calvin is a lovely guy, but it’s really Calvin’s story. It’s Elizabeth story. So we have the idea. We have the character, what was your process? Like as you were writing this book? I mean, were you sort of working in a linear fashion? Were you riffing on an idea? Or did suddenly Elizabeth do something where you thought, Oh, this is the moment, I need to just chase this and see what happens?
BG: I’m a complete riffer. I don’t write from an outline, it always sounds a little bit somehow magical, which I regret. But I really, really believe in allowing the characters to lead the writer. So I have a good idea of who my characters are. Some of them just naturally arose. While I was writing, I need someone to counter this. And Elizabeth, as you know, I have a lot of different points of view in this book. It’s interesting, I think I have 10 points of view. One of them is from a dog. And the reason why I did that was because I wanted multiple people and beings to comment on this woman to see her in all dimensions possible.
B&N: Did anything surprise you, or any character just suddenly pop up? And you’re like, Oh, I wasn’t expecting you. But here we are.
BG: Well, Wakeley was one such character that popped up. Definitely. Walter Pine was there all along. But Dr. Mason was another character. I really enjoyed writing him. And he really just popped up the others, I think, you know, I kind of saw the path. I knew I needed some people around her. And so that’s how they really all came to life. But it’s really for me, when I’m writing, I’m thinking about those characters, even the evil ones I can have empathy for. They’ve been created by a society that has told them to behave in a certain way, or they’ve been rewarded for their behavior in a way that may not be very nice or fair. And so there’s part of me that enjoyed that part of creating a full character.
B&N: Miss Frask. Oh, poor Miss Frask.
BG: Okay, I love her. Yeah.
B&N: She’s great. But she has a genuine journey to when we first meet her. She is not the most pleasant woman you have ever met and everyone raises an eyebrow. But again, she is exactly as you say she is a product of her time and her education and her situation. And yet, I would say she gets a happy ending. I was quite pleased for her Wakely and I’m just going to run through this really quickly. Wakely is a minister in the community. He has a connection to Calvin, we’re going to let readers discover Walter pine is the television executive. And Dr. Mason is Elizabeth’s obstetrician, but also a friend of Calvin’s who gets Elizabeth back to rowing, which I love the subplot. Obviously, and the idea that this woman is grabbing the two seat in this boat and all of the men are saying, what just what just happened here. And Dr. Mason is saying, Well, of course I’m going to let you back in my boat. Calvin taught you how to row and if he thinks you’re good enough, and I was howling, and it also made me realize how tall Elizabeth must be.
BG: Well, you know, some of my favorite rowers are actually small and some of some of the most talented ones. I’m actually very tall though. I’m 511. And so I’ve rowed for a long time, and I’ve always really enjoyed it. But rowing is a total cult. And you know, when my rower friends and I get together, it’s all we talk about, you know, we just like well, and then at the 500, well then at the 750, what do you remember those first 20? It’s hilarious. You get rowers in a room and it’s just I would not want to be a non rower at a rowing party. It’s not fun for other people.
B&N: But it’s very fun to read about in Lessons in Chemistry. I will say that luckily for me, rowing was a club sport where I went to college, so I got to play for a little bit, but what I really realized was that 6am On a very cold river. I was happy to leave that to someone else. That was really not my thing. It’s beautiful to watch though. You keep strange hours.
BG: Yes, I know our practices always started at five. It’s funny, you know, I’m making a video for Barnes and Noble and they said Oh, would you you know, include rowing and I said it’s dark. I mean, you’re not gonna be able to see anything. I did shoot a few people leaving from the dock in a pitch black you know, like, this is what we do. We used to say that we meet at Oh, dark in the morning. Most of us couldn’t bear to say what time that was, you know?
B&N: Okay, so you’re rowing first thing in the morning. You’ve got a job as a copywriter, which, this is where I get to be a smarty pants is that you know, Salman Rushdie was also a copywriter. Fay Weldon was a copywriter. Scott Fitzgerald. I mean, you have good company.
BG: James Patterson
B&N: Yeah, yeah. I always forget DeLillo was a copywriter and I’m thinking I would like to see some of that.
BG: Well, some of mine never made it to print because they said they were a little bit too much.
B&N: Okay, you’re up at the crack of dawn, you’re rowing, you’re writing, you’re doing all of these things. How do you fit in the time to write a novel and sit in this world that is so remarkably different in many ways in the details from what your day to day is? But then also I’d read you taken a class to sort of jump start finishing this book.
BG: Yeah, I find when you work all day as a writer, maybe I’m just making an excuse, but it’s hard to go home and go oh boy, I think I’ll work on my novel, I think that you know, usually your own stuff is the stuff you neglect first. However, I’d already written one novel. And it felt like I’d run 10 marathons. And that one got, I queried a lot of agents, I got nowhere with it, and no one actually read it. And I was so frustrated, but I decided, no, I’ve got to start again. And I’m gonna start with this woman. On my bad day, Elizabeth Zott. I’d written maybe two thirds of it. And we had been transferred abroad to Switzerland. And then we were transferred to London. And I got here and I realized I wasn’t working full time, but I was about to start working full time again, I didn’t know anybody, you’re new again, you know, you don’t have the school thing with your kids, you’re not going to meet anyone. And my daughter, who lives in Brooklyn said, Hey, there’s this place called Curtis Brown, and they’re online, you can take an online course, there’s one that you should take, it’s called writing to the end of your novel. And I went, That’s it. That’s good copywriting the name of that course. And I took the course. Anna Davis teaches that. And it was incredible, in a lot of ways. One, we are all online, we didn’t know each other, we didn’t see each other either. It wasn’t visual, but it was a very supportive group. And Anna Davis just has a way of teaching smart things about writing. And one of the things I really took away, I was stuck at two thirds of the way through, and she had this advice, which was when you’re stuck, just make something happen. Those simple words changed the entire novel, I just suddenly went, I know what’s gonna happen now. I just think I need it, you know, someone’s permission to say, you know, make the bomb go off, or whatever it was, you know, just go ahead and blow it up. And so that was very helpful. But after that course, I applied for their in-person course, because I still didn’t know anyone in London. And I thought it who better to hang out with than other writers, we’ll all be the same. And we were, we were all really nice, really like, Ugh, I don’t want anyone to think this is how I actually write I actually write a lot better than this. It was great was a wonderful group of people. And we met once a week. And we were taught by Charlotte Mendelson. You know, for me, it’s not so much about an instructor saying you know, you should use less adverbs or something like that. That’s for me, it’s really about the community of writing. And I’m not one of those people goes to writers groups very often. It was such a nice way to meet people in London and have them be other writers who were just as tortured as I was. It was a relief. So we’re still a group. And we still chat with each other all the time on WhatsApp and things like that. It was good.
B&N: So is that make something happen line? Is that the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten about writing? Or was there something that a classmate said that maybe sort of popped?
BG: I actually got, I think the very best piece of writing advice from Laura Kaczynski. She was reading my first novel, the novel that I ended up shelving, and she really liked that novel. And she was really, really encouraging. And she said, the only thing is, she said, you have some darkness in your writing. And I said, I’m a copywriter, we always say the dark side of things. She said, but so you want to balance something called duende with the light part of your novel. And when she said that, and I started to really think about that, so many novels for me are not complete until they have that strong balance of duende with the rest of life. Because life is not easy. And it is important that we acknowledge that it’s not easy and just pretend that you know, everything’s great. And Elizabeth’s beautiful and has a TV show, or there’s a lot of darkness in her backstory. Laura Kaczynski, thank you.
B&N: So what’s your editorial process like? I mean, you were published in the UK, the book is coming to the US. Obviously, this interview is going to air when the book is available in the US. Also, your American editor is one of my favorite in the business. She’s amazing. And can we talk about though what that process is like and where you were sort of because you’re doing an edit with your agent before this book is being suspended? There was a massive auction for lessons in history. 16 bits, I think, I mean, not a small thing. But then what are you doing with your UK editor? What are you doing with your US editor? How did the two come together?
BG: So my agent who is Felicity Blunt, worked with me on the first couple drafts that I’d completed. And from then she said, Well, I think we’re ready to send this to Frankfurt. Book Fair. I said, Whoa, you know, okay, well, you know, we were both like, well, we’ll just see how does because I know it’s a little bit quirky. And when I tell people they say, what’s your book about? Oh, it’s about a woman chemist who has a TV cooking show, they go, Oh okay, so she took it to Frankfurt Book Fair, but really before the fair opened, it seemed like the scouts had gotten it out to the editors and Felicity and also my agent in the United States, Jennifer Joel at ICM, were really helpful during that time because while the auction for the British rights was really also very hot, you know, I have these kind of calming influences in my agents who really understood this territory, and were able to say, think about this, think about this person, think about, you have to see the whole thing you have to see not just what editor you want to work with. But also you have to consider the marketing team and the sales team and everything which I had never considered. So they were really helpful. But yeah, it was a very, very difficult time for me to be honest. Because every single time I met with somebody on Zoom, an editor, I look at this person and I go, Well, I talked with Nan Graham, I mean, she’s been my hero for a very long time. It was very difficult for me, actually, every time I hung up, I said to my husband, I’m definitely going with these people every single time.
B&N: But was there a physical editing process that went along with,for want of a better phrase, the beauty contest, because essentially, it is a little bit like dating, finding the right person that you want to work with. But let’s talk about the physical editing of what became Lessons in Chemistry.
BG: You know, first of all, I should say that I have called an Introduction to Chemistry and right before Frankfort, let’s see, you said, Bonnie, Bonnie, your your book is turning up as nonfiction. We have to change it, how’s Lessons in Chemistry? And I said, Great. I mean, literally, it was like the night before. Okay, great. So Felicity came up with the title, and I absolutely love her for that. But in terms of the actual editing, I mean, a lot of the editors I spoke to said, Oh, it’s perfect as is, you know, I’m not going to change a word. Now. I never feel like it’s perfect as is. I can’t even look at my book now without wanting to go, Oh, you know, hold on, just let me just change this one part. So I really appreciated it when editors would say, you know, but this one part, maybe you should think about this or that. I thought that was great. I really liked what Lee Boutros said, though, to me, she said, Oh, yeah, book’s so fun. You know, I really loved it, loved it, you could do better on the end, because the ending had been my bugaboo it had just been my cross to bear, I’d written it 10 times, I really still wasn’t satisfied with it. So when she said that, I said to her, thank you so much for saying those words, for seeing it the same way I see. And I also worked with Jane Lawson here in London. And she was also a tremendous help. The two of them have worked together before. So we were just sort of a team. And they went through and they showed kind of said you think about this, think about this. I love editors who don’t actually rewrite anything. They just say what about this or think about this? And some things I said, I’ve thought about this 1000 times it’s staying, actually with the rowing? No, I’m sorry, ladies, it’s staying. And no, they were great about everything, though I could not have been luckier to work with these two.
B&N: And for you as a writer when you’re reworking, and I understand that impulse to keep going I totally understand the impulse, plenty of writers have it. There might be episodes of the show, where I’m like I did I forget to ask them. Yeah, yes, little things. It’s that constant. Because you’re always sort of in the narrative for you, though, as the writer when you’re the physical process of rewriting and living in this narrative, and honestly, entering and exiting, because you’re not at your desk 24/7 with these characters, and with the story, are you coming back with pieces of the story? are you just sitting down and saying, Well, I know this is a problem, and I need to address it, and you just see what happens?
BG: Well, I have this thing that I do. I’ve done this, for almost every project I’ve ever had in copywriting. I think writing is really just problem solving. It’s a giant puzzle. And you’ve really got to figure out how to make it look good. You know, you can’t have pieces that don’t fit. So what I do when I’m stuck, besides making something happen is that I go to bed and I think about that problem. I’ve literally lay there and go, I’m going to think about this character and what the hell they’re really doing, you know, what is their motivation here? Or what’s supposed to happen? And usually around 3am, I’ll wake up and I’ll think of it. Now, I’ll write it down. And then the next morning, when I do get up, I go okay, what was I thinking? Or I say, Oh, my God, it actually worked. And that happened for me quite a bit with Lessons in Chemistry where I would say, I really don’t understand weekly story. Why is he here and then suddenly, at 3am? I go, I know why he’s there. I know why. And then that’s how I sort of integrated everything whenever I ran into a problem, but I’m not a plotter. Oh, I wish I was, but I am not.
B&N: We have a really good idea of who you are as a writer now, but who are you as a reader?
BG: You know, I love to read. And the problem with being a writer is that when you’re writing yourself, it’s really hard to read other people’s books, you kind of have to separate yourself from their writing. You don’t want to pick up their voice actually, that’d be very hard for me to do that because the writers that I admire are so talented that I know I’m never going to be able to write like them, but I love to read and I’ve always read a lot. Right now I’m reading a lot lot of nonfiction. I read On Animals by Susan Orlean, I love her. I’m starting Steven Pinker’s book on rationality because I’m very interested in rationality. I have some favorite favorite books. And when, when I sometimes just get frustrated with writing, I open these books, and I think, look at that sentence and one of the books is Remains of the Day by Ishiguro. I think the book is literally perfect.
B&N: It is. It is absolutely hands down. The pacing is perfect, the language is perfect, the characters, everything about that novel is perfect. And that is not something I readily say about a lot of books but Remains of the Day, I can absolutely understand that impulse to pick that book up and reread it. Absolutely.
BG: You know, and it’s small, and I’m very jealous of people who can write shorter books. As a copywriter, everything is short. So I think when I hit a novel, I go, Oh, I know, I’ll go extra extra long, which is not the greatest impulse, but you feel like you kind of want to stretch when you come from copywriting. Another book I love is The Secret History by Donna Tartt. That was her debut novel. And I just thought and the sentences in there are just something else. I also am a huge fan of Sigrid Nunez and the Friend and really anything she’s written, I think she’s a genius. So, to be honest, I still read and reread children’s books. I think partly I like to connect with what I read as a child, you read Matilda, as an adult, and you see, oh, my god, he was something else, Dahl was. So that’s pretty much how I read now.
B&N: Are you working on the next thing? I mean, yes, there’s that sort of common wisdom of make sure you’re working on the next project as whatever is coming out is coming out into the world. I’m also assuming you might not necessarily want to talk about it yet.
BG: Thank you. I really don’t. I have such a hard time explaining Lessons in Chemistry to people that to explain this other book and just sounds like I don’t know. I wouldn’t buy it. The way I explain it.
B&N: Pardon the pun, but I think it probably just needs to cook a little bit longer. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. I couldn’t. I recently interviewed Julia Otsuka, whose new novel, The Swimmers is out. And she said, you know, she’s been working on this again, 159 page. Really terrific. If you have a chance, it’s really fabulous.
BG: Yeah, it’s on my TBR list.
B&N: But the way she described it, she said it was very weird trying to explain to people that I was writing a novel about swimming and dementia.
BG: Yeah. And it’s brilliant.
B&N: Novels don’t necessarily lend themselves to an elevator pitch. Are you reading for ideas first? Or are you reading for voice first?
BG: I really read for ideas. That’s why I read a lot, a lot, a lot of nonfiction. I really enjoy nonfiction. I really enjoy people who write nonfiction well. But then when I read fiction, I love entering somebody else’s world. And I’d see how an author did it and see how smooth it is. And do I completely believe in this world? Yes, I do. Or no, no, I don’t. I always like to read. That’s the problem, though, with writing is that you can’t read as much as you want to, you really have to hear the voices from your own book. And you have to actually submerge yourself in that setting.
B&N: And speaking of voices in your own book, and creating a world, Six-thirty.
BG: He’s definitely a point of view character. He’s not exactly a talking dog.
B&N: He understands a lot more than people would give him credit for. So there are a couple of moments for Madeline, especially when she clashes with this teacher who’s just like, you can’t say that you can’t think that what are you doing? Like a teacher who honestly probably should not be teaching, but 630 is an important point of view to have in the mix. And I was not expecting him. Okay, so let’s talk about the origins of Six-thirty. Let’s talk about he does actually like Moby Dick.
BG: Yeah, he does. So I had a dog whose name was Friday, and she had been badly abused when we got her so badly abused that the previous owner her had been jailed. So we adopted this dog. I mean, she’s a full grown dog. We have little kids. We’re not even thinking about this. As we’re bringing her home the car, we put her right between our kids. We know nothing about this dog. But she turned out to be incredibly brilliant. I mean, honestly, I think about this dog a lot, because I think we have a tendency to underestimate almost everything in nature. And we have a tendency to underestimate people. Obviously, I have to admit that I underestimated Friday. And it really became clear to me that Friday was picking up a lot more language than just sit, stay, come, dinner. She knew a lot and when we were transferred abroad to Switzerland, she started picking up German, you know, she knew in German that her name was Freitag. That’s what she would respond to. It really opened my eyes. She was also very calm. She loved all animals. My daughter’s had hamsters. And they used to put their hamsters on her head. We had a rabbit and the rabbit and Friday would sleep together. It’s weird, right? We always thought she was kind of like Gandhi. So when I had this character in the book, and I knew I wanted to have a dog, it surprised me, I have to say, when suddenly the dog thinks to himself, lies, lies, lies. And that was his first thought. And I thought, oh, my gosh. And pretty soon I realized he had a lot to say about everything. But what I loved about him, Six-thirty, was that he had such empathy for people, he had sincere love for us. But he also had kind of like, you guys aren’t really that smart. And what that came from was actually partly my dad who had been an entomologist, I remember a long time ago, my father, telling me that when you rip a carrot out of the ground, the carrot feels it. This carrot that you’re eating, you said, it’s like shooting an animal. There’s really no difference here. You’re still killing something. I was shocked by that. But my dad was the kind of person who said, you know, one day they’re going to tell you that trees talk to each other. And sure enough, now we know that, so Six-thirty became sort of this voice about what you don’t know about the animal kingdom may surprise you, including the fact that we understand a lot more of what’s going on, than you seem to realize.
B&N: And that dog really doesn’t miss a trick. But Elizabeth vacillates though between being very aware of her surroundings, but because she’s so Elizabeth, and she’s so focused, she misses some of the threads every now and again. And this is where some of the comedy comes, but also some of the drama. Do you have a favorite part of Elizabeth, something that you just gravitate towards when you think of the character?
BG: Elizabeth is flawed, you know, she’s certainly not perfect. And I think that, you know, she is trying to empower these people. She’s now ,by accident, in a group of women that she’d never intended to be part of, a housewife. This is not who she is. And I think that it’s her humanity. She seems very scientific and very logical and almost cold sometimes. But she feels quite deeply. She has been hurt a lot. And I think it’s just overall her humanity and her recognition of what other people could accomplish. If you just say the right things, if you create the right chemistry that really drove me to her.
B&N: And she does, she has her own chemistry with everyone she meets in the book. What do you want readers to know about your debut?
BG: Well, I want readers to take away this idea. I think, Well, right now, I should say, I feel like we’re living in a time, a very difficult time for a lot of people. It’s an irrational time, I’ve created this character who’s very rational. And I think that that is me longing for more rationality, more discourse, more people listening to people be nicer to each other, not embracing things that are always so combative. But working together, it’s a little bit like rowing, there’s a cooperation that must exist in order to move forward. And I think for me, that’s what I want people to take away, we can change, we can change our society, we can change ourselves, we can become who we should become or hope to become. And I just think, as she says, if you follow the laws of chemistry, you can do that. You know, these are these are laws from nature.
B&N: Is there anything you want to add?
BG: I should tell you, because you started out with swimming. My dad was a really big athlete and he had four girls, and when I was really little, about five years old, or so I used to swim with him all the time. And he insisted we swim in the Sierras. And he insisted that I could swim across the lake that was incrusted in ice. I was five years old. Might be called child abuse in some circles, but that was my dad, and I ended up doing that with him. probably wasn’t the safest thing to do. But that idea of him telling me I could do that at age five and then being able to do it was sort of one of the inspirations behind Elizabeth of her saying, yes, you can do these things. It is really funny because as a copywriter, you’re right. I do everything a lot faster and a lot shorter. But that’s really the only other thing I would say.
B&N: As a person who was stuck on skis at age two and pushed, yeah, I understand. I understand completely. My first pair of skates was maybe 18 inches long.
BG: Oh my gosh, I’m a terrible skier. I can’t even imagine.
B&N: Honestly, I didn’t stick with it. It’s just my parents decided.
BG: No, your parents are like she’s alright.
B&N: But I did really appreciate having that physicality. I mean, I picked up my first field hockey stick when I was nine, so yeah, nice to have that outlet. Yeah, it’s lacrosse came later, all If that stuff came later, but then I traded it in for hurdling, which is a whole nother story that was you did that and I’m not as tall as you are.
BG: Yeah, but I got kicked off of the cross country team because I just knocked down all the hurdles. That’s all I did.
B&N: You were doing steeplechase. Yeah, no. So I kept to the short, quick and dirty. I mean, I have a couple of scars. But we were barbarians. Steeplechase. I was never going to be a distance runner. So I was kind of like, okay, I can do anything. As long as it’s under 330 yards, I’m good. 440 meter, whatever it was, I was like, as long as it’s not a mile. I’m fine. If it’s a mile I’m gonna die of boredom.
BG: I played basketball and I was a disaster. You know, I was tall, right? But I hate to run and I hate to ramp down the court. So I used to just stand at one end and go just throw me the ball. My coach hated me.
B&N: All of these stories. That’s part of it. It’s it’s being out there in the world in a physical way that that was partially my connection to the book was the rowing. And I was just like, Yeah, this is great. Yeah, totally down for this. I am totally in. I’m glad to hear that. Bonnie Garmus. Thank you so much. Your debut novel Lessons in Chemistry is out now.
BG: Thank you, Miwa.