‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Author Talks Workplace Sexism, Brilliant Dogs and Being Underappreciated – Orange County Register

By Sharon Seitz

In “Lessons in Chemistry”, Elizabeth Zott is a brilliant young chemist and single mother who comes up against sexism and abuse in academia and the workplace in the 1950s and 1960s. After losing her job as a scientist, Zott reluctantly hosts a cooking show called “Supper at Six”. But rather than portraying herself as a pretty, perky hostess, Zott is shaking up the network and going off-script, teaching the chemistry of cooking and allowing her mostly female audience to see themselves differently.

When Bonnie Garmus, 64, began her first novel, she never imagined it would make the New York Times Spring Reading List or be cast in an Apple TV+ series starring Brie Larson , Oscar winner. Garmus, who grew up in Riverside before moving to Bogotá, Colombia, at age 13, just needed to channel his inner Zott during a strategy meeting at a tech company where Garmus’ ideas were met with silence by male participants.

“Then suddenly, a few minutes later, a man said, ‘Well, I’ve got an idea,'” recalls Garmus, who worked as a copywriter and creative director. to say. And no one said anything. I just thought, ‘How many more times will this happen in my life?’

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 going, ‘You know, here’s what I would have said. Here is what I would have done. So I went back to my office and wrote the first chapter of “Chemistry Lessons”.

While the novel focuses on serious themes of misogyny, feminism, family, and self-esteem, it never becomes didactic. The characters are rich and original, the story sarcastic and humorous, and the novel with all its twists and turns is hard to put down. Zott is aloof and astonishing, 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 this period as a tribute to stay-at-home moms like your mother, whose opportunities were limited and whose work at home was not appreciated. Would the story be radically different in the 1980s, the 2000s or even today?

I must say that I think my mother’s work was appreciated by my father. She had been a nurse and she really missed it. But I don’t think anyone really took Housewives seriously. When I researched this period of history, I thought things had really improved. But I got so many messages from female scientists saying, “I have bad news on the science front. It’s exactly like that in my lab today. It still continues.

Q. Elizabeth persists despite not being taken seriously by the scientific community, keeping her cool and staying determined throughout.

I wanted to create someone who I would like to be more like. I’m a bit more of a hard simmer, quick boil type. I can be quite impatient. And so I had to make her calmer than me. She is so rational, so scientific. For her, getting angry over little things wouldn’t be the way to get what she wants. She would watch it all the way and figure out what she needed to do to get there. She’s just not super responsive, like me.

Q. I admire his dynamism, his independence, his commitment and his courage. But sometimes she can be detached, rude and arrogant. How important was it that Elizabeth was complicated and balanced?

The best characters always have flaws. She is strange because she had a strange past. She kind of raised herself and learned everything on her own. She is friendless. She doesn’t know how to fit in with people. She’s really clumsy. And the reason I have so many other characters with so many different points of view was because I wanted their reactions to him to show us all of his dimensions.

Q. We even hear the inner thoughts of Elizabeth’s dog, Six-Thirty, and can often agree with her insightful insights. Why make a dog such a perceptive character?

One of the themes of the book is underestimation. Elizabeth is underestimated, but she never underestimates anyone else, including a dog. That’s part of the reason I love it. There’s so much we don’t know, and I think we judge everything by human definitions of intelligence. I wanted Six-Thirty to be this wiser character, but also a bit of an anthropologist. So, you know, he’s watching us say, “You know, those people, I love them. They mean well, but they don’t make much sense. That’s why I wanted him to be just a thinking dog.

Q. You yourself have a dog named numerically, 99. Is that a coincidence?

Six-Thirty is actually based on a dog I had, but his name was Friday. He was a shelter animal that had been very mistreated. I really didn’t want to adopt this dog. And then she turned out to be this kind of brilliant dog who learned a lot of language. We taught him commands, like sit and stay. But she would learn the words we used in conversation. I used to say, “I don’t know where my keys are. And after a while, Friday was looking in all the usual places like he was saying, “They’re right there.” She was just amazing.

And 99 comes from “Get Smart”, a TV show from the 60s. When I was growing up in Southern California, I had a best friend and we spent all our time together. We were called 86 and 99. And we kept doing that all our 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 and healthy meals, but also goes rogue when explaining the chemistry behind the cooking. What were you trying to illustrate?

I wanted these women to be like, “This woman thinks I can relate to this. This woman thinks I can do it. So I’m either going to pretend to know, or I’m going to learn. And I think that was Elizabeth’s secret – she doesn’t underestimate anyone. She imbues her audience with that sense of capability and seriousness they don’t get from any other part of their life.

Q. Besides its feminist theme, the novel also talks about finding your 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 bring across in the book. I have two adopted children. I’ve always had a hard time with people saying, “Oh, couldn’t you get some yourself?” It always rubs me the wrong way. And I always say, “You know, these are mine.” Just because you were born into a family doesn’t mean that family is right for you. And Elizabeth had a terrible family and it’s very difficult 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 have you been able to persevere in the face of these struggles?

Elizabeth made me do it. Honestly, I was like, “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 the words I was writing.

Q. If you had to sum up Elizabeth Zott in three words, what would they be?

Carbon, hydrogen and oxygen.

Lola R. McClure