> Zed Book Club / Bonnie Garmus on the TV Version of Her Blockbuster Novel, ‘Lessons in Chemistry’

Author Bonnie Garmus with her dog, 99, who has been co-opted by fans as the real version of Six-Thirty. Photo: Annie Bundfuss

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Bonnie Garmus on the TV Version of Her Blockbuster Novel, ‘Lessons in Chemistry’

The British author, who had no control over the Apple TV+ adaptation, worries that a Labradoodle is all wrong for the role of Six-Thirty / BY Carol Toller / October 12th, 2023

Bonnie Garmus was determined not to fret. After handing over the TV rights to her quirky, richly imagined debut novel about a brilliant chemist-turned-reluctant cooking show host, Garmus knew she needed to let it go. There was no point second-guessing how the production team – led by Oscar-winning actor Brie Larson – would interpret Lessons in Chemistry’s droll narrative tone. Or how Larson would portray its relentlessly logical main character, Elizabeth Zott. Still, there was one thing Garmus couldn’t help worrying about: What would Hollywood do with Six-Thirty?

The 66-year-old author has a gift for creating distinctive characters. Zott is a single-minded scientist who refers to vinegar as CH3COOH. Her daughter is a precocious kindergartener who reads Vladimir Nabokov and Norman Mailer. But the most unconventional of them all has to be Six-Thirty. At this stage in the book’s success – it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 74 weeks and sold five million copies – it probably isn’t revealing too much to say the family dog has deep thoughts. And a command of almost 1,000 words.


Bonnie Garmus


Besides providing some of the most comical moments in the novel, Six-Thirty also propels the plot, which revolves around Zott’s efforts to fight sexism and instill in her primarily female TV viewers an appreciation of chemistry and a healthy dose of self-worth. Getting the dog right was important. “But the producers and I agreed he was the one character who was going to be a problem,” Garmus said in a recent interview from her home in London.

When they sent images of the dog they were considering for the role, she worried it wasn’t right. “He looked kind of goofy,” she says, “and Six-Thirty is very thin and serious.” It was also a Labradoodle, a breed that didn’t exist in the 1950s, the era in which the novel is set. Zott would definitely not have approved. 

But Garmus took to heart advice she’d heard from other writers, who’d told her: “The best thing you can do is give them the book and walk away.” So, the Labradoodle got the part.


Lessons in Chemistry
Garmus  thinks the Labradoodle playing Six-Thirty  is kind of “goofy” and “not thin or serious enough.”  Photo: AppleTV+


When I spoke with Garmus in late July, she still hadn’t seen a final cut of the eight-part series, which airs on Apple TV+ beginning Oct. 13. “I’m 100 per cent hands off,” she said cheerfully, “and that’s absolutely fine with me.”

Garmus was 64 when the novel was published in 2022, but her writing career began at 5, when the Riverside, Calif., native wrote her “first terrible novel.” She studied creative writing at the University of California Santa Cruz, but, in search of a steady paycheque, started a career in copywriting, specializing in science and tech, although she was still working on her fiction on the side.

The decades she spent in the advertising industry weren’t wasted; they helped hone her writing. “Copywriting is mostly based in understanding the human condition and being empathetic to the people you are writing to and for,” she says, “and that was really helpful. And it teaches you to be really economical with your writing. Really tight and emotional.”

 It also made her painfully aware of what can happen when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. So, while Larson’s team asked her for comments on their script  – and for a list of actors she thought might work  – they also made it clear they could ignore her suggestions. She won’t say who she recommended to play the secondary characters (Larson had already cast herself as Zott), though she does say none of her choices made the cut. Lewis Pullman, who played a minor role in Top Gun: Maverick, has been cast as Calvin Evans, Zott’s husband. “I haven’t had any moments of terror,” Garmus says with a laugh. “I just occasionally will think, ‘Hmmmm, I wonder how this will turn out?’ But we’ll just see.” 


Lessons in Chemistry
Brie Larson as Zott and Lewis Pullman as her husband, Calvin Evans, in ‘Lessons in Chemistry.’ Photo: AppleTV+


The buzz around the novel started at the 2020 Frankfurt Book Fair, when her literary agent, Felicity Blunt (wife of actor Stanley Tucci), negotiated a huge deal (rumoured to be worth US$2-million) after a fierce bidding war among 16 publishers. At the time, the editorial director of Doubleday, which won the auction for the book’s U.K. rights, said: “Bonnie Garmus is already a star.” 

The Hollywood deal happened before Lessons in Chemistry was even published, and once it was, she was swept away in a wave of publicity. Garmus hasn’t kept track of how many interviews she’s done since, but it’s hard to find a media outlet that hasn’t gushed about the book and its enthusiastic reception worldwide. 

That said, her first novel – a whopping 700-pager – wasn’t well received. When she sent it out to literary agents, most wouldn’t even read it. Garmus can still recall the number of rejections she received: 98. One agent told her no one would accept a manuscript that long, “especially not from someone my age,” Garmus recalls. “She’d Googled me.” The email wasn’t easy to read, but she remembered the agent’s words later, after she’d begun working on Lessons in Chemistry.

An incident of what she calls “everyday sexism” prompted her to write the novel. She’d just shared an idea at a workplace meeting and listened as a male colleague co-opted it and took the credit.

Incensed, Garmus went back to her desk, and as she fumed, she found herself thinking about Zott, a minor figure in that previous, unpublished novel. She had only occupied three sentences in that manuscript, but now here she was, fully formed, with a story to tell. “You’ve had a bad day,” she seemed to be saying to Garmus. “Well, I’ve had a bad decade.” The book spilled out after that and has since resonated for a number of reasons. Zott’s insistence on fact-based science and dogged resistance to false narratives mirrors our current struggles with fake news. And the way she’s treated in the book – her intelligence is routinely dismissed by male colleagues, one of whom steals her pioneering research – is sadly still familiar to many women. Things have changed for women since the 1950s, “but they haven’t changed nearly enough, and unfortunately in the U.S. things are going backwards,” Garmus says. “Women’s rights are in peril.”


Lessons in Chemistry
Brie Larson as Zott, a 1950s chemist whose work is co-opted by men, in ‘Lessons in Chemistry.’ Photo: AppleTV+


She’s now working on her next novel, but she won’t reveal what it’s about, partly because she isn’t sure yet. “I’m never going to be the kind of writer who plots something out. And so, the book will keep changing organically as I work on it, and what I start with may not be what I end up with,” she says with Zott-like clarity. “So, I’ve decided I’ll keep it to myself.” 

As for how Six-Thirty and the rest of Garmus’ characters will end up on screen, she’s prepared to wait and see. She had hoped to attend the TV shoot at least once while Lessons in Chemistry was in production in Los Angeles, but COVID-19 derailed the plan. Although she’d tested negative when she boarded her flight, on arrival, her results were positive. “So, I missed out.… Whatever they’ve ended up doing is their vision.”

In the end, she’s sanguine about the Labradoodle. “They chose the dog they felt most fulfilled that role. He’s really endearing in lots of ways,” she says. “I saw his audition tape.”  


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