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Author Bonnie Garmus talks bringing her hit novel 'Lessons in Chemistry' to streaming

Brie Larson in "Lessons in Chemistry," now streaming on Apple TV+. (Courtesy of Apple TV+)
Brie Larson in "Lessons in Chemistry," now streaming on Apple TV+. (Courtesy of Apple TV+)

Elizabeth Zott is a chemist ahead of her time in 1950s America. She works in an all-male lab, stifled by sexism. Later on though, she begins hosting a TV cooking show where she never loses her brainiac spirit and explains the science of food to her viewers.

Zott is the protagonist of Bonnie Garmus’s 2022 best-selling novel “Lessons in Chemistry.” The book has been adapted as an eight-part limited series, now streaming on Apple TV Plus with Brie Larson starring as Zott.

Over the course of the storyline, Zott battles against sexism in both her workplaces, trashes her corporate sponsor and tries to advance society around her to catch up with where she’s at.

“When I was writing Elizabeth Zott, I was really writing my own role model,” Garmus says, “someone I wanted to look up to at that time, somebody who knew who she was and understood at a very scientific level that gender politics are not rational.”

5 questions with Bonnie Garmus

How well does the Apple TV series capture Zott’s subversiveness?

“They kind of took it in a different direction. The series and the book are pretty different animals. And yet, I think that there’s still that sort of subversive nature to her. So I’m really pleased that that part of her is still in.”

Has much changed for women in STEM from the 1950s to now? 

“Since I’ve written the book, I hear from women all over the world.

“And I’m sad to say that the women that I’ve heard from largely in STEM say that the lab that Elizabeth Zott worked in is the same lab they’re working in today. That’s both in the United States, but also abroad. And you know, that’s a little bit disconcerting, but the number of women is growing and their power is growing.

“A woman just won the Nobel Prize. Katalin Karikó just won the Nobel Prize for her mRNA research. And of course, she was demoted by [the University of Pennsylvannia]. So these things haven’t really gone away.

“But I think we’re getting more and more focus on that. We need to, because we have a lot of problems to solve and we need everybody on deck for these problems.”

With more and more TV shows featuring pioneering women, is now a good time for this limited series?

“Everyone worked really, really hard to make this happen.

“But it is true; There’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and there’s ‘[The Marvelous] Ms. Maisel’ and, you know, there was ‘Mad Men.’

“You’ll kind of see reflections of that. But I think lessons in chemistry is really quite different in tone.”

You were working as a copywriter before you published this book. Did that background help you write the novel?

“With copywriting, the first rule I think is you cannot bore your reader. So you have to communicate well and effectively and hopefully, sometimes with humor.

“I mostly got hired to bring humor to difficult topics. For me, it was a really good way to practice everyday writing. I think a lot of copywriters become novelists, and you can tell. You can tell the difference. The sentences are much tighter.”

Do you have any advice for writers seeking to follow a similar path to you?

“First of all, just go ahead and start. And don’t worry about it being perfect, but do really focus on your craft and do write with confidence. Don’t worry about what people are going to think. Don’t worry if somebody may or may not like it.

“Just write what you care about and really spend some time making sure those sentences are tight, because you are asking someone to spend nine hours with you or 10 hours with you and that’s a big ask.”

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtGrace Griffin adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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