Retirement Life
5 June 2024

Bonnie Garmus: age is the last thing that matters in writing

Bonnie Garmus's 2022 novel, Lessons in Chemistry, was one of those rare debuts that shot straight to the top of multiple bestseller lists and captured the hearts of millions of people around the world.

The plot

It tells the story of chemist and single mother Elizabeth Zott who accidentally ends up hosting a hit TV cooking show in 1960s America and inspiring a nation of housewives to take themselves and their dreams seriously.

Bonnie made a flying visit to the Auckland Writers’ Festival in May for an enlightening and often hilarious chat with Michele A’Court about life as a best-selling novelist.

Discovering that for some, age isn't just a number

One thing that bemuses Bonnie is the focus on her age. She was 65 when her first novel was published in 2022.


“I really had no idea how much people would care about my age. It’s the last thing that matters in writing. What does matter is working at the craft. In terms of the age question, I was so naïve. I’ve never picked up a book and thought, I wonder how old the author is!

“When I first was asked that question, I happened to be reading Marcus Aurelius and so I looked up his age and he’s about a thousand years old, so I’m doing pretty good,” she said, tongue firmly in cheek.


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Societal pressures

“I always feel sad about awards like ‘30 under 30’, ‘40 under 40’ and so on, because it’s so much pressure on time when in fact you have a lifetime ahead of you and there is no schedule for you to do what you want to do or succeed at.


“I worry so much about all the kids in college and the pressure to be something right now. That’s not necessary. It’s also not smart. I think it takes a long time to figure out who you are and I think that’s a fine schedule to be on. So, I’m perfectly happy.”


Getting into character

Lessons in Chemistry’s protagonist, Elizabeth Zott, is a brilliant chemist, which was a challenge Bonnie set for herself.

“I'm a copywriter and copywriters never ever write what they know. And I stupidly thought, well, I'll just make her a chemist and I’ll learn chemistry. Really, really bad idea. Turns out you can't google old science. Old chemistry is especially tricky.

“So, I had to buy a chemistry textbook from the 50s off eBay and teach myself chemistry. Unfortunately, I also decided to do some of the experiments in our flat and I set it on fire…twice.


Rowing also features heavily in the novel, something Bonnie didn’t have to learn from scratch.  


Picture by Moya Nolon

Picture by Moya Nolon

“I'm embarrassed to say I’m not a very good cook and I'm not a chemist, but I am a rower. And I wanted to write about something I knew. I needed something I didn't have to research, but also one of the main things in the book is balance. Rowing is the sport of balance. If you're not balanced in your eight or your four or your pair, or whatever you're rowing, then you end up doing this other sport called swimming,” she said.


Finding real-life inspiration

One of the most beloved voices in Lessons in Chemistry is the dog, Six-Thirty – the only character based on a real-life living being.


“Our dog was named Friday. We got her from a shelter and she’d been horribly abused. I was pretty fearful of how she might react when our kids were really young. But she turned out to be this mixture of Einstein and Gandhi. She was the calmest dog in the world [and] the wise one in the family. We didn’t set out to teach Friday words. She sat at the table with us and would look at our mouths as we talked. She started demonstrating that she knew what we were talking about.


“One day, I was really late for work and was saying ‘where are my keys, I can’t find my keys’. Friday heard me and started looking in my briefcase, then she looked in my workout bag. And then she went through all the pockets in all the jackets in the hallway closet, found the keys and threw them on the floor and looked at me like: Can we go, now?” Bonnie recalled.


Expectation versus reality

Lessons in Chemistry has sold more than 7 million copies, which is around 7 million more than Bonnie expected.


“I never assumed it would even get published. It's been such a shock, so surreal for me. I think the first time I realised that this was a big deal was when my kids changed the picture of me on their phones. I found out on vacation when I accidentally dialled one of them and I saw my photo come up with ‘Global Phenomenon’ [instead of Mum] and I said ‘Oh, I like it!’.”


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Photo of Vanessa Glennie
Written by:

Vanessa Glennie

Vanessa is Head of Communications at Lifetime Retirement Income. She’s an experienced investment writer, having spent more than a decade writing about financial markets in the global fund management industry.

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