In New Novel, Elizabeth Zott Is A Chemist With A Cooking Show, Thanks To Gender Roles: NPR

A sane chemist becomes a TV sensation on a cooking show in the new novel “Lessons in Chemistry.” Scott Simon speaks with author Bonnie Garmus about his book.



SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Elizabeth Zott is a chemist who hosts a cooking show because it’s the early 1960s and sexism, double standards, outright aggression, scientific theft and discrimination keep her from working as a real scientific. But her TV show, “Supper At Six,” and what she calls vinegar and salt – acetic acid with a dash of sodium chloride – becomes a huge hit in Bonnie Garmus’ debut novel, “Lessons In Chemistry”. And Bonnie Garmus, who has been a writer, creative director and open water swimmer, is now joining us from London.

BONNIE GARMUS: (Laughs).

SIMON: Thank you very much for being with us.

GARMUS: Oh, thank you, Scott. I am delighted to be here.

SIMON: Tell us about Elizabeth Zott in the early 1960s. She – and a lot of your book is absolutely chemistry. It looks like a chemical element suspended in an almost different time.

GARMUS: (Laughs) Yeah. You know, I put it then for two reasons. First, I kind of needed reassurance that things have improved since the 1960s for women. But I also put it together because that was when my mom was a mom of four, and it gave me the opportunity to look at her life from a whole different angle and see what it must have been for her to live with such severe limitations. . And we still have limits today. Sexism is still very much alive. However, boy, we’ve come a long way (laughs), I’m happy to report that.

SIMON: Elizabeth Zott ends each show by saying, kids, set the table. Your mom needs a moment to herself.

(LAUGH)

GARMUS: Yes, she does.

SIMON: What do you think makes Elizabeth’s TV show so popular?

GARMUS: I think what makes her show popular is that she treats her audience with respect. These housewives were often dismissed as average housewives and or, you know, just Janes, average housewives. They were just average. And in fact, they were women like today’s women who had lots of dreams and ambitions, but they couldn’t aspire to much. So when she took them seriously, they – it was like they woke up, and they also started to remember who they were.

SIMON: Mmm. She enters into a relationship with Calvin, a scientist in her laboratory, a very eminent scientist. What chemistry brings them together?

GARMUS: (Laughs) Well, you know, real love is actually based on chemistry. You know, there are all kinds of hormones involved, of course. But I think what really brings them together is the fact that Calvin sees her for her spirit first. He falls in love with her because he realizes that she is basically brilliant. He probably has a brain similar to his. They see things the same way. And he gets off much easier because, you know, he’s a man, and she has no help with that. So she has to fight everything on her own and she doesn’t want to accept any help of any kind.

SIMON: You know, when I introduced you as an editor, creative director, and open-water swimmer, you must have also been an excellent chemistry student.

GARMUS: Oh, my God. I’m so sorry to tell you that I was terrible. The last time I studied chemistry was in high school. I succeeded. I didn’t really appreciate it. But when I sat down to write this book – you know, as a writer first, you always write about things you don’t know. That’s probably the best part of copywriting is that you’re constantly exploring new products, new people, new ideas. And that’s one of the things I enjoyed the most about this part of my career.

So when I sat down to write “Lessons In Chemistry,” I knew she was going to be a chemist, and I knew I would have to teach myself basic chemistry. And it wasn’t much fun, but I actually bought a textbook on eBay from the 50s and learned basic chemistry from that book.

SIMON: Oh, please.

GARMUS: (Laughs).

SIMON: I have to ask you about Six-Thirty, the dog. If there’s a sequel, can I vote for Six-Thirty to be the center of attention, even the narrator?

GARMUS: Oh, my God. You have no idea what that means to me. Thanks Scott. Six-Thirty is the only character in the book based on a real being, and that was my dog ​​Friday.

SIMON: And Friday after the character of Robinson Crusoe or another?

GARMUS: Actually, my kids named her Friday. We didn’t know why because we adopted her on a Saturday. But we just went with it. And she had been abused, and we adopted her from a shelter. We weren’t sure what it would look like. And she turned out to be extremely smart and dedicated to us. She even – when we were living abroad, when we moved abroad, she learned some German. I mean, that dog (laughs)…

SIMON: Oh, my.

GARMUS: This dog knew a lot of words (laughs).

SIMON: My God. Gracious kindness.

GARMUS: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: I understand that your current dog is 99 – named 99. Something to do with “Get Smart”?

GARMUS: Thank you. God, Scott, you’re just nailing me. Yes absolutely. My best friend and I grew up together calling ourselves 86 and 99, and…

SIMON: It was – we have to explain – a sitcom…

GARMUS: (Laughs).

SIMON: …About secret agents. Barbara Feldon…

GARMUS: (Laughs) Yeah.

SIMON: …was 99, yes.

GARMUS: Exactly. And she and I called each other 86 and 99 our whole lives. And sadly, she was involved in a tragic accident about 10 years ago and passed away. But when my husband and I adopted our dog – she was a 6 year old retired greyhound racer and her name was Cake Angel. And she didn’t respond to that name. And so we named her 99, and she reminds me of my friend. So for me, it was a delight. And I feel like it’s an honor to have a dog that exhibits some of the intelligent characteristics of Barbara Feldon (laughs) and my friend.

SIMON: I suspect Elizabeth Zott is going to be an important character for a lot of people. But let me ask you as a novelist. Is she out of your heart and mind now? Or is she still there? Do you still see things and wonder how she might react?

GARMUS: I see her all the time. It’s kind of funny to talk about when you have all these people living in your head telling you about their day or what’s going on or what’s going on. But yes, she certainly often comes back to me to talk (laughs).

SIMON: Yeah. Are you talking back?

GARMUS: (Laughs) Yeah. I’m afraid of her, but I answer a little. I always felt like when I sat down to write “Lessons In Chemistry” it was because I had a really bad day at work. And I went back to my office to work. And instead of working, I felt like this character was sitting next to me. And I didn’t know much about her. She had been a minor character in a book I had started and put away years and years ago.

And suddenly, I just saw her, and she said, you know, you think you had a bad day? No. I had a bad day. And then I wrote that first chapter. And I didn’t really know where it was going, but I knew what was going to be the end. And that was it. I just had to fill in the whole middle part (laughs).

SIMON: Bonnie Garmus – her novel “Lessons In Chemistry” – thank you so much for being with us.

GARMUS: Oh, thank you, Scott. It was a pleasure.

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