The word “life-changing” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to books. Bonnie Garmus, however, actually has concrete proof that what she’s written has tangibly altered the course of the lives of people who’ve read it.
“I hear from readers all over the world every day,” says Garmus, author of Lessons in Chemistry, a genuine literary phenomenon that has sold more than four million copies, been translated into 40 languages and topped bestsellers lists in Britain, the U.S. and here in Canada. It’s also been turned into a new Apple TV+ series starring Brie Larson, out this month.
“One of the things I was trying to do in the book was point out that as human beings, we really are 99.9 per cent the same. We have more in common than we have differences,” says Garmus, an American now living in London. “I was intentionally trying to create universal characters, and I’m pleased to say that has seemed to have panned out okay, since people from all over the world see themselves in the book.”
And that ability to relate to the novel – whether it be the protagonist Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant scientist whose ambitions are thwarted by rampant sexism, or any of the other numinous characters who populate this perceptive, warm-hearted, magic-realism-sprinkled story set in mid-century America – has translated into action for some readers.
“People are changing their lives based on what they’ve read because they just need to be inspired,” says Garmus, who says “hundreds and hundreds” of people have written to her with very specific examples of this, including two young women, living on separate continents, who both decided to enroll into community college after reading Lessons in Chemistry, and are both now in law school, one with a full scholarship.
“There are people who write to me who left their difficult relationships, people who have been grieving who didn’t know how to move forward, or people who have experienced really tragic things in their lives and are looking for a change,” says Garmus. “It’s really been amazing, and I did not ever see that coming.”
In fact, when Garmus was sitting at her desk in her London flat and writing this book in her spare time – she’s a creative director and copywriter by trade – she really, truly didn’t think that anyone would ever read it, let alone use it as the impetus for transformation.
“Publishing is one of the toughest businesses to crack, and there are a lot of gatekeepers,” says Garmus, pointing out that very few writers make a living wage from their work. “I had already been rejected on another novel, countless times. I was just preparing myself for the worst, because I think that’s just a smart thing to do.”
Still, she says, she grieved for nine months about the rejection of that novel. It ran to more than 700 pages, which she thinks was her first mistake. “What I did not realize is that there is an economy to publishing, and it becomes quite painful for them to publish a really fat book – and prohibitive in places like Germany or Saudi Arabia where the book gets extra big because they have so many letters,” she says. “I’m just looking at my French translation and it looks like the Bible. It’s huge!”
For Lessons in Chemistry, Garmus’s agent was adamant that she cut some of her chapters to get the book down to a manageable 375-ish pages. The book proved such a success, however, and reader demand for more content was so strong that several of those chapters are sold separately in Germany and there’s a special Barnes & Noble edition that includes an extra chapter from the perspective of Six Thirty, the winsome, emotionally intelligent dog who’s a fan favourite – and nearly didn’t make the cut himself.
“A few people I was working with really resisted that character, because it was magical realism or it brings the book down, and I really had to fight to keep him,” says Garmus, who happens to have her own numerically named dog, 99. “My opinion was that we do live with all these other species on the planet, and they do have brains and make decisions, and have incredible empathy.”
The more we learn about animal behaviour, she says, the more we realize how intelligent other animals are. “The octopus has nine brains. Maybe we should have the octopi be in charge,” she says. “It was important to tell part of the story from the dog’s point of view because I wanted to bring in that part of science to remind people that we do live with thinking species who make choices every day – and I wanted this particular one to comment on our choices.”
There are some authors who will tell you that they write for the joy of it, or because they simply are compelled to it, and having an audience is secondary. That’s not Garmus. “It’s a battle with the page. I’m always like, ‘Wow, I must be doing this wrong. It’s hard,’ ” she laughs.
Rather than inspiration, in fact, it was anger that compelled her to begin Lessons in Chemistry, however pessimistic she might have felt about breaking into the publishing industry in her 60s.
“The day I started it I was just having a really bad day at work,” she says. “That was what fuelled that novel that day. … I was in such a bad mood, and I was really just channeling my frustration with sexism and misogyny, and that we hadn’t come far enough after all these decades, that women are still fighting for the right to be heard and own their own work.”
And when it comes to surrendering her story to a television director’s vision for it? Garmus is fine with it.
“I had lots of other authors say, ‘If you sell your book to Hollywood, make sure you walk away, because they have to make some hard changes to bring this to the screen,’ ” says Garmus, who actually signed the adaptation contract before the book was published. “But I’ve written a lot of scripts in my copywriting career, and even from that I knew that it was going to be hard – but I kind of like having other people’s interpretations of what things mean.”
All in all, Garmus says, this entire thing has been a “complete shock,” casting her mind back to when her agent, ever pragmatic, was shopping the book around to publishers at the famous Frankfurt Book Fair.
“She said, ‘Look, this is one quirky book that you’ve written,’ ” Garmus says, adding that she appreciated the reality check. “For her to say, ‘It could be bad news,’ was kind of what I needed to hear – but then it all changed very rapidly and I felt really lucky.”
A life-changing book, indeed.