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In new novel, Elizabeth Zott is a chemist with a cooking show, thanks to gender roles

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Elizabeth Zott is a chemist who hosts a cooking show because it's the early 1960s and sexism, double standards, outright assault, scientific theft and discrimination all keep her from working as an actual scientist. But her TV show, "Supper At Six," and what she calls vinegar and salt - acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride - becomes a huge hit in Bonnie Garmus' debut novel, "Lessons In Chemistry." And Bonnie Garmus, who's been a copywriter, creative director and open-water swimmer, joins us now from London.

BONNIE GARMUS: (Laughter).

SIMON: Thanks so much for being with us.

GARMUS: Oh, thank you, Scott. I'm thrilled to be here.

SIMON: Tell us about Elizabeth Zott in the early 1960s. She - and so much of your book is absolutely chemistry. She seems like a chemical element suspended in a different time almost.

GARMUS: (Laughter) Yeah. You know, I set it then for two reasons. One was I kind of needed some reassurance that things have gotten better since the 1960s for women. But I also set it then because that's when my mom was a mom with four kids, and it gave me the opportunity to look at her life through a completely different lens and see what it must have been like for her to live under such severe limitations. And we still have limitations today. Sexism is still alive and well. However, boy, we have come some way (laughter), I'm thrilled to report.

SIMON: Elizabeth Zott ends every show by saying, children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.

(LAUGHTER)

GARMUS: Yeah, she does.

SIMON: What do you think makes Elizabeth's television show so popular?

GARMUS: I think what makes her show popular is that she treats her audience with respect. These women at home were often dismissed as average housewives and or, you know, plain Janes, average housewives. They were just average. And in fact, they were women just like women today that had plenty of dreams and ambitions, but they couldn't aspire to very much. So when she took them seriously, they - it was like they were reawakening, and they were starting to remember who they were, too.

SIMON: Mmm. She enters into relationship with Calvin, a scientist at her lab, a very eminent scientist. What chemistry draws them together?

GARMUS: (Laughter) Well, you know, true love is actually based on chemistry. You know, there are all sorts of hormones involved, of course. But I think what really draws them together is the fact that Calvin sees her first for her mind. He falls in love with her because he realizes that she is essentially brilliant. He has probably a similar brain to hers. They see things the same way. And he has a much easier go of it because, you know, he's a man, and she has no help in that regard. So she has to fight everything on her own, and she doesn't want to accept help of any kind.

SIMON: You know, when I introduced you as copywriter, creative director and open-water swimmer - you must have been a great chemistry student, too.

GARMUS: Oh, my gosh. I'm so sorry to tell you that I was terrible. The last time I took chemistry was in high school. I passed. I didn't really enjoy it. But when I sat down to write this book - you know, as a copywriter first, you always write about things you don't know. That's probably the best part of copywriting, is you're always exploring new products, new people, new ideas constantly. And it's one of the things I've enjoyed most in that 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'd have to teach myself basic chemistry. And that wasn't that much fun, but I actually bought a textbook off of eBay from the '50s and learned basic chemistry from that book.

SIMON: Oh, mercy.

GARMUS: (Laughter).

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

GARMUS: Oh, my gosh. You have no idea what that means to me. Thank you, Scott. Six-Thirty is the only character in the book who's actually based on a real being, and that was my dog Friday.

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

GARMUS: Actually, my kids named her Friday. We weren't sure why because we adopted her on a Saturday. But we just went with it. And she had been badly abused, and we adopted her at a shelter. We weren't quite sure what she would be like. And she turned out to be extremely smart and devoted to us. She even - when we lived abroad, when we moved abroad, she learned some German. I mean, this dog (laughter)...

SIMON: Oh, my.

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

SIMON: My gosh. Goodness gracious.

GARMUS: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: I understand your current dog is 99 - named 99. Anything to do with "Get Smart"?

GARMUS: Thank you. Gosh, Scott, you're just nailing me. Yes, absolutely. My best friend and I grew up together calling each other 86 and 99, and...

SIMON: This was - we need to explain - a sitcom...

GARMUS: (Laughter).

SIMON: ...About secret agents. Barbara Feldon...

GARMUS: (Laughter) Yeah.

SIMON: ...Was 99, yeah.

GARMUS: Exactly. And she and I called each other 86 and 99 our entire lives. And unfortunately, she was involved in a tragic accident about 10 years ago and died. But when my husband and I adopted our dog - she was a retired Greyhound racer, 6 years old, 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's been a delight. And I feel like it's an honor to have a dog that exhibits some of the smart characteristics of Barbara Feldon (laughter) and my friend.

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

GARMUS: I see her all the time. It's sort 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 happening. But yeah, she definitely comes back to me frequently to talk (laughter).

SIMON: Yeah. Do you talk back?

GARMUS: (Laughter) Yeah. I'm afraid of her, but I talk back a little bit. I always felt like when I sat down to write "Lessons In Chemistry," it was because I had had a very bad day at work. And I went back to my desk to work. And instead of working, I felt like this character was sitting beside me. And I didn't know much about her. She had been a minor character in a book that I had started and shelved years and years ago.

And suddenly, I just saw her, and she said, you know, you think you've had a bad day? No. I've had a bad day. And then I wrote that first chapter. And I wasn't really sure 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 entire middle part (laughter).

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.