Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott in Lessons in Chemistry

Anger Makes for Great Creative Fuel: How ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ Was Born

As women, we are often taught to remain calm, to smile through the frustration, and not get too upset or emotional. Well f**k that! Lessons in Chemistry author Bonnie Garmus explained how anger fueled her creativity and gave birth to the novel that would become a global phenomenon and smash-hit TV series.

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Lessons in Chemistry is a novel set in the 1950s that follows the character of brilliant chemist Elizabeth Zott as she tries to conduct her work and be taken seriously as a chemist by all the incompetent and misogynistic men surrounding her—all but one, Calvin Evans. Though the story has a strong romantic relationship, the main focus is on Zott and her work, as well as her sheer determination to be seen for who she is and what she can offer beyond the typical role of housewife and mother.

Despite being set in the ’50s, this story was born out of modern-day sexism, because let’s face it: It never went away. Garmus spoke to The Guardian about how a truly crappy day set off a chain reaction that resulted in the creation of Elizabeth Zott, as a certain situation at work infuriated Garmus so much that she created a fictional world into which she could pour out her anger.

While working as a highly experienced copywriter in the tech industry, Garmus delivered a presentation for a $1 million campaign in which all the attendees were male. When she finished her presentation, she was met with a resounding silence. She recalled, “Finally, this man who I hadn’t met before speaks up: ‘Well, I’ll tell you what I think we should do!’ Then he basically just read my entire presentation, start to finish.”

This was then greeted with a round of cheers, despite Garmus pointing out that he had simply just copied what she had already said.

Brie Larson as Elizabeth in Lessons in Chemistry
(Apple TV+)

Returning to her desk brimming with rage, she typed out the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry, telling The Guardian, “I did it on their dime,” and that it was “the best financial decision I ever made.”

All of my life I’ve encountered sexism, but that day I really felt like if I hadn’t been a woman it wouldn’t have happened. I decided to write my own role model. What would she have done in that situation?

From this pondering, the character of Elizabeth Zott was born. Garmus imagined Elizabeth Zott sitting next to her at her desk, telling her, “‘You’ve had a bad day? I had a bad decade!’ And then I was really interested.”

Despite the book stemming from her own experience as a working woman, and the fact that Garmus, like Zott, is an avid rower, that’s where the similarities end. She wanted to create a role model, someone she could look up to, but also told the New York Times that Zott wasn’t based on any one person but was rather “a love letter to scientists and the scientific brain.”

The novel went on to sell 6 million copies worldwide, became Barnes & Noble’s book of the year in 2022, and won the love and admiration of readers everywhere, who saw in her pages the ability to believe in themselves, much like how Zott herself encourages the viewers of her show “Supper at Six” to believe they can accomplish more than has been meekly meted out to them.

The book’s core message resonates beyond borders, with women from across the globe feeling like they could identify with the same struggles faced by Zott in the ’50s today in their own lives. Though many women today live in a world that has evolved since the 1950s, sexism, misogyny, and ignorance live on. There are few women alive today who can claim they have never come across it, either through lived experience, shared storytelling, or even witnessing an instance where a woman has been overlooked, ignored, pushed down, or worse.

Brie Larson as Elizabeth Zott in Lessons in Chemistry
(Apple TV+)

The character of Elizabeth Zott is perhaps one we can all relate to—if not her personally (not all of us are logic-driven chemists with a deep desire to study the mysteries of abiogenesis), then at least we can relate to her struggles, her frustration. Garmus has not just created a role model for herself, then, but one that many women across the world can look up to.

Garmus is now so thankful she wrote while angry, believing that passion and fire she felt was the perfect catalyst. “I have decided that it was smart to write when I was so angry,” she told The Guardian. “If I hadn’t had that awful meeting that day, maybe I wouldn’t have written another book. It just lit a fire under me about telling this story.”

Her book was transformed into a mini-series that aired this year on Apple TV+ and starred Brie Larson as Zott. Though Garmus may not feel it the most accurate adaption herself, the series has been praised by critics and allowed her message to carry even further. Lessons in Chemistry has been nominated for two Golden Globe Awards, one for Larson’s performance and another for Best Television Limited Series, Anthology Series, or Motion Picture Made for Television.

All of this from the mind of one very pissed-off woman. We love to see it.

(featured image: Apple TV+)

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Laura Pollacco
Laura Pollacco (she/her) is a contributing writer here at The Mary Sue, having written for digital media since 2022 and has a keen interest in all things Marvel, Lord of the Rings, and anime. She has worked for various publications including We Got This Covered, but much of her work can be found gracing the pages of print and online publications in Japan, where she resides. Outside of writing she treads the boards as an actor, is a portrait and documentary photographer, and takes the little free time left to explore Japan.