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Bonnie’s next chapter: ‘Queen Camilla made me confess!’

The bestselling author’s next project is top secret... to everyone but Her Majesty
Image: Getty

If it hadn’t been for a really bad day at work, Bonnie Garmus may never have written her hit novel Lessons in Chemistry – let alone looking forward to her next piece with the Queen of England. In a meeting, everyone ignored her ideas. Then a male colleague stole those ideas and took credit for them. She had experienced sexism before, but still, it made her furious.

“As I was walking back to my desk, the frustration in me was overwhelming,” recalls Bonnie, now 67. “I started thinking about how many other women in the world must have been through similar meetings. When I sat down, I was still angry, so instead of getting on with my job, I wrote the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry. Believe it or not, that first chapter is unchanged, minus one sentence. It’s exactly what I wrote.”

Right from the beginning, the book’s main character Elizabeth Zott felt very real to her. “It was like she was sitting there in the room with me and saying, ‘Oh, you’ve had a bad day, well I’ve had a bad decade.’”

Set in the late 1950s, Lessons in Chemistry is the bittersweet tale of a brilliant young woman. She dreams of being a scientist but instead reluctantly becomes a TV cook. So far, it has sold more than six million copies, and 42 languages have translated it, with Apple TV adapting it for television.

In the five years it took to produce her debut novel, Bonnie never dreamed of such success. She worked away quietly on it “in the cracks of the day”, getting up early to write for a few hours before going to her job as a copywriter. The story’s feminist message has struck a chord with both male and female readers.

“I had no idea that people would care so much. Or especially that the book would end up changing lives,” says Bonnie. “Quite a few readers have written to me from around the world. They say they quit their job and went back to school because of what I wrote. Or some say they divorced a husband who was treating them badly. That has been astonishing.”

Since the bestseller was published in 2022, her own life has changed in some ways and in others not at all. She and her husband David still share a small London apartment, and both work at home from the dining room table – him designing puzzle apps and Bonnie on her next novel.

“He sits about three feet away from me,” she shares. “Because I read my work aloud, he has to wear headphones to drown me out.”

Her new novel remains highly confidential. One of the few people who knows its plot is Her Majesty Queen Camilla. They recently met at a reception at Clarence House held to celebrate Camilla’s book club, The Queen’s Reading Room.

“I was absolutely astonished to be invited but it was tremendous,” says California-born Bonnie. “The Queen was very charming, funny and nice, and she’s a passionate supporter of reading. She asked me what the new book was about and when I told her that I don’t talk about what I’m writing, she said, ‘But to me you will.’ So I did!”

Finding time to write is still difficult, even though Bonnie has given up her job. She has been busy travelling the world talking about Lessons in Chemistry. This month she will be coming to Aotearoa to appear at the Auckland Writers Festival.

“I’ve never been to New Zealand before, so I’m very excited, but it’s still a big chunk of time to be not writing the next book,” she says.

Mother-of-two Bonnie may have become a published novelist relatively late in life, but the focus on her age is something that surprises her.

“When I’m reading a book, I never stop and wonder about the age of the person who wrote it,” she says. “So I was shocked that it was such a big deal.”

Bonnie’s beloved character Elizabeth Zott was brought to life by Brie Larson.

In many ways, being more mature feels like an advantage as she forges ahead in her new career.

“You’re still the same person that you were, but you have this added superpower of experience,” she says. “You’ve been through the mill and you’ve survived it.

“I also think that our society paints a picture of age as decrepitude. When, in fact, you may be at your peak and it would be terrible to waste that.

“So while my brain is still intact and I can still type, I’m going to keep going.”

The Auckland Writers Festival runs from May 14-19. For more info, visit writersfestival.co.nz.

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