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22 October 2020

Author Bonnie Garmus & agent Felicity Blunt on Lessons in Chemistry

Bonnie Garmus and Felicity Blunt
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students, From the Agents, Writing Tips

Last week, during the publishing industry’s first ever virtual Frankfurt Book Fair, we received some spectacular newsformer novel-writing student Bonnie Garmus was the talk of the fair! Bonnie’s agent, Curtis Brown’s Felicity Blunt, sold Lessons in Chemistry (which she worked on with us) to Doubleday in a massive 16-way auction, and by the end of the week agent Sarah Harvey from the Curtis Brown translation rights team had sold the book in over 22 territories!

We caught up with Bonnie and Felicity to talk about the elements needed to write, edit and sell this brilliant book, and the importance of author-agent chemistry…

Bonnie, what did you enjoy most about our six-week online Write to the End of Your Novel course?

Bonnie: I’d been working on Lessons in Chemistry for a few years in between work and constant moves and was starting to get that sinking feeling that I might not ever finish. But then my daughter sent me a link to Write to the End of Your Novel and I thought – hey! I can be done with my novel in six weeks! Which…I wasn’t. But it didn’t matter because the course got me out of my slump. Anna Davis is brilliant. She gives solid, empathetic advice about so many things, but it was her ideas about what to do when you’re stuck in the middle of the book – and I was really stuck – that made me rethink where I was going and how I was going to get there. I also really enjoyed getting to read everyone else’s work and getting their feedback. A bunch of us still keep in touch!

After completing Write to the End of Your Novel you secured a place on our Writing Your Novel – three month course. What were the biggest lessons that you took away from studying with us?

Bonnie: I loved this course because of the people in it. Our instructor, Charlotte Mendelson, was so entertaining. Her lectures on writing were amazing and thought-provoking and we were all better for them. I think everyone will remember the night she demonstrated the art of conflict by engaging us in a game she called  ‘Fortunately/Unfortunately’ where each of us contributed a line to a story where things got better, then got much worse. A talented author, she also writes about gardening for this tiny little magazine no one’s ever heard of called The New Yorker. 

Many of our students find their writing community on our courses – are you still in touch with any of your course mates?

Bonnie: We are! Pre-covid, we used to try and get together once a month at Waterstones to share our woes and our successes, but now we rely mostly on our private WhatsApp group to share news and support each other. I’d applied to the three-month course, in part, to force myself to keep making progress, but I was also fairly new to London and didn’t know anyone. Starting over in a new place, let alone a new country isn’t always so easy. But from the first night, I knew these people were not only serious writers, but were also my kind of people: well-read, funny, and not looking forward to being reviewed in class. We would often go out together after class to wind down, but sometimes we’d also meet before class to fortify ourselves for the ensuing comments. Writers are sort of like baby seals: always awaiting that club. 

Shortly after studying with us you gained representation from Curtis Brown’s Felicity Blunt. Now your debut Lessons in Chemistry will be published by Doubleday in the UK (there are also many more exciting international deals in the works). Can you talk us through how it felt when Felicity delivered the news that you were going to be published?

Bonnie: I shrieked. Felicity had said (in her calm and reassuring way!) that there was ‘a lot of interest,’ but when she explained the level of interest, I really couldn’t believe it. Like most writers, I tend to assume the worst. But suddenly there I was, in the unfamiliar position of having to choose between my publishing heroes – people I have long noted and admired as the best of the best. It was both surreal and difficult. I lost a lot of sleep. In fact, I kept getting up in the middle of the night to check my email because I was sure I’d dreamed the whole thing. One night, when I was getting up yet again, my husband mumbled, ‘let me save you a trip. It’s real.’

Felicity, what first struck you about Bonnie’s writing and made you want to read on?

Felicity: It made me laugh, I mean immediately I laughed on reading the first paragraph. I’m utterly vulnerable to anybody or anything that amuses me. So I was already hooked. But then the writing itself was utterly assured in its tone and wonderfully deft with how it played with language. It was sophisticated and smart and equally warm and immediate. I offered Bonnie representation right off the back of reading her partial. I think I also stalked her at a drinks event CBC held.

The relationship between author and agent is a special one. Was there any point before signing the client agreement where things ‘clicked’, and you knew you had to work together?

Felicity: Well I met Bonnie at the CBC drinks, a real-life event that feels like something from another world right now. But I went to those drinks specifically determined to track down Bonnie. She was very very gracious considering the single-minded nature of my pursuit. We then got to meet in person and it just felt immediately easy. I liked her so so much. I also could tell she had about 100 book ideas in her and so much varied life experience that those books were always going to be unique and thought provoking. I think by the end of the meeting I was also imagining her writing an original television series.

Bonnie: I was in a state of denial that night I met Felicity. I had already identified her as my dream agent, so when she took me aside, I suddenly found myself back in Charlotte’s game. (Fortunately, Felicity told me she liked my work! Unfortunately, she’d mixed me up with someone else!) But within a few minutes, I found myself so at ease with her. She’s really fun, really kind, and so extremely (scarily) smart. The fact that we both don’t like yoga was just icing on the cake. Our next meeting in her office was one of the easiest, most exciting conversations I’ve ever had. To be paired with an agent who ‘got me’ was something every writer dreams of. I’ve been writing professionally for a very long time and have worked with scores of reviewers, editors, and clients. But when it comes to trusting someone with your manuscript, it’s a different ballgame. You want someone who supports you, but also pushes you. And that’s what she did. And the fact that she was willing to take a chance on me – she signed me before I finished the book – was flat-out crazy. That’s trust. That’s belief. It’s also maybe just a little bit insane.

Can you tell us a little bit about the work you did together on Lessons in Chemistry before sending the book out to editors?

Felicity: I think – from memory – we did three big edits over about fifteen months and then some tweaks just as I was sending it out. (Nothing more relaxing for an author. SORRY BONNIE). Am sure the totality of the experience felt like torture for Bonnie. The first edit was the biggest and focused on structure and pacing. Once that edit had been tackled – which Bonnie did masterfully – the book for me quickly began to fall into shape and balance. Then it was a case of deepening characterisations and ensuring we cut what felt superfluous and created room for the plot to unfurl in a way that was satisfying.

I never though had to line edit her. Her voice is so so good. It never needed help.

Bonnie: The best thing about Felicity is that she doesn’t sugarcoat anything. I knew my structure and pacing were wobbly, but naturally, I was hoping she wouldn’t notice. (She did.) But then she went on to give me the kind of critical feedback I work best with – the kind that identifies balance issues (too fast here; too slow here; more from this character) but trusts me to fix these things in my own way. She never once questioned the voice, the POVs, the number of rules I was breaking, the story’s internal drive – nothing. She was the one who convinced me to make Elizabeth Zott more vulnerable and to add more about the mother-daughter relationship. I tortured her throughout with my dog character (SORRY FELICITY!). He used to have a much larger role. But I think she was right (again) about scaling him back. (Although whenever a reader tells me how much they love the dog and wished there’d been more of him, I always make sure to share that news with her.😀) 

Did she torture me? Yes! But that’s what you want. You want someone to care enough to torture you. And if I really didn’t want to make a certain change, she’d graciously let it stand. I always question people who say they love to write. I guess I’d say I love to tell a story. The actual writing – the blank page paralysis, self-doubt, spontaneous bathroom cleaning, trips to the refrigerator, I could do without. Also, credit Felicity with the title! We had to change it about five minutes before she released it! 

Felicity, Lessons in Chemistry sold to Doubleday in a massive 16-way auction – as an agent do you know when a book is going to inspire such fierce competition from publishers?

Felicity: I honestly never go into a submission expecting anything like what we saw with Bonnie. That is not to say I didn’t have confidence in the book, but this business is utterly and beautifully subjective and I can never assume what I love will be what others love. That said having submitted the book I think I knew within about an hour that it was going to go big as I had three editors who started the book immediately and emailed me to say they were loving. The scouts were also invaluable in spreading the message and getting their international clients to read. I think we as an industry all worked together in real harmony to launch Lessons in Chemistry and what is lovely is how many are now invested in Bonnie as an author.

Without giving too much away, which parts of Lessons in Chemistry are you most excited for readers to experience? 

Felicity: I cannot wait for the world to meet Elizabeth Zott, who is one of the most clearly realised literary characters I have ever come across. To read her is to love her! Her story is ultimately one of hope, of staying true to yourself and not accepting the limitations others place on you. She feels like the perfect role model for where we find ourselves in this moment.

Lessons in Chemistry is a vibrant, feminist story set in the 1960s with an amazing protagonist – Elizabeth Zott – a chemist turned cooking show host. Bonnie, what first inspired the character of Elizabeth and for you to tell her story?

Bonnie: Our world is beset by problems and yet our society keeps far too many of the best and brightest minds from tackling these problems due to a long history of sexism, racism, and self-serving political narrow-mindedness. I wanted to write about a woman who refused to accept these limits at a time when women could not–and who, through cooking and science, restores a sense of purpose and capability to her audience. At the same time, and despite some of the serious underlying themes, I wanted to make the book entertaining and fun to read. The world’s pretty dark these days — I didn’t want to pile on! 

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