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Series 5

Episode Five: Narrator Emily Woo Zeller

Emily Woo Zeller is an American voice actress and audiobook narrator whose work has earned heaps of awards, including AudioFile’s prestigious Golden Voice Award. You may have heard her reading fantasy books like R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War series, romance novels like Helen Hoang’s The Bride Test, or perhaps a spy thriller like Chloe Gong’s Foul Lady Fortune. Today she tells us what she appreciates about those books, and a little of what she’s learned about creating a well-balanced life.

Other books mentioned:

Phoenix Extravagant by Yoon Ha Lee

The Stress Prescription: Seven Days to More Joy and Ease by Elissa Epel

The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer by Elizabeth Blackburn, Elissa Epel 


Emilly Woo Zeller and Gabra Zackman’s short-form romance and erotica:

AudioFile interview:

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Episode Four: Narrator Stephanie Cannon

Stephanie Cannon is an American voice actor, circus performer, and audiobook narrator living in England. In this conversation with host Jessica Stone, she tells us what that’s like, how walking on stilts complements reading in a box, which kinds of books she loves to narrate, and conversely which ones she'll take a pass on. We also discuss Kate Dylan’s cyberpunk dystopian novel Mindwalker and its sequel Mindbreaker, both narrated by Stephanie. 

Books and other recommendations:

  • The Sharp Edge of Silence by Cameron Kelly Rosenblum, narrated by Stephanie Cannon 
  • Mindwalker by Kate Dylan, narrated by Stephanie Cannon
  • Mindbreaker by Kate Dylan, narrated by Stephanie Cannon
  • Noir by Christopher Moore, narrated by Johnny Heller 
  • Heidi’s Guide to Four Letter Words, by Tara Sivec and Andy Arndt, narrated by Andy Arndt
  • The Space Race, docudrama from B7 Media, narrated by Kate Mulgrew


For more of Stephanie’s work, head to her website

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Episode Three: Narrator Jane McDowell

Jane McDowell is a talented actress and narrator with many credits to her name, including the Dr Ruth Galloway mystery series by Elly Griffiths. In this conversation with host Jessica Stone, Jane tells us what it was like to record the last book of the series The Locked Room during a Covid lockdown, how animals help her create character voices, and what book was so moving that she wrote the author to thank her. 

Books mentioned, all narrated by Jane:
The Locked Room by Elly Griffiths
Delicious by Nicki Pellegrino
Snow Widows by Katherine MacInnes
Curlew Moon by Mary Colwell
The Hidden World of the Fox by Adele Brand
The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn
A Killer's Confession by Karen Edwards

Gift Membership
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Members' Choice Award
To vote for your favourite audiobook to win the Members Choice Award, visit

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Episode Two: Narrator Polly Lee

Polly Lee is an award winning actress and narrator of over 200 fiction and non-fiction books. She has also narrated over 200 romance novels under the name Ashford McNab/MacNab. Raised in the UK, she has lived in the US now for 25 years working equally in both her British and American dialects. Today she tells us about some of the books that have stayed with her, including Soman Chainani’s School for Good and Evil series, and the voices she would have done differently if she’d known how the series would play out. 

Other books mentioned: 

A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus
Better Late than Never: Understand, survive and thrive a midlife diagnosis of ADHD by Emma Mahony and Sari Solden

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If you're enjoying this podcast, leaving a review on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen, can help others find us (and makes us feel good, too).

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Episode Two: Narrator Polly Lee


Polly Lee is an award winning actress and narrator of over 200 fiction and non-fiction books. She has also narrated over 200 romance novels under the name Ashford McNab/MacNab. Raised in the UK, she has lived in the US now for 25 years working equally in both her British and American dialects. Today she tells us about some of the books that have stayed with her, including Soman Chainani’s School for Good and Evil series, and the voices she would have done differently if she’d known how the series would play out.


Polly: What is a person’s fundamental self and what choices are we making about what we’re told about ourselves that take us closer to that or further away from that, I think is one of many, many fascinating questions that are raised by these books.

[Music starts]

Jessica: [To listeners] This is the Listening Books podcast. I’m Jessica Stone and today’s guest is Polly Lee, an award-winning actress and narrator of over two hundred fiction and nonfiction books. She’s also narrated over two hundred romance novels under the name Ashford McNab. Raised in the UK, she’s lived in the US now for twenty-five years, working equally in both her British and American dialects. Today she tells us about some of the books that have stuck with her, including Soman Chainani’s School for Good and Evil series, and the voices she would have done differently if she’d known how the series would play out.

[Music ends]

[To Polly] Polly, thank you so much for joining me. Let’s start with your origin story. Not your origin story as a villain [Polly chuckles] but your origin story as an audiobook narrator and how you came to this. 

Polly: Of course. I, kind of, fell into it, if you can fall very slowly, [chuckles] it’s a long game, in that I was just finishing at drama school here in New York City. I did my first ever professional job and at the very end of the job I fell off the stage and broke my foot [Jessica gasps] and therefore was not able to go back to my waitressing job that I’d had all the way through drama school and so, kind of, reached out to all of my friends, asking if they knew of anything that I could do that was sedentary. I needed to do it because the workers’ comp package was not phenomenal. I had a friend that directed and engineered audiobooks for a company here in New York and he said, ‘If you want, I could get you a proofreading job’, which at the time consisted of him bringing stacks of cassette tapes to my house and I would listen to them on my Walkman and read along with the copy. I just had to make sure that everything that was in the manuscript had made it to the tape and that there were no extraneous noises or editorial issues. Then I gave the stack of tapes back with paper on which was handwritten my edits and my notes and my QC they call it, quality control notes.

So that was how I kind of edged into the audio business and I did that for many years as a, kind of, side job to the acting stuff. Then as I went along, more and more of the colleagues that I was working with as an actor were recording the books that I was proofing! So at one point I went in to take in – at this point I think they were CDs or may even have been on an iPod – to take it in, to return it, and was, like, ‘Oh, I notice that this book was narrated by Kate Forbes, I just did a show with her. Is there any way that I could narrate a book?’ The QC guy looked at me and was, like, ‘Of course!’, like why didn’t we think of this years ago!’ [Jessica chuckles], and so they invited me to do a couple of books. I think the first book I narrated was a kid’s book about global warming that I had to narrate in an American accent. And that’s the origin story, from there I, kind of, never looked back. I very quickly got in on the ground floor with Audible, before they were the mega giant that they are now, and that, kind of, birthed my Regency romance career…!

Jessica: Yeah!

Polly: …which has been my bread and butter really ever since. And that is the origin of both Polly Lee, narrator, and Ashford McNab, narrator!

Jessica: So you did literally fall into it?

Polly: Fell into it very slowly!

Jessica: Yes! Yes, that was a long fall actually! [Polly giggles] I mean, I am kind of astonished that it took you so long to think, you know, why would I just, like, proof the audiobooks, why wouldn’t I just do them!

Polly: So bizarre.

Jessica: I mean, how many years was it that you were doing that?

Polly: I mean, I want to say a good maybe ten to fifteen years!

Jessica: No!

Polly: Maybe ten years.

Jessica: Polly!

Polly: Maybe ten years of solid proofing. I know, so bizarre, and it’s bizarre because my mum is an author and so you’d have thought that it would have, you know, come up earlier, but yeah, it just never occurred to me. But we joke, my mum jokes with me that she started it all because when I was in secondary school I rebelled. My only every successful rebellion was to stop reading for pleasure. I told my mum that I wasn’t going to read any books that weren’t academic books and she said, ‘I will pay you to read books’, and she did! And here we are [laughing] being paid to read books! [Jessica laughs] So, she set me up for this job that took me ages to comes to terms with. But I think, honestly, it took a while just because I was very lucky to be a very prolific theatre actor when I first came out of drama school, after the broken foot incident, and so I was travelling a lot. So I wasn’t able to be in town very often and audiobooks, at that time, you had to be present for, you couldn’t, kind of, do it in your closet, like…

Jessica: Right.

Polly: …you can now. That’s a post-lockdown change in the industry that is fantastic because I can take my booth with me now, which is nice, but yeah, at the time you definitely had to be in New York to record an audiobook in New York!

Jessica: When you record on your own, when you record at home, do you self-direct?

Polly: I do, I don’t work with directors here, but for the most part I do the, kind of, Regency romance books, and, I always find it hard to figure out how to say this without belittling the genre, I love the genre, I’m an avid romance reader myself, but it is a trope genre, you know. [Jessica: Hm] It’s very much a goody, a baddy, a heroine, a hero and therefore the, kind of, directorial aspect isn’t as needed…

Jessica: Right.

Polly: …with that genre. Whereas you had mentioned wanting to talk about School for Good and Evil. With a book of that scope and the lag time in between books – you know Soman was writing them as they were coming out, it wasn’t that the whole series was written [chuckles] and they just released them. So it was just a huge scope and for something like that a director is definitely needed and a, kind of, slew of research people who have stayed on top of who the characters are and what has happened to them and… You know, there’s a whole team that goes with that. But for the most part when I record at home I record a lot of these kind of Regency romances and those I do without a director. Then the engineer is remote, so I simply record the raw footage and then send it into the ether and then it comes back to me saying, ‘There was a strange vacuuming sound happening’.

Jessica: Right!

Polly: I’m like, ‘My neighbour!’

Jessica: Yeah! You mentioned your pseudonym. Do you use that for all of the Regency romance novels?

Polly: That was the idea. As mentioned, when I started out I was doing a lot of kids’ novels and then a lot of the Regency romance and somebody at Audible suggested that I use a pseudonym for the Regency romance, just to keep the two genres separate. Over the years it’s somewhat blended, just by, kind of, my not paying attention to it and as I’ve done less of the very young kids’ books it has felt less important to keep them separate. But certainly when I was starting out, I was doing, kind of, books for eight-/nine-year-olds and then some of the romance novels were really quite blue in the beginning…

Jessica: Right.

Polly: …it was more on the erotica side than the romance side and so it felt very important. And actually, the person at Audible, back in the day when they said to me, ‘Oh, this is going to be very graphic, it’s erotica and you can record it under a false name if you’d like’. I said, ‘Oh, I’m not prudy, I’m not worried about it, everybody knows me’, and then I started reading it and I was, like, oh, no, I definitely want a pseudonym! [Jessica laughs] It was very, very graphic. Years later I came to meet my now mother-in-law and she said, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to meet you, I googled you’, [Jessica gasps] and my immediate thought was, thank God I chose a pseudonym for that book! [Laughter] But nowadays I don’t, sadly, [chuckling] do any of the erotica, so the books are much tamer ,so I found it’s gotten a little bit blended, there are some romance novels under Polly Lee. But there aren’t any kids books under Ashford McNabb as far as I’m aware!

Jessica: [Chuckles] I did say to you that I wanted to talk about The School for Good and Evil series, if we could.

Polly: Yeah!

Jessica: This is the series by Soman Chainani, which has since been adapted to a film by Netflix, and with a pretty star-studded cast from the sounds of it.

Polly: Yes, I’m delighted to find out that Cate Blanchett was playing the narrator, which would be my role, and I was like, well, you know, if somebody’s going to steal your part it should be Cate Blanchett!

Jessica: High praise, yeah!

Polly: Yes!

Jessica: Yeah, I just wondered what your experience of narrating that series has been like.

Polly: That series was a gift for me on many, many levels. Just… It was one of the first books I read where I was truly… I got the chance to read a book many times that never ceased to surprise, so I feel like it for me, kind of, raised the bar on what YA literature could be in terms of the thematic content as well as just the, kind of, Soman’s dextrous use of prose. I was just really, kind of, blown away by the high quality, and certainly that first book I felt like should be a must-read for everyone. I felt like it really played with the genre of fairy tale in a fascinating way. Then, you know, the first book is about, kind of, what is good and what is evil and I found it be a very complex conversation that Soman was having in that book and then went on to have around other themes in the later books. But truly gripping and at the time I don’t think he, and certainly not I, knew that it was going to become such a beloved series, but also such a huge series, you know!

Jessica: Yeah!

Polly: That by the end it was epic! So, you know, I made vocal choices for that first book that I perhaps wouldn’t have made [chuckling] if I’d have known that I was going to be still working on it ten years later!

Jessica: Okay, that’s interesting! [Polly chuckles] I’d love for you to say more about that. Which voices?

Polly: Well, there was one of the gnomes that ran the Underground, has a very [adopts growly voice] kind of gravelly, kind of, Yoda wannabe voice and… Unsustainable! [Jessica laughs]. And I feel like… There were many times I was, like, ‘Oh no, it’s the gnome! [Laughing] I don’t know if I’ve got this in me today!’ [Jessica laughs] But…Then it was Soman’s book in cahoots with another romance that I was reading at the time that I decided there was a subsidiary character in Soman’s book, she’s called Kiko, and because she didn’t say much in the first book I gave her a lisp. 

Jessica: Oh no!

Polly: And then in a later book she had a lot to say and I was like, oh God, that was such a bad choice! But, you know, Soman’s fans rightly are ardent and it was discussed with the publisher and with Soman, like, do we just drop the lisp? Do we keep the… Like, how is this going to work? And we all decided that obviously you keep the lisp [Jessica: Oh!], it was integral to her selfhood. And so, you know, we just, kind of, tried to smooth it out a bit and make it less comedic and more realistic that… [Jessica: Mhm] You know, the setup of her character in the first book was such that it was just to give her a different sound than a lot of the people that she was speaking to, so we honoured that thrust! Just like, she’s just going to sound a little different. By the time I got to the last book, Soman had his assistant send me a spreadsheet, which broke down very clearly, like, what book the character had been in before, you know, whether they were a kind of featured part or just a, kind of, side part, you know, the… And I think there were over 160 voices by the end of the series…

Jessica: Wow.

Polly: …and that includes, you know, in a world of no princes book, the fact that women became men and men became women, girls became boys, boys became girls, and then there were some nonbinary folks in there too, that their voices… You know, in audio you only have the vocal change to denote some of those things and in our time how do you do that without implying, well, all men have deep voices and all women have light voices and… From the very beginning I was interested in the fact that Agatha probably had a more grounded voice [Jessica: Mhm.] than the other characters. So it’s a game of, you know, who speaks to who, for how long!

Jessica: Yeah!

Polly: The content of what they’re saying, the quality of their character and then, yeah, what kind of a role they play in terms of plot and story as to whether they speak fast or slow, high pitch or low pitch. You know [Jessica: Hm.] what’s the thrust of what they’re trying to say over the whole book and then obviously with School for Good and Evil, over the whole series… 

Jessica: Yeah.

Polly: …that Agatha and Sophie go through so much together, and so is it interesting or just confusing having them switch voices as they switch parts? We decided confusing, so [Jessica laughs] we need to say that the voice of Agatha says nothing about whether she’s good or evil. The voice of Sophie only says something about her being evil when she’s truly leaning into her evil self! When she becomes the kind of shrewish old lady, you know, what quality does that have and can it still be linked to her original quality? And what is beautiful about seeing the Netflix film is that they too are asking those questions and, kind of, passing that, like, what is a person’s fundamental self and what choices are we making about what we’re told about ourselves that take us closer to that or further away from that, I think is one of many, many fascinating questions that are raised by these books.

Jessica: Mhm. There’s a little song that Agatha’s mother sings about the school for good and evil, like early on in the first book, and as I was listening to you sing it I was thinking did she have to make up the tune or did the author or the director suggest a sort of tune? What happens in that scenario?

Polly: No, I made up that tune! [Jessica laughs] I made up that tune. You have to be very careful with songs and in general in audiobooks the rule is that you don’t sing songs [Jessica: Hm.] because you want to be careful not to inadvertently take somebody else’s IP or consciously use someone else’s IP without paying for it. [Jessica: Hm.] So they were very clear that I could not use any kind of a tune that would, you know, sound like another tune. But Soman was also clear that he needed it sung, it couldn’t just be read, [Jessica: Hm.] which is the usual, kind of, default mode for audiobook songs that are outlined, in my experience.

Jessica: See, that’s something that I think most people wouldn’t think about until they were in the position of suddenly having to [Polly chuckles] deal with this! You know? You just… Well, I know a lot of readers skip over songs anyway but, you know, you’re sort of… [Polly laughs] You’re making up your… Call your own tune!

Polly: That’s not an option! [Laughter] Yeah, well, the beauty of it being recorded of course is that it can be played back to you the next time. That when you’re, like, oh God, I don’t know what I did for this, I just made something up on the spot [Jessica laughs], they’ll be, like, ‘Okay, well, let’s listen to it’!

Jessica: You’d mentioned how challenging the gnome was to voice, particularly when that part was expanded. Were there any characters that were particularly fun to voice?

Polly: I think Tedros was particularly fun because he’s such a trope, right? So it was like, what is just a swashbuckling prince voice and what is the, kind of, most appealing male-sounding sound I can make to make everybody swoon while they’re listening? [Jessica chuckles] Then, you know, as he goes on his journey, finding some gravitas and that and finding some actual… You know, that when he’s introduced he’s such a, kind of, cartoon hero and then to, kind of, as we come to know him and understand what makes him tick, how to add in a layer of believable nuance to his character was super fun to do. But honestly in School for Good and Evil all the voices are so fun because, as I say, I come from an acting background and so just thinking about the kind of psychology that goes into that playing against the trope and that understanding of the fairy-tale identities of everybody [Jessica: Hm], from the actual humans to, you know, Anadil, super fun to do.

Yeah, just all of the characters, even the very subsidiary side characters were super fun to think about because they all had such strong, kind of, back stories. And the teachers, like, I remember being very sure that Dovey should have a kind of Disney fairy-tale godmother feel to her, you know, that she was very gentle and kind. You know, I was thinking about Angel Lansbury and Sleeping Beauty and those kind of inspirations. But I think each character had that same kind of inspirational feel behind it where you’re, like, there is a perfect voice for this person, I just need to figure out what it is [Jessica: Hm] and how to get at it. Then by book two also how to maintain it and how to take them on the journey that they’re going to go on. Because it became apparent that everyone was going to go on an epic journey, not just Agatha and Sophie.

Jessica: Hmm, I imagine your notes are extensive.

Polly: They are extensive. Yes, the notes from the first book were handwritten on a folded piece of A4 paper, [Jessica: Hm.] which I’ve devoutly kept. It’s shredded and smudged and you can barely see anything on it but it is in the folder labelled School for Good and Evil. Then over the years that became, as I say, kind of, Soman’s assistants sending me spreadsheets and marking up, and then HarperCollins the publisher would send me the previous audiobooks so I could go through. So there are lots of notations of what minute and what book and what chapter this voice appears, and so all that is, kind of, annotated on this epic spreadsheet and little clues: ‘Oh, in book one he had a slightly gravelly sound but when he becomes a woman in book two the gravel stays but the pitch rises’, you know, and things like that! that you just think…

Jessica: Oh wow.

Polly: …it’s like, this way madness lies, you know!

Jessica: Yes! [Polly laughs] I mean, it’s hard enough with that many characters to keep the voices straight when their voices stay the same, but when they’re actually changing because of plot lines and whatever, that just adds such complexity, I can’t imagine.

Polly: Yeah, and I will say one more thing about The School for Good and Evil books. It took up, I want to say, kind of, ten years of my life from the first one to the last one that I narrated, and I feel like I learned a lot in that time about personal identity politics [Jessica: Hm] and the world changed as the books came out, it felt like.

Jessica: Oh wow.

Polly: So I feel like a) I got the gift of learning about it and passing it and getting to put some kind of practical things in, but I did change some voices as a result. There was a South Asian character in the first book that I did a South Asian accent that by the third book I was saying to Soman, like, I can’t do this anymore, I’ve learned so much more about the way race plays out in the world. [Jessica: Hm] I think I would either, you know, go back and re-record her lines from the first book or I just need to change the vocal choice I made. And Soman was 100 percent behind that and was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, change the voice’ now that you know what you know. So, you know, I just want to put that out there, that [chuckling] while Kiko’s lisp stayed consistent, there were some vocal choices that I changed as a result of things that I learned…

Jessica: Yeah.

Polly: …as I was doing the series. I think that’s important, that kind of flexibility, and I was really grateful for Harper and Soman to be with me on that journey, to walk that path with me.


Jessica: [To listeners] I hope you’re enjoying this conversation with Polly Lee. Let me just take a minute to tell you that voting is now open for the Listening Books Members Choice Award. Have your say and cast your vote on the best audiobook of 2023. Visit our website before 30th November to vote. You’ll find the Members Choice Award in the Extra section of our website. I’ll leave a direct link in the show notes to make it easy. Stephen Fry will announce the winner in January. You do need to be a member to vote but you’ll be glad to know that joining is easy. You can find more information on our website


Polly: Well, at the moment I’m narrating a book called… I’m not even sure if I’m allowed to say it out loud but it’s called For [bleep] Sake [Jessica gasps] and it’s about swearing! [Jessica laughs] So I’m having a lot of fun here in the booth. There are some very hilarious moments. It’s a very academic philosophy book about why we need swearing as a society but, you know, interpellated with lots of swearing, which… I have a terrible potty mouth so I’m enjoying getting it all out in the book. [Jessica laughs]

Jessica: Really relish every one of them!

Polly: Exactly! Exactly, like, did I lean in a little too hard on that one? [Laughter]

Jessica: Have you done every genre that exists, now?

Polly: I think I have Jessica. I’m very proud of that, that particularly since lockdown… You know, before lockdown I think I did maybe, kind of, three or four books a year and then lockdown happened. I was slated to record the last of The School for Good and Evil books with Harper at a studio in Manhattan and lockdown happened, and Soman called me and said, ‘They’re going to have to recast you for the last book because they need someone that has a home studio’, and I said, ‘I have one’.

Jessica: Oh!

Polly: At the time I did not! [Jessica laughs] I had, oddly, asked for a Christmas present for a microphone and a computer because I could see that that was the way the business was going, but it was sitting in a closet in Brooklyn and we had relocated to the Catskill Mountains for lockdown. I got off that phone call with Soman and said to my partner, ‘You have to drive to Manhattan and get that computer and microphone out of the top of my closet and then figure out how to work it and get back here and set it up and tell me how to work it. ‘[Jessica chuckles] And he, bless him, did all of that! He, kind of, rushed down here, picked up the stuff, got back, set it up for me, was, like, ‘I think this is how it works’, just in time to send them a sample to be, like, look, I have a home studio, I know exactly what I’m doing!

Jessica: Never did a home studio come together so quickly!

Polly: Exactly! And thank goodness I’d asked for the equipment for Christmas, because everybody was rushing to buy studio equipment, not just for audiobooks but for voiceover in general. As soon as theatres and movie and TV shutdown, all actors moved into the voiceover world [Jessica: Hm] and so the stores were empty! [Jessica laughs] So I was very lucky that I had gone in ahead of time and gotten the stuff because otherwise I would have been screwed. All of that is a very long-winded way to say that I have been very lucky. I have narrated, I think, in every genre that exists and every single – I can say hand on my heart I have yet to narrate a book that I’m, like, uh, that was awful, [Jessica laughs] I never, ever want to do that again; that just every book that I’ve had the pleasure of reading has given me great pleasure and taught me something, and I hope has done the same for the people [Jessica: Hm] that get to read/listen.

Jessica: That’s a wonderful thing to be able to say. I sort of suspect that when you have read the volume of audiobooks or narrated the volume of audiobooks that you’ve done, that maybe not all of them stay in the memory as well, particularly maybe in certain genres, that even if we love them, they can, kind of, merge together.

Polly: Definitely!

Jessica: But I wonder if there are any that have had real staying power, that have been unforgettable for you.

Polly: Definitely. Definitely have. I think for me it kind of breaks down into fiction and nonfiction and I think for me a lot of the things that stay with me are nonfiction, for the most part, and fiction tends to blend. But in the fiction department I read, I think probably at the end of last year or maybe at the beginning of this year, I read this fantastic YA book called A Place to Hang the Moon. It’s a beautiful book. It’s about these kids who are displaced during World War II and orphaned ultimately and them, kind of, trying to find love and a family. It’s just really a very moving book and I think it stayed with me because I had just adopted my daughter and so I was thinking about the kind of trauma that adoption involves, even at the infant level, which is what my daughter was, and just how many people are displaced by wars and the Ukraine thing that’s going on, you know, and just the effect on just people living their lives. This book really manages to get at that and what it is to feel displaced and to be looking for love. [Jessica: Mm] It is called A Place to Hang the Moon and it is by Kate Albus, A L B U S. So that’s my fiction stuck with me. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Then nonfiction, I’ve been having this wonderful year of narrating a lot of, kind of, books about how to manage various different aspects of neurodiversity and one in particular was about – it’s a bit of a buzzy topic at the moment but being diagnosed with ADHD in middle age. [Jessica: Hm] Apparently many, many girls do not get diagnosed with ADHD in the same numbers that boys do because the way that neurodiversity presents in classrooms is less disruptive in women than it is in men – boys and girls. So many girls, kind of, struggle through schooling with ADHD and only just now they… For years and years thought it was a childhood disease that you, kind of, grew out of and they’re realising that, no, no, you don’t grow out of it. Most people historically have just learned to handle themselves. So there’s this slew of women in particular that are being diagnosed in middle age with ADHD and an English sufferer, a neurodivergent woman, has written this book and it was just mind-blowing. Just seeing the, kind of, effect of ADHD on a person’s life through her telling of all the various aspects. And then at the end of it, coming to understand how it’s also, kind of, positive for the people that have this particular neurodivergency and if they can learn to live within it, how it really enhances our world. Again, back to diversity, right, makes the world a better place, to have all kinds of people in it, and it’s not necessarily beneficial to try and make the world a monolith!  

Jessica: Right. What was the name of the book again?

Polly: It is called Better Late Than Never: Understand, Survive and Thrive Midlife ADHD Diagnosis and it’s by Emma Mahony, is the ADHD neurodivergent person, and Sari Solden is the medic that she’s written it with. Better Late Than Never, phenomenal read, fascinating.

Jessica: It does sound fascinating, and I’m making a note of it myself to have a read.

Polly: And you will definitely spend the whole book diagnosing your family and friends. That was definitely my experience. I was, like, oh my God, I have to email this person immediately and tell them they probably have ADHD!

Jessica: Yeah, I imagine there might be a bit of self-diagnosis in there as well!

Polly: Definitely, definitely!

Jessica: Polly, thank you so much for making time for this conversation today. I’ve really enjoyed all the insight you’ve given us into your life and craft of audiobook narration, and really appreciate the book recommendations too. 

Polly: Thank you so much. I’ve greatly enjoyed speaking with you.

Jessica: [To listeners] And thank you for listening.

[Music starts]

Do let us know if you’re enjoying this series. You can find us in the usual places on social media, we’re @listeningbooks, and if you have the time to leave a review, whether on Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast player, we’re always grateful. I know it isn’t always straightforward where and how to leave a review so we really do appreciate the effort and it seems to help others find us. Next week I’ll be back with actor and narrator Jane McDowell, who voiced the enormously popular Dr Ruth Galloway series. If you like crime fiction or historical fiction or animals, you won’t want to miss it.

This podcast is produced by Listening Books, a UK charity that provides an audiobook lending service for over 120,000 members who find that an illness, disability, learning difficulty or mental health condition affects their ability to read the printed word or hold a book. It’s simple to join. For more information head to our website

[Music ends]

[End of Transcript]



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Episode One: Author Bonnie Garmus

Bonnie Garmus is the author of Lessons in Chemistry, the bestselling novel about a chemist named Elizabeth Zott who becomes the host of a cooking show in the 1960s. In this conversation with host Jessica Stone, Bonnie tells us about how her career as a copywriter shaped her approach to writing the novel, the one mispronunciation in the audiobook, and why she needed to break some rules to write this story. 

Other books mentioned in this episode: 

Chasing Hope by Nicholas D. Kristof   
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver 

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Episode One: Author Bonnie Garmus


Bonnie Garmus is the author of Lessons in Chemistry, the bestselling novel about a chemist named Elizabeth Zott who becomes the host of a cooking show in the 1960s. In this conversation with host Jessica Stone, Bonnie tells us about how her career as a copywriter shaped her approach to writing the novel, the one mispronunciation in the audiobook, and why she needed to break some rules to write this story.


Bonnie: I wanted to make my own show, from my own imagination, and not be influenced. But also, I just don’t like to cook.

[Music starts]

Jessica: [To listeners] This is the Listening Books podcast. I’m Jessica Stone and today’s guest is Bonnie Garmus, author of Lessons in Chemistry. The bestselling novel has recently been adapted to a television miniseries starring Brie Larson, and it’s about a chemist named Elizabeth Zott, who becomes the host of a cooking show in the 1960s. In this conversation, Bonnie tells us about how her career as a copywriter shaped her approach to writing the novel, the one mispronunciation in the audiobook and why she needed to break some rules to write this story.

[To Bonnie] Bonnie, I want to thank you again for making time for me, for Listening Books. I know you have an incredibly busy schedule, in no small part to the success of Lessons in Chemistry, which has just been such a huge phenomenon. And from what I understand, you actually do have a good origin story for this book!

Bonnie: Yeah, I had a really bad mood, the thing that made me decide to write the book. I had a bad day at work and it was so bad that I ended up not working but writing the first chapter of Lessons in Chemistry after a meeting I’d been in where I’d faced the usual sexism that women still continue to face today. But they took it up a notch that day and so did I! [Laughter]

Jessica: And thus Elizabeth Zott was born! Although I think I read that she started off as a minor character in another novel that you had been writing. Is that right?

Bonnie: Yes, that was a novel I never finished. It was way long ago and she had been in that novel, she was only three sentences long in that novel. I knew that she was a chemist and that she was depressed and that she had a cooking show. I don’t… I managed to cram all of that in three sentences in this other book that never went – you know, I never finished. [Jessica laughs] But that day at work she came zooming back to me, and it had been well over a decade since I’d thought about her. So, it was very strange but I really felt like she just showed up and she had a lot to say.

Jessica: Yeah. Lessons in Chemistry is so popular that most of my friends have read it, so when I said I would get to interview you they were really excited and one of them wanted me to ask if, in your mind, any of your characters were on the autism spectrum?

Bonnie: Oh, I get that question a lot and it’s one of my most favourite questions, so I’m always glad when somebody asks it. Uh, Elizabeth Zott is not on the spectrum in my view. I based her on the tenets of Stoicism as written by Marcus Aurelius and I love the fact that we can see that people on the spectrum are actually Stoics. The definition of a Stoic is somebody who takes responsibility for themselves, speaks with logic, is able to speak up and speak out when they need to and, you know, may not fit into what we think of as polite society, but we need more of them not less of them. So I’m always delighted when people on the spectrum see themselves in this character because, you know, to me she represents the best in people. And I think so many times people on the spectrum are put down or people say, ‘Oh, you know, they’re on the spectrum or they’re…’ Like it’s this problem, when in fact some of the most brilliant people in the world have been on the spectrum. So for me – and I have several friends who are autistic, who are on the spectrum, and I did a Zoom group with an entire group of autistic adults and we had one of the best discussions ever. So I’m really pleased when people on the spectrum see themselves in her.

Jessica: That’s wonderful and an unexpected answer, that’s really interesting. [Bonnie chuckles] Now, a reader favourite tends to be the dog named Six-Thirty. I wonder if you can say a little about what his importance to the story is from a writer’s perspective? What does he do for the story?

Bonnie: Well, I really wanted to include a perspective from a dog, A) because most people like dogs, you know, we’re all familiar with dogs, we’re all familiar with their habits, but what we tend to overlook is that the animal kingdom has a lot – we have a lot of impact on them, on other species and we sometimes forget the impact that they should have on us. Most of them have survived longer than we have on Earth. So it’s really important I think to get that animal perspective on the stupid things we do every day and what they might think about it. And that’s why I wrote Six-Thirty because I had a very smart dog that I had underestimated [Jessica chuckles] and it turned out, I think… You know, she was sort of this mixture between Gandhi and Einstein and she’d come from a shelter, she’d been horribly abused. She wasn’t a purebred, you know, she wasn’t attractive, plus she smelled bad her whole life but she had [Jessica laughs] – I know! She really did smell bad! She had this presence about her and her intellect was really superior; it was really something to see. Her facility with language, she could understand, and her empathy for other animals and for humans was really something that I’ve never forgotten. [Jessica: Hm.] And it occurred to me that we so often judge intelligence by human terms, but that’s only one way to judge intelligence. And our definition of intelligence is so incredibly narrow that it forgets that animals have powers way beyond ours, including sense of smell and touch and taste and all these other things. Especially dogs can hear a lot better than we can. I read that a bloodhound, their sense of smell is three hundred thousand times stronger than ours.

Jessica: Wow.

Bonnie: That is a superpower. And if any of us could do that we would be considered outlandishly talented, but we just take it for granted in dogs. You know, dogs can sniff cancer and things like that. We can’t do that.

Jessica: Yeah, I’m just imagining how unpleasant it would be to be able to smell that well!

Bonnie: My God, that’s a really good point! Yeah, can you imagine! Although there they are, you know, their noses buried in other dogs’ urine and things. I just love it.

Jessica: [Laughs] You were talking about how rational Elizabeth is and I want to pick up on that with this question, which – bear with me because I feel like the lead up to it is a little bit long. But she’s an extraordinary character, literally extraordinary, whose cooking show treats ordinary women and their responsibilities with a great deal of dignity and seriousness. But she herself is written as quite exceptional to the norm. She’s beautiful but she’s unconcerned with beauty, she’s not vain. She’s brilliant, she’s sort of defined by this sort of pure rationalism, which is in stark contrast to, I think, a still very pervasive assumption about women, that they’re more emotional than men. And what I wonder is, were you ever concerned with the balance between rejecting the stereotype but also not falling into the ‘Oh, not like other girls’ trope, which kind of ends up implying that the default for the gender is inferior? [Bonnie: Hm] Is that something you struggled with or…?

Bonnie: I’ve thought about it. I’ve considered it pretty deeply. It was – you know, originally, Elizabeth Zott was not beautiful, she was plain, and as I was writing it I realised how foolish that was because, one, if I made her beautiful, her problems would just escalate; all the men at work would hit on her. As it turns out, there are studies that say that beautiful women are considered less intelligent [Jessica: Hmm.] so she would have to also surmount that. But not only that, the big thing was they would never have put her on television; it would not have been plausible that they would have hired her, with no experience, to be on television unless she looked like the way she did. [Jessica: Hmm.]

Jessica: Yeah, that makes sense. From what I’ve read, you and your agent, Felicity Blunt, did a whole lot of editing and restructuring before it was even sent out to editors. I’m curious, was that just the beginning of the editing process or did you have it in such good shape by that point that there was very little left for them to do?

Bonnie: There was very little left, to be honest, but also I wouldn’t say that we did these major things that you’re talking about with me and Felicity.

Jessica: Oh, okay.

Bonnie: I did do a lot for Felicity; it was not a restructuring at all. Structure is the thing that I worry about the most and so I would not have restructured the book. What she did instead was say, ‘I think we need more of the kid’. A lot of people think editors or agents write all over your manuscript. They do not do that. They don’t get in there and start rewriting. I won’t accept anybody rewriting my own document actually. I’ve been a writer for thirty years; I’m not a beginner. But what I really loved about Felicity is that she could look at it and say, ‘I think we need more of the kid; I think we need this, blah, blah, blah’. It wasn’t – we didn’t agree on everything and that is okay, and the thing that other writers have to know is that you can’t just go, ‘Oh okay, I have to do this because my agent says this or my editor says this’; this is your book, this is your dream, these are your ideas. And combined with my experience, and I’ve written for a lot of people for a very long period of time, and it’s creative writing, I knew what I had to do. So sometimes Felicity and I would lock horns but this is the great thing about her, that is exactly what you want in an agent. So she was torturing me a little bit, ‘Well, I think we should not… This dog, I don’t really like the dog’, and you have to be able to defend what you’re doing and I think I can do that. But I will say, you know, I just love having her opinion on everything because she is someone I can say, ‘What about this?’ and she’ll go, ‘Uhh, I don’t think so’, you know? She doesn’t pull any punches and that’s what I like.

Jessica: Yeah. Were there any rules, like traditional rules that you felt like you were breaking in writing Lessons in Chemistry?

Bonnie: Yeah, most of them. [Jessica chuckles] You know, this is the joy of Felicity Blunt, because I guarantee you that there are very, very few agents who would feel compelled to sign a book that has ten different points of view and one of them is from a dog. Having different points of view, that many, is already breaking every rule in the book but then to combine them within a chapter, within a sentence on the same page is considered a big no-no. And I just don’t care about writing rules. You know I come from a different world where you’re supposed to break the rules, where you’re supposed to be disruptive, where you’re supposed to do new things. So I just ignore anybody who says, ‘You can’t do that’, because I think I can only not do that if I do it badly, and if I do it badly then I deserve to be pummelled a little bit. But we always have to go out on a limb, you know, we always have to explore new things. The character is a subversive character, the writing had to match her character and so you cannot just have Chapter One, linear, linear, linear, one point of view or the standard idea of how you might present a novel. You know, and those other approaches definitely work but they would not have worked for this book. That’s why, I mean… You know, Felicity, she’s like, ‘Yeah, I like that’; I thought very few people would have said that.

Jessica: Hmm, and why was it important to be able to switch points of view even within a chapter or within a sentence? What was that giving to you for the book?

Bonnie: Well, I think what I’m always doing is when I’m writing I always think of one person and that’s the reader. I don’t write for myself. I have been trained to always write for other people and always, always consider what they’re thinking, what kind of day they’ve had and then try to provide something to them that they will find entertaining but also with substance. So when I was changing points of view like that my idea was that all of these points of view were going to be rounding out one woman, Elizabeth Zott. We see her from ten different points of view, that’s why she’s so big. But my other idea, the central idea of the book, is that she is a catalyst, because she’s a chemist, but she is the catalyst of the book. So every single person or dog she comes in contact with she changes. She herself does not really change very much. Everybody else changes when they meet her or when she’s had time to remould them!

Jessica: Is that another rule that’s broken, that she herself doesn’t change much?

Bonnie: Yeah, I think people always say, you know, and then the protagonist has to go through this great change, but Elizabeth Zott started as a chemist, that’s all she wanted to do and she ends as a chemist.

Jessica: Let’s talk for a moment about the audiobook version, which was narrated by Miranda Raison. What was the casting process like from your end and were there qualities you wanted in a reader specific to this book?

Bonnie: Well, they sent me four different demo tapes of various actresses reading and when I heard Miranda’s I knew hers was the right one. To be completely honest I’ve never listened to the audiobook because I can’t even open a book without wanting to change it.

Jessica: Oh!

Bonnie: But I really respected her voice and, you know, she did a pretty good American accent, because she’s British, and the funny thing about the audio is that she mispronounces one name, Jack. She calls him Jack Lalan and he’s Jack LaLanne [La-LAY-ne], and every American knows that and so [Jessica chuckles] it’s without fail, every American will say, ‘I love this American who read the book but she says Jack LaLanne’s name wrong’ and I know, she’s British, [Jessica: Ah!] give her a break! [Jessica laughs] But I thought she did a great job and people just love the audiobook.

Jessica: Yeah, I enjoyed her narration tremendously. Were there any back and forths between you? Any questions or…?

Bonnie: She asked me how to pronounce one name but, you know, I never thought of Jack LaLanne because I grew up with Jack LaLanne on TV. I just thought that everyone knew it was Jack LaLanne. [Jessica chuckles] We never discussed that one. No, she was really hands on, she just got it done and I just thought, wow, she did a really, really good job and I’m really grateful to her. But no, we had no back and forth at all. That’s how good her demo tape was! [Jessica chuckles] That’s what I want to say.

Jessica: That must have been good! Do you ever listen to audiobooks yourself?

Bonnie: I do but rarely, honestly, because I’m the kind of person who needs to sit and I so rarely do things that would allow me to listen to an audiobook. Like, my neighbour in Seattle always listens to – like she listened to my book while she was gardening [Jessica: Hm-hm] but I don’t have a garden in London. So there are very few times where I’m not totally engaged with what I’m doing that I can listen to… I can’t even listen to podcasts half the time! I’m so far behind in the world it’s embarrassing. But I did listen to… I started the audiobook because I wanted to hear Meryl Streep read Tom Lake by Ann Patchett…

Jessica: Yes!

Bonnie: …and I really loved the way she did that.

Jessica: Yeah, I’m looking forward to that one.

Bonnie: Yeah.

Jessica: My mom was listening to that and telling me how good it was.

Bonnie: Yeah, I think it’s really, really well done.

Jessica: So going from audiobook, maybe, to the television series, which Apple TV picked up, and I believe it’s going to be released, I think 13th October is the release date. Have you had much involvement with that adaptation and are there any significant changes that you’re aware of?

Bonnie: Oh yeah, I have not had any involvement really. I did read the scripts but only at the very last… Really, two weeks before filming I got a chance to read the scripts. Our deal was that I could read the scripts and make notes and they had every right in the world to throw every note I wrote out the window, and I think that that’s fair. I think that’s fair because you have to allow creative people their own medium and their own experience. Everybody interprets the book in different ways. So yes, there’s a lot of changes between the book and the series but that’s what an adaptation is. And so I have only seen a rough cut from quite a while ago and I know it went back to editing so honestly I don’t know, I haven’t seen it either.

Jessica: Right!

Bonnie: I saw a very rough cut. So we’ll just wait and see but, yes, people should not expect oh, it’s going to be just like the book, because they just don’t do that and there’s a reason for that. Not only because it’s another medium but because they have to make sure they can get it all in eight episodes. So they had to cut a bunch of stuff, they might add new subplots; they do all sorts of things and you just have to, kind of, leave it up to them. I got great advice when I signed over the rights to Aggregate Films to make it into a TV series, which is that… I did want to work on it, by the way. I did say, ‘Hey, I would like to be one of the writers on this’ and it was hilarious at the time because my book hadn’t come out yet and my agents and editors were saying, ‘You cannot work on this series, you’re going to be really busy’, and I said, ‘Doing what?’ [Jessica laughs] I had no idea how much promotion there would be for Lessons in Chemistry! It’s more than a fulltime job! So that was really dumb of me but it was really – they were very kind and like, yeah, you’re going to be busy. So I didn’t do anything on it. I wasn’t invited to do anything on it anyway but I think… You know, the advice I got from three different writers who have had their work adapted for the screen is that you hand over your manuscript and then you run in the other direction. [Jessica: Hmm!] Because I wouldn’t have the strength to go, ‘Yeah, we don’t need this old scene anymore’. You know, they had to do that and I think that that is their job and it’s also their right.

Jessica: Yeah. That seems like a healthy perspective to have!

Bonnie: Yeah, yeah!

Jessica: Were there any changes that you noticed that actually interested you, like, oh, that’s a good idea?

Bonnie: I’m really fond of Episode 1. They put in this scene that I really liked, that I would have never thought of, where they have a Miss Hastings beauty pageant and they make Elizabeth participate, and I think it’s done super well.

Jessica: Yeah, that does sound great. I’m looking forward to watching it now!


[To listeners] I hope you’re enjoying this conversation with author Bonnie Garmus. We’ve got more to come, right after this message from Listening Books patron Stephen Fry.

[Music begins]

Stephen: Hello, I’m here to tell you about the wonderful audiobook charity Listening Books. If you or someone you know finds that your illness, disability, learning difficulty or mental health condition impacts on your ability to read the written word or to hold a book, then Listening Books could be for you. They have over ten thousand audiobooks in the collection, from fantastic fiction to fascinating nonfiction, compelling autobiographies and bestselling novels. You can find books for children and adults alike, with titles read by the most brilliant narrators, including me, Stephen Fry. A whole year’s access to Listening Books costs just £20, with completely free memberships available if you find this fee a barrier to joining the service. So, go on! Visit their website and join today at

[Music ends]

Bonnie: You know, I don’t watch cooking shows, I don’t even like to cook [Jessica laughs] and so it’s… I know, I mean I am not a chemist, not a scientist, I don’t like to cook. Why am I writing this book? But that’s the beauty of my background at copywriting, we always write what we don’t know. [Jessica: Hmm.] And so I have spent a career learning all new things all the time and I’m really lucky and grateful to have had that career. So when I decided to take on this book and I thought how hard can it be to write about cooking? Not that hard. How hard can it be to write about 1950s chemistry? An absolute nightmare! [Jessica laughs] I had to learn it for myself from a textbook from the 50s, you can’t google old science very well, and so that did turn out to be a lot more work than I thought. But honestly, it’s so funny, people say, you know, ‘What TV shows did you watch in order to get the feel for a cooking show?’ Well, I watched zero. [Jessica chuckles] Because I wanted to make my own show from my own imagination and not be influenced. But also, I just don’t like to cook. [Jessica laughs] I try. You know, BBC Food is coming here tomorrow to tape me making those brownies in the book and it's so funny because… I said, they’re doing this special on me, on my life in five dishes, which is such an honour, I’m really looking forward to this actually but when I said, you know, I don’t really like to cook, they were just astonished. [Jessica laughs] And I think that that is the power of writing. I can convince somebody I know something about cooking; that’s just a miracle.

Jessica: [Laughs] Lessons in Chemistry, it made a big splash even before it was published. There was a fiercely contested sixteen-publisher auction back in, I think it was 2020, which of course Doubleday won. Then the next thing you know, you’ve got Apple TV’s picked it up for a straight-to-series order. You’ve got Brie Larson starring and executive producing. So by the time the book was actually published last year there was already a lot of momentum behind it, which absolutely did not fizzle. All of this to say, was there a single moment during all this when you realised this was going to be huge?

Bonnie: You know, I’ve been in a state of shock, honestly, because, you know, I wrote another book that never went anywhere, I got ninety-eight rejections, and I started this one because I was in a bad mood. What are the odds? [Jessica chuckles] And then I thought, well… I mean even Felicity… This is yet another thing I absolutely love about her. The night before she was going to introduce the book at Frankfurt she called me and she said, ‘Look, you and I like this book but it’s pretty quirky so I don’t want you to get your hopes up because a lot of agents take books to Frankfurt and they don’t get any notice, nothing. You know, we like it but, again, it’s pretty quirky.’ She called me twenty-four hours later and she goes, ‘Cancel everything I just said’. It was the greatest thing, we were both so surprised, you know, and I think that lowering of expectations was really important, really smart on her part. And then we’ve continued to be surprised and what I really love is how many people have come to the book through different channels. You know, I talk a lot with young people who are reading the book, young teenage boys actually are a really big growing audience for me!

Jessica: Oh wow, that’s great to hear.

Bonnie: Yeah, yeah, well, it’s been assigned to a lot of schools, a lot of curricula are now including it and I really appreciate that because as one young man said to me, the dean of his school said, you have to learn about sexism. I mean really, this book is set in the 60s but everything you’re going to read is still true and you have to really think about how you’re treating your female classmates because they’re not different from you, you are not superior to them. That really meant a lot. So I get the best direct messages from these teenage boys reading the book and it’s hilarious. But I also get a lot from young women, especially young women in science who are finding that they’re still facing the same battles that their grandmothers, their mothers faced and I think it’s been this wake-up call for everyone. So in terms of the popularity though, I didn’t say, I didn’t ever see it coming and sometimes, well, for a long time, for a long time, especially when I was going through the auction and through the TV series thing, which just seemed bizarre, you know. When you have Brie Larson call you up on Zoom and it’s just you and her and she says, ‘I want to executive produce your book and I want to be Elizabeth Zott’, you know, you just think, is this really happening? [Jessica chuckles] But one night… I used to do this thing all the time where I would get up in the middle of the night, because I do have a pretty good imagination. I’d get up in the middle of the night and I would just assume I’d imagined the entire thing and I would go check my email to see if I had imagined it. And one night, I just remember this so clearly, my husband grabbed my wrist as I was getting out of bed and he pulled me back down and he said, ‘Let me save you a trip, it’s real’. [Jessica: Hm!] So I guess he was tired of me going back and forth. [Jessica laughs] But yeah, you know, now I’m more accustomed to it but it’s still just a shock to hear from people all over the world, you know, that so many people find themselves in the book.

Jessica: Have there been any drawbacks to the success?

Bonnie: Well, I’m a very private person and so loss of privacy is a big one for me and I like… Hilariously, I thought, well, after I finish this book I will have the freedom to start another book and, wow, I won’t have to work as a copywriter, I can just write. No! No, no, no. [Jessica chuckles] The promo has taken over every inch of my day! I can’t believe I thought I was going to help out on the series. So, I think that’s really the only drawback, is that I didn’t have all the time I thought I was going to have, but, you know what, I’m grateful for every part of this. There is nothing about this process that I would change or try to make better because I’m in a very – I know it’s a hallowed space and I’ll never take it for granted.

Jessica: Hmm. This other book that you’d like to work on if Lessons in Chemistry promo or whatever gave you the time! Are you maybe able to go back to some of the work that you had written before and rework it or…?

Bonnie: Well, I did go back to my first original book and I borrowed two of the themes from that book that I think are really important themes for people, and so those are being included in my new book but otherwise no, I... You know, I realise this about myself, I will outgrow a project [Jessica: Hmm] and then I don’t want to go back because I’ve outgrown it, you know. It’s just like oh, new clothes or whatever, I want something new. So I did include these two themes that are important to me but I’ve reworked them quite a bit and, yeah, I like working on that when I get a chance.

Jessica: You’ve mentioned your career as a copywriter a number of times and I’m just wondering, was there anything about the publishing industry that surprised you, that you were not accustomed to with copywriting?

Bonnie: Oh yeah! Publishing moves slower than an iceberg. I’ve never seen an industry that moved slower in my life. And this isn’t really fair for me to say but I came from industries that are moving at the speed of light. I was mostly working in technology where, you know, every day you’re just moving along, and that’s not true in publishing. It is so slow it’s… I just… When they told me… You know, I finished the book and I met all my deadlines way ahead of time because, you know, let’s go. And then they said, and now it’ll be eighteen more months [Jessica gasps] until it comes it, and I thought, what are you people doing? [Jessica laughs] Of course, what it is is they’re getting it reviewed, they’re getting it sent out to Goodreads and readers and they’re getting all these other things and then you have to give all those people time to read and reflect on it and decide if they like it or not. So there’s a lot of hidden stuff about publishing that I really didn’t realise and I had to come up to speed on. From the outside though it’s so funny because people say, ‘Oh, it must have been in very bad shape if they needed eighteen months’ and I said no, that’s… Every writer goes, yeah, it’s eighteen months. You know, you just want to die! Because you’re done [Jessica chuckles] and you want to move on. But then there’s all this pre-promo that you have to do that takes an incredible amount of time. Incredible amount of time. So it was all a huge surprise to me. I do think there are parts that could be sped up, but I say that without really knowing what would have to change.

Jessica: Let’s end with this. When you get time, which must be scarce these days, when you get time to read purely for pleasure and not just for research for your next book, what do you like to read and do you have anything that you’d like to recommend?

Bonnie: Yeah, you know, my favourite thing is to read literature. So I like literary novels, that’s what I always go for, but I read a ton of nonfiction. I just finished an incredible book that will be out next year, which is not fair right, because all I do is get ARCs these days, Advanced Reader Copies, so I recommend these books that won’t be out because it’s the glacial pace of publishing. But this one I just finished and it’s nonfiction and it’s called Chasing Hope by Nicholas Kristof, he’s a journalist for the New York Times. It was the most inspiring book I’ve read in ten years.

Jessica: Oh wow.

Bonnie: It’s really good. So, you know, I rarely read memoirs but that one, it’s just absolutely incredible what a foreign journalist does and I got to learn about it, you know, through his book and his insights. But there’s so much hope in this book that [Jessica: Hm.] it made it a really worthwhile read. But the last book I absolutely loved, fiction, was Demon Copperhead [Jessica gasps] by Barbara Kingsolver, who I personally think is some sort of literary goddess and I love what she does but that book? That’s right up there with The Poisonwood Bible for me. [Jessica: Hmm.] Both were just incredible.

Jessica: Yeah, I’m glad to hear you say that; I really enjoyed that book as well and…

Bonnie: Yeah.

Jessica: Well, it’s always nice when you hear other people enjoying a book that you’ve always loved, but sometimes I think because she’s got quite a, I guess some might call it  didactic or, you know, I mean… Because she has a strong moral centre to her books in a way that obviously reminds you of Dickens of course, but also I was reminded of, like, Steinbeck with Grapes of Wrath and whatever. Just this sort of singing indignation…

Bonnie: Yeah.

Jessica: …at those responsible for terrible things. [Laughs] And that’s not everybody’s cup of tea I think, you know. 

Bonnie: Yeah. I know exactly what you mean because, you know, one of my struggles is I don’t want to write something that is super depressing for people. I mean, let’s face it, Lessons in Chemistry is just chockful of dark moments [Jessica: Hmm.], I just stuff them in there. But I try to balance them with lightness because I do think every day of the person coming home on the Tube or coming home from work and not wanting more troubles on their plate but wanting to be left at the end of the day with some kind of hope, and hopefully with some laughter. That said though, I love Barbara Kingsolver and I bow down to her!

Jessica: As do we all! Well, I join you in the bow anyway!

Bonnie: [Laughs]

Jessica: Bonnie, thank you so much again for your time, it’s been a delight to get to chat with you, and I can’t wait to share this conversation with all these friends of mine who’ve read the book and laughed at it and resonated with the main character. Thank you so much.

Bonnie: Ah, thank you so much for having me Jessica, I really appreciate it.

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Jessica: [To listeners] And thank you very much for listening. Lessons in Chemistry is available at your favourite bookshops and libraries and, of course, if you’re a Listening Books member you can find the audiobook in our collection as well. You’ll also find Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead, which in addition to being a favourite of Bonnie’s, is also one of the nominees for this year’s Members Choice Awards. Voting is now open, so if you’re a Listening Books member and would like to cast your vote for the best audiobook of 2023 visit You have until 30th November to cast your vote. Stephen Fry will announce the winner in January. Meanwhile I’ll be back next week. That’s right, that’s next week, not month, with actor and audiobook narrator Polly Lee, who will talk to us about what it was like to voice the many, many characters of The School for Good and Evil series. This podcast is produced by Listening Books, a UK charity that provides an audiobook lending service for over 115,000 members who find that an illness, disability, learning difficulty or mental health condition affects their ability to read the printed word or hold a book. It’s simple to join. For more information head to our website at

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