Q and A with Elizabeth McKenzie, THE PORTABLE VEBLEN
From the publisher: The Portable Veblen is a dazzlingly original novel that’s as big-hearted as it is laugh-out-loud funny. Set in and around Palo Alto, amid the culture clash of new money and old (antiestablishment) values, and with the specter of our current wars looming across its pages, The Portable Veblen is an unforgettable look at the way we live now. A young couple on the brink of marriage—the charming Veblen and her fiancé Paul, a brilliant neurologist—find their engagement in danger of collapse. Along the way they weather everything from each other’s dysfunctional families, to the attentions of a seductive pharmaceutical heiress, to an intimate tête-à-tête with a very charismatic squirrel.
1. You take on a number of serious themes in The Portable Veblen: mortality, the global pharmaceutical industry, warfare, dysfunctional families, mental illness. Was one or more of these themes what propelled you to begin this novel?
I think they were converging at various subliminal levels, some more pressing than others. A close family member was sick and so I was really preoccupied with hospitals and spending weeks and weeks in one, full of dread and feeling very critical of institutions of all kinds. It was 2007, and there was also a strong anti-war sentiment in the mix.
2. You move between different points of view throughout the narrative – did you start with one POV character or did you always know that the story would be told from multiple POVs?
There was hardly anything I knew for sure at the beginning. But in early drafts I did go back and forth naturally between Veblen and Paul. There are several short parts in the novel where neither Paul nor Veblen are present, and I wondered if would be jarring, but it didn’t seem to be. And there’s a longer section from the point of view of Warren Smith, a veteran with TBI in Paul’s trial… which was indefensible structurally but felt essential to have as genuine testimony considering all the satirical stuff surrounding the trial and the VA and the FDA and so on. It wasn’t until things began to line up near the end that I could stand back and figure out if I could justify these detours into other points of view, and I think it’s the elasticity and inclusiveness of Veblen’s imagination that allows it.
3. A squirrel is one of your POV characters, and he’s both adorable and wise; I think of him as the novel’s moral compass. Was he a contributing POV character from the beginning too?
Not exactly. In early versions, the squirrels were lab animals. I’d be writing scenes in Paul’s lab and without planning it, the squirrels would be escaping and wreaking havoc in the evil hospital. A couple years in I got rid of everything and started over. The first scene I wrote involved a squirrel looking in the window at Veblen, and from that time on the squirrel became an observer consciousness for her, a (nearly) silent witness.
4. The Portable Veblen is both funny and profound, and I think this due in no small part to your pitch perfect tone: seriocomic I’d call it. What/who are some of your influences?
Have you ever read The Dog of the South by Charles Portis? That’s a very funny and wonderful novel. I love reading everything by George Saunders. Kafka gets to me so much that when I’m reading him it actually hurts, I’m either laughing or totally stressed out.
5. I love all the lists, along with the various POVs. What was your favorite section to write?
Veblen’s mother’s questionnaire was fun and made me nostalgic for the letters I used to get from my mother which I thought were annoying at the time. I also enjoyed writing the news piece on Paul and researching the very real epidemic of TBI among reindeer herders.
6. What are you working on now, if you don’t mind telling us?
I don’t mind, but it’s just a bunch of stuff in a big cauldron. I can’t tell anything about it yet, but when I’m stirring it, I occasionally see something I recognize floating by.