Elizabeth McKenzie’s new novel, The Portable Veblen, is a delightful story about 30-year-old Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, a single woman who makes her own clothes and works as a temp at the Stanford School of Medicine. There, she meets and falls in love with Paul Vreeland, a 34-year-old researcher who has designed a device that will help medics perform emergency craniotomies on the front lines of combat. The book is a humorous, multilayered tale of Veblen and Paul’s engagement, their relationships with their respective families and a pharmaceutical conglomerate of dubious ethics that has expressed interest in the device Paul wants to test.
We recently spoke with McKenzie about her novel, her writing process, and her plans for future projects.
Your female protagonist was named after Thorstein Veblen, the early 20th-century economist who coined the phrase “conspicuous consumption” and, as you state in the novel, “espoused antimateralistic beliefs.” Why did you choose this economist as your protagonist’s namesake?
When I began this novel her name was Jane, but I realized very soon that Thorstein Veblen’s work was informing the atmosphere of the book, as it had for me growing up—my family held very antimaterialistic beliefs, not entirely to the liking of my younger self! And then I thought about what it would mean if Veblen’s mother bestowed that name on her daughter—which opened up lots of other possibilities.
The novel is written with a wonderful light touch, but you also include complicated medical terms and descriptions of medical procedures. Did you need to conduct a lot of research for those aspects of the novel?
Yes, the research took me all over the place—I’d find myself following various leads, very absorbed in veterans issues and news about traumatic brain injury or facts about the workings of the FDA and the Department of Defense or the pharmaceutical industry. I also spent time in a number of locations pertinent to the story, such as the Stanford Hospital (where I once worked as a temp), the Menlo Park VA and a medical device conference. There was a feeling of timeliness to these subjects, as new things on all fronts kept appearing in the daily paper. It’s exciting to feel connected that way.
Product marketing comes in for considerable criticism here. Paul’s father cautions him to watch out for the sharks at Hutmacher Pharmaceuticals. At DeviceCON in San Jose, Paul, who is to speak as a “Key Innovator,” learns of a Pre-Wounded Summit and asks, “Is there any limit to the marketing of warfare?” Do you think there should be limits to what is marketed? Do you think it’s possible to use marketing for good?
Definitely for books! (In my opinion, booksellers have the purest motives in sales!) But yes, the medical and defense marketing I stumbled into surprised me. I’d come across a product for some really sobering purpose—such as an air freshener for use around corpses—and the description of it would have exclamation points, as if it was going to be really exciting to buy it and use it. My favorite book about marketing and advertising is Our Masters Voice by James Rorty. He elucidates all this with gleeful disgust.
Another theme that runs through the book is mental illness. Paul’s brother, Justin, has emotional issues. Veblen’s father is in an institution, and her mother, Melanie, is a hypochondriac. You handled these elements of the story with delicacy and discretion. Was it difficult to write about these issues?
Thank you for mentioning this! Mental illness and its effects on others was a really important theme for me in this book, and yes, it was difficult. I’d been wanting to write about the subject for a long time but from an impartial and empathetic vantage point, and with the shield of humor.
That Veblen believes she can communicate with a squirrel suggests that you’re fond of Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. You even mention the story in your book. Was the Potter book one of your favorites when you were growing up? And what books, adult as well as children’s, have shaped your sensibility as a writer?
I did love the Potter books as a child, especially the illustrations. But The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin actually scared me. Nutkin’s antics, which were clearly going to lead to no good, filled me with dread. But I did love the riddles and rhymes! I’ve been shaped and moved by so many books—early on I loved the Beat poets and the comic imagination of Richard Brautigan and Vonnegut and Tom Robbins and John Nichols. Later heroes include Henry James and James Joyce and Edith Wharton and Flannery O’Connor and Flaubert. I could go on and on!
You have written about furry creatures before. In “Savage Breast,” a story published in the New Yorker in December 2014, you wrote about a woman who wakes up one day to discover her house filled with furry beasts. In this novel, squirrels feature prominently. Is it coincidence that some of your recent work features animals? What do you think writing about animals allows you to do that writing about people might not?
You’re right, the furries have been taking over in my stories—I’ve just written one about chinchillas! I’m superstitious about analyzing why because it might make them go away, but there’s something very touching in the way people let down their guards with animals and that’s usually the focus for me.
The Portable Veblen is densely packed with much detail, many characters, and multiple story lines. The book obviously required a lot of preparation and planning. How do you approaching the writing of a novel or short story?
In this case I had diagrams on large sheets of paper and something in my head like a musical score. I also did more drafts than I can count, and stumbled into many dead ends. There was a constant back and forth between making practical assessments of the progress (and damage), and writing spontaneously, letting the narrative develop unplanned.
What are you working on now?
I have a few unfinished novel ideas, and about five or six new stories I’m shifting between. The one I’m liking the most right now is about a woman who is about to win an award for service to her company and is growing paranoid as she waits in the audience for the announcement. The situation is really uncomfortable and now I hope to discover what her problem is.
Author photo © Linda Ozaki