Midwestern Gothic staffer Ally Wright talked with author Elizabeth McKenzie about her novel The Portable Veblen, what it means to have a “freelance” character, the role of translation in her novel, and more.
Ally Wright: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Elizabeth McKenzie: My mother was born in Chicago and lived in Western Springs until she was about 10. Another part of the family went back a few generations in Waukegan, Illinois. The family connections are mostly gone now but I’ve been editing the Chicago Quarterly Review with founder Syed Haider since 2003 and that brings me to Chicago pretty often.
AW: The title character of The Portable Veblen is named after the Norwegian philosopher and economist Thorstein Veblen. How do you see the novel engaging with the ideas of the economist?
EM: That’s a big piece of the book, the foundation really. The character Veblen identifies with Thorstein Veblen for a bunch of reasons, not just his writings. She’s part Norwegian, she appreciates his loner and outsider status, she’s fascinated by his eccentric life story and interests, and has been trained to live a spare and modest life by her mother who named her after Veblen to begin with. Thorstein Veblen infuses her belief system and shapes her life in Palo Alto which has become really fancy and affluent in the past twenty years, standing in stark contrast to the humble Palo Alto of the past when Thorstein Veblen lived there in a handmade shack.
AW: This novel has been described as “a romantic comedy,” “a screwball comedy,” and “a morality tale.” How do you feel about theses characterizations of the novel?
EM: I like hearing it described as a comedy. Morality tale sounds a little foreboding—but it’s true that ethical issues are at the heart of the book and test the characters.
AW: What particular challenges did you face in writing a comedic novel? How is that process different from other writing for you?
EM: Writing comedically or satirically is my natural bent, so the real challenge is how to put that together with the serious and tender aspects of the novel, how to keep everything in balance.
AW: Veblen is a volunteer translator working in the Norwegian language. How does the act of translation function in this book and in Veblen’s mind? What is the role of translation in the novel?
EM: It sounds like you’re picking up on the thematic role of translation, which I appreciate. Veblen is in fact aware that she’s been a “translator” for her mother forever, trying to get other people to understand what her mother “really means” because she loves her mother and knows how deeply her mother is misunderstood by the world. This habit of fellow feeling and trying to convey to others what the misunderstood are really trying to say is part of who Veblen is and is a place she feels comfortable. And yet, she also sees her forays into another language or into the minds of others as a necessary escape, a way to maintain her equilibrium. This extends to Thorstein Veblen and even the squirrel who lives outside Veblen’s house. Veblen is empathetic to the point of being stretched too thin herself. This is something she starts to realize over the course of the novel.
AW: Veblen seems to walk the line between eccentricity and insanity, and the whimsy of this novel is contrasted against the trauma that both Veblen and her fiancé Paul have undergone in their lives. How did you work to balance those two things in the process of writing this book?
EM: Mental illness is an important thread, but I never thought of Veblen as insane or having mental illness, in fact the opposite. I think with depth of characterization you might find just about anybody “insane.” We all work at civility and imitate each other’s behaviors in order to fit in, but what happens if you don’t have a model for fitting in, what happens if you simply behave instinctively and as you are? It’s been said that insanity is a reasonable adjustment to an insane world, there’s that whole line of thinking. The novel also deals with the ways the mentally unhinged harm the people closest to them, as if to say it’s not always an heroic stance to be insane in an insane world. And then there’s another thread in here, of brain injury and brain damage, both literally and figuratively.
AW: You describe Veblen as a “freelance self.” What exactly does that mean for her?
EM: Freelance is an interesting word, embracing what seems to me a contradiction. From its origin, you have “free,” at liberty, and “lance” which refers to being available for hire, in the past a lance being a mercenary knight or soldier. Maybe the underlying point being that one is never really free even if one has no single master. But Veblen, while not committed to any employer, is available to whoever needs her—and her role or skill is simply being a self. Not so much a professional self but a freelance one. I think the narrative voice is describing her in a way that would please her and still acknowledge with a note of irony the sacrifices she has made.
AW: Veblen has a peculiar fascination with squirrels; she takes one on a sort of road trip at one point in the novel. Where did that come from? What made you choose squirrels in particular?
EM: It’s hard to be indifferent to squirrels when they sit in the trees outside your windows. They’re here to be reckoned with! They crept in to the narrative the same way they creep into attics, and so I had to figure out why and what they meant to me. I explored a lot of squirrel-related material, even allowing the squirrel to talk for awhile, but finally let the squirrel be the squirrel of Veblen’s projections instead. And of course squirrels seem to be hated by a lot of people, which created a useful clash between Veblan and Paul with deeper significance.
AW: What’s next for you?
EM: I’m working on several new things but they’re so new that they’re scarily bad, so it’s hard to to talk about them! We have new issues coming out now of both magazines I work on, Chicago Quarterly Review and Catamaran Literary Reader, so we’ll be planning some readings and events for those, and I’ll be teaching at the Catamaran Writing Conference in Pebble Beach this summer with Charlie Jane Anders and Elizabeth Rosner and Molly Gloss and Zack Rogow and Frances Lefkowitz, and that’s a lot of fun.
Elizabeth McKenzie is the author of The Portable Veblen, published in 2016 by Penguin Press and 4th Estate, and currently shortlisted for the Baileys Prize for fiction. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology, and recorded for NPR’s Selected Shorts. Her collection, Stop That Girl, was short-listed for The Story Prize, and her novel MacGregor Tells the World was a Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and Library Journal Best Book of the year. She is the senior editor of the Chicago Quarterly Review and the managing editor of Catamaran Literary Reader.