Elizabeth McKenzie's funny and lively novel, The Portable Veblen, centers on the engagement of Veblen (named after economist Thorstein Veblen) and Paul, their dysfunctional families, and one very memorable squirrel. McKenzie and her editor at Penguin Press, Ed Park, discussed the process behind the book.
Ed Park: I'm excited for the world to read The Portable Veblen, which I fell in love with on the very first page. I grasped more or less immediately that this was a voice I wanted to keep hearing. I was hooked by the characters, and was happy to go wherever the story took them, from Paul’s development of something called the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, which the Department of Defense wants to use to relieve battlefield head trauma, to the funny and fraught relationship each of them has with their parents. Also: California. It was pretty cold when I read it, two winters ago—the book made me want to put on shorts. Every so often, you included a photo, and these always made me smile; even after I should have gotten used to them, each one caught me off guard. I remember we talked on the phone for the first time late in 2014—it was probably just a stream of compliments from me!
Pretty early on, maybe in that phone call, I know we talked about the photos, and the charming appendices, and—ulp!—maybe changing the title, as supremely great as it was. It had been several years since your last book; were there things about the editing process that you were looking forward to (or perhaps dreading)? Were there elements you knew you wanted to work on during the edit phase?
Elizabeth McKenzie: Yes, there were a lot of things I looked forward to, and really none that I dreaded. That’s because I felt from the start that you were extremely in tune with my intentions for the novel, so I trusted you completely. And because I’d been working on this book so long, I knew it was hairy, like a rescued castaway who at last has the chance to shower and be shorn and pruned and have all the knots and burrs pulled out.
For instance, when you told me that the very long lists of battle equipment and simulators that I had included for “grotesque verisimilitude” were simply too much, I knew that you, more than anybody, would have liked those lists if they were not too much, so I believed you. And yes, there was the problem with the veteran Warren Smith and his suicide which I outlined to you in our earliest correspondence—I felt certain by that time that I could not have that suicide in the book because I had not been able to do justice to the gravity of it within the confines of this particular plot, and your stewardship of that change was incredibly helpful. You also helped me contextualize some of the material that was unmoored, you saw how it connected and lead me right. It was a totally wonderful experience.
EP: Ah yes, that list! It was heroic—in my memory it went on for several pages, a roll call of doom, funny and horrifying. One of the words I frequently use to describe Veblen is exuberant. The list was great in its own way, but I felt it could make its point if we winnowed it down; the spirit of it still comes through, even in the half page that it now takes up. On that note, I think we tidied up the delightful appendices that end the book—dropping a couple of them, trimming some others. I love that your book had appendices, by the way—how did you come up with the idea? I can’t think of too many novels that have them.
EM: Originally the appendices came about because I had a lot of beloved material left over, and it seemed like a way to fit it in without jamming up the plot. Like that list of Veblenian terms (“atavistic conformity,” “canons of reputability,” “habituation to war,” “pecuniary canons of taste”) and the other list of medical and military terms we decided to drop. The existence of those original appendices for overflow led to my thought that documentation, rather than narrative, might be a way to switch gears and take a glimpse into the future.
EP: Such a good move—a break from the main voice, indicating the passage of time. And you’re able to bring several different characters up to date in a really quick and enjoyable way. On the subject of documentation, I’m curious about how you organized the material—or was there a point when it started to organize itself? The book is so fleet-footed, so pleasurable on the prose level, but you’ve also got a lot of data going on. What’s your workspace or routine like? Does it involve a huge filing cabinet or a bulletin board or any sort of apparatus we should know about?
EM: Yes, there are definitely some huge filing cabinets involved, as well as piles of things on the floor and every available surface!
And luckily I live near some really good libraries. At one point it seemed necessary to go to the University of Chicago to see the Veblen archives. I was then planning to have a different kind of squirrel in the novel, one who wrote letters to Veblen modeled on the love letters Thorstein Veblen wrote to Sarah Hardy! I think it’s for the best that I took those out before you saw the novel.
EP: Of course, now I want to see those suppressed letters! Speaking of Thorstein Veblen—there was a moment (you’ll well recall) when we were spinning through some alternate titles, thinking that readers today might not be familiar with him, let alone the scope of his work. But we came back around—and now of course I know what you knew all along, that this was the perfect and only title for the novel. Did you have it in mind from the start? Are you a fan of the 1948 collection of his writings by the same title, or more generally an admirer of his?
EM: Actually, early on I was using the title Greenslopes, the name of the hospital where Paul is conducting his trials for his “pneumatic turbo skull punch.” But going forward the story began to grow around Veblen’s inner life, and that’s when I changed to The Portable Veblen, which felt right, like a favorite old sweater that just feels good for some reason. After a while somebody told me to retitle the book because of the echo with the older book so for awhile it was We Can Be Together. But that didn’t quite have the old comfortable feeling I wanted, so it went back to being TPV. I do love the little 1948 collection! It presents samplings of Veblen’s various subjects (i.e. “The instinct of Workmanship,” “Salesmanship and the Churches,” “On Sabotage”) and it has a remarkable editor’s introduction by Max Lerner—sensible and appreciative.
EP: We were able to keep that alternate title as a chapter title—I guess that was something fun that we did, think up chapter titles, as the original manuscript didn’t have any. So many good ones. (“I Melt With You” might be my favorite—or “The Speechless Others,” Thorstein Veblen’s description of animals.) Someday there might be The Portable McKenzie. I call dibs on editing!