With the 2016 winner’s announcement on the horizon, we caught up with Elizabeth McKenzie to discuss the inspiration behind her shortlisted novel The Portable Veblen. Read on to find out about Elizabeth’s undercover medical research, the Californian backdrop to the novel and the author’s slight squirrely obsession…
Maybe I should not attach too much importance to this moment in the aspen forests of northern Arizona when I was about nine. Or maybe I should. Someone recently reminded me that in addition to the squirreline presence in The Portable Veblen, another squirrel appears in my novel-in-stories, Stop That Girl. I was truly not aware of being at the mercy of an obsession. (John Irving denies an obsession with bears, while Haruki Murakami readily admits to one with cats.)
Tasso Street in Palo Alto, California, the setting of The Portable Veblen, looking the same as in the 60s when we’d drive up from Los Angeles to visit our grandmother.
This was a mysterious gift from my mother, c. 1980. I knew right away she’d found it at a thrift store. When I asked why she’d earmarked it for me, she had no sound explanation.
* A handsome portrait of Mr. Thorstein Veblen, c 1904, that hangs in my office. Mr. Veblen is the namesake for the heroine of my novel, and her hero—a great and original philosopher, sociologist and economist, a beloved step-father, an auto-didact and polymath, a “citizen of the United States by birth, but a citizen of nowhere by nature.”
Very young Gunner’s mates, US Navy, c. 1943, who were fired upon in the Pacific. My father stands in the middle. Not much was known about PTSD after WWII. In my novel, Veblen’s fiancé Paul Vreeland is conducting a trial on veterans with traumatic brain injury, the signature injury of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
A reunion of the surviving Gunner’s mates, US Navy, c. 2006.
Around the time I started this novel, there were many weeks spent visiting a loved one in a hospital.
Later, I went “undercover” with hastily devised credentials to do research at a massive industry convention, where Paul’s patented device, the “Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch,” was to be showcased in the novel.