An Interview with Elizabeth McKenzie on “Dog of the North” – Chicago Review of Books


In Elizabeth McKenzie’s rollicking new novel Dog of the North, a woman named Penny is contacted by a man named Burt Lampey, who claims to be her grandmother Dr. Pincer’s accountant. When Burt asks Penny to help him evacuate her grandmother from her home in Santa Barbara, Penny agrees to— she’s recently suffered a bad split from her husband, and could use the time out of mind. So Penny leaves Santa Cruz, not before quitting her desk job at a dentist’s office, and heads south. Grandma Pincer is a hard-headed hoarder, and she may have human remains in her basement leftover from an old medical experiment. This doesn’t phase Penny any more than everything else that happens to her throughout the course of his novel does. She bears it all, in an almost divine way, because she is determined to come out the other side. 

Dog of the North, McKenzie’s first novel since 2016’s National Book Award-longlisted The Portable Veblen, is a slyly poignant story about the journey we all take, unprotected, into life’s chaos; where the only way out is through. It explores the nearly impossible-to-manage pressures and complications of family dynamics, the nonsensical nature of love and attraction, and how to keep moving when your emotional wounds (or in Penny’s case, physical too) are taking a bit too long to heal. 

I feel so lucky to have gotten to speak to McKenzie about her writing process, the surprising nuance in “autofiction” (whatever that is), and the miracles that happen when you follow your character all the way down the road.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did the germ of this story idea begin, and how did it grow as you continued?

After I finished [The Portable Veblen], I wrote a bunch of odds and ends as I groped towards whatever was to become the next novel. There were some sketches involving the characters of Burt Lampey and Pincer, but I didn’t have any kind of narrative thread.

Then one day I added Penny, first person, and put her on the train escaping Santa Cruz. And from that moment, her voice took over and it felt like I was on track. Once Burt picked her up at the train station, there was always something next, because she was in motion. 

What were the inspirations and obsessions that drove you to write this book?

The book is filled with long-standing preoccupations, things like alienation, expatriation and dislocation, step-parents vs. biological parents, failed marriages, awkward misunderstandings, and self-delusion. Once I landed on the character of Penny, I was especially interested in creating an experience for the reader out of the substance of her reactions and emotions. To be able to watch a person go through a logistical and emotional gauntlet and see, in near to real time, how they respond and change.

I love Penny’s first person perspective. She’s such an interesting character who is so passive, yet has a resolve and patience so solid that it makes her almost active in a way.

She’s capable of making very candid observations about herself, yet has so much difficulty acknowledging other aspects of her behavior. When other characters respond to her and reveal things about her that she hasn’t directly told us, such as her sister’s reactions to her in Australia, it became an opportunity to expose her and goad her into some self-examination. Dealing with the blind spots of characters who are not fully aware of themselves is something I’ve always been drawn to in novels. Kazuo Ishiguro does it brilliantly.

I also think there is also a lot to be said for the exercise of keeping a tight focus on time and the very everyday things that a character goes through moment to moment. It really fleshes them out.

Kweekoats [a canine character in the novel] is named after Don Quixote and the story takes place on the road. Was Don Quixote on your mind when you were writing this novel?

Not so much beyond the dog’s name, but I did understand that Penny is on a type of quest. And I think one thing she admires about Burt is his quixotic optimism. So, I think [the Don Quixote connection] kind of resonates. It was remarked that the van in Dog of the North is sort of like Don Quixote’s horse Rocinante, which, again, was not a connection I had thought of…but I love that the spirit of that beloved novel might hover near this one.

This novel had me thinking a lot about family, and a lot about houses. There are a few houses in this novel—some of them are in disrepair, some of them need to be evacuated, there may be human remains in the basement of one of them—and meanwhile, Penny presently doesn’t have a house of her own. I was picking up on some connection between family and houses, and how time passing can change both homes and families…

You’re right. The house in ruin is one of my favorite literary devices. It’s macabre, it’s atmospheric, it’s slightly gothic, it’s haunted, it’s often grotesque, and ultimately it’s a sign of defeat or tragedy or general decline. It’s the aftermath of a life, or of a certain era in a life, and a manifestation of something gone wrong. The story behind it begging to be told. You’re right, there are so many houses! We have Pincer dealing with her places in Santa Barbara and Texas, Arlo being kicked out of his, while in Australia Penny’s parents’ place is abandoned, Penny’s sister Margaret’s house is lovely and perfect because so is she, and Penny herself is currently homeless, having dissolved her status quo. All of these domiciles reflect something about the people who have occupied them or left them.

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Penny is thrust into these situations where she must help support people or put out fires. She’ll be embroiled in an overwhelming conversation or predicament and then at the end of a chapter, we’ll get a moment where Penny is alone, meditating on the nature around her. 

Those moments seemed like the natural way to transition out of sequences with a lot of chaos. To have her pause and try to ascertain what it all meant or what she’ll do next. 

Or it’s her trying to stay calm by finding something about her current dilemma that isn’t so bad. Like when she’s sleeping in the van, the night in the parking lot in Santa Barbara and she hears the owls. And that, for the moment, reassures her—despite the fact that she finds out the next morning they’ve been ripping apart an animal carcass. That may come from my own mechanism for coping with stress: looking for the one little thing that can make things okay for the moment!

How was your experience writing Dog of the North influenced by your experience writing The Portable Veblen? 

Embedded in [The Portable Veblen] were some issues that were pretty heavy to me, like the treatment of volunteers in clinical trials or the mismanagement of those trials, veterans’ issues, medical marketing, and so forth. I spent a lot of time on research because those matters were weighty and significant and it was important to get them right and completely absorb the material so that I could write about them naturally. Perhaps that’s how this novel was influenced by the past book, in that I wanted it to be different. With this one, it was much more of an intuitive process.

It does sound like a lot of this is coming from things that you’ve experienced personally or emotions that you’ve had. Could you consider it autofiction?

Everything I write is based on emotions I’ve had or witnessed, so if that’s autofiction, sure. I have to put something I’ve felt or cared about into every character and every situation, whether or not the actual details of the scene are ones I’ve experienced. I tend to believe that most people’s work is metaphorically autobiographical in some way. That we have so many versions of ourselves that we can split off new characters endlessly.

Dog of the North
by Elizabeth McKenzie
Penguin Press
Published March 14th, 2023


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