With nod to Quixote, Santa Cruz’s Elizabeth McKenzie takes readers on an adventure in new novel

Santa Cruz author Elizabeth McKenzie with her new novel, "The Dog of the North."
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The Dog of the North” is Elizabeth McKenzie’s follow-up to her acclaimed 2016 novel “The Portable Veblen,” and she’ll talk about it in person at Bookshop Santa Cruz on Tuesday, the day it’s released.

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There’s a clever allusion in Elizabeth McKenzie’s new novel, “The Dog of the North,” that serves as a comment on the book’s theme, if you know where to look. There’s a pet Pomeranian in the book who is named “Kweecoats,” a willful mispronunciation of the name on the dog’s collar tag: “Quixote.”

Certainly a contender for the greatest novel of all time, “Don Quixote,” published more than 400 years ago, developed a genre known as “picaresque,” an episodic form of adventure literature, often told in first person, often presented as comedy, and often involving a lot of travel.

McKenzie is among the most successful writers to call Santa Cruz home, most recently charming readers across the country with her 2016 smart comic novel “The Portable Veblen,” which the New York Times praised for its “fizz and snappity-pop.”

The follow-up to “Veblen” is a different animal. “The Dog of the North” will be officially released Tuesday, which is also the date that the author herself will appear for a talk and book signing at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

“This is the first novel I’ve written in first person,” said McKenzie from her home on the Westside of Santa Cruz. “And it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. [My previous novels], to me, all felt like engineering feats. I was working with all these pieces and the architecture was difficult to understand and I didn’t necessarily know how all the parts were going to fit together. But this one was just very straightforward and streamlined. So, in a sense, it was more pleasurable to work on.”

Santa Cruz author Elizabeth McKenzie
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The Dog of the North” begins in Santa Cruz, but doesn’t stay there long. It’s the story of a young woman named Penny, an awkward and traumatized misfit with no job and a failed marriage. She goes to Santa Barbara to rescue her put-upon grandmother, a kind of mad scientist who is in possession of a weapon known as “the Scintillator,” and her addled grandfather, who is being pushed into an old-folks home by his second wife.

The book’s title refers not to the dog named Kweecoats, but to a beat-up Econoline van with gingham curtains and balky brakes that serves roughly the same purpose for Penny that Quixote’s horse, Rocinante, served, as a vehicle to carry our lovable but flawed protagonist from one adventure to another.

Unlike her past novels, with “The Dog of the North,” McKenzie dove into her story without the help of an outline to serve as a road map. “I had something in mind,” she said, “a kind of a tone I wanted it to end on. But I didn’t know how I was going to get there.”

There are plenty of road trips in the book, including a major portion of the book that takes place in Australia — though the titular van doesn’t make the trip across the Pacific Ocean. Still, through all the adventures, the book is about what’s going on inside the head of its relatable protagonist.

Santa Cruz author Elizabeth McKenzie
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Because it’s told in first person,” said McKenzie, “her state of mind is really central to the whole narrative. She is constantly reacting to things, and constantly concealing things.”

McKenzie said that her new novel has a few parallels with her own life — the grandmother in the story is loosely based on her grandmother, and she has family roots in Australia. She, in fact, traveled to Australia to research that part of her book.

But otherwise, “The Dog of the North” is a product of the 2020 pandemic shutdown. The book took just over a year to write, much faster than her previous novels.

“I started looking into and doing all these jigsaw puzzles,” she said of the COVID lockdown. “And then I’m like, ‘What am I doing? I should just start my novel.’”

Elizabeth McKenzie will be in conversation with fellow Santa Cruz novelist Karen Joy Fowler in celebration of “The Dog of the North” on Tuesday at Bookshop Santa Cruz. It’s free, but registration is required.

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