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Interview

Phil Klay was born in Westchester, New York, in 1983. He studied creative writing and literature at Dartmouth College and graduated in 2005. That spring he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps and in 2007 was deployed to Iraq during the troop surge. He served as a public affairs officer out of Camp Taqaddum in Anbar Province until February 2008. After leaving the Corps, Klay completed an MFA in fiction at Hunter College. He was awarded the 2014 National Book Award for fiction for his debut collection of stories, Redeployment. He has also received the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award (for best first book of any genre), the James Webb Award for fiction from the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, and the W.Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction from the American Library Association. His essays examining the complicated experiences of veterans returning home, as well as civilian perceptions of military service, have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and New York Daily News. His writing has also appeared in Granta, Tin House, Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He was interviewed by Nick Ripatrazone.

 

Image: You joined the Marines in 2005 and served in Iraq during 2007 and 2008. Although you weren’t in combat, you certainly saw death and destruction and have written, “Though I continue to tell stories about Iraq, I sometimes fear this makes me a fraud. I feel guilty about the sorrow I feel because I know it is manufactured, and I feel guilty about the sorrow I do not feel because it is owed, it is the barest beginnings of what is owed to the fallen.” After winning the National Book Award for writing stories about war, do you feel the same way?

Phil Klay: I think it’s always important to question why you’re telling the stories you do and how honest you’re being with the person receiving them. The success the book has had doesn’t change that. If anything, it makes doubt even more important.

Image: As a writer, what makes you move past that feeling of doubt to put the story on the page?

PK: Putting the story on the page is a product of doubt, not a product of certainty. I write because I’m troubled or confused or fascinated by something in human experience I don’t understand, and writing allows me a way to expose my own ignorance further. For me, a story begins with questions far more often than with answers. And even if I do have some very fixed notions at the outset of the story, writing usually complicates those notions or destroys them altogether.

Image: Readers and critics have lauded the speed and compression of your prose. Redeployment begins with the titular story, and on the first page alone your narrator moves between shooting dogs, the high drama of Marines searching homes, and the decompression felt at the end of deployment. Could you describe your approach to pacing—in drafts and published stories?

PK: On that first page, you’re tracing the narrator’s thoughts as he returns home, so it’s only natural that the pace would move quickly and jump between different periods. It depends on the story, but often compression is necessary to get the right idea across. For example, the opening of “Bodies” is at heart a relatively simple, somewhat grotesque story about two Marines collecting a corpse. The narrator had heard it before he deployed, and then afterward he told it in bars when people asked him to talk about Iraq. “Bodies” opens with the narrator explaining how he used to tell this story, and the ways in which he’d use it. The reason he’s talking about this isn’t simply contained in the story itself. It has to do with all the history embedded in the telling, and the way his relationship to the story has changed because of experiences he’s had. If you don’t move through time, following the thoughts and emotional resonances for the character, then you’ve just got a simple story with a gross punchline.

There are a couple moments in the stories when experiences are described not as single events, but as events understood in relation to all the other times that experience has been approached through memory or retold. I never get to that point on a first draft. Usually, I just put the basic story down and then start to play around with the key moments and ideas that the narrator focuses on. For some narrators, particularly the ones in Iraq, everything will move in a straight line, but “Money as a Weapons System,” for example, had a very different set of demands. Really it’s about following what the story is telling you to do.

Image: “OIF,” a very short story that precedes “Money as a Weapons System” in the book, is a prose-poetic piece that shows some really interesting range. Did you have a hand in where it was placed in the collection?

PK: I chose the order for the stories. Actually, I had a sense of the order even as I was writing them. “Redeployment” was the first story I began working on, and “Ten Kliks South” was the second. From early on I knew those were my beginning and end.

“Money as a Weapons System” takes the broadest look at policy of any of the stories, and “OIF” is the most narrowly constrained. They’re tied, loosely, in that they’re both about bureaucratic confusion. “OIF” is about a mission to deliver money—what a grunt is to a battalion commander, the narrator of “OIF” is (sort of) to the foreign service officer narrating “Money as a Weapons System.”

Every sentence in “OIF” contains an acronym, with a couple of deliberate exceptions. I wanted to look at the language of acronyms closely, and in a different way from the other acronym-intensive story in the collection, “FRAGO.” In “FRAGO,” you have an unapologetically Marine narrator who delivers a blizzard of acronyms at the outset of the piece and expects the listener to just go with it, because he won’t explain himself. I wanted the reader, after finishing the first story in the book, to turn the page and see all these acronyms and, even at the level of how they appear on the page, be startled by this different language and different culture.

“OIF” starts with a very different blizzard of acronyms. First off, they’re acronyms belonging to different types of units, so even most Marines won’t know them all. I deliberately used National Guard and Marine acronyms, acronyms from all these different subcultures within the Corps. And they’re all describing things external to the narrator. But midway through the story, the way those acronyms are used shifts. Acronyms can be used to obscure, but they can also be emotive. For what he’s trying to say at the end, acronyms are perfect. They’re the only way to say what he needs to say.

Image: What about “Ten Kliks South” made it an obvious conclusion—a book ending you could write toward?

PK: It’s a search for the dead, not only American but also Iraqi. And it’s a failed search. The narrator understands he has some responsibility for violence done, but he is unable to determine how much, or how he should feel about it, good or bad. Where, precisely, does collective responsibility begin and end? And after his failure to get answers, the story moves to the recollection of the American dead, returning home, and the consequences there which he can also only imagine.

Image: In “FRAGO,” the narrator tells a Marine on his first deployment not to “let yourself think about [the war] until we’re back in the States.” Redeployment and much of your nonfiction appear devoted to starting conversations about American military presence in Iraq, and the complicated interactions between veterans and civilians that occur when we speak about service. How have these conversations been?

PK: Fascinating. I think we don’t quite know what to make of our wars, in part because we’re still involved. It seems that after every war we start to think about what the contract between citizen and soldier is exactly, what to make of those who serve, and what to make of our responsibility for the wars fought in our name. There’s plenty that frustrates me, but there are also a lot of great voices in the conversation now.

Image: What have been the reactions to Redeployment from other veterans?

PK: So far they have been very positive, for the most part. It’s led to a lot of conversations, and it’s interesting what resonates with people. I’ve spoken about the artillery story, for example, with artillerymen from Iraq, Vietnam, and Grenada, which has been fascinating. I’ve also been told by people who have been in a lot of combat that the story that really resonated for them was the one about an adjutant who goes to law school after the Corps.

Image: I feel like a Catholic literary sense suffuses Redeployment: the way the narrators talk about bodies and prayer, and of course the profoundly Catholic “Prayer in the Furnace,” a story about how a Marine chaplain struggles with the troubling confessions he hears. What was it like to write in the voice of a priest? Did you draw from any literary or real-life exemplars?

PK: Absolutely. I went to Regis High School in New York, a Jesuit school, where I was introduced to the study of theology and to writers like Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Francois Mauriac, Walker Percy, and Shuˉsaku Endoˉ. I had phenomenal teachers who modeled a particular type of intellectual engagement with the world and who certainly influenced the way that priest thinks. Many Regis alumni have asked me about the resemblance of one character to a much loved teacher there.

Image: During the past few years, there’s been much debate in the pages of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere over the state of faith in American fiction and poetry. Some have argued that there is an absence of notable writing that engages with belief. What has been your experience in the publishing world as a writer for whom faith and religious narratives affects storytelling?

PK: One of my friends, Scott Cheshire, wrote a beautiful book about faith called High as the Horses’ Bridles. Scott is not a believer himself, though he was raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and used to give sermons as a child, and the novel approaches questions of faith with the same degree of respect and serious consideration that any great believing writer would. It’s a challenging and provocative read.

Image: You have mentioned reading T.S. Eliot, Jack Gilbert, Charles Olson, and Gerard Manley Hopkins while serving in Iraq. How did you acquire your literary background, and how do you see your reading relating to your writing?

PK: I was always a big reader. As for how it affects my writing, I remember hearing Rabih Alameddine at a reading say flatly, “Books are made out of other books.” You can only live one life, but books are a primary way for us to expand our understanding of how others live in the world. I take the knowledge I glean from books and from my own experience and research, and I twist and distort it to examine the issues I care about. I’ll read books directly about, say, the reconstruction effort in Iraq, or about what it is like to work in Mortuary Affairs (Jessica Goodell’s excellent Shade It Black, for example), but I’m also reading to get ideas for the characters to be animated by, or to help me create situations to put them in. I spent a lot of time reading folks thinking philosophically about war experience (Walter Benjamin, J. Glenn Gray, Paul Fussell). I read a bunch of Conrad. Sometimes, I’ll get ideas for characters from literature. My Major Zima, for example, is a deliberate perversion of The Good Soldier Švejk. Jaroslav Hašek wouldn’t like what I’ve done with his character, I’m guessing. I don’t think I’d agree with Hašek about much. While reading I assume that if something is interesting to me, then it’s interesting more generally, and so maybe I should throw it in a story and knock it around. Inevitably, the sources of the ideas get banged up. Finally, I’m reading for craft. How does Nathan Englander structure a story that involves nested narratives and yet reads utterly naturally? How does Isaac Babel structure “The Story of My Dovecot” to allow him to give us everything we need to know about the pogrom without betraying the conceit of the story? How does he get away with “Salt”?

Image: At Fordham University you spoke about how Catholic literature quickly gets to deep, dark places—an idea that applies to “Prayer in the Furnace,” a story concerned with evil. How do your Catholic faith and upbringing inform your understanding of writing and literature?

PK: It’s not so much the ability of Catholic literature to get to dark places, but rather the sense of moral stakes you’ll find there. Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest does not have people killing each other, but the stakes in that novel feel just as vital as in any war fiction. This is because, for Bernanos, the characters’ souls are on the line. Catholic literature takes the idea of sin seriously. It pays serious attention to suffering, to human fallibility, and the importance of ritual and community in human life.

With war fiction, it’s not enough to assume that the presence of life-and-death decisions provide you with the basic materials for moral storytelling.

Image: At what point do drama and didacticism meet and diverge in fiction—yours and that of writers like Bernanos? What makes Catholic fiction story and not theology?

PK: Fiction is not there to instruct the reader with moral lessons. I always think of Dostoevsky, who made his ideological opponents the most eloquent characters in his novels. Whatever it is you believe, the only way you grow as a writer (and as a human being) is by forcing yourself to confront the aspects of reality that don’t conform to your vision of the world. This is as much a problem for the political novel as it is for the religious one. It comes down to whether you are interested in how these ideas affect human beings, or in telling your readers to believe these ideas.

Image: Stories like “Prayer in the Furnace” seem to burrow down toward a single, absolute, dramatic point, but then end on complex, natural, often ambiguous notes. How do you know that a story is finished—in terms of character, story, even morality?

PK: I rely heavily on friends willing to read my work and offer suggestions. Each of those stories went through many different versions with many different endings. You can’t see exactly what you’ve got when you’ve first written the thing, so I’d send the work out to people I trust who would talk me through what they were seeing there, and that would let me know how to move forward.

When I end a story I don’t want to close it off or tie it up. What I want is, ideally, to achieve a slight twist, to shift the ground a little in a way that offers the reader an altered perspective on what they’ve just read. Of course, some of the stories have a kind of symmetry between the beginning and end (“Redeployment” and “Money as a Weapons System” most obviously), but in those cases I wanted the return to have a much different resonance for the reader.

As far as how I know a story is done in terms of morality, I think that’s a question of whether I’ve been true to the characters, and to the moral stakes for the characters. You’re not just trying to tell the reader what war was like; you’re trying to guide the reader toward the kind of collision of values that happens for people in war and after. The morality, I suppose, lies in creating the space for thoughtful moral response from the reader.

Image: After your time in the Marines, you spent half a year teaching middle-school students. How did that go? Do you plan on teaching some more?

PK: I loved it. I taught them writing, mainly through giving them a lot of journalism to read. One time I gave the kids a list of thirty or forty of my favorite first lines from literature. Their assignment was to pick three and write down what about the sentences appealed to them. The next day we wrote all the things they liked up on the board, and then I asked them to rewrite their favorite sentence, but to purposely make it bad. The idea was to get them thinking about what could make a sentence compelling, and how another sentence might give you the same information but be dead on the page. One sixth-grader rewrote “Call me Ishmael” as, “‘Hi! I’m Ishmael,’ said Ishmael, introducing himself.” I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up teaching. It’s hard, but I enjoy it.

Image: You attended NYU’s Veterans Writing Workshop. Similar programs have appeared at other universities, and independent of academia. How was that experience? Who are some of your favorite veteran-writers?

PK: I attended the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop while I was getting my MFA at Hunter College. A group of us met on Sundays. It was tremendously important for the book to have that community. We had a lot of great conversations about literature and about war. I’m still good friends with many of those guys, and an increasing number of books are coming from that group—the story anthology Fire and Forget and the novel The War of the Encyclopaedists by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, and there are novels forthcoming from Perry O’Brien and Matt Gallagher. Maurice Decaul is an incredible poet and playwright, and I’m sure there will be a lot more work to come.
Aside from the books I just mentioned, I love David Jones, Ford Madox Ford, Kenneth Koch, Isaac Babel, J. Glenn Gray, and a lot of others.

Image: Do you see any intersections between military service and artistic creation? Did your service perhaps prepare you in a unique way for some element of storytelling?

PK: Sure, there are plenty of intersections between military service and artistry. There’s the discipline common to both, of course, but there’s also something useful for artistic creation about being in a profession that constantly emphasizes service. I don’t think of art as happening in a void, or as disconnected from your obligations to others or to your country as a citizen. For me, writing my book was very much an attempt to grapple with questions I thought were important for understanding our present moment. I spent a lot of time rethinking my understanding of what it meant to be an American citizen, what it meant to be a veteran, and what my obligations were given the frequency with which we, as a country, use military force.

Image: You mentioned Kenneth Koch, who also once taught public school in New York City and who, like you, was able to imbue his literary memories of war with comedy. How would you characterize the humor of Marines? Were there experiences during your service that felt both humorous and serious?

PK: The comedy I like the best is always both humorous and serious at once. Vonnegut once said, “I think jokes are a perfectly viable form of literature. Some critics take issue with me because I make my points and discuss my ideas with jokes, rather than with oceanic tragedy.” There’s this expectation that a war story will inform us, somberly, that war is hell—but often in the worst of situations Marines are making the funniest (and darkest) of jokes. There’s also plenty of absurdity in any bureaucratic culture, and the military has more than its fair share of bureaucracy, so some degree of absurdist humor is inevitable. A really telling joke allows us to face things we’d rather avert our eyes from, and it makes us glad to do so.

Image: In recent years, some of the most immediate, powerful books of fiction have been collections of short stories. I would put Redeployment alongside Volt by Alan Heathcock and the excellent I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro. What draws you to short fiction?

PK: Short fiction was essential for what I wanted to do with my book. I was originally working on a novel at the same time, but in an odd way I found the novel form too limiting. I didn’t want a coherent narrative running through the collection. I wanted the twelve different voices to bounce off of each other and inform each other without being shoehorned into some sort of narrative arc. The disjoint felt right for the reading experience I wanted to create.

Image: In your essay “After War: A Failure of the Imagination,” you lament how we, as a nation, talk about war: “If the past ten years have taught us anything, it’s that in the age of an all-volunteer military, it is far too easy for Americans to send soldiers on deployment after deployment without making a serious effort to imagine what that means. We can do better.” How do you see faith entering the conversation about how we perceive and treat veterans, or how we talk about war?

PK: Well, there’s the feeling of being trapped inside one’s experience, which I address as both an interpersonal and political problem in that essay. But it’s also a religious problem, insofar as being part of most religious practices means being part of a community. Lumen Gentium argues, “By communicating His Spirit, Christ made His brothers, called together from all nations, mystically the components of His own Body. In that Body the life of Christ is poured into the believers who, through the sacraments, are united in a hidden and real way to Christ who suffered and was glorified.” You don’t get to carve off inaccessible pieces of yourself. So I guess I see faith as establishing a sense of both
solidarity with veterans and implication alongside them.

Image: Near the end of Redeployment, a character thinks, “Strangely, I started feeling more like a Marine out of the Corps than I’d felt while in it.” Does that apply to you?

PK: Not exactly, but I was always highly conscious of the way civilians would sometimes make pretty big leaps when they imagined what my war experience must have been. I always try to take care to disabuse people of any grand notions about my own time overseas. This is in part for my own sake. It’s easy to fall into the trap of glamorizing your own memories, war-related or not, and I don’t think it’s a healthy route to go down.

Image: What would you say to someone who knows little about the world of the military? How can we get closest to an honest literary and cultural representation of those who serve?

PK: There’s a tremendous amount of great work already out there about these recent wars. Some astounding journalism, great memoirs and novels, and I’m certain the veteran writing scene will only get more interesting as time goes on. And I don’t know if honesty about the world of those who serve is necessarily the standard. What we really want is something that, in an honest way, challenges the culture to see something new. Joseph Heller once claimed of Catch-22 that “the antiwar and antigovernment feelings in the book belong to the period following World War II: the Korean War, the Cold War, and the fifties.” If we choose to believe him, then we might say that he didn’t strictly provide an “honest” account of World War II. And yet, he did provide us something invaluable.

Image: Redeployment has left many of us eager to read more. What are you currently working on?

PK: Slowly at work on a novel. We’ll see how it turns out.


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