An Interview With Phil Klay: "We Make Sense Of Experience Through Narrative"
Author and former Marine Corps officer Phil Klay on his debut collection, Redeployment, modern America's relationship to combat, and there being "as many narratives about war as there are about falling in love."
Phil Klay is a former Marine Corps officer who deployed to Iraq during the troop surge in 2007. After his military service, Klay enrolled in the MFA program at Hunter College where he published his short story "Redeployment" in Granta, now the title story of his debut collection, Redeployment, out this month with Penguin Press. The stories are not only about the war in Iraq, but also its aftermath here in America, as well as the lives of those whose service is often overlooked — contractors, state department officials, military chaplains, the guys at mortuary affairs. With spare prose, dark humor, and psychological acuity, Klay explores the terrain between our abhorrence and love of war, and the lives that will forever be tangled in our country's decision to invade Iraq.
Can you talk about any complications you came across while transforming autobiographical or overheard experiences into fiction? And why did you make the choice to write fiction, especially using multiple narrators?
Phil Klay: It's the best way I knew how to think about certain issues. I came back with all these questions, questions that could only be answered by exploring the experiences of contractors, soldiers, chaplains, girlfriends, etc. Writing fiction was a way to take the ideas that troubled me or confused me and put them under pressure. When I returned to NYC I came from a place where there were horrific things happening — and not to me, I had a mild deployment — but nightmares were common in Iraq at that time. So you come back, and you go from walking through TQ Surgical where you have Marines, civilians, insurgents, all terribly injured, and then two days later you're walking down Madison Avenue in New York City and there's zero sense of war. And when you get out of the Marine Corps you're no longer in a community where conflict is vital. It's such an abstraction. And yet you know that there's a continuing world of horror going on in Iraq and Afghanistan. Things of incredible importance overseas. And also here on the home front, as vets try to transition back. So the questions started coming up: How do we deal with veterans? What does the war mean to us?
I'm not the same person I was when started. I remember early on a friend of mine pointed out to me that I'd written a story where the character's wife should be incredibly important but I'd ignored her. I'd only had the experience of the veteran writing the story. But we are all part of the story — family and friends. At least for me, writing a book is continual exposure to blind spots. There were things I wanted to be true and wanted to believe, but it always got more complicated in the fiction. It was a long process of mortification and embarrassment as I learned how limited my knowledge was.
Did the process of writing Redeployment change your ideas about America and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
PK: In war it feels like everything you're doing is more important because you're in the proximity of violence and death, and that proximity changes your relationship to America because it changes the way you see the world. You enter this alien culture called the Marine Corps or the Army, and within these there are very particular subcultures. Then you go to Iraq where there are huge moral stakes, but because you are part of this culture there is always an intelligible organizational ethos, even if you disagree. There are plenty of Marines who spend all their time complaining about the Corps. But even if you hate it, it's clear what you are reacting to. So then, later, you come back to civilian life and that ethos is gone. There's no clear sense of purpose. Instead it's a confusing complicated society and you don't know where you fit in. You don't know — you drift.
What frustrates you most about the civilian-veteran conversation going on today, or lack thereof, in America? And how can civilians sufficiently imagine the experience of soldiers when so much information coming out of the war is controlled by the media?
PK: There are as many narratives about war as there are about falling in love. It's where you become a man. Or a hero or a shriveled traumatized victim. War is an arena for the display of courage and virtue. Or war is politics by other means. War is a quasi-mystical experience where you get in touch with the real. There are millions of narratives we impose to try to make sense of war. We make sense of experience through narrative. And some of those stories are useful and some of them serve a purpose in the moment, and some are deeply flawed. The experience of war is so specific. If you're a sniper or an artilleryman, then your experience of combat can be radically different. But you always go into this job with significant moral stakes, and then you have to live with them.
I'm not the angry veteran frustrated with civilians, though that can be a tempting role to play — acting like these terrible civilians aren't engaged, and they should listen to me pontificate about war. But veterans lie to ourselves as much as anybody does. We all want to believe narratives that put us in a good light. It's hard to speak about questions of war and peace because they're so charged and because everything is so painful. But we need civilian voices and dialogue just as much as veteran voices.
There' s a moment in "Bodies" when the narrator is finally being thanked for his service, but no one really knew what they were thanking him for. If the question "How many people did you kill?" sits on the list of what not to ask a veteran, then what kind of response do you think veterans crave from civilians? Is the prepackaged language we throw around functioning to limit conversation?
PK: It depends on the veteran, I suppose. I don't know if there's a "right" response, and I understand why we fall back on the prepackaged language. It's difficult to get the conversation going, and to find our place in it, and the prepackaged language feels safer. Sometimes veterans don't want to talk, or care to explain. Sometimes they're not open to their views being challenged by someone who wasn't overseas. But if the prepackaged language serves to begin a conversation, then it's not terrible. I've always appreciated people thanking me for my service.
Did the war make you a writer? What is the obligation of the writer at war? Or, rather, what's the most difficult part about writing war stories?
PK: No, I wrote beforehand. The war gave me a subject that was important enough for me to write about honestly. It made writing vital for me. It made me find out where I was wrong. I wasn't a huge reader of war literature, but a poet named Tom Sleigh made me read Babel and Tolstoy and Hemingway. He said that if I was going to war I should read some of the smartest people to ever think about it. When I joined, I knew we were going to Iraq and whether or not the decision was a good one, I also knew that how well we fared would be measured in lives. It seemed like an important historical moment and I wanted to try to put myself in a position to hopefully effect things for the better.
What do you think, if anything, will define the kind of preoccupations and writing that will be unique to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? How would you describe our relationship to these wars?
PK: We have an all-volunteer military. When folks join the military they tend to cluster from certain regions of the country. Being a military recruiter in Connecticut is substantially more difficult than being a recruiter in, let's say, Texas. I live in Brooklyn and everyone here thinks that being a veteran is this amazing thing. It's that degree of distance. America's relationship to war is currently one of profound distance from it. And yet, the decisions we make here have huge consequences overseas. In the end, you go fight the war and then you think really hard about whether the people leading the war were even competent. Whether the policies we fought for had been seriously thought through and subjected to serious scrutiny by the American public. The last thing you want to find out is that America is waging war on autopilot.
Jennifer Percy is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. Winner of the Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Grant, Percy's honors also include a Truman Capote Fellowship, an Iowa Arts Fellowship, a David Relin Prize in Fiction, a William Raney Scholarship in Nonfiction from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Her nonfiction book Demon Camp (Scribner, 2014) is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick and has been acquired by Paramount for film production. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Harper's, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Oxford American, and elsewhere. She teaches writing at New York University.