Phil Klay is the author of the short story collection Redeployment, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014. He’s a graduate of the MFA program at CUNY Hunter, and a Marine Corps Veteran who deployed to Iraq. I met Phil a year after I left the military and returned to New York City. Phil is part of a network of veteran artists and writers who set me on the path of my own writing career. I interviewed Phil over the phone from our respective homes in Brooklyn.
P: For a variety of reasons—it’s currently what I’m most interested in, what I’m most knowledgeable about, what I’m most passionate about. That seems like a fairly good reason to write that sort of thing. I don’t think of myself in that way, but when there’s something happening politically that has to do with foreign policy or has to do with the military, or civil-military relations, or any of the things I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and reading about, that tends to be when I’ll be most inspired to write something or to kind of look in to learn more about that subject, so I can add to the discussion. I’ve spent a little more than a decade at this point thinking about war and conflict and reintegration and storytelling narrative around those ideas, so it’s not particularly surprising that’s what I’d write about.
D: You weren’t a grunt on the front lines, you were a public affairs officer. I’m wondering how that experience mediated the way you wrote each of your characters in Redeployment, because each character, and each story, seems to have a great deal of empathic imagination and compassion.
P: I wasn’t writing autobiographical fiction, obviously. I’ve always tried to be pretty up front about that. The fact that I was in Iraq as a Marine gets highlighted, so there are some people that want to read autobiography into the collection. I wasn’t relying on my own personal experiences. I was relying on research and interviews and just a lot of reading and thought and discussions and arguments with other veterans. It wasn’t me trying to say I didn’t have the veteran’s story – I had the veteran’s story. In the process of being in the military and exposing myself to that kind of research, the process of engaging with a lot of stories of a different Iraq [as a Public Affairs Officer] and ideas of Iraq and the war from very different angles, made me forget the goal of having one narrative about the war, even from just the U.S. side.
In a way that gave me a certain amount of freedom, but at the same time, there was this sense that you’re trespassing. People are protective of veteran experiences, this sort of “insider status” is very important to people, and there are different gradations of that. I was a public affairs officer. I was a pogue. I was a guy who was not in combat or doing anything like that, and when you’re writing from inside an experience that’s central to people’s identity – which war experience, which involves a strange mixture of pride and sometimes a lot of pain, often is – you’re trespassing in a certain way by writing these stories.
So there was a question of whether I had the right to tell the stories, and I quickly decided that I did not, that I didn’t necessarily think anybody had the right. Certainly you see on cable news a controversy that involves veterans, or politicians trying to use veterans for political purposes. You’ll see some kind of veteran on screen trying to claim the veteran perspective on everything, or how the issue of the NFL protests can only be either understood or articulated by veterans. And so I became skeptical of these claims about storytelling, and decided there wasn’t a right way to tell a story. There are certainly a million wrong ways to tell a story, and I could only justify myself by doing it well.
D: I think a lot of young fiction writers struggle with this question of having a right to inhabit a character outside of themselves. Can you talk a little bit about your process? Obviously a lot of research goes into it, and we all do research as writers, but I’m really interested to hear about precisely how you tackle this issue.
P: The funny thing for me is that, when I write something that’s more autobiographical in terms of the non-fiction that I’ve written, I do research as well. That kind of goes along with this sense that I have that you don’t necessarily have a right to your own story. You’re sort of getting other people’s perspective that will further your understanding of who you are. I don’t think that you come to terms with what you’ve been through by taking the deep sort of Upanishadvian look into the interior self and connecting with your authentic experience. I think you come to terms with the meaning of what you’ve been through over time as you figure out not just what it meant to you, but what it meant to other people, and how people can relate to that.
What was the question again? I kind got off on a tangent.
D: You mentioned the right to tell a story and that, in a sense, no one quite has the “right” to tell any story, and you’ve done so successfully by inhabiting experiences other than your own. I think a lot of people want to know what that’s like: to get in the head of a state department official or a front line grunt or a recently returned veteran who struggles with mental illness.
P: I’ve talked about doing research and kind of understanding that these experiences are sacred to people in different ways, and being conscious of that and being conscious of that fact that you’re sort of trespassing. Part of it is figuring out a rich sense of the material you’re working with. And yet at the same time, there’s this way in which in order to write fiction well, you also have to have a kind of anarchic spirit.
Because your job, ultimately, as a writer, and surely as a fiction writer, is not to tell what it’s like to go to war. Certainly in my book, I try to show twelve guys that have very different takes on what it’s like to go to war, and that’s just not even necessarily a representative sample of the military as a whole. It’s not meant to be a compendium of military experience, either. So you’re not trying necessarily to stay true to what you might read in a memoir or interviews, you’re kind of searching for whatever is most interesting about the human experience that your research and your imagination is leading you to, and then finding tools within reality to put those things under pressure.
I also found that if I did a little bit of research – if I knew seven things about being a chaplain in Iraq – I’d put all seven of those things into a story. But if I knew a lot of things about being a chaplain in Iraq, I would feel more free to invent. I would feel confident that I could invent something and either it wouldn’t be obviously wrong, or that I was going to invent something that I felt was wrong, but knew enough about my subject to justify it. There’s a respect for experience. You’re positioned as an interloper when you’re writing fiction – or memoir, for that matter – because every memoir includes other characters that probably wouldn’t agree with your perception of them.
But then there’s also this kind of freedom and ability to chase down what’s most interesting or troubling, or what most threatened your ideas. And that’s where fiction comes alive: when you find things you don’t expect, and when you sort of take the raw materials of life and push them into a very strange place. If you know what you’re trying to say before you start and you write the piece and it says what you were originally trying to say, you’ve probably failed.
D: I think you and I are both in this really interesting position, you in particular: these are really dire times, and you’re writing at a moment when the country is experiencing not only a great deal of political turmoil, but also the longest American war on record, sixteen years. I think there’s always been this argument over what art is supposed to do, what the utility of fiction is supposed to be, of the lack thereof.
I’m wondering what you feel the power of fiction might be, because we have this relatively new genre of about a hundred years worth of war literature that precedes both of us, and we still have wars.
P: Expecting war literature to end wars is a tall order. I don’t think anybody goes up to a crime fiction writer and says, “But has crime fiction ended murder?”
But war literature does hopefully inform us and make us sort of smarter about it, both at a political and interpersonal level. Really good fiction does inform and change the culture, but I think that any kind of rapid responses are far too much to expect.
I don’t expect to write anything that’s going to radically change military policy. I think that the accumulated work of a lot of people, both veteran and civilian, operating in this space does help us to become smarter as we muddle our way through this rudderless foreign policy with huge human costs. The most that you can expect is to put your shoulder to the wheel. That’s your task as a writer and as a citizen, to do that. The incentives for war are going to be there whether we write or not, and the incentives that inhibit us from having a more coherent and thoughtful military and foreign policy are still there. I think that the best you can do is hope to make people a little bit wiser and more thoughtful of the human dimension and the costs.
D: It’s interesting, because when was a kid I remember reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I remember reading Slaughterhouse Five, and Catch-22, and Dispatches, and all these great works of literature, each of which told me that war is terrible. Undoubtedly, there’s some thirteen-year-old kid who’s read Redeployment or Spoils by Brian Van Reet. Or War Porn, or Girl at War, or any of the really great novels to come out of the past few years, and still felt compelled, as I did when I was a kid, to eventually join the military.
P: I think that’s perfectly fine, right? Frankly I’m glad that somebody like you – who not just read all that stuff, but had the kind of mind that wanted to read that sort of thing – was in the military.
I was talking to a friend whose significant other is in the military. My friend was freaked out by the Trump election, because she’s very liberal and was worried not just for the country but also on a personal level. She thought: ‘Here’s this person who doesn’t seem to have any kind of respect for military values, any kind of thoughtfulness or foresight, and this person is going to be the Commander in Chief.’ One of the things I said to her is that, on a purely selfish level, it’s one of those strange things where I’m glad that guys like her significant other are in the military, because we need people like that.
We need people with perspectives like yours and with the experience that you bring to be able to inform us. You don’t just want a military composed of people who are not, who have not, exposed themselves to the kind of works that are more critical of war and of military culture. My hope is not that the book will prevent somebody from joining the military. I think it’s a fine and honorable thing to serve in the military. My hope is just to increase the store of intellectual tools that you have while you’re in it.
Before I went into the Marine Corps, I had a teacher, the poet Tom Sleigh, who’s a fantastic poet. He has written about war, including a great book of poems that recently came out, Station Zed, and has done some really good journalism as well. He made me read Isaac Babel, and he made me read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and he made me read all of Hemingway’s short stories, and David Jones’ In Parenthesis, and Céline’s Journey to the End of Night. His goal in that was not to get me to not accept my commission. It was to make me as well-informed about the kind of moral questions that I might be exposed to or see other people encounter, and I’m grateful to him for that.
D: The other part, and this is something that I know you’ve talked about a good deal, is that the military is a small minority that is part of a larger political system, part of a citizenry that also needs to be involved. You’ve talked about the civil-military divide a great deal, and I’m wondering what your thoughts are regarding how civilians should interact with the art, or about civic responsibility in the arts.
P: I’ll tell you what I don’t think it is. I think sometimes there’s this attitude where people feel like, “I’ve come back from the war, I’ve got the truth to deliver to civilians, and they need to listen to what I have to say about war because I’ve been there.”
That’s not how I feel about it. I feel that it’s your job, as a citizen, whatever avenue of national concern it is, to interact with something outside of yourself, to be informed about issues important to the national concern, and then be empowered to intelligently argue back, to form your own opinion. War is not a thing to whom a veteran is a subject. It’s something that we all have responsibility to.
Even if you did serve overseas, your experience is inevitably going to be one very small perspective on this giant thing. If you served in Iraq in 2003, that’s radically different than serving in Iraq in 2004. If you were in Fallujah in 2006, that’s radically different from Baghdad in 2009, let alone what job you were doing.
The task is to basically understand what else is out there to know, to understand the limits of your own knowledge. You need to have a discussion with a little bit of humility, but also with the ability to push back against claims that are made by veterans, by civilians, and by policy makers. It’s to engage in a serious way.
D: You’re speaking of writers inhabiting uncomfortable or unfamiliar spaces. One of the best books to come out of the war was probably Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
P: Perfect example. That book is brilliant. It is very smart about the war experience, very smart about this strange place of civilian-military relations, with that odd kind of sacred cow that we turn our veterans into. Ben Fountain is a civilian, but he did his research. He was thoughtful, but he also felt empowered to write a strong, and often deeply and powerfully satirical, book.
There’s a wonderful scene in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate where there’s a Soviet general who’s talking about Stalin and the Russian war experience. And the general says, “We only have War and Peace because Tolstoy was a veteran and only somebody who had been there could have written with such brilliance about war.” And another official says, “Excuse me, Comrade General, Tolstoy didn’t take part in the Patriotic War.” And the general just refuses to believe it.
Sometimes being on the outside of an experience can help you. It can help you see things that people inside don’t. Just because you’ve been through something doesn’t mean you’re necessarily the final arbiter of what that experience means. We understand this idea in a more personal sphere, right? If you’re having trouble with your significant other, and you go to your wise friend to complain about them, sometimes that wise friend is going to be like, “Actually, you’re the one being an asshole here.”
We’ve already talked about seeing veterans on TV, watching some jerk speaking on behalf of all veterans, and it’s just like, “Who is this tool?” A friend of mine was interviewing some Navy SEALs and one of the SEALs turned to him and said, “You know, the thing about being in a community where you’re supposed to be a silent professional is that you end up getting represented by the biggest jerks you ever worked with.”
D: Do you have any advice for civilian writers who want to tell stories about conflict, especially recent conflict, given all this protectiveness around the subject matter?
P: I will say one thing, and this is kind of advice for vets, too. In America we have this kind of canon of war literature. It’s a canon that tends to be white, male, front-line soldiers. There’s a lot of books that have been written about home that don’t necessarily get included in that canon, but of course they’re certainly war books. They’re written by civilians, and taken from a different angle. When you read books about war that are not kind of within that canon, it often opens up really interesting possibilities for you.
One of the books that was influential for me when I was writing Redeployment was this book called Beer in the Snooker Club, by Waguih Ghali, an Egyptian writer. It’s set during the Suez crisis. I don’t really know how to describe it; maybe like if Evelyn Waugh was writing about Egyptian society during the Suez crisis. The two main characters are basically Egyptian hipsters: they’re well-educated, they’re from wealthy families though they don’t have money themselves, they’re reading books.
It isn’t really considered a war story, but there’s a wonderful scene in which a friend pays for the two main characters to go to Britain. They meet a woman on the bus there and she’s very excited, saying, “Oh, you’re Egyptian. My son was just in Egypt” – meaning her son was a British soldier invading the country – “and he’d love to meet you.” The Egyptians, being hipsters, think this is amazing, so they say, “Yeah, totally, we’ll meet that guy.”
The son is a genial, not particularly well-educated British Tommy, who winds up being solicitous to them, but also unknowingly telling racist barracks gossip to them, like, “You have to look out for those wogs because they steal.” He’s not really connecting that he’s delivering the racial slurs to the people that the racial slurs are about. And they start to kind of cruelly torment him, and feel very righteous in doing so because of who he is and what he’s doing in that situation. It’s a very strange, funny, and also kind of hateful scene. It’s very different from the typical returning soldier image that you encounter in most war literature.
There’s a lot of books that occupy that space. Andrea Barrett, for instance, writes stories about scientists after and during World War I. There’s a wonderful short story of hers called “The Ether of Space” about a sort of famous physicist who’s trying to hold out against and argue with Einstein because he still wants to believe in ether. It becomes clear during the course of the story that the motivating factor for this is that he is caught up in all this post-World War I spirituality, and he experiences things that become very important to him because of the death of his sons during that war.
There’s a wealth of war literature that we often don’t consider war literature as such because we tend to focus on that which is about or by front-line, generally male, generally white soldiers. Considering that is useful; it opens up new ways of looking at [work not considered war literature], and understanding the contours of the work, and genre conventions that you don’t see until you read something that is indebted to them.
Beyond that I would say just what I was saying before – that the subject matter is yours as much as it is anyone else’s, as long as you put in the work to make it yours. If it’s a veteran writer, I would say, “Don’t assume that the work is yours just because you lived it,” because that can lead to unreflected work.
D: We’ve been talking a lot about war literature from the past, but I’m wondering what you think is missing from contemporary war narratives from veterans or civilian writers. Or maybe a better question is, what stories haven’t been told yet?
P: I don’t know. But this is just it: there’s so many stories that haven’t been told yet. So in a way it’s not about what’s missing, or I can’t say what’s missing. It’s more that I have this sense of knowing how much more there is to be told.
I’m curious to see what the best writers in the U.S. are going to do. The war’s not going to stop. We’re still fighting. There’s probably guys right now who are going to be writing this, probably unfortunately kids in high school right now who are going to be writing great war literature about the wars going on when they’re grown. We’ll see.
I sort of wondered what kind of strategies and ideas are going to come about that I haven’t considered, would never have considered to write about? Because it takes a great writer thinking deeply about what’s missing to write it.
The story I think about is Joseph Heller reading The Naked and the Dead and realizing okay, that’s been done, putting the novel that he was working on to bed, and then years later coming up with Catch-22 and writing about war in a very different way that was, for that time, exactly what was needed.
D: When that book came out, we were experiencing a lot of seemingly unrelated, but truly systemic, political turmoil. Years and years, even generations later, folks are still writing about conflict. The poet Ocean Vuong, for example, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose work of course I know because I’m Vietnamese.
P: By the way, his nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies is good and has a lot of really smart things to say about war fiction. He also discusses a lot of the work that has been done, including some work that didn’t receive the attention he did. This goes to what the political import of fiction is, right? I don’t think anybody reading him was only thinking about Vietnam, in the same way that people reading Joseph Heller weren’t thinking about World War II. Fiction provides us with the kind of tools to reconceptualize how we think about our present.
D: I know you interviewed Ken Burns about the new Vietnam War PBS documentary. I think it’s a great primer for folks that aren’t well acquainted with the war. I wasn’t surprised to Phil Caputo and Tim O’Brien and Karl Marlantes in the documentary. There’s a collection of poems written by Yusef Komunyakaa that Matthew Komatsu mentioned in his article, “The Uncomfortable Whiteness of Contemporary War Literature,” and I was really sorely disappointed that Yusef didn’t end up being in the documentary. Maybe he was interviewed but wasn’t featured.
Of course you’re in this great position. You’ve spoken about this before, but could you discuss your perspective on whether or not there’s a responsibility on the part of the O’Briens and the Marlantes and the Caputos of the world to lift up voices like Komunyakaa’s?
P: I would say this: for myself, to the extent that I have any kind of thought formed, it’s certainly important to try to expose people to other writers from vastly different perspectives, whether it’s a writer of color, military or civilian, occupied or occupier. Even just trying to urge people to read books like Frankenstein in Baghdad, which is a fantastic book by an Iraqi writer. It’s not a matter of it being an obligation, it’s being interested in other people who are writing within the same general framework or topic that you’re interested in, but from a radically different perspective.
I think the word responsibility sort of suggests that there’s this kind of “eat your spinach” quality to it, like a task that you have. But that’s not really the way that I think about it. It’s something that you would be doing, and the reason you do it is because it improves you and is related to the whole reason you started writing in the first place, because these things are important and deserve to be thought about in a rich, complex way, and in ways that are currently not much talked about. Anybody who’s offering a kind of valuable corrective, or view counter to that of most heard voices, deserves to be highlighted, and that’s going to be useful and a joy for you as well.
What you need to do is realize that outside perspectives are not so different, not so alien, to you. All the books I loved growing up are about people from radically different societies. Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg is as different from today as anywhere in America, as any place I have lived, and yet what he described was deeply meaningful.
Oftentimes it is the people who are operating in these spaces that are ignored who often have the most interesting things to say. That’s part of why I think reading war fiction that isn’t considered war fiction, or that comes from the sorts of voices that we tend not to associate with war fiction, is valuable and fascinating. Reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches was a revelation, and so was reading Wallace Terry’s Bloods – a great book.
D: We’re talking a good deal about the situation of conflict and war literature, and a lot about the political dynamics of it. You’ve mentioned a lot of your influences, even some past professors. What kind of craft advice do you have going forward for young writers? What helped you when you were starting?
P: We already talked about reading widely. Aside from that, I think there’s a certain arrogance that comes with writing, like, “I have something to say that everybody needs to read,” but there’s also a kind of humility that you need in order to do it well. When you’re reading your work, you need to learn to be more interested than defensive about your mistakes. Take an interest in your own errors, because they have the most to teach you.
Other than that? Finding good friends to critique your work. I rely heavily on friends to provide edits, or to talk with. Even just, “I’ve seen you on Twitter talking about some stuff, and I thought that you might have some interesting things to say about ideas I was thinking about.” I think there’s this image of artistic work as this incredibly precious, isolated expression of the authentic soul or whatever, but it’s not that at all. It’s hard work, and it benefits greatly from really smart people being able to make you smarter, by being able to engage with them.
D: I think the first time I saw you speak you mentioned something by a philosopher who said that books are essentially long letters to friends.
P: Thick letters to friends. That’s Sloterdijk, he’s quoting the Romantic poet Jean Paul. I love that idea. Of course the reason I love this is that you’re supposed to write back, right?
D: Is there anything that you’re working on right now that you want to talk about, or are free to talk about?
P: I’m working kind of slowly on a novel about the U.S. involvement in Colombia post-9/11, so we’ll see how it goes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.