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Phil Klay: The Short Form Interview

Not trading in unexamined clichés turns out to be devilishly hard.

Author of the forthcoming collection, Redeployment, with writing appearing in Granta, the New York Times, Tin House, and Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War.

The Interview

For some context, can you briefly detail your recent history?

I graduated Dartmouth and was commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps in May of 2005. I was deployed to Iraq as a public affairs officer in Anbar Province from January 2007 to February 2008, so I was there during the Surge. I left the Corps in 2009, started at Hunter, and completed the MFA program at Hunter in 2011. For a time afterward I was in a Masters in English Education program at Columbia and student teaching in a public high school on the Upper West Side, but I didn't complete the program. 

Your undregrad focus was creative writing, so fiction was always on the periphery, correct? Was your early fiction more domestic, or have you always been drawn to war related writing?

Yes. I studied with Tom Sleigh at Dartmouth, and he's the reason I ended up going to Hunter to get my MFA after the Marine Corps. But I didn't write about war before I deployed, and I didn't even read much war literature until Tom started making me read Hemingway and Celine and Tolstoy and Babel. He figured if I was going to war, I should be learning from some of the most brilliant minds to ever write about it. 

When you began to read war literature, did you feel there was something innately different about those stories than the domestic ones? 

I don't want to be overly stubborn, but I really don't think so. Is War and Peace innately different from Anna Karenina? Babel's Red Calvary from his Odessa stories? The subject is different, for sure. And there's a rich cultural tradition to draw from, certain tropes you can explore. So what you've got is not some innately different genre, but yet another subset within the broader context of fiction writing. There are books where war is where men will glory, or a tragi-comic farce, or a quasi-mystical experience, or a product of corporate interests, or a noble sacrifice for freedom, or meaningless suffering, or mundane and kind of boring, or the place where boys become men, or where men become traumatized victims, or where green soldiers become fearsome killers. I could go on. There are a lot of ideas out there to react to. But I reject the notion that it's somehow innately different. Frederick Manning once wrote: “War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity.” How could war fiction, then, be innately different from any other fiction whose subject is also the human?

During deployment, does the writer “you” go on haitus? Or are there times you’re making observations and generating scenes?

I tried to write while I was on deployment, but it was all the most God-awful stuff you could possibly imagine. I don't think you've got the cognitive space to write on deployment. I found it a great solace to learn that Anthony Powell stopped writing during World War II for exactly that reason. That said, the writer doesn't go on haitus at all. I always kept a notebook with me, and I was constantly writing myself notes, not so much with the idea of writing about anything that I was experiencing but just because little things would strike me and I'd want to record them. 

One of the benefits of the specific job I had was that I had the opportunity to interact with a wide variety of Marines and soldiers and sailors—infantrymen and surgeons and staff officers and EOD techs and engineers and so on. It gave me a lot to think about. People sometimes talk about the civilian-military divide, but there are also radical differences in the experiences of different Marines in different jobs who were in different places in Iraq at different times. The veteran experience is not a unified experience. And yet, people sometimes seem to want to hear, “What was it really like?” “Was it like The Hurt Locker?” “Or Generation Kill?” Well, it was a complex mess of things. So I wasn't in any way capable of writing about it while I was there because I needed years to untangle all my thoughts and do enough research to be able to approach the war honestly. The temptation is to say, “I was there, this is what it was like, and you must respect the authority of my experience.” But I don't trust those sorts of claims. People lie to themselves all the time. 

When you returned from Iraq, aside from the unimaginable transition back to civilian life, what was the process like of organizing  all these “unquiet memories” as you’ve called them? Are they informing stories you already have in mind, or are you exploring each of these memories to generate fiction?

I don't know if specific memories generated fiction so much as my memories spurred me to want to think about Iraq, and read about it, and talk to other vets about it, and then finally to write about it. Because that's where you've got to give your ideas concrete form. There's not a lot of room for BS in fiction. So I'd write as honestly as I could, and then I'd give the work to veteran and non-veteran friends, and they'd chew it up and spit it back and I'd go back to work. It's an awful lot of effort expended just to find an angle into an experience, and I don't know if I'd bother if it wasn't deeply important to me, and if I didn't have to reconcile myself with what that time had meant in my own life and in the lives of the people I knew. 

It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking of the veteran experience as being a unified one, but everyone abroad has a highly personal and emotional experience. How did the early reactions from veteran readers go? And were there certain issues or themes they felt necessary for you to address or fix?  

I think when you start out writing about any subject, but especially one with as much cultural garbage as there is about war, you end up unconsciously regurgitating a lot of the ideas that are already out there. Paul Fussell has a nice bit in The Great War and Modern Memory where he quotes a variety of writers, including front-line soldiers, who fall back on various clichés as they attempt to describe trench warfare. Not trading in unexamined clichés turns out to be devilishly hard, so it's incredibly useful to have a group of friends who are also veterans, also writers, and also invested in thinking about the ideas we as a culture have about the Iraq war in specific as well as war in general. Veterans tend to take this stuff seriously, and they should. Silly notions about war get people killed. 

That said, having civilian readers can be just as useful for showing you your blind spots.

“Redeployment” has the simple and haunting opening sentence, “We shot dogs.” It's a great entryway, not the least of which because it's a soldier narrator and for whatever reason we have accepted human casualties but harming a dog still hurts us. When did you settle upon that opening line? Was the bookendings of dog shootings always apart of the story?

That line came first. I knew about Marines shooting dogs during the Second Battle of Fallujah. I'm a dog lover, like the narrator of the story, so the conversations I had with guys who'd been at that battle stayed with me. I wrote that line, and then a variant of what's now the first paragraph, and I felt like I had the voice. That's not how it usually works for me. And once I had the opening, bringing him back to his own dog felt right.  

Do you feel a different pressure or responsibility writing about war than if you were to be writing more civilian fiction? 

What we think about war says a lot about what we think about America, about American politics, about citizenship, about violence, and about masculinity. It says a lot about what we think about people in other countries and our responsibilities to them as human beings. It says a lot about what we think of death, and sacrifice, and patriotism, and cruelty. It says a lot about our limits as humans, our ability to endure and our ability to break. It says a lot about the stories we tell ourselves so we don't have to examine what we think about war too closely. So, sure, I feel a lot of pressure writing about that. But I'm sure Marilynne Robinson felt a lot of pressure writing about two girls growing up in Idaho, and Raymond Carver felt a lot of pressure writing about people at a dinner party talking about love. For the four years I worked on my book, this subject has been vital for me, and that's what differentiates it from other subjects. Not because war is so much more worthy a subject for fiction than other things, like whale-hunting, spending a relatively normal day in Dublin, turning into a giant bug, or going out to get the flowers yourself.

That said, we're in a peculiar time in our history regarding the exercise of American military power. What I wanted to say, what I felt the need to write, it was important for me to say it now. 

Tell us a little about your recommendations.

“Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor: There are plenty of things to love about O'Connor, but I always particularly loved how steadfastly her characters refuse to fit into any narrative box, always stepping outside of the expected and surprising you. They're gleefully alive (unless, of course, she ends up killing them at the end of the story).

“Minyan" by David Bezmozgis: Bezmozgis' collection of linked stories, Natasha, is upsetting and complicated and moving and powerful, and it's last story, "Minyan" is all of those things too. It doesn't take any easy ways out. But it also gracefully earns the right to give the reader an ending that makes you want to stand up and cheer.

“Smile, There Are IEDs Everywhere" by Jacob Siegel: This story gives me chills. In the same way Richard Yates, in Revolutionary Road, ruthlessly examines all the little romantic ideas we have about life that somehow get in the way of actually living it, Jake applies similar scrutiny to a soldier unable to fully transition back to the civilian world.

“The Hudson River School" by David Searcy: Searcy, with an utter lack of pretension, delves into our relationship to the land and nature and animals, into the broader possibilities of the human and the way the physical world is mediated through technology. It's haunting and utterly brilliant.

“The Harvest" by Amy Hempel: Part of the drama is the way the story is being told, the way in which methods of storytelling are always as much a part of the drama as the incident the story is supposedly about. Other favorites in this vein are Munro's "Friend of My Youth" and O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story," but I fell in love with Hempel first.


Recommended by Phil Klay

Good Country People

Besides the neutral expression that she wore when she was alone, Mrs. Freeman had two others, forward and reverse, that she used for all her human dealings. Her forward expression was steady and driving like the advance of a heavy truck. Her eyes never swerved to left or right but turned as the story turned as if they followed a yellow line down the center of it. She seldom used the other expression because it was not often necessary for her to retract a statement, but when she did, her face came a complete stop, there was an almost imperceptible movement of her black eyes, during which they seemed to be receding, and then the observer would see that Mrs. Freeman, though she might stand there as real as several grain sacks thrown on top of each other, was no longer there in spirit. 

We read it in The Complete Stories.


Since I was conveniently between jobs, it was my responsibility to drive my grandfather to the B’nai Brith building to meet with Zalman, the synagogue’s gabbai. Zalman was a Romanian Jew who spoke Russian, Hebrew, Yiddish, and quite a lot of English. For years he had overseen the day-to-day running of the synagogue. If my grandfather could impress upon him his level of religious commitment, then Zalman would be able to use his influence with the building’s manager. The manager was sypmathetic to the synagogue’s plight and might be willing to manipulate the waiting list in order to bring in the right kind of resident. In other words, a spiritual ringer.

On the way to meet with Zalman my grandfather repeated that it probably wouldn’t do any good. If Zalman could do anything, he would have done it long ago. The trip was a waste of time. Nevertheless, he clutched the letter of recommendation that the rabbi had written for him. I told him not to worry. He replied that when you got to be his age there was no longer much to worry about. Eerything was in God’s hands. Who are we to know His plans? What is getting or not getting an apartment compared to losing a wife? God does what He does for His own reasons. If it was meant for us to get the apartment, then it would happen, if not, then not. What could anyone do? I said he could pra, but he didn’t get the joke.

We read it in Natasha and Other Stories.

Smile, There Are IEDs Everywhere

For us, there had been no fields of battle to frame the enemy. There was no chance to throw yourself against another man and fight for life. Our shocks of battle came on the road, brief, dark, and anonymous. We were always on the road and it could always explode. There was no enemy: we had only each other to hate.

Whenever we got together certain names came up again and again. It was hard to imagine, even years from now, a conversation that didn't revolve around these men, these fuckers we'd never forget. They were anyone who'd made things harder than they had to be, or hurt our chances of coming home, or almost got us killed by some mistake. They were the shitbags, martinets, and weaklings who fucked us with their petty tyranny, corrupt leadership, selfishness, cowardice, incompetence, or even just that lack some men had—that thing that left them passive in the face of danger.

War stories are almost never about war unless they’re told by someone who was never there. Every now and then maybe you talk about something or listen to someone who needs to get it off their chest, but those aren’t the stories you come back to, not for telling.

The Hudson River School

A three-pound lamb can get to ninety pounds in three and a half to four months if the range conditions are right. Sometimes a coyote waits. If there are rabbits to eat—and in those years there were; a ‘surfeit’, Courtney says—a coyote waits until the lamb weighs maybe twenty pounds. A lamb, of course, is easier and fatter than a rabbit but, somehow, he knows to wait. How strange to think about a coyote out there—what could be more simply, purely present than a coyote?—but a coyote out there thinking of the future as if it were just a simple thing like dust or wind or something.

We read it in Granta 124: Travel.

The Harvest

One one side of me was a man who spoke only in phone numbers. You would ask him how he felt, he would say, “924-3130.” Or he would say, “757-1366.” We guessed what these numbers might be, but nobody spent the dime.

There was sometimes, on the other side of the me, a twelve-year-old boy. His lashes were thick and dark from blood-pressure medication. He was next on the transplant list, as soon as—the word they used was harvest—as soon as a kidney was havested.

The boy's mother prayed for drunk drivers.

I prayed for men who were not discriminating.

Aren't we all, I thought, somebody's harvest?

We read it in The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel.

Originally published in The Quarterly: Spring 1987.