War Narratives #6: The Rumpus Interview with Phil Klay

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In 2014, Phil Klay published Redeployment, his collection of short stories set in and about the war in Iraq. Each of the twelve short stories looks at the war from a different perspective. Together they make up one of the most powerful literary collections coming out of the recent wars. Redeployment received the National Book Award for fiction in 2014, making it the first short story collection to receive the award since 1996. We spoke with Klay about what he was trying to explore and how his work contributed to the larger cultural conversation about the war and—more importantly—human nature.

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The Rumpus: People may know the basics of your biography—Dartmouth, Marine Corps, MFA, National Book Award—but fill in the blanks for us.

Phil Klay: I grew up in New York, in White Plains. I went to high school at a free, Jesuit, all-boys school called Regis. It’s a wonderful place. That Jesuit education certainly made it into the book in places, or at least I tried put it in there. I ended up going to Dartmouth and studied History, English, and Creative Writing. While I was at Dartmouth I decided to join the military. I didn’t necessarily have that in mind as something I wanted to do. I didn’t grow up with a military focus. But we were at war in two countries, so it seemed like the thing to do to join the Marine Corps. I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the summer of 2005.

Rumpus: What did you do in the Marine Corps?

Klay: I was a Public Affairs Officer. I worked with the media. I had a group of Marines who worked for me, writing stories, taking photographs, making videos, mostly for base newspapers for families back home. I was an advisor to a commanding general on media-related matters.

I think sometimes when a vet writes a novel about war there is a tendency to read it autobiographically, but I didn’t do anything that any of the characters in the book do. There is no public affairs officer, there is not even any combat correspondence officer or anything like that. So the link between the Corps and what I wrote about in the book is just that, because of my job, I ended up interacting with a lot of different Marines. When I was in Iraq, I’d go out on a patrol with some Infantry guys, or go out on a mission with some Engineers. I’d hang out with surgeons and arrange interviews with chaplains. I was able to travel and talk with a fairly wide range of folks. That was pretty illuminating. You get to see a broad view of the organization and spend a lot of time talking to relatively junior-level folks who are doing all the different things that service members do.

Rumpus: You say you studied Creative Writing, and then you had a job in the media in the Marine Corps. Were you interested in writing fiction at this time?

Klay: It was always something that I did. As a Public Affairs Officer, I was the weirdo memorizing poetry to stave off boredom during field exercises. So it seemed like it would be a good fit for me. I actually tried to write fiction while I was in Iraq. I didn’t write anything about war until I came back from Iraq. But I did try to write, and I wrote really awful fiction about, you know, relationships. I don’t even remember what I was writing about. I wrote some weird magical realism stories that are probably on some hard drive somewhere, and if I ever uncover that hard drive, I’ll burn it. I tried to do a little bit of writing while I was in Iraq, but it wasn’t the really greatest space for creative production.

Rumpus: When were you in Iraq?

Klay: I got into Iraq in January 2007, in the Anbar Province. I spent most of my time at Taqaddum, which is a logistics base just south of Habbaniyah, between Ramadi and Fallujah. I was there until February of 2008, which, as you can imagine, was a pretty interesting time to be in Anbar Province—the Surge, the Anbar Awakening. It was the most violent area in Iraq, and when we came in the level of violence went down a huge amount. I remember there was one unit that did base security and they had been there for all of 2006. They left feeling as black as can be about everything that was happening, because they had seen all the violence and no progress. Then the unit that came in and took over their exact same job, those guys left feeling like rock stars. And then of course everything exploded again after we left.

Rumpus: You started writing Redeployment when you got back. What made you start writing these stories?

Klay: The strangeness of coming back to America after being in a war zone. For me, writing fiction, you take whatever ideas you have about the world and you throw them in a story. And by doing that it exposed how thin my notion of the world really is. Because when I try to put it in a story, I actually need to think very deeply about the texture of those people’s lives and try to recreate it on the page. And the process of doing that over time makes me reevaluate everything I thought I knew. I hear authors say things like, “I’m writing a character and the character surprises me.” I think, “Well, you’re writing the characters—how does that happen?” Maybe what explains the surprise is, you’ll write something that in your view of the world felt right in your head. And then you put it on the page and you read back what you wrote, and you realize that you have actually written something that feels false, or a character that feels like he’s obeying the dictates of how you’d like the world to be. Maybe you can explore the emotions and decisions of that character in a more interesting way. Doing that forces you to change the trajectory of that character in ways you might not expect. You can only do that when you’re writing fiction, not other kinds of work. You can follow your own ignorance. You can write something and realize how flawed you are.

The other part of the strangeness of coming back from the war is the way we talk about it. We try to have a discussion about the war that doesn’t turn into a discussion about one political side or the other. I wanted to reach out and talk to people about it through fiction, the way a narrative can draw someone in and ask them those questions.

Rumpus: One of the recurring themes in Redeployment is difference: differences between officers and marines, between military and civilians, between a Coptic Christian and a Muslim, between Marines and Iraqis. Was this incidental, or was that something you wanted to explore?

Klay: I was interested in the way people choose to define themselves, the way they choose to fit into broader cultural narratives, and also the slippage between broader cultural narratives and lived experience—how that can either help people find a sense of meaning and purpose and community, or it can cut people off. I think in America, especially today, our relationship to war is incredible distant. Yet narratives of war have such a primal power in this culture. They mainline directly into a whole series of emotional reactions and understandings of American patriotism, masculinity, and all of these other things. Just look at the way that issues involving veterans and war are used politically. That’s one of the reasons it can be so difficult to talk about these things. As soon as you open your mouth there are all of these suppositions that are present before you even begin talking.

There is a great scene in Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days where the character, a Navy SEAL, is thinking about getting out. And the commander gives him this kind of cheesy speech about the ancient Greeks and warrior culture. At first I was reading it and I thought, oh, that’s kind of a cheesy speech about ancient warrior cultures. But then I was like, yes it is a cheesy speech about ancient warrior cultures, and it is exactly the kind of speech I’ve heard before when I was in the Marine Corps. In the scene, Lea basically explains that both the commander and the SEAL sort of know that this is a sales pitch, but in an odd way, that’s part of what he would get if he stays in. Part of your wages are the ability to continue imagining yourself, or acting as a part of this tradition, and those narratives are crucial to the experience of doing this. You join up, you go to war with all of these stories about war rattling around in your head. And while you’re there, your experience is never going to match up with those stories. And yet you try to make sense of what’s happening using them, and then you come back to all of the stories that the culture is telling itself, and you try to find a place for yourself.

That, I guess, is what I was interested in when I was writing the book. The way those stories are not simply there for critical literary analysis, but they are actually central to people’s sense of self and the way they are able to exist within a community. Even the notion that war is this experience you can never communicate to anybody who wasn’t there—there is a bit in one of my stories where the guy tells a story about Vietnam veterans: “How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb? You wouldn’t know, you weren’t there.” That notion is very alive and present today. I remember being at an event with Elliot Ackerman and somebody asking if he thought people could ever understand what he had experienced. And Elliot basically said, I certainly hope so, because if they can’t then that means that I can never come home. It means I can never share this with my wife, or my children. Finding ways to navigate through that and be understood is really important for people. We don’t have to be talking about war stories, or war experiences necessarily, but whatever it is that is central to our sense of self and our identity.

Rumpus: Another theme in Redeployment is truth. How does fiction allow you to explore truth?

Klay: It allows you to explore emotional truths. It allows you to explore the kind of collision of values that war experiences sometimes force on people. I think of Conrad, when he’s writing in Outpost of Progress or Heart of Darkness. He wants people to reconsider their basic assumptions about civilization, and what it means to be a human being. So, he turns to fiction to narrow in on those questions.

Fiction allowed me to ask the questions that were central to me. And having twelve characters allowed me to get away from any one kind of war narratives that could be the truth of war. It allowed me to circle around the questions from different angles and keep attacking, and show the greater elaboration over the course of the book.

Convoy to Haditha Dam

Rumpus: In your acknowledgments, you list a handful of books, fiction and nonfiction, that influenced your writing. The one that surprised me was Hard Lessons, the Special Inspector General of Iraqi Reconstruction’s report.

Klay: It’s superb. The draft version is slightly harder. One of the chapters ends with this Dickens quote, “We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us.”

Rumpus: How does a book like that, a report form the Office of the Inspector General, influence your writing?

Klay: Well, you need facts, right? Facts complicate the vision of reality that you would like to have. I wanted to write a story that dealt with the aftermath of horribly-thought-out policy, “Money As a Weapons System,” and I needed details. I did not serve in that particular province, and I never worked for the Foreign Service. So, I read Hard Lessons, I read We Meant Well, and I got a lot of details from those books. For example, the journey from Istalquaal to the water treatment plant, this base that was supposed to be named “freedom” but we screwed up the Arabic name, that’s a real place. And I found some of the details of the water treatment plant in We Meant Well, like the pipes that are too big and the project that had been set up so that no one person could be held responsible, so they just kept wasting money. Even if that water treatment plant had ever been turned on, it would have destroyed all of the plumbing anyway. I learned that in Hard Lessons, which has a pretty good breakdown of the difficulty of working with the different ministries according to sectarian differences. There are all of these sources that I am drawing on to find a physical place that would allow me to have a character navigating the failures of Iraq War policy. But you can’t just make that up. Because the reality is interesting and crazy, and the way people tried to deal with it is interesting and crazy.

Rumpus: In your National Book Award speech, you said that one of the reasons you wrote the book was to start a larger conversation about what the war means. What is that conversation?

Klay: Part of the reason I’m writing it is to try to figure out what that is myself. It’s not like I came back from Iraq and said, “We need to have a conversation, I know exactly what it is.” It was just this sort of sense of something missing and then trying to write toward what that was, and to solicit from other people a sense of what that might be. My book is my offering to that conversation. And there is a lot of new work coming out that is really exciting for me to see. Fiction is a place where people can meet, where they take the time to very seriously examine and think about the experiences of other people and about the sorts of moral decisions those characters are making.

Rumpus: We’ve had this growth of literary fiction about the war since around 2011. Do you think the conversation has evolved in that time?

Klay: I do. It feels like we are in a treadmill because you’ll see the same narratives pop up time and again, which is frustrating. But at the same time it’s not like you’d expect a couple of fiction books about war to be published and the entire conversation has changed. It’s a slow process, but we are certainly developing a very powerful and rich new canon of war literature. I think you are seeing some really thoughtful and interesting works. It feels new and it feels very specific to this moment. It’s difficult to predict how that is going affect things. I suspect it will affect matters beyond war and peace.

One development that I think is interesting is having veterans of recent conflicts move into positions at newspapers. We’ve got some very good journalists like Thomas Gibbons-Neff from the Washington Post, who is an Iraq vet. People are using their expertise on other issues. You see this also in the nonprofit world with organizations like The Mission Continues and Team Rubicon talking about service in relation to citizenship, which is I think an idea that has resonated with a lot of vets. People are trying to engage on that level in a way that has very little to do with war and peace, but has everything to do with citizenship and what kind of obligations it ought to impose. I think there are a lot of very promising and interesting things that veterans are doing that reach beyond the Iraq War. I remain, despite everything, an optimist, in part because I have very low expectations about the pace that history moves.


Caleb S. Cage is a graduate of the United States Military Academy, West Point, and a veteran of the Iraq War. He is the co-author of the book, The Gods of Diyala: Transfer of Command in Iraq (Texas A&M, 2008), about his time as a platoon leader, and his essays and fiction have appeared in War, Literature, and the Arts, Red Rock Review, High Country News, Small Wars Journal, and various other publications and anthologies. More from this author →