Interview with Phil Klay, 2014 National Book Award Winner, Fiction
The Penguin Press/ Penguin Group (USA)
Interviewed by Rebecca Rubenstein
Rebecca Rubenstein: You began the year as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 honorees, and now you’re a finalist for the National Book Award. How are you feeling?
Phil Klay: Thrilled and overwhelmed. I worked on the book for four years, and just to have something that for years you'd only shared with friends out in the world is a strange enough feeling. I never imagined that it would get the reception it has.
RR: Redeployment is a truly remarkable collection, not only because of its visceral, urgent, and layered prose, but because it approaches the act of war—and American cultural ideas of war—from such a multitude of emotional and critical angles. Its twelve stories are ushered into existence by complicated and flawed narrators, men who spend as much time in conflict at home, among civilians, as they do on the battlefield, and it’s through these numerous voices that we, as readers, are challenged to reevaluate our notions of what war is and might be. Can you talk about your decision to forego the novel and instead tackle the subjects of war and human conflict through short stories?
PK: When I came back from war, one of the things that happened was that people would ask me what it was like, and how the war is going. And I generally felt empowered to answer them. After all, I'd been there. And yet, each person has such a small piece of the war, and that piece will be powerfully shaped not only by when they were there and where in Iraq they were, but also by what job they did. So rather than writing a unified novel about the experience of war, I wanted twelve different voices—voices that would approach similar themes but from very different perspectives. I don't think all my narrators would get along with each other. I don't think they'd agree with each other about what the war meant. And part of my intent was that that would open a space for the reader to come in and critically engage with the sorts of claims the narrators are making.
Also, it's just fascinating to me to step into very different heads. What was the war like for a mortuary affairs specialist? For a chaplain? For an artilleryman, who never sees the bodies of the enemy he has killed?
RR: To read a book that won’t easily give into the mythologies we’ve created around U.S. soldiers is refreshing. The twelve narrators constantly grapple with how to view themselves in relation to those around them, fellow soldiers included, and words like “hero” and “brave” don’t often match their internalized senses of self. There’s a moment in the phenomenal “Prayer in the Furnace,” for instance, where the chaplain observes: “Geared up, Marines are terrifying warriors. In grief, they look like children.” How important was it for you to break down the mythic portrait of the American soldier, and to show the nuances of these men and women who serve?
PK: I think this is a general problem for all wars—the gap between public mythology and lived experience. I know a veteran of World War II who hates the notion of the Greatest Generation. "War ruined my life," he told me. And of course there are Vietnam veterans who are intensely proud of their service. But perhaps it's felt particularly keenly by my generation because there are so few of us. It's an all-volunteer army. Only a small percentage of the population serves, and so those mythologies, whether about idealized heroes, or passively-suffering and possibly dangerous victims who probably signed up because they had no other options, don't get checked by reality as often.
Also, the mythologies are part of the experience of war. Often, we use them to try to make sense of what we've been through. We signed up with all those stories in our heads, after all, and then we came home to all the stories about war our culture was telling itself. Trying to have a conversation with someone (or even an honest conversation with yourself) about your war experience is an exercise in navigating through all the cultural garbage that's out there.
RR: In “War Stories,” the narrator accompanies his friend, a fellow veteran, to an interview with an overeager playwright. She’s working on an oral history project that will allow vets to share their stories through the power of theatre. Skeptical of the woman’s intentions, the narrator says, “The day before, when he’d asked me to come, I’d told him that if he gave this girl his story, it wouldn’t be his anymore. Like, if you take a photograph of someone, you’re stealing their soul, except this would be deeper than a picture. Your story is you.” You were in the U.S. Marine Corps and knowing this, while reading, makes the stories in Redeployment feel like they embody a certain authenticity, even if they’re fiction and even if they dabble in the nature of unreliable narrative voices. But what about outsiders? Do you feel one has to experience war and/or conflict in order to write about it faithfully and with sensitivity in our current climate?
PK: No. There are plenty of great war writers with little (Hemingway) to no (Crane) war experience. And there have been some very good books by civilians about the current wars (Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Eleven Days, Sparta, The Watch).
Authenticity is a tricky thing. I think perhaps we're too willing to assume authenticity just because the author has some sort of connection to the experience. Homer, after all, didn't seem to have known how the Greeks fought in the Bronze Age. If a Trojan War veteran read Homer, he'd probably angrily point out all the inaccuracies. And yet, The Iliad is true to so much of what matters about war. I think it's less about what you've experienced than it is about how honestly and rigorously you try to approach your subject. Tolstoy was able to write authentically about war for the same reason he was able to write authentically about the inner life of a woman having an affair—because he was a great artist with insight into human beings.
That said, you've got to do your research. There have been a couple books in the last couple years with almost comical misrepresentations of the military by authors who wanted to talk about Iraq, but clearly didn't want to do the hard work of learning enough about the subject to have something worth saying.
RR: Redeployment concludes with an extensive set of acknowledgements, including a long reading list of texts you consulted in order to write this book. Can you tell me about your approach to research and how you go about selecting books that will help inform your work and process?
PK: At first I would just read anything that caught my interest. As an idea would begin to coalesce in my mind, I'd search out things that would help enrich my understanding of the subject. So, before writing about a foreign service officer I read a memoir by one who'd served in Iraq, a fairly wonky book about career diplomacy, a lot of Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction reports, and so on. I also read a Czech World War I novel that seemed appropriate to gear me up, in terms of tone, and I talked to Civil Affairs soldiers and Foreign Service Officers, and I read a lot of journalism.
Not everything I read was about war. Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World and Nathan Englander's short stories, for example, were all very helpful at different points for different stories.
RR: How so?
PK: Well, the setting’s different, but the basic issues Bernanos’s priest struggles with are not so different from those my chaplain faces in “Prayer in the Furnace.” Jones is brilliant for a lot of reasons, but in particular that book has an amazing understanding of the choices people make within the sometimes-brutal structures of their worlds. Ditto with Nathan Englander's stories, which are also a class in how to structure something incredibly complicated and make it look seamless.
RR: Speaking of those whose work does wonders for our research, I am always fascinated by the idea of “entry points”—the points at which a writer comes to storytelling. When do you first remember being immersed in the world of telling stories, and what was the first book you truly loved and that has stayed with you throughout the years?
PK: Roald Dahl's The BFG is probably the first book I loved. My parents read it to me and my brothers when we were little, and pretty much anything by Dahl we just loved. That, and Shel Silverstein's poetry. As a kid, I also used to sit in this claw foot tub we had in our house and I'd read Edgar Allan Poe. As far as books that have really stayed with me, I was introduced to Shusaku Endo’s Silence in high school, and I actually gave that book to one of my Marines in Iraq.
RR: How’d he feel about it?
PK: That Marine really liked Silence, and passed it on.
RR: From your experience, do Marines tend to trade books around? Or was that more so something personal you did?
PK: Some Marines are readers. But I was always passing my guys writing I admired, particularly good journalism. In a public affairs shop, that's just part of the job.
RR: So what inspires you to write? I like to ask this question, because the answer is often surprising. It’s not always another writer or set of books. Some will say music. For me, it’s so often films, or, because I live in San Francisco, city-specific things, like long walks through hilly neighborhoods or listening to the foghorns at night.
PK: Conversations with friends. For me, writing is very much about being part of a dialogue. There's a German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, who talks about books as "thick letters to friends," which is a notion I like very much. If I write something, it's because of ideas I've previously been talking to friends and to my wife about, ideas that they've helped me develop through conversation. And while writing I'm constantly sending work to friends or having my wife read it in order to get feedback.
RR: It’s been an exceptional year for books, and you’re in fantastic company with your fellow National Book Award nominees. What have you read this year that has really bowled you over, that has brought you to your knees?
PK: I found Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves to be an incredibly beautiful, moving book. He worked on it for ten years, and it's just one of those big, sweeping novels you get utterly absorbed in. Early on, I reached the tipping point and started canceling plans to do anything except read. Scott Cheshire's High As The Horses' Bridles was a profound, generous, spirited book. Karen Russell's Sleep Donation is, like much of her work, a wild trip, and it dealt really brilliantly with a lot of themes that are important to me. And it's funny.
RR: When I got to the last page of Redeployment, I became a bit mournful, not because the final story left me gutted (though it did, in its own way), but because I immediately wanted to move on to the next thing you wrote. What’s in the cards?
PK: I'm slowly working on a novel. We'll see how it turns out.
Rebecca Rubenstein is a writer and editor based in San Francisco. She is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the literary magazine Midnight Breakfast, and was formerly the interviews editor of The Rumpus and a contributing editor for STET. You can find her on Twitter: @rrrubenstein.