The Things We Wrote About: The Author of Redeployment on Military Conflict, the Craft of Fiction, and Coming Home




Michael Lokesson interviews Phil Klay

The Things We Wrote About: The Author of Redeployment on Military Conflict, the Craft of Fiction, and Coming Home

May 26th, 2014 reset - +

THREE YEARS AGO in the pages of Granta, Phil Klay’s short story “Redeployment” kick-started the recent gold rush of fiction about the Iraq War with a sentence remarkable for its brutal simplicity: “We shot dogs.” Since that time we have seen three remarkable novels that begin to give that decade-long conflict its due: Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, David Abrams’ Fobbit, and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Now Phil Klay, a former Marine Corps captain and Iraq War veteran, is taking center stage with his new collection of stories, Redeployment.

Ranging across a panoply of perspectives — from a mortuary affairs soldier to a law student to a chaplain — both in Iraq and on the home front, the collection takes a measure of the conflict in a way that no fiction has yet dared. In crisp prose, the stories wrestle with the knotty moralities and absurdities of war: a soldier claiming credit for a comrade's kill in “After Action Report;” a foreign service officer's darkly humorous attempt to lead a provincial reconstruction team; a chaplain's suspicion that the Marines in his battalion may be committing war crimes. The book’s publication has been met with near unanimous praise from magazines and newspapers across the country. George Packer in The New Yorker summed up the critical response well when he proclaimed the collection “the best literary work thus far written by a veteran of America’s recent wars.”

Long a fixture in the veterans’ writing community, Klay has the self-assured, thoughtful, and unpretentious demeanor of a man comfortable in his own skin, and one can’t help but wonder if his time in the Middle East burned away any writerly self-consciousness. A 2005 alumnus of Dartmouth, he was commissioned into the Marine Corps after graduation and served a tour of duty in Iraq in 2007 as a public affairs officer, a position that allowed him access to a wide spectrum of soldiers working different jobs in support of the war effort. He left the service in 2009 and turned to fiction, studying under Colum McCann and others at Hunter’s MFA program. After the publication of his acclaimed story “Redeployment” in Granta, he inked a book deal with Penguin and has spent the spring crisscrossing the country on book tour. 

 

Michael Lokesson: In the collection, all stories are written in the first person, but from multiple points of view, ranging from a foreign service officer to an infantryman to an artilleryman to a chaplain. What prompted that choice, and had that been your intention from the start? And why did you choose to limit yourself solely to Iraq and not Afghanistan?

Phil Klay: I was originally working on a novel alongside the stories, but I realized very quickly that the best way to achieve what I wanted was with a multitude of perspectives. It was important to me to motion toward the breadth and complexity of war experience and what that might mean for people when they got home. If I was talking about death and killing, for example, it wasn’t enough for me to do it from the perspective of someone who has done it up close, like the narrator of the first story; I also needed to talk about what it means for the artilleryman who never sees those his unit killed, or for the Marine who takes credit for his friend’s kill, or for the Mortuary Affairs specialist dealing with the bodies, and so on.

Also, with war fiction in particular there’s always this troubling issue of authority, especially when you’ve got war fiction written by a guy like me who is supposed to know what he’s talking about by virtue of experience. Except none of these narrators are me. And not all of these narrators would necessarily get along or agree with each other. Experience and knowledge are tricky things. I wanted to invite the reader in to think about the spaces between these guys, and their interpretations of what they’ve been through.

I spent years trying to educate myself enough about Iraq to be able to say something worth saying. Plus, Afghanistan is, as you know, a very different war. So it would have been a very different book if I had served in both conflicts.

Explain your research process a little more. Was it conducted primarily through memoirs, articles, interviews? And did you seek out folks who had held the roles you write from (chaplain, FSO, etc.) during or after the writing process to ensure you got the details right?

I read everything I could get my hands on. Memoirs, nonfiction accounts, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction reports, journalism. I watched documentaries and YouTube videos. I talked to other veterans, or contractors, or folks who’d been over there, or just anybody who might have any knowledge I could use, war-related or otherwise. So yes, I certainly sought out folks who might know something useful. But I also read a lot of fiction. The Good Soldier Svejk, The Diary of a Country Priest, Beer In The Snooker Club, and so on. Anything that could give me a richer sense of my subject.

Recently there has been a lot written about how war fiction requires a longer gestation time, which accounts for the lack of fiction about the conflict in the Middle East up until about two years ago. You were on the leading edge of that wave when you published “Redeployment” in Granta in 2011. But interestingly, nearly all the war fiction written by soldiers has been from those who served in Iraq post-2005, and very little has come out about the war in Afghanistan. Why do you think soldiers in the wars’ first years preferred the memoir to document their experience? And what prompted you to tackle the war in fiction, rather than through a conventional memoir?

Well, there’s a fantastic novel coming out next year called The War of the Encyclopedists that was co-written by Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite. Gavin served in Baghdad from 2004-2005, so you’ll get a very different perspective of the war there. Elliot Ackerman has a novel called Green on Blue coming out with Scribner. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it. And Fire and Forget had authors who’d served in Iraq early on, and in Afghanistan early on.

My most pressing questions weren’t about what I’d been through. I traveled a decent amount through Anbar while I was in Iraq, and hung out with a lot of different types of Marines, and everybody’s war was so different. I wanted to get inside those heads and break apart the notions of Iraq I’d come back with, so that I could figure out something a bit more honest.

Counter-insurgency, as experienced in Iraq, is a far different form of warfare than what American soldiers faced during much of the last century. The enemy often blends in with the population. Danger can be invisible up until the moment it is upon you. Does asymmetric warfare present special challenges for writers looking to dramatize the experience in fiction?

It depends on what you’re looking to dramatize. There are no large-scale battles, for sure. But I never had much interest in dramatizing large-scale battles anyway. And fiction is ideal, I think, for trying to get at the unique stresses of counter-insurgency. The difficulty of telling civilian from insurgent, the threat of IEDs [improvised explosive devices] on the road, the bizarre feeling of returning to American society when you get back — you need to get inside people’s heads to really get at that.

You mention the bizarre feeling of getting back. When you left the Marine Corps in 2009 you went straight into the MFA program at Hunter. Had you written much while you were in the Corps? Why did you decide to go for an MFA after you got out, and what was it like entering into the workshop environment after the military?

I tried to write while I was in the Corps, even in Iraq, which didn’t really work. Most of the stuff I wrote overseas was terrible, terrible stuff. It was deeply comforting to me to learn that Anthony Powell stopped writing during WWII. That felt like I had an excuse. But I did write the first couple drafts of the first story in the book while I was in the Corps. I began when I was a few months back from Iraq, and the first sentence I wrote was the first sentence of the book, “We shot dogs.”

As for going to a workshop — I went because I wanted to learn my craft. And Hunter had what, to me, seemed like the best program I could possibly hope for. It was very small, you got to study with great authors — I studied with Colum McCann, Peter Carey, Nathan Englander, Claire Messud, and Patrick McGrath, all of whose work I greatly admire. And the students I talked to tended to be a little older, a little more serious when they talked about writing. I don’t know what I expected going in, but I definitely owe a lot, as a writer, to the program. Just being around other excellent writers and reading and editing their work, it pushes you forward. And I got readers — for example, Lauren Holmes, an excellent writer who just had stories in Guernica and Granta, gave me comments on every story in this collection. I couldn’t have progressed as a writer without good readers.

It was a change from the military, though, that’s for sure. I remember early on, Bill Cheng, the author of Southern Cross the Dog and then a fellow student, taking me to lunch and explaining that maybe I should tone down my style of discussion — I was used to the rather more direct Marine Corps style of making a point.

Had you always intended to write a collection of Iraq War stories (you mentioned earlier that at first you were working concurrently on a novel)? Or did the publication of “Redeployment” in Granta spur you in that direction?And did you ever find yourself wanting to write fiction that had nothing to do with the war, the military, or veterans?

The stories became my focus very early on, well before the publication of “Redeployment” in Granta. For what I wanted to say about Iraq, short stories were the ideal form. It was important to me to have those different perspectives placed alongside one another. That felt like a better way to get at Iraq than one unified narrative. Also, it was just fascinating to me: What was it like to be a chaplain, a psychological operations specialist, an artilleryman who never sees his target?

I’ve written fiction that has nothing to do with the military, and I don’t expect to write about the military my whole life. When I came back from Iraq, and then when I got out of the Corps, thinking my way through what Iraq was became vital for me. So that’s what I wrote about.

Over the past several years, there has been much debate within the veterans’ community over the portrayal of veterans as irrevocably scarred by war — PTSD, unemployment, alienation, family problems. While a majority of veterans make the transition back into the civilian world successfully, there is a definite tendency by journalists and authors to focus on those who do not. Many of the stories in Redeployment focus honestly on the aftermath of war, while avoiding the “damaged veteran” trope. How does one walk that fine line of acknowledging trauma without painting the whole community with too broad a brush?

Well, there’s that scene in one of the stories, “War Stories,” where I have the civilian interviewing Jenks keep insisting he has PTSD, despite his denials. When you come home, you come home to all the preconceived notions people have about you. There’s also the adjutant who comes home and all the folks in law school think he was some sort of badass, when in fact he had a desk job. For both of those characters, the war has left its mark on them. But it’s considerably more complicated than the simple notion of war-equals-trauma. Depending on the character, physical or psychological trauma may be a part of the experience, but it’s not the key to understanding everything about war, or even everything about a character who has gone through something awful. So it’s less about walking a fine line, and more about being honest to the richness of your characters’ experiences.

You mention the adjutant who worked a desk job and was then perceived at law school as a badass who went off to war. Veterans from the last decade’s wars are valorized in a way that is unique in American history: so few of the general population served that those who did are put on a pedestal, both by the public and often by themselves. I have a feeling that you are like many veteran writers who view themselves less as soldiers who write than writers who served. Do you ever worry that the critiques of your own writing are affected by this valorization phenomenon? And do you think veteran writers today may have more trouble breaking free of their reputation as soldier-writers than veteran writers in the past (Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, James Salter, etc.)?

It’s not really something I’m worried about. At the end of the day, the writing has to justify itself, regardless of who wrote it. As readers, we sometimes like a backstory that lends an air of authenticity to the story, but if as a writer you assume you’ve got that authenticity simply as a function of who you are and where you’ve been, then the writing probably won’t hold up.

We’re just starting to see the literary output from veteran writers. The war gave us a subject that is vital to us. It’s possible some may write about war their whole careers; the topic is certainly big enough for that. Others may go on to write about different subjects. Roy Scranton, an Iraq veteran who co-edited Fire and Forget, just had an essay he wrote on climate change selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014.

Now that the collection has been out a couple months, have you gotten feedback from non-writer veterans on your depiction of the Iraq War and its aftermath for the soldiers who served?

Yes. And so far, I’ve had a very positive reception. A lot of the vets I’ve talked to have been glad I’m trying to engage people in thinking about the war. It’s very strange to come home from overseas to a country that isn’t really paying attention.

I’m presuming a novel is next. Will it too be about the recent wars, or are you going in a completely different direction?

I’m working on something now. We’ll see what it becomes.

¤

Michael Lokesson, a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Review of Books, lives and writes in LA; he is working on a (non-war) novel.

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