Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Phil Klay

“I think that the stories that we tell ourselves about war are crucial for how we behave as a nation, what we accept from our elected leaders, how we treat veterans in our communities.”  — Phil Klay

Writing for the New York Times about Phil Klay’s debut short fiction collection Redeployment, Dexter Filkins wrote, “The best thing written so far on what the war did to people’s souls.” Filkins’ assessment of the book gets at the heart of what Klay, a former Marine, himself said he wanted to do with his stories. As he told us during a telephone interview, “The goal was not to write a good story. The goal was to really try and pull apart this complicated bulk of emotions and experiences and ideas that I had about war and engage people at a very human level.” Redeployment won the 2014 National Book Award along with a slew of other honors, including the 2015 Chautauqua Prize and 2015 Marine Heritage Foundation James Webb Award. Read on to hear more from Klay on the importance of friendship in his editing process, the dangers of war writing, and how his bad handwriting plays a key role in his writing practice. 

NEA: What’s your origin story as a writer?

PHIL KLAY: I was always a big reader; I think that's probably how the disease starts. I'm sure I wrote things earlier than high school, but the first stories [I wrote] I was nervous to show people because it felt as though I put a lot of myself into them. I don't mean in an autobiographical sense, but I mean in terms of I really tried to express something. Writing became for me the best way that I know how to make sense of the world, or the best way I know how to challenge myself when I'm trying to make sense of the world. You take your ideas about something and you put it into fiction and you see how thin your notion of reality actually is. Then you need to go back and rework it…. The way that I wrote and what I thought about writing, I think, changed a little bit when I came back from Iraq. I'd say a couple of months after I got back from Iraq, in 2008, is when I started the collection [that became Redeployment].

NEA: Can you say more about how your ideas about writing changed when you came back from Iraq?

KLAY: Well, it became much more vital to me…. When I came back from Iraq, I felt there was something missing in the public conversation about war and the way people were talking about it and trying to understand it. I wasn't necessarily sure what that was, but writing stories was my way to try and engage with people. The goal was not to write a good story. The goal was to really try and pull apart this complicated bulk of emotions and experiences and ideas that I had about war and engage people at a very human level.

NEA: What would you say your mission statement is, then, as a writer?

KLAY: To chase down the hidden or unexplored corners of the human experience that reveal to us something about who we are, what our society is, and what it's doing. And to invite people to think about those experiences from the inside of other people's skulls.

NEA: Do you think you have any obsessions as a writer, questions or an overall narrative that regularly reappear in your work?

KLAY: You can probably answer that question easier than I can. There are a lot of things that I'm fascinated with, not just violence but people's moral and spiritual relationship to it. Masculinity and the way that it functions in American culture. The stories that we tell ourselves about the kind of activities that we do. You know, not just framing and shaping and understanding those experiences, but how they actually factor into the actions that we take.

NEA: Do you have any particular writing ritual or any way you get yourself to the desk?

KLAY: You know, I don't really. <laughs> I was joking with a friend that I should've invented some elaborate ritual involving smoke, sand, and all sorts of things. I don't have a daily ritual so much as I have a kind of manner in which I slowly craft something. I usually do a lot of reading and research well before I ever put pen to page. That research can be reading books, talking to people. It can be factual research and, in terms of Redeployment, research like, “Okay, what kind of night vision goggles did they use in 2004? But it can also be more open-ended research, looking to what a writer that I admire has thought about the central moral issues that I'm trying to approach. Redeployment is not a book about war, but it's very much a book about suffering and the way that people become blind by their own suffering to the suffering others. It's about community and isolation and ways that people could reach across that isolation. Research is also reading Nathan Englander and seeing how he structured stories and how he gets away with some very complicated story structures that feel very natural, so they're just being told to you very simply and easily, and [that was] something that I wanted to emulate.

Eventually, I'll start writing, usually, by hand. I'll write a couple of drafts and never show it to anybody. Then I'll send the drafts in different stages to friends to get feedback. I have one friend Chris Robinson, who is a co-author of the book, The War of The Encyclopaedists. We once estimated he read something like 100,000 words worth of one story in the book, in different versions…. My wife reads everything or sometimes I'll read things aloud to my wife. So it's a long process of rewriting and getting feedback from smart friends that I trust.

NEA: Can you talk about what you're hoping to get from that feedback and if you worry about losing, for lack of a better word, the purity of your vision?

KLAY: I don't have much time for that, you know, purity <laughs>. You read The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd and then you read Hamlet, and you don't go, "Oh, what a derivative hack Shakespeare is. How reliant he is on the innovations of others." As far as I'm concerned, one of the beautiful things about writing is that you can depend on others to help push you to grow, to show you your blind spots. It’s not attempting to write by committee. It's attempting to get a sense of how other people are reading your work and how that can deepen your understanding of things, and also show you the things that you didn't consider but need to in order to have a richly imagined world. One of the reasons that I like to get feedback from a lot of different people is that that allows me to have long conversations about the things that I'm trying to work on. If somebody writes something in a hole, shut off from all human contact, that's perfectly fine. But it doesn't sound like a particularly fun way to write. Also, I am acutely aware of my own limitations and having friends who can help you transcend those limitations is a wonderful thing. What I want from my friends is to make me better, and they certainly do.

NEA: You’re also an accomplished nonfiction writer. Can you talk about why you felt these particular stories had to be told in fiction, when one might make the argument that they’d have been just as powerful as nonfiction?

KLAY: I disagree. I couldn't have achieved anything that I wanted with nonfiction. Inviting your reader into the skulls of 12 characters with different war stories is something you can't really fit in nonfiction in that way. You can't take the kind of events and ideas that troubled me and that I wanted to put together and see what kind of useful friction they created. You can't do that in nonfiction because you're restricted to fact, You can't put those characters under more and more pressure until you see what shakes out. Fiction allows you to really drill down on those questions. It's not my attempt to tell the reader, "This is how it is." It's my attempt to bring the reader toward the kind of collision of values that these experiences create for the narrators. I go back to [Joseph] Conrad and he could've written Heart of Darkness or “An Outpost of Progress” as nonfiction. But what the freedom of fiction allowed him to do was to drill down not simply to what was happening there, but what the things that he saw and experienced, what those seemed to say about civilization as a whole and as individuals, placing it in relationship to stories that they tell themselves about who they are.

NEA: In the New York Times in 2010, you wrote, "Though I continue to tell stories about Iraq, I sometimes fear this makes me a fraud." I found that idea of having to claim a type of authorial authority very interesting. How do you push past that fear of getting it wrong?

KLAY: I wrote the stories with this mental image of all the people I met in Iraq waiting in line to kick the crap out of me, which is a useful thing to have. I think everybody should imagine something similar when they write. It’s a question I definitely ask myself, particularly because as a war writer who's a veteran, you get identified with the subject…. I'm also very wary in my personal life of embellishing my war stories to make it seem as though I was in more danger or suffered more hardship than I really did. I think that the image that people have of an Iraq deployment and what I actually went through are quite different things. I was a staff officer. I had a relatively safe position in a pretty dangerous place. There’s this sort of trope in particularly English-language war literature from World War I to American World War II literature and Vietnam of war as a sort of rarified experience that only those who experienced it can know about. I've also written essays directly about that and my problems with that notion. How did I push past it? You try and be as rigorous as possible, as true to the emotional sort of experience that you're going after as you possibly can. And try to write with enough humility so that you become interested in your errors rather than be defensive of them.

NEA: Redeployment won the National Book Award, and you’ve been called this generation’s Tim O’Brien, which is not a bad thing to be. How do you navigate that pressure of success at the writing desk?

KLAY: If I ever finish the novel I'm working on, I'm sure I'll feel that pressure and be paranoid and that sort of thing. But there are no high stakes in a day of writing because my expectation is that every time I put pen to page, it's going to be awful. One of the many reasons I like to write by hand is my handwriting is so bad that I can't even read it half the time. Which means that I'm free of the obligation of seeing how terrible my first drafts really are. That’s not false humility. Usually when I write a first draft, I will rewrite without really even looking at the first draft. Because for me, when I'm writing a first draft, I'm setting the left and right lateral limits of what the story's about. I write a first draft and that's when I learn what the hell I'm writing in the first place.

When you could be reading anything else, you want to read a story by somebody who's an expert at writing that story. The first time I write a story I am a novice at writing that story. I need to teach myself how to write that story. And there's something very liberating about that. You just write and it's you failing to write something good. But who cares, if you learn what it is that you're really interested in? Then you go back and you go back, and that's when the real work begins. And as I've said, I have friends to help me along the way so I don't feel that pressure writing. I just write what I'm passionate about and I do a lot of reading about things that interest me. I go down a rabbit hole of things that fascinate me. That’s an amazing job.

In some ways, I feel more pressure doing nonfiction because I'll be writing for a publication and have a deadline, and then there'll be this paranoia because I'll think I have to have this done by the end of the month, and I currently do not know how I'm going to structure it or if it's going to be any good or worth reading. <laughs> But as long as there's no time pressure, a day of writing is a day of writing. Nothing is lost in a day of writing.

NEA: Finish the sentence: The arts matter because...

KLAY: Because they shape how we see the world. I think that, specifically with regard to my subject, I feel like it's vitally important that people engage with war and what it means in the intimate and emotionally, morally, and philosophically complicated way that fiction can bring someone into experience. I think that the stories that we tell ourselves about war are crucial for how we behave as a nation, what we accept from our elected leaders, how we treat veterans in our communities. I think about Karl Malante's book, What It's Like to Go to War, when he wrote, " So ask the now twenty-year-old combat veteran at the gas station how he felt about killing someone. His probably angry answer, if he's honest: 'Not a f***ing thing.'" But he says, you ask the same guy the same question 40 years later, you might get a very different response. And for Malantes, that response is going to depend not just on the veteran but the community around him. And the stories that that community tells will be crucial in whether you either deal with war and its consequences in a healthy way or not. There is a phrase by [John Maynard] Keynes: “Practical men who believe themselves exempt from intellectual influence, are usually the slave of some defunct economist.” I think that's the same with people who think that thoughtful and complex artistic storytelling is somehow merely a luxury product or a slave to much more simplistic stories about the world. And that is very, very true when it comes to war.

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