Phil Klay’s Redeployment, a collection of stories told from the perspective of soldiers and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was born out of the author’s own experiences serving the U.S. Marine Corps—as a public affairs officer in Iraq in 2007-08. After returning to civilian life, Klay, who’d studied English and creative writing at Dartmouth College, continued to hone his craft as a writer, now with an eye toward capturing the trauma and complexity of war and its aftermath.
He earned an M.F.A. in fiction from Hunter College and attended NYU’s Veterans Writing Workshop—a program, founded by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and supported by the Disabled American Veterans Charitable Service Trust, that brings veterans to the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House to work on their storytelling with the benefit of feedback and support from others who have also served.
Redployment won the 2014 National Book Award for fiction. A few weeks before the honor was announced, NYU Stories caught up with Klay to discuss writing, service, and how the NYU workshop helped him shape the book.
When did you know that you wanted to write a book of war stories?
I started the book a few months after I got back from Iraq. I think everybody comes back from war with a lot of questions, and a lot of unquiet memories, and a new relationship to the country they've come back to. It takes a while to work that stuff out, and writing is the most rigorous way I know to think about something.
How did you find out about NYU's writing workshop for veterans?
Perry O'Brien, a veteran of Afghanistan (and a recent graduate of NYU's MFA program), told me about it in 2009, very early in the process of writing the book, and the people I met there ended up being very important in the shape that the book eventually took.
What did you gain by talking about your writing with fellow veterans? How was the NYU workshop different from others you attended?
At the NYU Veterans' Workshop, I found a community of very smart [writers] deeply engaged with a lot of the same questions. That's invaluable. I have conversations all the time with other veterans from the program about how important it was for us, not just for our writing but also for our understanding of the war, to have other veterans around to challenge us. And of course it just gives you a broader sense of the ideas at play when you interact with smart, thoughtful veterans with a lot to say.
You've noted how hard it can be to talk about war. Is that why you chose to write these stories from many different perspectives?
Everybody—veteran or civilian—has only a small piece of what happened, and a different relationship to it. At the same time, there are so many false notions about veterans, or about war in general, that are floating out there in the culture that can make the gap between civilian and military experiences even harder to bridge. I wanted to have a diverse array of characters who had experienced and interpreted the wars in different ways, to invite the reader to come in and inhabit those heads and then critically engage with what the narrators were saying. I didn't want to have a "I have been to war and this is the truth of war" book so much as a book with 12 narrators giving you their truths of war, and having those truths not always match up.
Is there a difference between writing as therapy and writing as art? Do you have to move through the former to get to the latter?
I don't think writing as therapy has to be a first step. I don't think it was for me, though I know some excellent writers for whom it was. Writing can be a valuable tool for healing, and for gaining perspective on your experiences, but I think writing with the intention of putting it out in the world in a non-therapy context is very different. It's bruising, and it should be. Writing about war, you're writing about matters that are sacred to people. If you're going to try to go beyond getting a handle on your own experience and try to represent other experiences, well, you're engaging in something with pretty high stakes.
The narrator of “Unless it's a Sucking Chest Wound” is an NYU law student and former Marine. How'd the idea for that story come about? Was it inspired by anyone you met here?
I know a ton of former NYU law students, so it was easy to get the factual details I needed for the story. I have high school friends, college friends, and veteran friends who went to NYU law. I married an incredibly wonderful graduate of NYU law, who provided edits on pretty much every story in the collection. But none of the characters in the collection (even if I've stolen details here and there) are based on anyone I know. If I felt like I was representing a real person, I would have felt constrained by the knowledge that they might read it, which would limit my freedom writing. So even if I took real details of an individual, I always twisted it until it felt, to me, like a totally different person.
Were there particular writers or works that you looked to for inspiration when working on this book?
I was constantly reading while I was writing this book. I read war books, like David Finkel's The Good Soldiers and Dexter Filkins' The Forever War, as well as books that weren't about war but had a lot to say about the human condition, like Georges Bernanos The Diary of a Country Priest or Edward P. Jones' The Known World.
One of the characters in the book isn't quite sure what to make of “thank you for your service” handshakes. Are there things you wish civilians wouldn't say or do when they meet veterans? Or things you wish they would say or do more?
I think the main thing is not to assume too much about that veteran and their relationship to their war, whether it's a World War II veteran or a veteran of Iraq. I think most veterans appreciate the warm feelings many civilians have toward them. Certainly, we've come a long way since Vietnam. But you do find yourself in some strange situations. I think the question vets generally find the most offensive is "Did you kill anyone?" You get it more than you'd think. I had one veteran tell me it was the most obscene question he'd ever been asked. Aside from that, I think it's a question of whether there's voyeurism or well-meaning curiosity and engagement with that veteran and their experience beyond what is asked. And if it's a well-meaning engagement, I think it's often appreciated.