In April 2017, during the first day of The Future of the Catholic Imagination Conference at Fordham University, I chose to lunch outside on the squatty cement wall lining the Lowenstein Atrium on Fordham’s Manhattan campus. Already investigating the contents of his boxed lunch was a young man around my age, mid-thirties, looking approachable yet unengaged in any particular conversation with other mulling conference attendees. He had slightly wavy brown hair with a well-trimmed beard and mustache. He looked more like an actor than a writer. As I began to pepper him with questions about what he did for a living, another conference attendee jumped in—“He’s a National Book Award winner.” Without having realized it, I was lunching with Phil Klay, winner of the NBA in 2014 for his short story collection Redeployment. Writers—their names often become more famous than their faces.
Not only is Klay a writer, whose work can be found in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Newsweek, but he is also a veteran of Iraq. From January 2007 to February 2008, Klay served as a public affairs officer for the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq’s Anbar Province. His short story collection fictionalizes accounts of the Iraq war from various perspectives.
Later that afternoon, I sat in on a brief talk by Klay on religious literature. Klay countered his fellow vets’ lament that civilian life seems meaningless compared to their experiences in the war: “But,” Klay retorted, “I think it’s more like how if you over-salt the living hell out of your food all the time, I could take you to the best restaurant in the world and you could bite into some of the most fantastic dishes prepared by the greatest chefs, and all you’d say would be, ‘Needs more salt.’” The problem is not civilian life; rather, the palate has become too accustomed to life lived always facing one’s mortality. Klay claims that religious literature reorients our palate, so we can once again taste meaning.
After that initial meeting, I followed up with Klay and asked him to elaborate more on his thoughts about religious literature, literature in general, and about his life as a writer of faith.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: In your 2012 Image interview with Nick Ripatrazone, you said, “[A] story begins with questions far more than with answers.” When writing Redeployment, what questions did you begin with? Did you discover any answers?
Phil Klay: I started writing not long after I came back from Iraq, so my opening question wasn’t particularly sophisticated. It was more, “What the hell was that all about?” I wanted to think more deeply about what people I knew had been through, how it had affected them not only in the moment, but as they came home and tried to merge the person they were overseas with the person they were in their civilian or stateside life. In his poem “To World War Two,” Kenneth Koch wrote, “It felt unusual / Even if for a good cause / To be part of a destructive force / With my rifle in my hands / And in my head / My serial number / The entire object of my existence / To eliminate Japanese soldiers / By killing them / With a rifle or with a grenade / And then, many years after that, / I could write poetry / Fall in love / And have a daughter.” How much more unusual when the war is not World War II, but Iraq, when the day-to-day mission is often not so much about destruction, but when the overall mission can seem in doubt, especially once you get out and watch Iraq fall apart.
As for answers, sure, I found an answer or two here and there. But that only leads to more questions, doesn’t it? When it comes to something as massive, and as horrific, as a war that has shattered a country and led to hundreds of thousands of deaths, I don’t really think you’re entitled to a comfortably settled opinion.
JHW: Follow-up question: Walker Percy was often asking himself, how does one make it through 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon without committing suicide? He returned to that question frequently in his novels. Are there questions in your writing that you find yourself returning to?
PK: Though Percy also said, “I like to eat crawfish and drink beer. That’s despair?” Our moral relationship to violence and the institutions of the State is something I always return to.
JHW: Redeployment is a collection of stories from various soldiers or veterans. You explained elsewhere that you found it fascinating to step into these different perspectives. Were there any voices that you felt like you could not capture? Eyes from which you could not understand how they saw things? Perhaps points of view that you started but omitted, or others that you wish you could have included?
PK: Well, I’m the sort who, if there’s a perspective I think I cannot capture, that is precisely what will make me go and try to capture it. In some sense, the book is transgressing boundaries. War experience is often described as this almost sacred experience (or, more to the point, the photonegative of a sacred experience), which cannot be communicated and can only be felt. I knew early on I had no right to tell the stories I was telling, so there was only doing it well or doing it poorly. There wasn’t anything that I omitted or that I wish I could have included—had there been, I would have written them. The book is not meant to be an all-encompassing account of the Iraq War, representing every possible perspective. The characters serve to answer the questions I was asking myself—that’s why they were created. And so I wrote the book for them to fit together in a particular way, for there to be thematic resonances and restatements or new formulations of the same problems in the different stories and voices.
JHW: I love the symbology behind 12 stories, 12 voices, 12 perspectives. Did you have particular reasons for choosing this number of stories?
PK: Well, let’s just say it felt right.
JHW: You mentioned to me in a previous conversation that readers assumed these stories were all autobiographical, which is funny considering the impossibility of such a life. However, is there one story that is more autobiographical than the others? When Dostoevsky commented on The Brothers Karamazov, he said that he was all three brothers. Similarly, did you find pieces or yourself split among them?
PK: Of course I’m all of them. You’ve only got your own emotional palette to draw on. In an odd way, stories that draw on something that actually happened to me sometimes feel less personal than stories where there is nothing similar to what happened to me in real life, but where the emotional core of the experience feels like it strikes very close to the bone. I find that because you get to hide yourself in fiction, you oddly get to reveal yourself more.
JHW: The diversity of your reading is evident in your collection (Bernanos, Jones, Hemingway, Crane, Tolstoy, etc.). Do you have any fear of getting classified in a certain genre or labeled as a specific type of writer?
PK: No, not really. I’m writing about war, it’s a subject that fascinates me and troubles me, so you might as well call me a war writer. I don’t think it’s the only subject that I’ll ever write about, but even if I did, so what? My friend the writer Elliot Ackerman once pointed out to me: it’s not like anyone ever went up to James Joyce and said, “Hey, Jimmy, loved Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but could you try something a little less Irish next time?” People have subjects they return to. And war is a big enough subject for more than one book.
JHW: We attended The Future of the Catholic Literary Imagination Conference at Fordham University this past April, so I assume you have a vested interest in Catholic literature. Other than the story of the chaplain—and I have at least one question regarding that!—where do you find resonances of the Catholic faith or aesthetic in your fiction?
PK: The moral and spiritual stakes of Catholic fiction are what concern me in fiction more generally, whether or not that work is explicitly religious. People often note the story of the chaplain as the most obviously Catholic story in the collection, but I also think about stories like “Bodies” or “In Vietnam They Had Whores” as being influenced heavily by my Catholic background. Catholic literature is deeply invested in questions of sin, in questions of evil, in questions about our fallen nature, about the possibilities for redemption, and about the choices we make to push those possibilities aside. A friend of mine once told me: “I don’t know if I’m religious, but I do suspect you can’t write great fiction if you don’t believe in the soul.”
JHW: My question about your chaplain: You’ve mentioned elsewhere that he may have been influenced by Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest. Yet, when Bernanos’ priest is confronted by the disillusioned soldier, he has no response. Was your priest’s story and sermon a way of filling in the silence?
PK: I think about that scene a lot. The soldier, M. Oliver, is not just disillusioned about war, but about society itself. “Justice in the hands of the powerful is merely a governing system like any other,” he says. “Why call it justice? Let us rather call it injustice, but of a sly effective order, based entirely on cruel knowledge of the resistance of the weak, their capacity for pain, humiliation, and misery. Injustice sustained at the exact degree of necessary tension to turn the cogs of the huge machine-for-the-making-of-rich men, without bursting the boiler.” So what do you do, if being a human being means not being some sort of atomized, non-social being making choices in a vacuum, but being part of a culture, society, nation, church, and a whole host of other institutions which we rely on to exist and which are also shot through with evidence of man’s corruption and weakness and evil? And my priest finds himself in a position where he finds it incredibly difficult to act in a way commensurate with the scale of what he knows is happening in this unit, and he tries to both fulfill his duties as a member of the military, as a man of God, and as someone concerned with Rodriguez, with one, specific person grappling with the same questions and finding no relief.
JHW: As a writer, did you learn anything about the craft of storytelling or the process of researching for your work from writing Redeployment? In what ways are you writing differently from how you approached the first book?
PK: I think the biggest thing is that you find how many cultural clichés litter your skull when you start writing. The early drafts were all just regurgitation of the broader culture. I ended up relying on research a lot to find the very specific, and the odd, the things that couldn’t be shoehorned into simple narratives. And then I would also rely on research to find out what sort of things I would avoid—if this is the way things are in this type of unit, can I write a character who doesn’t fit that mold, who has the opposite view or personality, and can I make it work? That’s when I’d find I would get some useful friction that could help generate something new.
JHW: If readers are anything like me, they’ll want to know, what are you currently reading? Everyone wants recommendations and book lists from the writers they admire.
PK: I just finished Grossman’s Life and Fate, which is unbelievably good. It’s his War and Peace for the 20th century, taking place around the Battle of Stalingrad, and it is a profound and profoundly moving look at war, at Stalinist Russia, at the German concentration camps, and where the individual human being fits in amidst all that.
JHW: Finally, I’d be negligent if I did not ask about your current work. What are you working on now? How is it going (whether high on the muse or overcome by acedia, I always think aspiring writers want to hear!)?
PK: I’m working on a book about U.S. involvement in Colombia post–9/11, a story which means also talking about Iraq and Afghanistan and the ways America projects power around the world. I’m enjoying it, so far. It’s a fascinating, rich subject; I’ve done a lot of research, both on the Colombian and U.S. sides, and trying to draw a narrative out of that has been very rewarding thus far. We’ll see whether it works out.