Author Phil Klay, National Book Award winner for Fiction (“Redeployment”), will appear at An All Veteran Artists Celebration this coming Sunday, November 15th, at 4:30 p.m. at The Main Stage Theater in New Haven. This event will also feature the Exit 12 Dance Company with Roman Baca, Peter Falcione’s “Confessions of a War Dog” (presented by Veteran Homefront Theater), and Special Guest Hosts Tina Weymouth and Christ Frantz of The Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club. Tickets are only available by phone at 203-562-5666 through the Shubert Theater Box Office. All tickets are now free thanks to a generous donation. Location: 177 College Street.
Today, Hartford Books Examiner welcomes Phil Klay. Klay is the author of the short story collection “Redeployment” (Penguin Books), which won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction. He is a graduate of Dartmouth and a veteran of the US Marine Corps. Klay served in Iraq during the Surge and subsequently received an MFA from Hunter College, where he studied with Colum McCann and Peter Carey, and worked as Richard Ford’s research assistant. His first published story, “Redeployment,” appeared in Granta’s Summer 2011 issue; that piece led to the sale of his collection of the same name, which has been published in seven countries. Klay’s writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, Tin House, and in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012.
“Redeployment” also won the John Leonard First Book Prize and was selected as a best book of the year by The New York Times Book Review, Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post Book World, and Amazon, among others. The title also earned a starred review from Booklist, which praised: “Klay’s stories are sensational, with vivid characters, biting dialogue, and life within and beyond the Afghan and Iraq wars conveyed with an addictive combination of the mundane and the horrifying … Redeployment is most remarkable, though, for the questions it asks about the aims and effects of war stories themselves, and Klay displays a thoughtful awareness of this literary tradition.”
From the publisher:
Phil Klay’s Redeployment takes readers to the frontlines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there, and what happened to the soldiers who returned. Interwoven with themes of brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival, the characters in these stories struggle to make meaning out of chaos. (A full synopsis from the publisher can be found here.)
Now, Phil Klay reveals the origins of “Redeployment” …
John Valeri: What first inspired you to write “Redeployment” – and in what ways did that story serve as the impetus for the rest of the collection?
Phil Klay: I started writing “Redeployment” a few months after I got back from Iraq. It was a way for me to start asking questions about what it meant to serve in a war, and what it meant to come home to a country that feels utterly disconnected from the experiences of service members. I felt there was so much missing from the public conversation of war, and I wanted to add to that conversation. In many ways, that story sets up the concerns that get developed in different ways throughout the course of the book.
JV: You are a Veteran of the US Marine Corps. How were you able to draw upon your own experiences to inform your stories – and what appealed to you about writing fiction as opposed to memoir?
PK: Well, I’d served as a Public Affairs Officer, and so I travelled a bit in Iraq and got to spend time with a lot of different units—infantrymen and nurses and engineers and so on. I knew there was no one Iraq story. Even units doing the same job in the same place but at different periods during the war would end up with radically different experiences. I wanted to explore the rich variety of military life, and to use those different situations to find new ways of asking myself questions about war. That said, it never really occurred to me to write memoir. Fiction offered me tools that allowed me to approach a wider variety of issues than the events of my own life would. It also allowed me to write a book which would invite a reader to imagine not simply one military experience, but a variety of experiences with a variety of narrators who would likely have very different opinions about the war and their role in it.
JV: How did you derive the ideas for each piece — and what do you see as being the overall theme(s) that unify the project?
PK: Very early on I knew the first story would be the first, and the last story would be the last. And then there were pieces I knew were missing—a slightly higher level look at war policy and staff work, for example. For that, I ended up reading a lot of books about Foreign Service Officers, I read a memoir by one called “We Meant Well,” I read a lot of material for the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, I interviewed a couple of soldiers who’d served in the region I wanted to set my piece, I interviewed a civil affairs soldier and had an FSO read the piece once I had the basic structure of the story. Essentially, I did a ton of research.
As far as the overall themes of the collection, I’d say the moral choices made during wartime, and how those choices are remembered, talked about, and processed after war. Also, masculinity, faith or the lack thereof, battered idealism, alienation, the divide between soldier and citizen, and the ways in which our cultural preconceptions of war are often at odds with lived experience.
JV: Do you have any hopes as to how your collected works might influence the way(s) people think about war? Also, have you found that the writing process has changed your own views? If so, how?
PK: I simply hope it sparks conversations about the experience of war and about what it means to be a citizen in a country that regularly uses military force.
I think I have a more nuanced view of war than I had before writing the book. Writing fiction means putting a lot of what you believe about the world at risk, because you have to follow your characters.
JV: Tell us about your involvement with An All Veteran Artist Celebration. What appealed to you about this particular event – and, in your opinion, how can art serve as both catharsis and inspiration?
PK: Veteran-created art is more important than ever. Our country regularly uses military force, but only a fraction of Americans serve in the military. This means fewer and fewer people have a direct link to the military, and yet it remains as important as ever that we have a rich understanding of what we are doing as a country. It’s important because it determines what sort of policies we accept or demand from our elected leaders, and it’s important because it determines how we treat the young veterans in our communities. Veteran art creates a meeting place between veterans and civilians, or simply between veterans with different experiences.
With thanks to Phil Klay for his generosity of time and thought and to Rodgers Frantz, Program Director, Veteran Artist Program in Connecticut, for helping to facilitate this interview.