An Interview with Philip Klay

Conducted by Alyssa Marcus, Lukas Grover, and Christin Jakub.

Phil Klay is an American author and veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps from Westchester, New York. Upon graduating Dartmouth College, Klay served in Iraq during the U.S troop surge, serving 13 months in the Anbar Province of Iraq between 2007 and 2008, and he completed his MFA at Hunter College after he returned from his deployment. His debut collection of short stories, Redeployment, was published in March 2014 and his newest novel, Missionaries, was published in October 2020. Redeployment won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2014 and the John Leonard Prize in 2015. Klay has also appeared in the New York Times, the Daily News, Tin House, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He is currently an associate professor of Creative Writing at Fairfield University.

Interviewers: Many of the short stories in the Redeployment collection deal with battles that soldiers fight in their own heads once they return home from combat. Was this the inspiration behind the collection’s title, as soldiers seem to have a second battle to fight even once they are away from the front lines?

Phil Klay: I picked the title because it has multiple resonances. On one level, it is simply a word used to describe a unit that has deployed somewhere being redeployed…in Iraq that normally meant being sent back home. But it seemed symbolically resonant as a word describing the veteran experience as well.

I: In Redeployment, you write a short story called Psychological Operations that begins with a quote from the Egyptian poet Ahmed Abdel Mu’ti Hijazi. What inspired you to pick this quote and how does it relate to the message of this specific short story?\

PK: The story is about a soldier who is trained in the use of language as a weapon, but who is also trying to use it to communicate honestly, and maybe even to seduce. The line from that poem struck a chord with me, especially since my narrator is an Egyptian-American.

I: One thing that stuck out to us in many of the short stories in Redeployment was that they were very honest about war time experiences and their lasting effects and did not romanticize or glorify the service or heroic acts that took place compared to other war stories. For you, why is it important to tell your stories this way and to not hold back about the darker aspects of war and the effects they have on the psyche?

PK: Because veterans have to negotiate those darker aspects of the experience, whether or not we like to talk about them. And I feel that task becomes infinitely more difficult when we choose not to talk about them.

I: In Redeployment, you wrote a short story called Prayer in the Furnace, which is written from the perspective of a priest in Iraq. You included a quote from 2nd Timothy, saying “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith”. Has your experience in the Marines during a war impacted your faith in religion or God in any way?

PK: Yes, though in complex ways. I’ve written about this in an essay for America Magazine. At first, my faith withered, though this was not in response to horror so much as in response to a sense that the war itself had proved successful, and therefore meaningful. It was over time, as grappling with what the war meant proved more challenging, that purely secular tools began to feel insufficient and I turned back toward the spiritual resources of my youth.

I: Your novel, Missionaries, just came out in October 2020. How was writing this novel different from writing Redeployment?

PK: Writing a novel is a radically different beast. You can hold the whole action of a story in your head at once. In a novel, or at least in the sort of novel I wrote, there are multiple characters with multiple story arcs and world views all influencing each other in direct and indirect ways. That said, with a novel, you don’t need to reinvent the world anew with each successive chapter.

I: What advice do you have for young and aspiring writers who are looking to get their work published in the near future?

PK: Patience. Getting published is a matter of luck as well as skill. I happened to be very lucky, and put work out at a time when people were especially interested in war fiction. Focus on your craft, first and foremost, and don’t take rejections to heart.

I: What were your most important takeaways from the experiences of attempting to get your first works published and more recently in having your first novel published?

PK: Simply what I said before, that one shouldn’t take rejections to heart, and that when you do find someone who sees what you’re trying to do and is interested in helping you share it with readers, that is an occasion for deep gratitude.