Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Kyle Lucia Wu, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Phil Klay about his book Redeployment (Penguin), which is the winner of the John Leonard Prize for the NBCC awards (publishing year 2014).
Kyle Lucia Wu: Phil, congratulations on your win of the John Leonard Prize and the National Book Award.
Phil Klay: Thank you, thank you very much.
KLW: It’s pretty rare to get the National Book Award for a book of short stories, so I was wondering if you’d always written short stories or if you looked to them more for this particular book.
PK: I was originally writing a novel and short stories at the same time, but the short stories came first. The first story in the book is the first thing that I started writing about, just a couple months after I came back from deployment. But, pretty early on in the process I realized that for me what was most important were the stories. Having a unified narrative versus what I was trying to achieve with twelve different voices—the unified narrative wasn’t going to work as well for getting across what I wanted to. There’s some writing that I liked in the novel, but that’s in a drawer somewhere.
KLW: Are you going to go back to it?
PK: Probably never, never gonna come out.
KLW: A big theme of the book is the disconnect between veterans and civilians. Maybe you could speak to how you think that disconnect affects both veterans and civilians.
PK: It’s a strange thing and I think it’s often present when you have a meeting of veterans and civilians—we have an all-volunteer military so this is not like World War II where the entire society was engaged, it’s not like Vietnam where a lot of vets came back to a very negative reception. The modern generation of vets came back and they were thanked for their service, often they were called heroes, but there’s a real palpable disengagement with the fact that we’re a country at war. And the wars have gone on so long with the same people going over time and time again that that becomes a really important part of the experience for a lot of veterans.
KLW: There’s such a sense of misunderstanding—in a couple of your stories you see them go back to life, in education, and their classmates treat them completely differently. In “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound,” the classmate tells the narrator this traumatic story about her childhood and says, “well, you have PTSD too.” But obviously the narrator doesn’t have PTSD.
PK: Right. There’s all these ideas floating in the culture that we use and that civilians project onto veterans and at the same time there are things that veterans might project onto the civilian characters. There’s a story, “War Stories,” where there’s a civilian who's interviewing one very burned veteran and his friend keeps making these very negative assumptions about her, because he’s feeling very defensive and protective of his friend, and her interpretation of what his friend has been through.
KLW: And did you find a lot of those misconceptions when you came back?
PK: I think it’s natural. I live in the Northeast, I live in New York—every once in a while people tell me I’m the first veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan they’ve ever met, after over a decade of war. So there’s always going to be that gap of knowledge. I think whether that conversation pushes forward, whether both sides forgive each other for natural misunderstandings that arise because they're interested in actually communicating something real, or whether people are too defensive, or too invested in whatever it is they want to believe. That exchange will determine how that conversation goes forward, whether it can, and that’s something I was very interested about in the book.
KLW: Previously, a lot of war stories have been told by writers who maybe would not have chosen to go to war. Tim O’Brien has said that he went to war “kicking and screaming, terrified of dying.” I’m wondering how you think the narrative of war will change when it's held on the shoulders of people who have chosen to go to war.
PK: It’s gonna be something different, not just for the people who are writing about it, but it also means that the military is very different. When you read about late Vietnam, what that American military was like, it’s radically different from a very small professional military that’s very invested in what they're doing, that chose it, and often chose it time and again. That doesn’t mean that if you served during President Bush you’re all proud of those policies, if you've served during President Obama that you were a hundred percent about these policies — I served during both presidents — but that you made that decision to give up a certain period of your life to however the military would choose to use it.
KLW: In “Money as a Weapons System,” the narrator really just wants to go and get his clean water plant running, it seems like a good project and why would anyone mess with that, but all he gets stuck doing is trying to teach Iraqi kids baseball. I thought you could speak to how getting that sense of just very ordinary and human frustrations in war, how that affects the stories.
PK: That story is the most comic story in the book, and it’s also the story that gives you the biggest angle and view on a lot of policies, particularly the early Iraq war that he’s trying to navigate his way through. I was searching for factual information, things that I could cobble together to create an image that would be the perfect encapsulation of a lot of the failures, unfortunately, of the reconstruction process. I came across Special Inspector General reports here about a water treatment plant that had pipes that were too big and if it was ever turned on it would explode all the plumbing in one region—
KLW: So that was a real anecdote?
PK: That’s a real thing. Shia ministries refused to turn on water for Sunnis, that’s a real thing. The engineer who wants machine gun towers for his water treatment plant, that’s from a memoir by a foreign service officer. There are all these items that I was trying to create so there would be a natural way for this character as part of that narrative to have to confront a whole history of mismanagement, and then try within that chaos to be able to do a few good things. He’s not able to control the broad outlines of policy, none of the characters are, but that doesn’t mean that they're not making decisions, and decisions with pretty serious moral consequences. So what do you do in the context of a war, when these are the options that are presented to you?
KLW: "OIF" is a very short story that relies really heavily on military acronyms. I love how there’s so much military language throughout the book, but in this story it’s really rattled off into the reader’s face, there’s no way that the average reader would be able to understand all of them without looking them up—
PK: A lot of vets don’t understand them!
KLW: I was thinking about how sometimes we create abbreviations so we get more comfortable with that word’s meaning, and wondering if it’s a coincidence if the narrator of that story says he is the “twitchiest guy in Iraq,” he really didn’t want to be in combat, but he’s burying himself in the language of war.
PK: Right. And there are different ways that that language operates. Sometimes it can be used to obscure things, at the opening of that story a lot of the acronyms are about other units, things that are external to him. But they're also ways in which the acronyms just become a part of the language. An IED is an IED, that has more impact as a word to a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan than “Improvised Explosive Device.” It’s used so commonly it’s become its own word. It even appears embedded within other acronyms, so an IDD is an IED Detection Dog—sort of a Russian doll acronym. I wanted him to use that language—it’s a short story, I knew you could only do it for maybe three pages—but every sentence except for one has an acronym. It just looks different on the page; you know this is a totally different culture, but by the end, hopefully they’re becoming emotive. They mean something very personal to him. And they’re related to this military ethos that he’s decided to consciously accept and internalize, because he has made the choice to go out again.
KLW: By the end of the story, the final line is much more emotive than you would probably think it could be, but after all those pages of acronyms, you are starting to speak his language with him.
KLW: So after you returned from Iraq you enrolled in the Hunter MFA program and the NYU Veterans Writing Program. How did each of those help you as a writer?
PK: They were both fantastic. Hunter: just amazing writers that you're studying with. Colum McCann, who’s one of the people who really pushed me to explore the language of acronyms.
KLW: I’ve heard a lot of great stories about him as a teacher.
PK: He’s fantastic. Peter Carey, Nathan Englander, Patrick McGrath is an incredible writer and teacher, and Claire Messud. So the teachers are just phenomenal and also the students that I was with. It’s a small program, you're with people for two years, so I was there with Scott Cheshire, who wrote High as the Horses’ Bridles; Bill Chang was the year above me, he wrote Southern Cross the Dog which is a beautiful book; Lauren Holmes is one of my close friends from that program. I had civilian readers who were reading my stories in one way, and at the NYU Vets Writers Program I had vet writers who were thinking about war, they were writing about it, and they were reading my stuff as well. So I would get called out on different types of BS from each side, which was just tremendously useful. There were things the civilian readers saw that the vets didn’t see and vice versa.
KLW: Were you in both of them at the same time?
PK: Yes, so the NYU program was two hours on Saturdays. So we’d meet up on Saturdays and go out to a bar afterward, usually.
KLW: I think thats how all writing programs go. What are the reactions you've gotten from other veterans, or maybe people you've served with, about the book and the positive reaction it’s gotten?
PK: It’s been great. I didn’t know what reaction people would have, in part because some of the stories are very dark, but for the most part I’ve gotten very positive reactions. A lot of veterans have expressed to me that it’s something they can use to start a conversation with other people about the war, and this was very much my intent when I was writing it. You come back and you have this sense that there’s this important thing happening where the stakes are life and death in a very literal, obvious sense—not just for Americans but mostly, really for Iraqis and Afghans—and the political decisions we make as a country decide how things are gonna play out. They decide how we interact with veterans in our community and how that reintegration process happens. We’re in the midst of the largest reintegration of veterans since Vietnam, and we have to talk about it. I think when you write, you write because you think there’s something missing. A lot of veterans have given me very positive feedback, which has been gratifying in that regard. It’s also interesting to see what people react to—its never exactly what you would expect. Sometimes you’ll have an artilleryman who really likes the story that I wrote from the perspective of the artilleryman, but then one guy who’s been through a lot of combat, the story that resonated the most with him personally was the story I wrote about an adjunct guy who’d never been in combat and feels guilty about that. So it’s always interesting.
KLW: I think that was great to write from twelve different perspectives because like you said we’re not as engaged with the war as we used to be, so it opens up the reader’s mind to all the different kinds of people who were in the war.
PK: Right, and that there’s no one experience. There’s no one interpretation of what this war means, and what it should mean.
KLW: What are your plans for the future?
PK: Keep writing.
KLW: Are you working on something now?
PK: We’ll see—it’s a little early to say what it will become, but I’m working on a novel.