One of the absolute best books I’ve read this year is Phil Klay‘s debut short story collection REDEPLOYMENT, now out from The Penguin Press. Addictively readable and full of searing, uncomfortable imagery and detail, these stories take us on an unforgettable journey through the Iraq war as it is experienced and remembered by those fighting in it. You can learn so much about writing about war from Phil–his is a book I will be thinking about a lot as we celebrate Memorial Day this weekend.
Lucy Silag: Why do you think that so few literary writers have written about the war in Iraq from the perspective of those fighting it?
Phil Klay: There are a few civilian writers who have written about the military, like Ben Fountain, Lea Carpenter, and Roxana Robinson. I think to do it right takes a lot of time and research. Plus, there’s the old cultural trope that you can’t know about war unless you were there. I don’t think that’s true, but perhaps that steers people away. If so that’s unfortunate, since I think we need thoughtful engagement with the wars from both civilians and veterans alike.
LS: In one story, you highlight something really idiosyncratic about the language soldiers use, which is the high preponderance of acronyms. How did you know what readers would be able to infer from the context?
PK: It was important to me to incorporate military-speak into some of the stories, but equally important to me that non-military readers would understand. I always had civilian readers for each story, and went through a lot of drafts working on achieving the language that would be expressive to a civilian reader even if they didn’t know what each acronym meant.
LS: You were a US Marine. Were you writing fiction during your service?
PK: I tried to write during my service. I even tried to write a little fiction in Iraq, which didn’t go so well. I found it an immense relief when I learned that Anthony Powell had stopped writing during World War II. More useful to me were the notes I took while overseas. I ended up seeing a lot of Anbar Province, and interacting with a lot of different Marines and soldiers and sailors in a lot of different jobs. I did start writing the first story in the collection while I was still in—putting down the first words in 2008 when I was a couple months back from Iraq. It took me a couple years to finish that story, though.
LS: What advice do you have for soldiers currently serving who have writing aspirations?
PK: Read a lot. Writing my book I was always reading toward what I wanted to be able to write about. And the other piece is finding other writers you can trade work with. There’s actually a pretty great community of veteran writers. For me, meeting other veterans at the NYU Veterans Writing Workshop was incredibly important for my development as a writer. Likewise, finding great civilian readers at the Hunter College MFA program was equally important, since they gave me very different and useful feedback.
LS: Have your friends in the military read your book? What things in the prose have particularly resonated with them?
PK: It seems like every veteran responds to different bits in the book. I met one veteran who had been in an artillery unit during Grenada that had killed enemy, and he told me that he’d been having conversations with his friends from those days similar to the chow hall discussion in my story “Ten Kliks South.” Another mentioned the conversation about termites. Another, the notion of being truly out of the Corps when somebody dies and no one thinks to call you. And many veterans have talked to me about the color-coded threat levels, and the dogs.
Phil Klay is the author of REDEPLOYMENT and a graduate of Dartmouth College and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He served in Iraq’s Anbar Province from January 2007 to February 2008 as a Public Affairs Officer. After being discharged he went to Hunter College and received an MFA. You can follow Phil Klay on Twitter.