Klay ’05 pens short stories about Iraq

by Rebecca Asoulin | 3/30/14 4:41pm

Phil Klay ’05 is a former Marine who released his first short story collection, “Redeployment,” early last month. After graduating from Dartmouth, Klay served in Iraq’s Anbar province from January 2007 to February 2008 as a Public Affairs Officer.

Klay went on to earn an MFA in writing at Hunter College. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Newsweek and the 2012 anthology of “The Best American Nonrequired Reading.”

When did you first want to be a writer or realize you could be one?

PK: I always wrote. I studied creative writing at Dartmouth. As for the idea that I could actually do this for a living, I think that’s still sinking in.

What experiences at Dartmouth influenced your career?

PK: I took [Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures professor and department chair] James Dorsey’s Japanese literature course that had some really interesting World War II-era stuff that you don’t encounter a lot. And then also I studied with the poet Tom Sleigh, who was my mentor for my creative writing thesis and later convinced me to go to Hunter College where he was teaching. When he found out that I was in the process of joining the military, he had me read Tolstoy, Isaak Babel, Dick Jones and Hemingway. He sort of figured that if I was going to war I should read some of the greatest books ever written about the subject.

Why did you become a Marine?

PK: I made the decision in the lead up to the Iraq war. I did [Officer] Candidate School during my junior summer in 2004, and I was commissioned as a second lieutenant when I graduated from the College in 2005. I knew we were going to war, and I joined for the reasons that many people serve. My family always had a strong respect for public service. I wanted to be part of a cause greater than myself. I was thinking of it as a historic moment, and I wanted to put myself in a position of responsibility so I could hopefully affect things for the better. Also, I was a rugby player and boxer at Dartmouth, so some of the more physical aspects of training didn’t seem like they would be too abrupt of a transition.

Why do you write all of your short stories in the first person?

PK: It was very important for me to do this in short story form. I was also working on a novel, but the short stories quickly became the most vital for me. I think that I wanted readers to inhabit these characters that have a very diverse range of experiences and perspectives on war and to be able to compare them. The range of experiences is so broad, and I didn’t want to have a book that said, “This is how it is.” I wanted a book that would undermine that.

Do you see your work as a bridge between the civilian and military worlds that most Americans don’t see?

PK: It’s what I hoped. Put it this way: one of the very disconcerting things about returning home is this disconnect. We citizens are responsible for when our country goes to war and also for holding our elected leaders accountable. When you come back to a country that doesn’t seem engaged in the war it’s more than just disconcerting. For us as a country it’s very important to see what war means on a human level. I wanted a story that would appeal to both civilian and veteran readers and that would speak to and hopefully challenge both readers.

Can you speak about your writing process?

PK: I started writing the book a little bit after I got back from Iraq. I usually write by hand and then I transfer it to the computer, often without looking at the first draft because it’s usually terrible. I send drafts out in stages to different friends who are readers that I trust. The whole time I’m reading about the subject and talking to people who are knowledgeable about the subject. I’m trying to figure out more about the story, and I’m teaching myself how to write better. I just write and rewrite and get more perspectives until I feel like the piece is done.

Why is it important to you to show diverse perspectives in your work?

PK: When you come back from Iraq, people find out you’ve been over there and they ask you what it’s like and how we’re doing over there. You feel like you can tell them and you have a certain type of authority. Except certainly my own perspective about what was happening changed over time as I learned more, and certainly every individual has a certain narrow view of what’s going on. It’s an incredibly complicated war. I knew one unit that left midway through 2007, and they were doing their mission in a very violent time. And then the unit that replaced them came in as violence was falling. They had the exact same mission in the exact same place, and their experiences couldn’t have been more different. Your job, the time you were there and the people around you all shape the understanding of what you’ve been through.

What are some misconceptions civilians have about the military?

PK: When you meet people you tend to get lumped into one of two stereotypes: either you’re the passively traumatized victim of the war or you’re some sort of badass superhero-type person. And frequently the way people think of you is related to political commitments.

What advice can you give students?

PK: Humility is invaluable, I think.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Correction appended: March 30, 2014

The online version of the article's initial headlineincorrectly stated that Klay wrote a novel. He in fact published a collection of short stories.