Q&A: ‘Missionaries’ author Phil Klay ’05 on his new novel, modern warfare

by Lucy Turnipseed | 10/26/20 2:05am

phil-klay
Source: Courtesy of Phil Klay

In 2014, Iraq war veteran Phil Klay ’05 won the National Book Award for fiction with his debut short story collection, “Redeployment.” This year, he published his first novel, “Missionaries,” which tells the story of terrorism, drug wars and global conflict in Colombia through four intertwined perspectives. The story follows U.S. Army Special Forces medic Mason, foreign correspondent Lisette, Colombian officer Juan Pablo and Colombian militia lieutenant Abel as they struggle to navigate life in the midst of war. Klay’s work has been heavily influenced by his time serving in the U.S. Marines. 

Klay is currently a professor of creative writing at Fairfield University in Connecticut. In an interview with The Dartmouth, Klay discussed his success as a writer, how modern warfare relates to his new novel and advice for aspiring authors. 

You served as a Marine in Iraq’s Anbar Province for four years and later published a collection of short stories drawing from your experiences. Why was writing a novel the next step for you?

PK: My first book was about the Iraq War, and it was very centered on the experiences of American soldiers. The more that I thought about and wrote about modern war and the way America wages war in the 21st century — I've written a lot of nonfiction about this — it became clear to me that I wanted to expand beyond simply talking about one conflict. 

I wanted to talk about the ways in which different wars kind of bleed into one another. You can have a situation where a Colombian mercenary can be on an Emirate air base, watching the Yemeni tribesmen over a Chinese drone, killing him with an American missile; you're in a very complicated and interconnected world of war that needs a more complex narrative structure to actually be able to articulate. You can't talk about the linkages between developments and targeted killing in Iraq, cultural changes that play out in military units in Afghanistan and the long running and incredibly complex environment in Colombia in a short story. 

When you write short stories, you can do the whole structure in your head. A novel is a much wilder thing. The characters that are created look at different angles, while trying to make them as realistic as possible. I want my work to be able to express complex ideas, and to write real feeling people and characters whom the reader empathizes with and also for whom these sorts of sometimes abstract discussions about war become very, very viscerally real and immediate.

Was there anything unexpected that happened while writing this book?

PK: In terms of unexpected things, I started writing this Colombian military officer, and I very much thought that I was going to be writing a story that would tell about modern war and geopolitics, which was how he was designed. But as I started writing, I gave him a daughter, and as I wrote, I dove more and more into this character — his relationship with his child and his understanding of himself and his job and the kind of world that he's trying to create for a daughter and the ideals that he has. Then the way that he's aware about how his daughter might see him became a real driver in the book. For all of the characters, there's this tension between realism, their pragmatism, their career and the hard demands of the world. With him, that became situated within the context of a father thinking about his own daughter.

What do you hope readers take away from “Missionaries”?

PK: I want people to see the way that American power functions in the world. I want them to think very deeply about what a person is and the importance of having a community and a family around that person to live as a full human being. I want them to think about the ways in which violence can reshape our world and the ways it can tear things apart, and to think about whether those institutions that we've created over the past two decades are helping or contributing to that particular problem.

One person I was talking to on the book tour said he felt like this book was about aging and the compromises that you make. You want the younger generation to look at you — as you become older and your idealism gets tempered by experience, but you also wonder if it has been corrupted. I didn't write a kind of treatise on modern warfare; I wrote a novel on the very human elements that are just as important as that discussion.

How would you define modern warfare?

PK: America, over the past two decades, has become deeply involved in a series of irregular, asymmetrical wars where the line between military action and counterterrorism and crime all bleed together. It’s murkier — it crosses borders. It is done often with a heavy reliance on special operations troops, on drones, on airstrikes, on intelligence services, and a lot of it is done outside of the public eye with very little oversight. 

It’s also understanding the different institutions that have developed over the past few decades — what is often called soft power, as in USAID or the State Department — have withered. We have a very robust set of military capabilities that we've honed to a high degree of efficiency and yet very little larger-scale strategic thinking about how we're going to create durable political sentiments that are in our interest and in the world's interest. 

What is your moral stance on war? Do you ever think it is just?

PK: I think there are obvious areas in which military force is necessary. But violence is a very unstable tool; there are often second- and third-order consequences to the use of violence that are very hard to predict. It's a very ethically risky tool. I think that we need to be very, very thoughtful about how we use our military. 

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

PK: I would say it is an odd mix of confidence and humility that is necessary. You need to have the arrogance to think that you have something to say, but then the humility to look back at your writing and be more interested in your errors than defenses about them. I think that writing fiction is the most rigorous, unforgiving way of exploring the world. When you're writing it, you need to be interested in blind spots. You need to be interested in the ways in which you know your vision of the world is often ideologically deflected and thinner than the wilder reality that you're trying to depict. The fiction writer’s best tool is not his intellectual thoughts about the world — it’s simply his eye and his careful observations of reality that almost always yields richer material than anything else.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.