Phil Klay: Writers on Writing

Klay presents a rich, literary view of the realities and sometimes the absurdities of contemporary warfare on the battlefields, in the barracks and in service members’ hometowns.
By Gabriel Packard | Published: May 28, 2014


Author photo

Photo by Hannah Dunphy

The opening lines of Phil Klay’s debut story collection Redeployment give the reader an early glimpse of the dark, bewildered humor that will resurface occasionally throughout the book. “We shot dogs,” writes Klay, in a story about a marine serving in Iraq. “Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.”

Before writing Redeployment, Klay served in the U.S. Marines, including in Iraq’s Anbar province during the troop surge in 2007 and 2008. He then earned an MFA at Hunter College, graduating in 2011 and landing a book deal the same year. Redeployment was released this year, earning him widespread acclaim, including The New York Times trifecta: a positive review by Michiko Kakutani, followed by a second review on the cover of the Sunday book section, followed by a place on the Times best-seller list. This is rare for any author, let alone a debut writer of short stories. Drawing inevitable comparisons to Tim O’Brien and Joseph Heller, Klay presents a rich, literary view of the realities and sometimes the absurdities of contemporary warfare on the battlefields, in the barracks and in service members’ hometowns.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about writing?

The most important thing I’ve learned about writing is how much I can depend on other people. I’m not wise enough to find my own blind spots, but I don’t have to be. I have smart readers and friends, people who help me figure out what it is I’m trying to say, or why what I’m trying to say is misguided. My writing feels deeply personal and vital to me, but precisely because of that, it doesn’t feel like it has to be the precious expression of a beautiful soul. It just has to be good.

How has that helped you as a writer?

This has helped me as a writer because it both takes off some of the pressure, insofar as I don’t have to figure it all out myself, and it adds to the pressure, insofar as it means I end up having to work my way through everything I normally choose to ignore. Writing becomes more challenging, more uncomfortable, more raw, though also more of a pleasure to do.

Gabriel Packard is the associate director of Hunter College’s creative writing MFA program in New York City.

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