Somewhere between heaven and hell lay most of Phil Klay's professional experiences as a United States Marine and bestselling author. The 31-year-old son of a Peace Corps volunteer and advocate for children's health care, Klay was a graduate of Dartmouth College just before joining the Marines in 2004 at the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts. As a captain, Klay spent more than a year in Iraq's Anbar province during the U.S. troop surge. Upon returning home, Klay received an MFA from Hunter College and published a short story in Granta magazine. Not long after, he compiled a series of short stories in Redeployment, which was quickly heralded by The New York Times as, "The best thing written so far on what the war did to people's souls." In 2014, the first-time author won the 2014 National Book Award for the bestseller and just a few weeks ago received the National Book Critic's Circle John Leonard Prize for best debut work in any genre.
Prior to his Thursday, April 9 appearance at the Egyptian Theater in Boise, where he'll deliver a talk sponsored by the Boise Public Library and Rediscovered Books, Boise Weekly spoke to Klay about his searing work and soaring success.
With a father who was in the Peace Corps and an international banker, and a mother who worked for the Children's Defense Fund and a grandfather who was a career diplomat in the Foreign Service, did those dots connect to you when you decided to enlist in the Marines?
Public service had always been important and that was absolutely in my mind when I joined the military.
But a rather small percentage of your generation has served and the gap grows wider every day between the general public and those who have worn a uniform.
In a post-World War II America, we had universities putting up new housing for returning veterans and of course the G.I. Bill. But now I talk to men and women who are the only veterans they know on college campuses. It's a smaller portion of the country. I'm from the Northeast and quite often I'm told I'm the first veteran that someone has met. That scenario is pretty amazing after a decade of war.
Did you journal or keep a diary when you were deployed?
I have always taken notes of things that interested me, but I didn't have any particular plan to write about those things.
So when did you tell yourself that you had a book to write?
A couple of months after I got back. The first sentence of the book is the first sentence I wrote. Very quickly, I realized that, for what I wanted to say, a collection of stories were most vital. Writing has, for me, been the best way to figure things out and reach out and communicate with others. And one of the biggest things for me was that there were some pretty huge gaps in our public conversations about war.
Do you know the soldiers in your book? Are there real names and voices attached to your characters?
There isn't one character that is a thinly-veiled fictionalized version of a real person. And there's a reason for that: If I was writing about a particular person, it would have been very difficult to explore with the kind of honesty that fiction allows. If I was writing about somebody who could be identified, I would have been much more restrained.
You were in Iraq at the height of the surge. What was right about that and what was wrong about that?
That's a pretty long policy discussion and we're still debating its effectiveness. Yes, we saw a huge decrease of violence in Anbar province, but I think that did not solve the underlying issues. In the Iraq War, we've had periods of good and bad policy.
Is it fair to say that we've had periods with absolutely no policy?
I think that there have certainly been periods where U.S. policy was on autopilot.
You were a staff officer, but I'm assuming that you saw some horrible things.
I lived near a level-two trauma facility. In the first month, there was a suicide truck-bomb and there were many children injured. There were so many that doctors ran out of trauma tables and they were doing surgery on the floor. It's shocking to see what can happen to human bodies.
Are those images still vivid for you?
[Long pause] I don't spend a lot of time dwelling on them.
I apologize if that was a bit too personal.
It wasn't too personal. It's a terrible thing... a terrible thing.
But that's an unspoken bond that you have with a select number of men and women.
Can you talk about the experience of being named by The New York Times as one of the best authors of 2014, winning the National Book Award and the overwhelming acceptance of your book?
Remarkable. To see that a lot of people have responded to the book with their own perspectives has been immensely gratifying. I feel very privileged.
What do you get with a National Book Award?
A large bronze trophy.
Is that intimidating to stare at? This was your first book and everyone is going to size-up your future work with that trophy.
It's not something I dwell on. The writing is the writing. It's what I do.