His essay "Death and Memory" was published in the New York Times.
Klay himself will have a book of Iraq-related short stories coming out from Penguin, with an expected publication date in 2013.
Klay, a four-year Marine veteran, served as a Public Affairs Officer in Iraq' Anbar Province Iraq. He graduated from Dartmouth College and earned his Masters of Fine Arts degree in creative writing from Hunter College.
While his story "OIF" is free to read, "Redeployment" requires a purchase of Granta, volume 116. While it would be possible to create a free link to the story, that would defeat the purpose of financially supporting this kind of writing. You're spending $20 for the issue because you want Granta and journals like it to be able to continue finding and supporting writers like Phil Klay, and many others.
Klay spent some time via email discussing his work with me, both current and upcoming.
Some of my questions assume a reader's knowledge of "Redeployment," but also try to avoid spoiling it in any significant way; hopefully the focus remains on writing decisions that don't require specific knowledge of plot points. The story is worth the purchase, or at least finding it at a library.
Nathan Webster: As far as your upcoming, untitled short story collection, I’ve read “Redeployment” and “OIF,” so I have some notions about the tone and tenor of your stories. What are your preliminary thoughts about the collection?
Phil Klay: We'll see how the collection turns out, regarding tone and tenor. Every story I'm working on feels very distinct, to me, but it's difficult to talk about the overall shape of something I'm working on. I'm interested in exploring very different perspectives.
Q: So you’re also still in the editing process of the stories themselves? What are some of the other perspectives you want the collection to explore (perspectives can mean a lot of different things)?
A: I'm working on first-person stories from narrators with different jobs, MOSes, ages, philosophical viewpoints, etc.
Q: Interesting - so you are making the choice to keep it in first person entirely?
A: It feels right for this collection. I want to produce a cohesive work.
Q: Is this going to be a collection of individual stories that you later realized all fit very well together, or was it a group of stories you wrote in a deliberate progression from one to the next, knowing they built on one another?
A: In my mind, the collection should work as a whole. It's conceived of that way. The different angles of approach offer me a way of achieving a sort of composite vision.
Q: By "composite vision," do you mean a complete narrative through a lot of different viewpoints? So both overseas and the US, high-rank, low-rank, etc?
A: Exactly. Different time periods, jobs, ranks, commands and physical locations lead to radically different deployments, and yet we tend to think of Iraq as a monolithic experience.
Q: So from Dartmouth n 2001-2005, and a BA in creative writing, to Iraq as a public affairs officer by 2007? What were you writing when you were in school? How did your military career begin?
A: I went to Marine OCS during my junior summer, then was commissioned at graduation. I did write in college, though the writing was very different. I actually had little interest in war fiction or war writing. I've since then become much better versed in it.
Q: Different how? You have a Spartan style (in “Redeployment, anyway), so what were differences you could identify between then and now? What were you writing about?
A: Well, I wasn't writing about war. Some of the stories were spare, some were the complete opposite. I was experimenting. Of course, I still am. But I'd like to think I'm better at it now.
Q: Did your subjects fall into a specific category? Were there fictional narratives and experiments you felt really connected with as a younger writer, that still - even slightly - inform your choices today?
A: Well, there's a lot of learning the mechanics. Getting the feel of a story, an intuitive sense of the arc and the through-line that makes the piece coherent and not a series of disparate anecdotes. Getting the rhythms right.
Q: How did your OCS decision impact college life, or your writing choices? It's a big move, obviously. What led up to it?
A: I don't know how much it affected my writing choices. Since I did OCS over the summer, it didn't have much effect on my daily life at college. Of course, I knew I was heading somewhere rather different from most of my classmates.
I joined for a variety of reasons. I knew we were at war in Afghanistan, and soon to be at war with Iraq. I figured that whether the wars were right or wrong, how well we did would be measured in lives, not just American but also Afghan and Iraqi. I wanted to help. I also wanted the responsibility and the challenge.
Q: You weren't taking the path most travelled, especially in the 2003-05 timeframe. There are notions and stereotypes about wartime perceptions - especially at Ivy league schools. From your experience, were any proved wrong?
A: Well, I had a couple of professors tell me I was making a horrible decision. That turned out not to be true.
Q: Have you sought out any recent nonfiction related to Iraq and Afghanistan? What about fiction? What would be a good reading list?
A: Yes. For me, a good reading list for war writing would start with Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim.
Matt Gallagher's Kaboom is excellent. I also like Colby Buzzell and Siobhan Fallon's work very much. Roy's essays and his as yet unpublished novel has been important for me. David Finkel's The Good Soldiers, Jessica Goodell's Shade It Black, CJ Chivers The Gun, and Bing West's No True Glory and The Strongest Tribe are all quite excellent and useful.
Then of course, there's war related writing that isn't specific to the current wars that has been very important and useful to me. Marlantes' Matterhorn, Doctorow's The March, Grant's Memoirs, Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk, Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America, Colum McCann's Dancer, Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Aeneid, Grossman's On Killing, J. Glenn Gray's The Warriors, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and, of course, Lord Jim, Don Quixote, Herr's Dispatches, Seamus Heaney's North, Tolstoy's War and Peace, Keegan's Mask of Command and The Face of Battle, Hemingway's short stories, McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, Sebald's Austerlitz, and Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry.
Then there's a long list of books and memoirs I've read for primarily research purposes. And, of course, there are plenty of stories that have nothing to do with war but have been very useful for me in working out problems in my fiction, but that list would be really long.
Q: Good list – some I’m familiar with, many not. Have you read Colby Buzzell's "My War" recently? It holds up very well, which is difficult for a book like that - his literally in-the-moment style was brand new at the time, but has been copied quite a bit since then. He also wrote the recent "Lost in America."
A: Colby's a natural storyteller, he doesn't telegraph his punches, and he's got a way a naturally cluing the reader in to the social structure and environment that forms his choices and the choices of the people he's writing about. Also, I remember cracking up incredibly hard the first time I read the bit with his recruiter where the guy gives him the off the record drug test ("Holy shit! Did you just get high in the parking lot?") I'm really excited to have him in the anthology.
Q: And he's consistent and he makes himself the butt of his own jokes. One problem I have with a lot of memoirs is that the narrator is too much the hero. My feeling in memoir is if the narrator comes across better than his/her compatriots, then I'm reading a lot of wishful thinking. But in fiction, you can get away with that, because it can simply be an unreliable narrator - are you thinking anything like that? A deliberately unlikable character/narrator?
A: I think you want to have sympathy or understanding for your characters. So yes, to make someone do things that make them unlikeable, or to show them as unreliable, is an interesting challenge that can produce a lot of good tension in the story.
Q: You’ve chosen fiction as a way to tell the story, instead of the ‘conventional’ memoir. Once you’d begun writing in your MFA program, did you begin first from a nonfiction perspective, like in “Death and Memory,” or was your intention always to tell these stories in a fictional way?
A: I began with fiction. It allows me to explore the issues most important to me in a way not limited by my personal experience. I have nothing against memoir, but most of what I want to write about and think about is best served by fiction.
Q: In "Redeployment," is there any personal experience that the story grew from? Even if it was just one line that one guy said to you one time? Or is just "Iraq," and the fictional story grew from there?
A: I draw on a lot of things. Some parts of that story are extrapolated from my own observations, some come from conversations I've had or research I've done, some are imagined. Though my childhood dog was dead when I got back.
Q: One preconception that military writers have to deal with is an assumption that their “fiction” is actually “nonfiction” with fake names. Take “Redeployment,” or “OIF,” both of which read very lifelike, and a reader might assume those exact events actually occurred in real life (and they probably did, just not to you). I think military fiction has that challenge to overcome, which is unfair since nobody questions Stephen King or Jonathan Franzen. Do you agree with that? In MFA workshops, did you see that response, where they were reading the story as “your” experience, rather than a fictional story? A lot of veterans are going to be writing in years to come. What’s the advice you have for them? Stick to what they know?
A: It's a peculiar situation for the veteran writer. Non-military readers automatically cede to you a sometimes unearned authority because they assume you know what you're talking about. Of course, I try very hard to know what I'm talking about, but that's because I do a tremendous amount of research. I think it's important to get the details right. That said, the historical inaccuracies in, say, "The Iliad," do not really limit it as a great work of art that expressed something vitally important about war and human nature. I do everything I can to get the details right, but I don't write fiction as a vehicle to give out accurate information about the specific make and model of thermal optics in use in 2004.
I would say write to what you want to know. I write about what interests, disturbs, puzzles, and amuses me. And after I start writing about something, I start to complicate the initial thought and find out what's really worth thinking about.
Q: So in "OIF" for example, what do you think is "worth thinking about," about a story that conveys the "acronym culture" of military life?
A: Different institutional cultures have different ways of expressing themselves. The narrator of that story has internalized the 'acronym culture,' but he deploys acronyms for a variety of purposes depending context. In the opening of the story, the acronyms are very much exterior to himself. By the end, they become an important method for him to describe his interior state.
Q: So “tremendous amount of research.” Edward P. Jones, Pulitzer Prize winner, was once asked, “what kind of research did you do for ‘The Known World,’ and his response was “I didn’t do any. It’s fiction.” Now, I’m sure he was being slightly facetious – but still, other than factual details such as “what’s a Humvee weigh,” what are you researching?
A: Whatever research Edward P. Jones did or did not do, he certainly knew a lot about the world he created in that book. He had to know something about the practices of slave-owners and farming and geography and climate. Enough to make it seem real. That's what I need as well.
I'm looking for how systems work, how units operated, and what places looked like. I'm also looking for the specific make and model of thermal optics in use in 2004. I don't want anybody to read the book and think I screwed something up. But most important are details that interest me, like a few Marines declaring war on dogs. Then I'll write the story, usually without doing too much further research, and in subsequent drafts will fill in or change the things that I've later found out couldn't have happened. I want to avoid tripping readers up, but at the end of the day my goal is to write fiction.
Q: As a war veteran in a creative writing workshop, I would imagine you were one of a very, very few. How do you work with an audience of fellow writers who want to help with the product, but maybe run into roadblocks along the way?
A: I have veteran and non-veteran readers, and I think both are important. Vets will call you out on your BS, but I like getting a wide range of responses. I don't want my audience to be exclusively veterans or civilians. I want both.
Q: Right - obviously, you're not limiting yourself to one audience. But in an MFA workshop, it's a very specific audience that you don't really get to choose - so how was that experience?
A: Great. Hunter had some fantastic readers. And that's all you need. Veteran, non-veteran, good writing is good writing and good readers are good readers. Saying, "oh, you just don't like it because you don't understand like a vet would" is not really an answer to criticism.
Q: Right, defensiveness is always a poor way to respond to good criticism. Really, I've found it's best to just ignore the comments that don't reach me, and work with what did.
Q: How do you think your readers were able to help you with your stories?
A: I still send stories out to a bunch of people for feedback. I'm blessed with some great readers, and they help me find out what I'm writing about and they help me distance myself from what I've written. I have four main readers who I share a lot of work with. Not everybody sees every story though.
Q: Again, even if veterans don't enter an MFA program, most college freshman are still in writing classes (I teach one, and I usually get a veteran every semester) - so how do they work with fellow writers who want to help, but might not know how?
A: The thing is not to be sensitive about the work, which probably goes for everyone. And the readers can't be too afraid of hurting feelings, or they won't be able to give good criticism. Of course, not everybody can do that. Some people write something and they just want you to say, "Wow. That was great." Which is fine. But those people are doing something different from what I am trying to do.
Q: Can you remember an incident where you didn't take criticism very well, and later realized it was maybe because you were too close to the story?
A: Having been in the military makes the harshest criticism you're going to get in an MFA pretty easy to take. I think I react well to criticism. Actually, one thing I need to be on guard for is accepting to much of it. I often take a day or so after I get a bunch of feedback before diving into revisions because I don't want to be too influenced by a good reader's vision for the story and lose track of my own.
Q: In “Death and Memory,” you write “When I tell stories about Iraq, the ones people react to are always the stories of violence. This is strange for me.” “Redeployment” and “OIF” do obviously contain violence, or mentions of past violence. Why not avoid violence entirely in the stories? It’s not a criticism, just a follow-up to the “hushed silence” you mention being concerned with. Both stories certainly do not “decay into a kind of pornographic experience,” so what consideration did you give into successfully translating violence to the page?
A: It's a thought I've struggled with. In writing about the military violence is unavoidable even if you don't describe any on the page. It's an organization designed to do violence. The Marines are not the Peace Corps. That said, how violence happens in the stories is a serious challenge.
I think of Seamus Heaney's Station Island, where the ghost of Heaney's cousin confronts him about a poem he wrote about the cousin's murder: ‘The Protestant who shot me through the head/I accuse directly, but indirectly, you/who now atone perhaps upon this bed/for the way you whitewashed ugliness and drew/the lovely blinds of the Purgatorio/and saccharined my death with morning dew.’
If violence is described grandly in one scene, horrifically in another, and with a cold, matter-of-fact reportage in another, there should be a reason for such choices.
Q: That’s a good quote. So take the final scene with the narrator’s dog in “Redeployment” where the violence was implied (but certainly not ‘whitewashed’) – what did multiple drafts do to change how that was presented?
A: I wrote that scene a lot of different ways. The rhythms of the sentences were very important. Also, at one point I added in further details taken from Marine training ("the target should be blurry"). It had to sound right for the voice of the character and the level of emotional intensity he would experience not only in the scene but also in the retelling of it.
Q: That line struck me on several levels - "blurry" from the shooter's perspective, but "blurry" because of what was about to happen. Did I get your intention?
A: I'll say this. It felt right for the way the narrator would have to describe it.
Q: Why Iraq at all? Why not write literary family-oriented fiction, like “The Corrections?”
A: Because I'm currently interested in Iraq. It engages my brain and sparks ideas that I want to work out on the page.
Q: And, just like "Redeployment" proved - you CAN write family-oriented fiction about Iraq. Do any of your stories deal exclusively with the homefront?
A: Yes, I've written stories that entirely take place stateside.
Q: You begin your stories with an obvious base of knowledge, but did you do any follow-on research? Like”OIF,” did you have to look up acronyms, or did they flow from prior knowledge? Did you rely on your knowledge, or verify details?
A: I do a tremendous amount of research for every story, and then I usually ask other vets to double check details. Obviously, I've got a decent base of knowledge. I was in the Marine Corps. I served in Iraq. I've visited most of the major cities in Anbar and hung out with Marines from a wide variety of MOSes. But there's so much more to work out for each story than just my personal experience.
Q: Melodrama, especially in military writing, is my number one bugaboo, in my own writing and what I see elsewhere. “Redeployment” avoids it almost completely. Do you have your own negative terms you try to avoid at all costs?
A: Not really. Each story (and scene, for that matter) has it's own unique challenges. For Redeployment and OIF, an excess of sentiment would have felt false. But other narrators might see themselves and their experiences differently.
Q: “Excess of sentiment” - what's your definition of that?
A: Unearned emotionalism. Relying on the emotionally charged subject to provoke the reader's sympathies without genuinely engaging the subject matter. Redeployment is about war and about somebody putting his dog down. That could very easily become kitsch.
Q: If I was going to pick one moment to criticize, only for the sake of criticism, it might be the moment in “Redeployment” where the XO slashes the throat of a dying insurgent. It was the one moment where the tone suddenly seemed melodramatic, and the choice of XO as the “villain” seemed unsurprising and somewhat conventional. If you were to choose to defend that choice, how would you? What am I missing? What was your intention? Or would you choose to defend it at all, and let the story (and stories) stand for itself in the face of nitpicking criticisms like that?
A: Avoiding tropes about war in all instances is neither possible nor, I think, advisable. There's too many of them. And there are moments where they happen in real life or where people act out the roles art and culture have created for them. As such, I think they may have a place in the story, depending on the kind of effect you're going for. If they enter my writing, I try to be aware of them and what they do to the story.
Regarding the XO moment, I considered the sort of complaint you just made when I wrote it, and I decided to keep it in anyway. It's difficult to explain exactly why. I work a lot on feel.
I go through phases where I'll be incredibly pleased with my writing and then I'll have horrible doubts over nearly everything. Both are important to the process, actually.
Q: I found “OIF” brilliantly obvious, without being something I’d ever seen done before; even after years of being aware of all those acronyms that idea never slightly occurred to me. What was the seed for that idea?
A: I wrote another, entirely different story where, in one section, I played with the rhythms of acronyms. Colum McCann liked the idea and urged me to push it to the extreme. He showed me a story he'd written that obeyed a tightly controlled form and I realized that I needed to tighten my constraints. I at first did so with the original story, but I was forcing form onto a story that it wasn't organic too. Then I came up with a variant of the current opening three sentences and for whatever reason it seemed obvious that the narrator worked in the comptroller's office. I had a perspective and a voice and a reason, in my mind, for him to talk that way.
Once I'd written those three lines I knew who my narrator was, and I had a new story.
Q: "Tighten my constraints." What does that mean?
A: Be rigorous. An acronym in every sentence. Commit to the voice.
Q: What was Colum's story?
A: I forget the title. When he showed it to me, he was still editing it, and I'm not sure it had a title yet. It was a housewife describing, in a sort of poetic list format, her daily responsibilities. But there's a powerful emotional undercurrent to the piece that resolves beautifully at the end. The story doesn't have much in common with OIF, but it showed me exactly the sort of rigor required to make the thing work.
OIF story went through a lot of revisions, and feedback from non-vets was very important, since it needed to be intelligible and unintelligible at the same time. There's a balance to be struck.
Q: What was some of that feedback? What were some of the suggestions and ideas that non-vets gave you that helped the final result?
A: The release of information was altered, the description of the IED went through a bunch of changes, I tweaked a few lies that were too opaque or too cute. Nathan Englander killed the original last sentence in "OIF" for much the same reason Peter Carey killed the original last sentence in "Redeployment." I tend to over-explain. I didn't take all the advice. One reader told me she didn't know what "KIA" meant. I didn't think it was on me to explain that one.
Q: What was the original last sentence in "OIF?"
A: I'm not going to tell you.
Q: I just read 'OIF' again and the rhythms work very well...read out loud, it sounds natural and unforced. Did you read it out loud as you worked? You must have, right?
A: I read everything out loud. I have to.
Q: In the MFA culture, obviously revision is a huge part of it, maybe the most important part. Are you an editor as you write, or do you revisit the drafts again and again, and make a lot of changes after a complete draft is finished?
A: I do a lot of drafts. About fifteen seems to be the sweet spot. I generally narrow down what I'm really interested in about the story in the first couple drafts. Usually I do an overhaul and completely change the voice, the perspective, or even the narrator's position within the story. My early drafts tend to be more simplistic, the voice might not really exist in its present state or the rhythms of the sentences won't be what I want, and the stories aren't as focused.
Q: Fifteen drafts – that’s the trick isn’t it? If a story goes through 15 drafts before publication, that means you “failed” 14 times. It's easy to give up at draft 7,8,9...so why don't you? When do you know it's done?
A: The later drafts are fun. That's when you know what the thing is about. It's done when I don't want to change it anymore. When a good reader suggests things that I should change and I understand their point of view but disagree.
Q: Like you said earlier, you try hard to know what you're talking about - but it's not always that easy. You mention 15 drafts - so that's 14 failures. How harshly do you criticize your own work?
A: It's not 14 failures. Or rather, achieving those failures is the point. With each draft I'm getting closer to what I'm writing about. I'm focusing it, and learning in the process. The successive drafts get more and more interesting and fun to write. But to get to that place, you need to be willing to give up on a lot of good writing that, for whatever reason, doesn't make the cut or interferes with the shape of the story. Sometimes I rewrite without looking at previous drafts. It's freeing.
Q: You need to fail for the final product to be any good. Younger writers don't appreciate that - especially in the Twitter culture, where first drafts are the last draft.
One line-editing 'game' I play with myself is to try and eliminate paragraphs that create an extra line of just two or three words...and I go through the paragraph and cut and trim until I can eliminate them.
Is there any very specific editing "trick" like that that you use?
A: If the story feels bloated I'll give myself an arbitrary word count, usually around 60% of the current draft, and do everything I can to bring it down. That usually involves killing a lot of good writing, including stuff you'll ultimately want to put back in. But it has the benefit of stripping the piece to the bare essentials of the story, creating an effective forward momentum. And then you can throw back in the bits that really should go back in. What's interesting, though, is that I always end up throwing back in less than I'd have thought.
Q: What did “Redeployment” look like in the first few drafts (or even 7,8,9)? Did you know the conclusion right from the start? Was that what you were writing toward?
A: It used to be about a third its current length. With that story, as with "OIF," the first thing I had was the voice. That doesn't always happen for me. I never changed the first sentence. Every other sentence in that story has probably gone through different variations.
I fleshed out a bunch of different scenes. I gave the narrator's wife a larger role. I toned down some of the preachier aspects of it. I extended the homecoming scene, to include putting in Eicholtz's father. There were a lot of timeline issues that had to be managed. The original story was sort of a mess, that way. After extending the scenes, I then tightened them, and I worked on the rhythms of the sentences.
Q: Eicholtz's father is a key addition - could have been too much, but it wasn't. Why do you think he was important enough to add?
A: I met someone doing what Eicholtz's father does in that story. I found it incredibly affecting, and I wanted to use it. Also, the father adds more weight to the narrator's relationship with Eicholtz, who never really appears in the story. And it adds an important cross-current to the homecoming.
Q: I’m not sure if you’ve read an advance galley of “Fobbit,” by David Abrams – which I found hysterically cynical and bitter. I really enjoyed it, but I expect it to get a few one-star Amazon reviews from readers who think it cuts too close to home regarding their Iraq service, and also civilian readers who are defensive-by-proxy about perceived negative portrayals of soldiers. Personally, I think some bad reviews would be a good thing – any book that makes readers entirely comfortable will probably not be remembered for very long. Do you think your stories will make your readers uncomfortable with war’s feelings, so they can’t simply sit back and appreciate good writing, but will be unsettled as well? Is that something war literature of any sort should strive to do, at least on some level?
A: I haven't read Fobbit yet, but I'm looking forward to it.
The art that I like best tends not to serve complacency. I don't know if there's some specific thing that literature about war should or should not strive to do, but striving to please everyone is probably not it.
Q: Yes, literature about war that strives to please everyone probably isn’t telling much truth about war. I think both "Redeployment" and "OIF" are unpleasant and sad, without being maudlin; honest, without being melodramatic.
A: Thank you.
Q: Personally, I liked “Kaboom,” by Matt Gallager, better the second time I read it, when I was prepared for his more creative style. What did you think of his creative nonfiction style, which I believe shares some techniques with fictional writing?
A: I really liked "Kaboom." It's one of my favorite Iraq memoirs, perhaps my favorite, and not simply because he's a friend. I didn't know him well when I first read it. I think the creative style is part of its strength. He gets you to enter into his daily life and experience in a way I haven't seen duplicated by other work. If someone were to ask me what it was like to serve a year in Iraq, I'd point them to that book. As a bonus, it's also really funny.
Q: “Funny” how?
A: "Do I amuse you?" "Do I look like a clown?"
He has an eye for amusing absurdities. He also has a wry tone at some points:
"It would definitely suck to die...and it would suck even harder to die in Iraq. But to die from an exploding tree? Please, just lie to my wife if that happens."
"It is absolutely instrumental to the continued development of Iraqi security that as much chai as possible be consumed by Coalition forces."
His description of the care packages they got.
His description of the port-a-john graffiti.
Q: What kind of writing did you do while deployed? A journal? Emails home? Did you have a written basis to refer back to for your present-day work?
A: I very slowly wrote incredibly terrible stories while deployment. More usefully, I took note of the strange, crazy, amusing or upsetting things that happened while I was deployed. I wish I'd taken more notes on physical locations and building types, but I wasn't really planning on writing what I'm currently working on.
Q: “Incredibly terrible.” The fun part is identifying what was wrong with them. In my own manuscript's early drafts, every gunshot was Omaha Beach, every mortar was Iwo Jima…just awful! What I don't understand now, is why I ever liked it then.
What’s an example of something you wrote that you liked at the time, before realizing how “incredibly terrible” it was?
A: Oh dear. I don't even want to get into it.
Q: But you're a published writer now! Looking back in anger is the fun part!
The worst line I ever wrote - in my life - is: "Meeting soldiers as a reporter in a war is like a safari –it’s not a zoo, because a zoo isn’t an animal’s habitat." I really have no idea what I was thinking with that - and it actually survived a couple drafts. Now I just use it to remind myself that first drafts are terrible.
So you must have some horrible example.
A: Oh I do. But if I tell you, it'll definitely be off the record.
Q: As a public affairs soldier (an Army journalist) myself, I found that PAO gained a little more knowledge than the average soldier. Was that true in your case? How did your job help give you the background necessary for your stories? Or did it have anything to do with it at all?
A: It was great in that I got to meet a wide variety of servicemembers from a wide variety of MOSes and occasionally see them do their jobs firsthand. People tend to focus on the infantry, and what they do is certainly interesting, but so are the stories of comptrollers, adjutants, PsyOps personnel, engineers, and chaplains.
Q: What about the leaders above you? When you’re a PAO, you see the sausage getting made. When you do read "Fobbit," you'll see that perspective. What were your impressions?
A: That's certainly a piece of the pie. It's part of why I'm excited to read Fobbit.
Q: When you were back in the US and starting school, did you feel like the US was informed? Do you, as a writer of recent-day, war-related fiction, feel any obligation to inform readers (as opposed to the ‘discomfort’ I mentioned earlier)? Beyond, obviously, telling a good story?
A: I wasn't even sure how well I was informed when I got out of the military. People would occasionally ask me, knowing I was a vet, what I thought about policy in Afghanistan, and I would always find myself at a loss. I think Iraq taught me how much I don't know, which was really brought home when I came back and people yielded to me a surprising degree of authority on an intensely complicated situation. They tended to want a clear answer, and my experience suggested that such a thing didn't exist.
Each story has its own demands. Naturally, there are things I want to express about Iraq though the fiction. But I'm not a journalist.
Q: What was your own ‘redeployment’ like? What did people have to say to you?
A: Oh, you know. You get asked the same questions a million times. I had pat answers for what I thought was going on over there, why I joined the military, and why it's irritating to get asked if you killed anyone.
Q: What was the "pat answer?" for what was going on over there?
A: It was a long spiel involving a lot of policy analysis. Despite not putting a lot of that stuff in my writing, I find it personally very interesting.
Q: How disconnected did you feel like after you got back? How long did the feeling last?
A: I've always felt a little disconnected from American culture. I think that's a good thing. It makes you a better observer. And American culture is fascinating, rich, and occasionally depressing.
Q: Now it seems the news has gone from "support the troops" into "fear the troops," without the usual interlude of 'welcome back.'
Any thoughts on the media's portrayal of returning vets, and misconceptions?
A: Eh. We're such a small part of the population. Misconceptions will always abound when people don't have direct experience.
Q: So short fiction was working for you, and is still working for you. So you had these smaller, dynamic stories in mind when you began? You didn't have the "great American novel" in mind, which you then pared down?
A: I've been working on a novel off and on, but right now short stories are my primary focus.
A novel serves a different purpose. I don't think one is lesser than the other. I'm writing short stories now because I have to ... until I write them there will be all of these things crowding around in my head.
Q: David Finkel’s “The Good Soldiers” and Dexter Filkins’ “The Forever War" - nonfiction, but certainly written in a creative style – “observational reporting” – with many of the traits of fictional writing. Any impressions about them?
A: I very much liked Finkel and Filkins' books. They are interested in the human element that interests me, the human experience of what happens when the sorts of things argued for or against in Foreign Policy Magazine get enacted.
In general, I love narrative non-fiction. It's difficult for me to give a real critical assessment because for the past couple years I've been going through war books like Dr. Frankenstein going through a graveyard.
Q: I had just heard about the “Fire and Forget” anthology, which includes the work of many familiar names, including Buzzell, Gallagher, Abrams and many others. I'm hoping to talk to Roy Scranton about this, but what was your involvement? How did it get put together?
A: I knew Roy from the NYU Veteran Writers Workshop, a small writers workshop founded by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith and organized through New York University. The group was intended to be non-ideological, focused purely on the craft of writing and free to all veterans. Six of the writers in the anthology (myself, Matt Gallagher, Gavin Kovite, Roy Scranton, Jake Siegel and Perry O'Brien) came from the program, where the veterans discussed fiction, read each others work, and had an opportunity to share their ideas.
Colum McCann visited the program, took an interest in some of the work there, and encouraged us to do the anthology. The editors (myself, Roy, Jake, Matt and Perry) made extensive calls for submissions and picked the best work we could find.
It's something I'm tremendously excited about, not simply because of the quality of the writing, but the diversity of perspectives. Fiction takes time, and I feel like the people assembled in Fire and Forget represent the beginning of our generation of war writers.
I'm excited about the Iraq and Afghanistan fiction that is just starting to come out. The anthology will showcase a lot of truly excellent writers who are just beginning and I'm genuinely thrilled to think about all the talent they represent. There are going to be some great books from that group. These writers have such distinct voices, and approaches to the wars that I never would have thought of.
Q: So to finish up with your writing - you're in the process of writing multiple stories, which will go through many drafts.
Any first lines of a story you can share right now, that might or might not appear in the final version?
A: I'm way too protective to expose those poor, unprotected lines to the world before they're ready.