Bestselling author Phil Klay engaged in a Q&A session with Scott Moringiello at the Lumen Christi Institute on Friday afternoon. Klay discussed topics ranging from his diverse fiction and op-ed writings to the veteran experience in America.
Klay was raised in New York and attended Dartmouth College before joining the Marines in 2005. He served as a Public Affairs Officer in the Anbar Province during the troop surge in Iraq before leaving the military in 2009. He went on to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing from Hunter College, and currently teaches at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University.
Klay spent some of the discussion on how veterans struggle to readjust after a tour of duty. He explained how, upon returning to America, veterans often found peaceful society surprisingly foreign.
Klay recalled being on a two-week furlough from Iraq, walking down Madison Avenue in New York City, and being overwhelmed by the disparity, thinking “there’s something grotesque about the fact that these two exist.”
Klay also talked about how veterans struggled to find purpose after leaving the military when purpose is “not just given to you” anymore by orders and the family of the marines. Finding purpose in civilian life involved both making sense of as well as finding the meaning of their time in Iraq, in addition to finding meaning again in the banality of everyday civilian life.
These struggles are not unique to veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. Klay recalled talking to a WWII veteran and asking the veteran what he thought about the idea of the “greatest generation.” The man, as Klay recounts, got mad, exclaiming “‘it’s bullshit, Tom Brokaw is bullshit.’” Even America’s most morally unambiguous conflict did not allow for simple glory.
Klay’s book of short stories about the American veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Redeployment, won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction. It was Klay’s first book.
Moringiello also asked Klay about how he used his writing to make sense of experiences. Klay explained that as a veteran, “you’re so used to meeting people who have such strong opinions of the war that are so far in advance of their knowledge of it” and that he used writing to try to find out “what’s going on” and what he really thought of the war.
Klay’s book is fiction, not a first person account of his own experiences in Iraq. Moringiello synthesized Klay’s views by saying that “authenticity doesn’t come from sitting in a room by yourself having experienced something.” Klay explained that he thought that anybody could write about anything regardless of personal experience, provided they “did their homework” and “didn’t fuck it up too much.”
Klay was clear that he was not worried about being “pigeonholed” into military writing. “Right now, I’m writing about what I find important,” Klay said. “I don’t know if I want to write about war for the rest of my life.” He jokingly added that nobody ever says, “Toni Morrison, oh, love it, amazing—being a black American—not a big enough subject—have you ever considered writing about something else?”
Klay also sounded concern at the fact that American civilian and military spheres have become so disconnected from one another. He explained, “American society is weird and fucked up and not paying attention to the fact that, like, we’re at war.”