Veterans always come home with war stories. Phil Klay, a Marine and Iraq War veteran, also came home with questions.
Those questions Klay had for himself are explored in Redeployment, a collection of 12 short stories that recount a number of perspectives on the experience of servicemen. The book was named the National Book Award winner in 2014 and made the New York Times’ list of “10 Best Books of 2014.”
It’s also this year’s winner of The Chautauqua Prize. Klay will receive the prize and host a reading and signing at 1:30 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy.
Klay’s path to service was one he said was shaped by his family, which he said “had a lot of respect for the idea of public service.” When Klay was in high school, he thought he would probably end up in the Foreign Service.
But when the Iraq War began while he was in college, his mind changed.
“It seemed like that was the most logical thing to do to try and be a part of what was happening, for worse or for better,” Klay said.
Klay joined the Marines and was deployed to the Anbar Province of Iraq. While there are aspects of his personal experiences in Anbar that “crop up” in the book from time to time, he said they mostly served to inform the different perspectives and situations portrayed in Redeployment’s stories.
“It’s not me trying to explain my personal experience,” Klay said. “That’s not why I wrote the book. It’s me trying to grapple with a lot of the questions that my time overseas raised for me.”
For Klay, fiction felt like the only way to truly tackle those questions.
“Figuring this out was not possible in any other form,” Klay said.
Sherra Babcock, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said she found Klay’s choice of the short story form particularly fitting for what he writes about in Redeployment.
“I think it’s the perfect venue for writing about the war because there’s no one war experience,” Babcock said. “He’s so able to get into so many people’s vernacular and heads that I think it gives us a much more complete experience of what war is like.”
Klay said exploring those different experiences was important, and that while there is a cultural image of the Iraq War, he didn’t let certain tropes or stereotypes limit his writing.
“The experience is very broad,” Klay said. “There are clichés that pop up in real life. Thinking about clichés was not so much how I tried to approach the work as it was thinking about what I wanted to say about how the ideas about war that people have inform the way that they treat veterans.”
Klay also said people don’t go to the war and just come back.
“You go to war with all the stories that you’ve got about war rattling around in your head and you come back with stories you’ve been telling yourself about war,” Klay said. “I wanted to address that aspect of the experience.”
Klay found each story was “challenging in its own regard,” but he said war is generally a hard topic to write about, even in fiction.
“Writing about war takes you to some fairly dark places, and there were a lot of difficult thoughts,” Klay said.
While the subject matter may be hard to stomach for some, Klay said, people ultimately want to read about war because it’s important.
“We are a nation that goes to war,” Klay said. “We use military force on a very regular basis. And if we want to understand ourselves as a country, we need to understand not just the experiences of service members, but also what those experiences might tell us about ourselves.”