Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros1ReconnaissancesPhil Klay and the Art of War Fiction


Phil Klay and the Art of War Fiction

Julien Brugeron et Phil Klay

Entrées d’index

Par rubrique :

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Author Phil Klay at the 2015 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony. © Pen American Center (Wiki Commons)

Phil Klay is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and the author of Redeployment (2014) which won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for best debut work in any genre. His last novel, Missionaries (2020) won critical acclaim and was named one of The Wall Street Journal’s best 10 books of 2020. His essay collection Uncertain Grounds was published in May 2022 (Penguin Press). He currently teaches fiction at Fairfield University.

This interview was conducted online on Monday, April 11th, 2022.

Julien Brugeron: One of the reasons why I wanted to conduct this interview is because I’m working on a paper dedicated to the “death of the author.”

Phil Klay: I have a long essay coming out in The Point where I hold that, particularly in 20th century war fiction, starting with Wilfred Owen, there’s no form of writing for whom the death of the author makes less sense as an idea. How do you interpret, or even respond to or think about a poem like Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est”? This playful “death of the author” notion is just not operative in that context.

JB: The narrator of the story “Redeployment,” and the one in “After Action Report,” both evoke near-death experiences. Both of them, actually. And I know that you never experienced combat per se, but only its aftermath. Is this something that you still somewhat relate to, the near-death experiences that are depicted in the first two short stories of Redeployment?

PK: Everything that you write emerges from yourself. I relate to the character in terms of trying to think through what those emotional responses would be. I’ve never been in combat. I have had moments where I thought I might die, so you use what is available to you emotionally, and then you just imagine things. That’s the job of fiction, making stuff up, trying to imagine your way into your own head in a plausible way, which is also hard.

JB: You just said that everything emerges from yourself, but was there a moment when you thought it necessary to gather information?

PK: Absolutely. I went into this like a journalist in some ways. I did interviews to do this book. I interviewed a ton of people. At the back of the book, there’s this long acknowledgement section, which is there not to say, “oh, look how many interviews I did,” but just because there were people I needed to thank, and there are a lot of them.

JB: Talking about the writing of these near-death experiences, you said that they were not purely coming from your imagination, but still you heavily relied on imagination, which was a hard thing to do. I was wondering whether these moments were the narrative elements that are the most difficult to convey in your writing.

PK: I don’t think that near-death experiences are the most difficult to convey. If you’re talking about writing, I think we’re culturally fixated on moments of extreme experience. There’s a great bit from the poet Geoffrey Hill in Language, Suffering and Science: “The contemporary pseudo dogma which maintains that the degree of suffering experienced by persons of an artistic or a literary event shall constitute an accurate register of the quality of their work is one which requires close scrutiny.” And in The Captive Mind by Miłosz, where he says: “The work of human thought should withstand the test of brutal, naked reality. If it cannot, it is worthless, probably the only things that are worthwhile which can preserve their validity in the eyes of a man threatened with instant death. A man is lying under a machine, gunfire in the street of an embattled city. He looks at the pavement of seats. Very amusing sight. The cobblestones are standing upright like the quills of a porcupine. The bullets hitting against their edges displace and tilt them. Such moments in the consciousness of a man judge all poets and philosophers.” Hill criticizes this: “Miłosz purports to establish new terms of the utmost purity, the existential finality of things and moments; and with the apparent equity of work of human thought, he gestures towards the inclusive, the general redemption of the imagination through the witness of extreme experience, of survived extremity. What the quoted passage actually communicates is something different, the elitism of the man-of-the-moment. It excludes from aesthetic regeneration those works unbaptized by an arbitrary, extreme experience of ‘brutal, naked reality’.” And he compares this to Whitman who, “far from excluding generality and commonality by the sharply particular, intensifies it by such means making the extremity of revelation, of human suffering and of an endurance both exceptional and to be accepted of humankind in its great diversity of nature and capacities.” I think that there’s this sense and a kind of fetish of this extremity, as if extremity and meaning go hand in hand. I don’t think that’s true. I think that extreme experience weighs on people and stays with them, and they reinterpret that experience throughout their lives. It has great psychological, emotional, moral and spiritual registers for them. There’s a wonderful bit in Karl Marlantes’s book What It’s Like to Go to War, where he says: “Ask the twenty-year-old kid at the gas station what it feels like to kill a man. And his probable, angry answer if he’s being honest: it doesn’t feel like a fucking thing. If you ask the same kid the same question twenty years later, you can get a very different response. It’s going to be dependent on who he’s had around him, how the community has either helped him or not helped him process that experience.” For me, there’s a tremendous amount of weight in the everyday if you think about an author like Stendhal. The moments of extremity of experience, these kinds of breaks, are not where the meaning lies.

JB: Which novel are you thinking about?

PK: The Red and the Black. The central joke of the Charterhouse of Parma, not knowing if he [Fabrice Del Dongo] was in the battle or not! I’m with Hill there, and I find that technical as a writer: things that are difficult to write tend to be the things that are technically difficult to write, in terms of craft. In Redeployment, there’s a story called “Psychological Operations.” The story ends with a guy telling a story to you, the reader, about telling a story to a woman, about telling a story to his father, about telling a story, essentially, to a bunch of insurgents during the battle of Fallujah. That’s a complexly layered and broken narrative device. It was important to me, you know. I wasn’t doing that simply to play a game of nesting Russian dolls. It is an awkward thing to attempt and, in terms of the craft, difficult to do and have it come off as not an obnoxious game, which I really didn’t want it to. It is something that’s deeply important to him, though it’s not a moment where he feels that he might die in some ways. The reaction to extreme experience is not that complicated because your adrenaline is pumping, your vision is narrowed, you’re not having deeply layered, complex, Proustian reveries, when in my case, I’m hanging from the side of a cliff thinking that I’m going to fall. It has happened to me when I was free-climbing as a teenager and ended up in a very bad situation where there was a good ten seconds where I thought I was going to die.

JB: Following up on what you said about “Psychological Operations” and these layers and layers of telling and retelling, you often make the clear statement that war or extreme experiences should not belong to the realm of the unspeakable and that we do have a responsibility to tell.

PK: I think there’s the assumption that there’s a privileging of that experience, and a notion of incommunicability where you’re affording it a particular type of epistemic and moral weight. I’m just very skeptical of that as a power move in the discourse.

JB: You are breaking up with almost a century, even a millennium, of traditional war writing, because war writing has often been very complacent with the ineffable of war, of war experience, which is something you refuse. But at the same time, from either your interviews or the narrators in Redeployment or in other writings, you seem to be a bit reluctant to satisfy the ravenous “what was it like” questions that you sometimes get. For instance, in 2012, you wrote: “When I try to describe that death, the telling tends to decay into a kind of pornographic, voyeuristic experience. I feel I do disservice to the enormity of my subject by making it a subject of conversation. And yet I know that keeping a hushed silence is failure, too, because by not telling these stories, we fail to process them.” How do you navigate this in your writing, both the need to tell and also the resistance to a certain story-telling that people want, or seem to be wanting?

  • 1 Chris Kyle (1974-2013) was a U.S. Navy SEAL sniper who served in the Iraq War. Known as an exceptio (...)

PK: First off, you’re not a blank slate. Interpreting the raw experience or delivering the raw experience to the listener, the way you’re understanding your own experience and experiencing your own experience, all this is going to be wrapped up with your own understanding and cultural milieu, and the ideas you have, and the narratives that you fit around the work that you’re doing. Then, you’re going to be speaking not into a void, but into a culture that has a lot of preconceived notions about these things, especially when you’re talking about something like war. There’s what this experience should be and then what it is interpreted to be. I find fascinating a guy like Chris Kyle, you know, American Sniper1. I’ve talked to SEALs who served with him, and they all say the guy was legit, that he was a real warrior. He also told a bunch of ridiculous lies. I find that fascinating because this is a guy who had the real story, but the real story wasn’t enough to fit into a particular model of individual American heroism. So you had to tell these kind of very silly self-dramatizing stories that have more to do with action movies than the kind of messy realities of war. That stuff is happening all the time: we’re tailoring our stories to the cultural context that we’re going to enter into, and we might not even be aware that we’re doing it. In my fiction, there is that preoccupation with those narratives swirling around. The story “Ten Clicks South,” with the howitzer, opens with a collective act of storytelling as the unit that is engaged in this action is basically trying to come down with a narrative of what they just did, because the physical experience of what they just did doesn’t deliver to them a sensory emotional feeling commensurate with what they want to think they did, which was kill a bunch of bad guys at war. They come to a story that works for the unit, but it doesn’t work for the main character, because they’re just too many gaps. He goes for a search for the enemy, essentially. But what he’s looking for is basically that internal experience that we’re supposed to have that allows the veterans to speak to the truth of war because they’ve encountered something in the real world, in the physical world, they’ve encountered something viscerally immediate that they can then profess, and he doesn’t have that. He doesn’t get it, because at the end of the day, what would it really be if they brought him out to the area and he saw the bodies? It would certainly be affecting to him, but would that mean that the internal experience that he’s having would somehow then solve the problem that he had initially? No, it wouldn’t. Basically, there are intense internal experiences, which can be powerfully effective to people, and then there’s the meaning that we make of it afterwards. I think a lot of times it can be very difficult to explain those intense internal experiences or to really get people to fully encounter them. But what happens a lot in war literature and also in culture more broadly is that the intensity of that experience is used to then make claims related to the meaning-making that we do afterwards. That’s nonsense.

JB: You’re saying that there’s a huge discrepancy between the event that is felt, the person who’s feeling and expecting to feel something that doesn’t necessarily correspond to what they thought they were going to experience, and, back home, what the culture of this person is expecting them to tell. It makes me think about “After Action Report,” when the narrator tells this Marine joke: “Liberal pussy journalist is trying to get the touchy-feely side of war and ask a Marine sniper. What is it like to kill a man? What do you feel when you pull the trigger?” And you feel recoil. The discrepancy here is something that you do stage in your writing, and it’s also related to what you said when you’re being asked about soldiers having faced death, and them trying to make sense of it, to get the meaning you were talking about, I’m quoting you: “It’s not about what you saw. It’s about what you do with it.” I was wondering whether it was central in your writing practice, the consciousness of these discrepancies that you just mentioned related to extreme experiences.

PK: It is most definitely. That discrepancy and the way that it shifts and changes over time in terms of people’s relationship to events, it’s not like you have an experience and then the experience and its meaning. You work that out. It’s not just that having an extreme experience can change you, but that over time you change the meaning of the experience for yourself.

JB: Is it why, and I could quote the whole collection of short stories, the narratives are actually exploring the multiple deadly opportunities? I feel like there is a plurality of viewpoints which is meant to convey these extreme experiences from as many perspectives as possible.

PK: I’m always interested in getting it from different angles, because you can’t have that “this is the truth of war.” You got twelve folks who wouldn’t agree with each other. I’m also influenced by somebody like Joseph Conrad, because for Conrad, you’ll have an event that strikes people, like at the beginning of Lord Jim, where Jim disgraces himself, and you get it approached through different people and different angles and different ideological systems for trying to make sense of it, and failing to make sense of it in a certain way. The ideologies are less a way of describing the event than other things in the world. There are ideological systems that have effects but are not necessarily privileged in the narrative.

JB: You mean the interconnections or interplay between systems, like ideological systems?

PK: Yes, absolutely.

JB: I feel that we are talking about so many ideologies, ideological systems or as regards war, for instance, both like the system at home, like foreign policy, for instance, and then the martial system per se. How does that all play out for you?

PK: Have you read the most recent book, Missionaries?

JB: I have.

PK: There’s this stripped-down, technocratic worldview that Juan Pablo expresses towards the end. Mason has an attempt to marry a certain American idealism to a practical attempt to work within a troubling system. Lisette is attempting to recuperate a sense of the importance of words and communication and understanding of these systems against the backdrop of utter failure to achieve the impact that she wanted from her writing while she was a journalist in Afghanistan. Whereas somebody like Abel has a much simpler notion of returning to a place in a community and individual redemption. Luisa has a sort of Christian idealism mixed with a kind of realpolitik.

JB: Is it why you decided to shift to novel writing instead of short story writing?

PK: To capture systems, you need to have a bigger canvas, which is what I’m attempting to do in Missionaries. Towards the end of the book, you’ve got Juan Pablo on an Emirati air base looking through the optics of the Chinese drone, communicating over Swedish technology with a pilot who is going to drop an American bomb on Yemen tribesmen. What is at play in making that possible as a system of warfare? It’s not simply about individual choices, it’s about a variety of complex institutions and structures that interact. Missionaries is set up in a layered way where Abel is the person closest to the ground who, when a high-value targeting strike is done in his region, he’s going to deal with the cultural, social and political after-effects of that. You have Juan Pablo who is the local force, who’s involved in this violence, but operating from the center of the country rather than the periphery. You have Mason, who is one of the components of the American role in this. And then you have Lisette, at the top to piece it all together, and each of those individuals are part of these institutions and they’re at odds with the institutions. The first half of the novel is these four stories of their individual struggles within the institution. Mason is a dissenter from the trajectory of how we started using special forces in the first decade of this war. Juan Pablo has his own complicated relationship to the Colombian military and to a lot of things. Lisette thinks there’s something fundamentally broken in journalism. And of course, Abel is not an enthusiastic paramilitary, but he’s a paramilitary, nonetheless. It’s these individual journeys where the moral choices and worldview are constrained within the institutions they’re part of. And they all come to a decision point or crux at the end of it, and then the novel flattens out into a third person where those are no longer privileged and yet you see them interacting. That was as good as deliberate choice. Again, in terms of craft structure, it was much like “Psychological Operations,” which was a weird craft structure, but necessary for what I wanted to get across.

JB: I’m curious because you said that you resorted to novel writing precisely because you wanted to capture this whole system. But when you talk about Missionaries, you talk about it as if you were talking about isolated elements, with these characters and narrative elements, etc. I feel like it’s something that you also did in Redeployment, because in this collection of short stories, I do get a grasp of the whole system to which the characters have no choice but to belong, even though there are different narrators.

PK: The problem with a lot of systems novels is that they efface the individuals. The challenge is to describe the human beings within the system, because otherwise we’re not explaining the system. I love Vasily Grossman, author of Life and Fate and Stalingrad. He has these deeply humanistic portraits of Nazis and slave laborers and concentration camps. The reason he’s doing this is not because he thinks they are deserving of representation, it’s because he wants to understand how this works, how you take psychologically normal people and generate such a system that’s so monstrous and inhuman because he doesn’t want it to happen again. You have to start with the individual in order to understand the meaning of these systems. There’s a reason that the novel begins with Abel talking about what a person is.

JB: It’s something that you actually do in “Redeployment,” the first short story, but you don’t seem to be satisfied with the mere description of the individual within the system because the narrator in “Redeployment” is located in this in-betweenness, precisely because he faced these extreme experiences that we mentioned beforehand. When I read “Redeployment,” I thought that his situation is the very condition for his decision-making within the system, decisions that he makes on his own behalf. I would like to have your opinion on that, as if having been close to death or whatever extreme experiences, entailed both trauma, because that’s what it is when he comes back, and some sort of liberation from the system at the same time. I’m wondering whether this in-betweenness, this double dynamic, informs the way the narrative is carried out.

PK: We took up this tradition of the veteran, on behalf of their experience, professing, and I expressed skepticism about it. Yet, at the same time, it’s not like there’s not a lot of wisdom in Wilfred Owen, and important things that people really, really need to listen to. And it’s not as if his impetus to speak those truths is unrelated to trauma. The psychiatrist Judith Herman, in her book Trauma and Recovery writes that your trauma “challenges an ordinary person to become a theologian, a philosopher and a jurist.” The reason is that trauma upends a survivor’s sense of God’s Providence, of the moral structure underlying the world and the codes that men and women live by. She says: “The survivor is called upon to articulate the values and beliefs that she once held and the trauma destroyed.” That for me is important, it’s not the trauma itself. Lisette at the end of Missionaries realizes that shitty things happen to people all the time. But one sense of themselves has been shattered in a fundamental way, and it’s not just their sense of themselves but of God, of the world, of ethics, of how society is organized that can provoke profound and has provoked, over time, profound, profound thinking.

JB: Is it the questioning of the system, then? You’re talking about God, ethics, so theological systems, ethical systems, too. Probably political systems, as well?

PK: Anybody can question the system. I think it’s the rebuilding.

JB: What kind of rebuilding? Rebuilding the system or rebuilding our relationship to the system?

  • 2 Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was a German-American philosopher, mostly known for his work on theology a (...)

PK: Rebuilding our relationship to the system. Paul Tillich2, the great existential theologian, goes to WWI thinking and believing in a nice God who’s going to make sure everything turns out for the best, and is shelled multiple times in the first three weeks leading services, gets the Iron Cross, volunteers for the front and is serving as a grave digger for the bodies of friends and fellow soldiers. He gets fired because he tells his commanding general that he doesn’t think prayer has the power to protect men from enemy fire and the general is disgusted with the fact that a chaplain, who’s a salesman of prayer, would have such a little faith in his own product. But what’s happening is his very simplistic theological understanding is just destroyed. Of his post-war years he once wrote “I was a Barbarian after the war.” The experience left him shattered, but he constructed in the following years these profound benefits of theological thought. In the light of the failure of the old system, what can we create that’s new? What new ways can we approach the world with? The old ways are insufficient, they are always insufficient, and we always need to be building new ways of approaching the world. That, I think, is obviously related to the trauma that you experience. It’s not found in the trauma. It’s in the depth of the response to it.

Haut de page


HERMAN, Judith. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York: Basic Books, 1992.

KLAY, Phil. “Death and Memory”. The New York Times, 28 October 2010, Accessed 13 March 2023.

KLAY, Phil. Redeployment. New York: Penguin Press, 2014.

KLAY, Phil. Missionaries. New York: Penguin Press, 2020.

MARLANTES, Karl. What It’s Like to Go to War. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011.

MIŁOSZ, Czesław. The Captive Mind. 1953. Translated from the Polish by Jane Zielonko. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Haut de page


1 Chris Kyle (1974-2013) was a U.S. Navy SEAL sniper who served in the Iraq War. Known as an exceptional sniper due to his number of confirmed kills, he published American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History in 2012, adapted two years later into the movie American Sniper by Clint Eastwood, starring Bradley Cooper in the leading role.

2 Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was a German-American philosopher, mostly known for his work on theology and existentialism. His most famous work, The Courage to Be, was published in 1952.

Haut de page

Table des illustrations

Légende Author Phil Klay at the 2015 PEN Literary Awards Ceremony. © Pen American Center (Wiki Commons)
Fichier image/jpeg, 154k
Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Julien Brugeron et Phil Klay, « Phil Klay and the Art of War Fiction »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2023, consulté le 26 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Julien Brugeron

Université Paris Nanterre – CREA, EA 370

Articles du même auteur

Phil Klay

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur


Creative Commons - Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

Haut de page
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search