Writer Phil Klay returns to war and the strangeness of coming home for 'Redeployment'

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: stories of the Iraq war and the struggles of warriors coming home. They're told in a collection titled "Redeployment," which last week was given the National Book Award for Fiction.

It's the first book by its author, Phil Klay, who served as a Marine in Iraq. Jeffrey Brown talked with him this weekend at the Miami Book Fair.

JEFFREY BROWN: Phil Klay, hello, and congratulations to you.

PHIL KLAY, Author, "Redeployment": Thank you so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you know that you would write while you were serving in Iraq?

PHIL KLAY: Well, I always wrote, not about war, necessarily, but I always wrote stories. I tried to write while I was in Iraq. It's not really — I didn't do a very good job, and not about war.

But when I came back from overseas, a couple months after, I started — I started writing the first story in the book.

JEFFREY BROWN: That quickly?

PHIL KLAY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because I have talked to others, other writers of war in the past, and sometimes it takes a long time to process.

PHIL KLAY: Well, I started writing, but it took me about four — a little bit longer than four years to finish the book.

And that first story that I started writing went through about 15 or 20 different versions before it ended up in its final state.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

What were you trying to convey? What did you want to convey of the experience of war?

PHIL KLAY: Well, there was no one thing. And part of it was, I mean, everybody has such a small piece of the war, right?

I have two friends named Matt. They're both scouts in the cavalry. They both served in the same section of Iraq. They both worked with the same Iraqi translator. And yet, if you talk to them, their stories couldn't be more different, because one was there in 2006. One was there in 2008.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. It made all the difference, right?

PHIL KLAY: Right.

And if that's true for them, how true is that for a chaplain, for a mortuary affairs specialist, for an infantryman or an adjutant? And I wanted to kind of get at that difference, not just the different ways that people experience war, but also the ways that they experience America when they come home.

JEFFREY BROWN: There is the language of the military, right…

PHIL KLAY: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and that the soldiers use.

PHIL KLAY: Definitely.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's something to use, I guess, and play with as well.

PHIL KLAY: Well, yes, there's a very particular way that the military speaks. There's a lot of profanity and a lot of acronyms.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

PHIL KLAY: My mother, she read the book. She said, I liked it very much. You used a lot of words you weren't allowed to use growing up.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

PHIL KLAY: It's the Marine Corps.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

PHIL KLAY: But trying to get the rhythms of the speech and the way that people interpret the experience, and ,with the profanity, there's a thing where an 18-year-old and 19-year-old person who is seeing a lot of things that happen in war, which are obscene, the language that they are going to use to try and describe that is going to match it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

PHIL KLAY: And so, you know, the sort of young grunt character is going to talk in one way. An older chaplain who is trying to work through some of the things that the guys are dealing with, he's going to talk an entirely different way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

PHIL KLAY: And that was very important for me, trying to figure out who these people were.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that comes through is, on the one hand, a kind of cluelessness sometimes from somebody who served. You know, they don't know what's going on. What are we doing here?

PHIL KLAY: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But then an intense awareness, an intelligence of what they're all about, and an awareness of the world in a way that we don't often see it.

PHIL KLAY: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's a section there of the character talking about walking down a street and I could see a dime…

PHIL KLAY: I could spot a dime in the street 20 yards away.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

PHIL KLAY: Yes, which was told to me by a friend of mine who had served the in second battle of Fallujah.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because he's on patrol and…

PHIL KLAY: And it matters. He has to be aware, not just to protect himself, but also the men around him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

PHIL KLAY: And then he carries that state with him when he comes back home, you know, immediately after he comes back home.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. And so much of the story has become about coming back home.

PHIL KLAY: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And some of the difficulties of that. Was that hard for you?

PHIL KLAY: You know, I was a staff officer. It wasn't as hard as it was for some other people certainly that I knew, but it's definitely — there is a disconnect.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

PHIL KLAY: It's very peculiar to go back to New York, right?

And I lived next to — to surgical, where they would bring in wounded, not just Americans, but also Iraqis, sometimes in — and to see that level of violence done to people, and then walk down Madison Avenue with zero sense that you're at war, that's very strange.

It's also strange to get out of the military, go live your civilian life. You know, I went into the Northeast. Every once in a while, somebody tells me I'm the first Iraq or Afghanistan they have met.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

PHIL KLAY: Right?

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

PHIL KLAY: And yet you know people who are going back time and time again. Right? Sometimes, you find that something very bad has happened to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's of course a lot of talk about the disconnect between the military and the civilian population. You see it. Is it something that worries you?

PHIL KLAY: Right.

Well, it does. And I think that's part of the reason why I wanted to write the book, was to try and talk with people and start conversations about the experience of war and to invite people to imagine different experiences, because, I mean, it's important just for understanding and thinking about the young veterans in our communities, but also, you know, Marines don't issue themselves orders.

We as a country are responsible, we as citizens are responsible for what we push our elected leaders to do and whether we hold them accountable. And so I think that there's a lot of veteran writers out there who are, you know, trying to share those experiences, reach out to, you know, civilian audiences. And there are some civilian authors who have been doing the exact same thing. And it's actually really gratifying to see.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you, finally, about yourself, because you win a big award with your very first book, so that's got to be a little surprising, perhaps terrifying as to what happens next.

(LAUGHTER)

PHIL KLAY: Yes, we will see. It was — yes, it was quite a surprise, and a very good one.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see yourself writing more about war, about that experience?

PHIL KLAY: I'm going to keep writing. We will see what it's about.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes?

(LAUGHTER)

PHIL KLAY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. Well, we will see.

Phil Klay's book is "Redeployment" and winner of the National Book Award.

Thanks a lot. And congratulations.

PHIL KLAY: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thanks.