How I Became An Author: Phil Klay

Phil Klay
Category: Writing

How I Became An Author gives you a fascinating insight into a writer's journey towards publication. For the first blog in the series, we quizzed Redeployment author Phil Klay about his work.

Phil Klay is a graduate of Dartmouth College and a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. He served in Iraq’s Anbar Province from January 2007 to February 2008 as a Public Affairs Officer. After being discharged, he went to Hunter College and received an MFA. His story Redeployment was originally published in Granta and is included in Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Granta, Tin House, and elsewhere.

In 2014, Klay’s short story collection Redeployment was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize and won the National Book Award for Fiction. He was also named a National Book Foundation '5 Under 35′ honoree in 2014.

Follow Phil on Twitter @PhilKlay.


What was the first thing you wrote?

I started writing seriously in high school. The first piece I was really proud of was a satire I wrote for an English class in which we'd been reading Jonathan Swift. The piece was (in my mind) edgy enough that I got worried and asked the teacher to read it ahead of time so I could get feedback before officially turning it in. I sat at a table a couple yards away from him as he read it, my stomach in knots. And then he started laughing out loud, and I felt such incredible relief. The work had felt personal to me in a way that so many assignments in high school hadn't, because I'd really tried my best. If he hadn't like it, I think I would have been devastated.

Is there anyone who really inspired you along the way?

I've been blessed with a lot of great teachers. I had a teacher in high school, John Connelly, who introduced me to Dante, Shusaku Endo, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Walker Percy, Francois Mauriac and others. He was a history teacher but we read Shakespeare and Plato and Augustine and Icelandic Sagas and The Song of Roland with him, and he had a genius for drawing students into thoughtful discussions. Once, when we were discussing Flannery O'Connor's A Circle in the Fire, the conversation turned into a search for the theme, as if the story could be decoded into a moral lesson and then put aside. And at a certain point he stepped in and told us to stop, and then referenced O'Connor's own point that "a story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is." And over the course of that discussion and the many others we had about literature, he taught us to stop reading stories as riddles and start reading them as stories.

Which authors inspired and inspire you?

That's a long list. Joseph Conrad. Amy Hempel. TS Eliot. Isaac Babel. Flannery O'Connor. Ford Madox Ford. Georges Bernanos. Shusaku Endo. Andrea Barrett. George Eliot. Mario Vargas Llosa. Julio Cortazar. Karen Russell. Waguih Ghali. Tom Sleigh. Seamus Heaney. Edward P. Jones. And so on.

Did you ever doubt yourself?

Constantly. I think the only way you can write something worth reading if you're obsessively interested in your shortcomings and flaws. My early drafts are always terrible, and it's often difficult to see a way out of the mess I've created. Thankfully I have friends who are great readers. They are willing to work through draft after draft with me and talk about what I'm trying to do, and where I'm failing.

Can you tell us about some of your writing habits?

I can't sit in one place for too long. I usually will write for a couple hours and then get frustrated, stuck on some problem, and I'll jump on my bike and head to a library or coffee shop or, if the weather is nice, a park. And while I'm biking I'll work through what I'm working on and hopefully figure out my next step by the time I get there. I usually write by hand first, which somehow feels more freeing to me. My handwriting is so terrible even I can't read it half the time, which is sort of the point. First drafts are mostly about me figuring out what the hell I'm really writing about. It's less about the words I put down on the page, and more about the act of putting them down.

What would you be if you weren’t an author?

Probably a high school English teacher. I was student teaching and getting my Masters in education when I sold the book. For half a year I taught writing to a class of middle-school students, which was tremendous fun. Once we were going over what makes a sentence beautiful or compelling and I gave them a sheet with maybe thirty or forty of my favorite first lines from literature and I had them pick three they liked and then explain why. The next day in class I had them do an exercise where they had to write bad versions of the sentences they picked; this was to get them to think about how you can convey the same basic facts and yet lose everything about a sentence that makes it worth reading in the first place. One student rewrote the opening of Moby-Dick as "'Hi. I'm Ishmael,' said Ishmael, introducing himself."

If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers what would it be?

Seek out smart readers who can help you see your flaws, and learn to find those flaws interesting.


Competition: Win a copy of Redeployment

We have one very special hardback copy of Redeployment to give away, courtesy of Canongate. With a camoflague jacket this is a very beautifully designed book. We also have two paperback copies to give away.

To enter, simple answer this question in the comments below or email your answer to marked 'Phil Klay Competition':

- Who was the American president during the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003?

Closing date: 17:00, Tuesday 24 February 2015. Open to UK entrants only. Full terms and conditions.