Invisible Country: Phil Klay and Bill Cheng

A novel set in the American South, decades past; a story collection, present-day, poised to become a classic of war writing –the critically-acclaimed works of these two graduates of Hunter College’s MFA program hold much in common: staggeringly great prose, powerful imagery, and deep emotional resonance.

And both are selections of our Discover Great New Writers program – Redeployment from Spring 2014 and Southern Cross the Dog from Summer ’13.

Klay’s publisher writes of Redeployment: “Interwoven with themes of brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival, the characters in these stories struggle to make meaning out of chaos…” in fact, those themes — brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival — course through Southern Cross the Dog in equal measure.

These stories and this novel represent the best of what writing should be: vital, visceral, and timeless. Klay and Cheng talk about connecting with their material, taking risks, and the inevitability of terrible first drafts, among other things,  in this terrific conversation about the art and craft of fiction for The Barnes & Noble Review. — Miwa Messer



Bill Cheng: Phil, I want to start backwards: What’s it like to think about where you were when you started on this project and where you are now that it’s here?…which is another way of asking how (or if) this book has changed you as you were writing it?  Or: if in writing these stories you found out something about storytelling, about being a soldier, about being Phil Klay?

Phil Klay: How I’ve changed? Well, I’m sure you remember asking to meet me at Sarge’s Deli for lunch so you could gently suggest I adopt a somewhat less Marine Corps–inflected style of argument in conversations with the other writers at Hunter. I was just a few months out of the military then. I think you’ve seen me change, Bill. You’ve probably got a better sense than I do.

I will say this. Writing Redeployment shook me in ways I never expected. One of the things that happens, when you get back from overseas, is people want to ask you what it was like. Natural enough. Less than half of one percent of America is serving in the wars, and in New York I’m often one of the only veterans people come into contact with. So you get this question, not “What was your experience like over there?” but “What’s it like over there?” “How are we doing?” Like I can describe the whole experience of a nation at war. Time and again in discussions I found myself afforded a certain kind of authority based on who I am — a veteran. And that gave me the sense that I deserved that authority. That I knew more than I really did. So I would explain Iraq to people with a great deal of confidence that is somewhat embarrassing to think about now.

It was a very simple war I used to describe. Which means it had nothing to do with reality. I’ve got two veteran friends who are both writers. They’re both named Matt. They both were in Cavalry Scout units. They both spent over a year in Iraq. They both were deployed to the same region. They both patrolled the same towns. The both worked with the same translator, an Iraqi nicknamed Suge Knight. But they were in Iraq during different times — the first Matt about a year prior to the surge and the second during it. And so when they write about their experience they’re using the same names of the same towns and even, in the case of Suge Knight, the same names for the same people, but they’re writing about radically different wars. Now think how different Iraq must have been to a Chaplain, to a Mortuary Affairs specialist, to a soldier doing Psychological Operations.

So that authority people give you is dangerous because you start to believe you know what you’re talking about. And the nonsense you can successfully spout at parties ends up as pretty thin stuff when you put it in a story. So writing this book, which required a ton of research and interviews and arguments with other vets, was a constant exercise in humility. I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did. And a lot of the things I thought I knew, even things of emotional importance about my own experience, seemed less and less true the more I thought about them. People lie to themselves all the time about what they’ve been through and what it means — I’m no exception. But you write those lies down — lies that really matter to you and that are really painful to let go of because they’ve become a part of who you are — and they don’t work. And then you have smart friends read those lies and call you on them, and that hurts. Writing this book was a process of shredding everything I thought I knew, then rummaging through the wreckage and seeing what was left. Yes, that changed me. I look at things I wrote four years ago and it’s such an alien mind I’m reading.

Do you find the same thing, Bill? You wrote Southern Cross the Dog because of the blues. Because of that intensity of feeling you’d get listening, as a teenager growing up in Queens, to recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Skip James, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and others who spoke to you in a way you couldn’t yet articulate. That was vital to you. It’s what impelled you to write the book. And anyone reading it can definitely tap into that feeling, but I also think you found a lot more than just that feeling. It’s there, in the novel. So, how does the blues sound to you now?

BC: Honestly, I find those feelings harder to access now. Part of it probably has to do with having exhausted that material while writing the book. But I think the other part of it is that now that the book is published, I’ve lost a certain intimacy with the subject matter. That “blues feeling” had always been a very private phenomenon for me and having it public in this permanent and declarative way invites a certain decay. I still love the music and I’ll get wildly enthused whenever John Lee Hooker comes on, for example, but it’s not really the same.

Sometimes I’ll talk to writers and try to describe books as a kind of fossil record of who the writer is, frozen in different moments in time (or in this case, in text). So in some cases the book turns into the work of an alien mind before it’s even finished.
This issue of authority and perception is one that I find completely fascinating though, and one that I think drives these stories.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I wonder if writing the collection wasn’t in part a kind of drilling down — on your own experience, on the experience of other soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of people both at home and abroad. That with these stories, you often take the reader to the place where experience and expectation fail to sync. It’s also, I think, a place that you visit in your journalism and nonfiction.

How would you account for this disconnect?

PK: Well, war experience carries a lot of symbolic weight in our culture. War is supposed to be where you become a man, or a hero, or a monster, or a traumatized shell. It’s where you commit horrible, unspeakable acts, where you make terrible, noble decisions, where you blindly follow orders. There are as many myths and cultural notions floating around about war as there are about falling in love. The difference is, in modern America, hardly anybody goes to war. The rarity of the experience lends it a certain mystique. Hemingway called it “the thing which no one knows about who has not done it.” And there’s a wealth of war literature going back to WWI telling us that only the veteran can speak truthfully about war. Paul Baumer, in All Quiet on the Western Front, telling his former schoolteacher there’s nothing good about dying for your country. Wilfred Owen, addressing “Dulce et Decorum Est” to Jessie Pope.

So supposedly going to war initiates you into this gnostic priesthood of people who’ve had a liminal experience forever separating them from civilians. Except…you go there and it is what it is. A form of human activity as varied as any other. So there’s a disconnect between expectation and experience, and even a disconnect between a factual account of what happened and how it might have felt (Robert Graves: “The memoirs of a man who went through some of the worst experiences of trench warfare are not truthful if they do not contain a high proportion of falsities.”). Then there’s a further disconnect when you come home. Oftentimes people want to make of your experience something it’s not. And even very smart, thoughtful folks frequently want to avoid real discussion of war. Yeats excluded the trench lyric from the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse because “if the war is necessary, or necessary in our time and place, it is best to forget its suffering as we do the discomfort of fever.” Philip Larkin dismissed Catch-22 as “the American hymn to cowardice.”

That’s why it’s heartening to me to see books like Ben Fountain’s or Roxana Robinson’s or Lea Carpenter’s, serious books by non-veterans examining the veteran experience and what it means. Or stories like Colum McCann’s “What Time is It Now Where You Are,” which dramatizes the act of imagining yourself into the head of a female Marine in Afghanistan. It opens up a space for what I think is a very important discussion, a discussion which I want to take part in as a veteran, but which it is crucial that non-veterans take part in as well. And my drilling down into these experiences is my offering to that discussion.

Which brings me to a question for you, Bill. Writing my book I thought a lot about the human terrain, the way our experience is shaped by our jobs and the people around us, and I think you get at that too, but in your book there’s also this incredible evocation of the relation between your characters and the land itself. This is probably most apparent in the flood scenes, but I feel it’s a constant throughout the book. And the way the physical world is such a powerful character in its own right reminds me of Melville, or even of a poet like Charles Olson. Now, you’d never been to Mississippi when you wrote Southern Cross the Dog, but that probably helped, right? I mean, you were writing about a Mississippi that no longer exists. Or perhaps more accurately, that exists in the way you wanted it to only in the pages of your book and in the minds of your readers. Is that fair?

BC: I think that’s right.

In hindsight, it was probably a bit arrogant of me to set this book in this place and call it Mississippi. At the time, I felt strongly that it’d be a disservice to set it anywhere other than the home of the Delta blues, but the book probably could’ve carried on just as well if I just made up all the place names. But yes, it is a “Mississippi of the Imagination,” as it were. 

I think the physicality you’re talking about came about for a few reasons. One, is that as a novice writer (especially one that hasn’t had that kind of true-to-life connection with that region) I was earnest about making that world feel solid. The land needed to feel as visceral as possible so that when the characters started moving and talking, they didn’t fall straight through the floor. I needed to build it, through language, from scratch. The other reason is that I think the book, for me, is ultimately about this other worldly oppressiveness, about the whims of a universe that are completely out of the characters’ control. So the landscape acts as a proxy for that. It’s a way to embody those looming and oppressed feelings the characters can’t quite seem to get out from under.

It’s very much a book about despair, which is odd for people who actually know me.

Which brings me back to Redeployment. I think for most readers, coming to a collection about war, there’s this expectation for tragedy and brutality — and while that exists, there are also these fantastic moments of great comedy. Take, for instance “Money as a Weapons System,” which is one story my mind keeps coming back to. Its tenor is so surprising. The story balances on a masterful tightrope of hilarity and terror. But even outside of that story, throughout the collection there are just these small moments where you vent the tension just enough to let in something delightful and funny. Even something as seemingly trivial as (SPOILER) a non-pacifist cat named Gizmo left me chuckling.

PK: Well it wouldn’t be about war if I wasn’t cracking some jokes. Treating war as farce is one way soldiers deal with it. Think Robert Graves and Jaroslav Hašek on WWI, Joseph Heller and Evelyn Waugh on WWII. There’s a long tradition of ridiculous insanity in war. How could you not see the humor? But that approach shouldn’t be confused with a lack of seriousness. Vonnegut once said, “The best jokes are dangerous, and dangerous because they are in some way truthful.” I think that’s right.

Also, war isn’t constant brutality and tragedy. I was in Iraq thirteen months. I’ve got friends who were there for longer. If we’d sat around going “Oh, the horror,” for all that time, we’d have gone insane. So yeah, my characters deal with terrible things. But they also crack jokes, play Gameboy, insult each other’s mothers, and try to avoid having to set up a baseball league for Iraqi children.

Now, some of your characters despair after enduring tremendous suffering, but I find it interesting that you say your book is about despair. I didn’t read it that way. Yes, there are characters who break in the face of a hostile world that subjects them to more than they can take — Etta stands out as a particularly moving example — but this is a book filled with defiance against the brute facts of the world. And there are these utterly luminous moments. Descriptions of the landscape, yes, but also descriptions of human connection — when Etta looks on Ellis with kindness, or that bit where G.D. and Robert get drunk with Dora and they both think, separately, that maybe no one has to suffer. I found that so devastatingly powerful. And because you don’t make any Hollywood movie promises about the human spirit enduring in spite of horror, those moments matter. They’re gems we can hold on to. They allow us to believe that Robert’s spitting in the face of the world isn’t just foolish bravado, but a form of courage.

In other words, I defiantly reject your interpretation of your own book. What do you say to that, Bill?

BC: I’d say, I’m used to it!
Is it right, then, to say the best way to talk about war is through a medium that can account for a multitude of experiences? That, with this collection, you’re demonstrating that there is no singular experience of war?  And still, there’s this temptation in the public mind to reduce it to something easy and familiar. Full Metal Jacket. Apocalypse Now. Which I think, is a difficult tyranny to overcome for storytelling in general but particularly in war writing. So I guess my question then is: how do we move past that? We, as writers, but also as readers? Does it come from a place of laziness, or convenience?  And aren’t we always, in some way, communicating with what’s come before — how do you keep that from muddying the waters?
In some ways I’m reminded a lot of the main character in “Psychological Operations” and his frustration in being a soldier who is skilled at communications and yet struggles to communicate something sincere with this college student.

PK: That was certainly my intent. Early on I had this notion that the best way for me to approach Iraq would be through all these angles, each story a first-person narrative so you get to see the experience from inside different consciousnesses. I didn’t want to write a semi-autobiographical this-is-how-it-was novel, though I’ve got nothing against those books. I wanted narrators who would argue against each other and so provide a space for the reader to make their own judgments. Part of the difficulty for the soldier in “Psychological Operations” is that he not only wants to be understood, but to be understood in just the right way. He doesn’t want to leave the college student that space to make her own judgments about his experience. But for meaningful communication to be possible, you have to take that risk.

Besides, I just found it fascinating. My war experience wasn’t particularly intense — I was a staff officer — but I did get to travel around Iraq and spend time with a whole variety of Marines and sailors and soldiers and civilians in different jobs, which compelled me to continue learning about the variety of experience over there. How all these folks functioned is incredible and strange — PsyOps guys killing with insults, Foreign Service officers hunting for widows to train in beekeeping, artillerymen sending rounds downrange and never coming into contact with their targets — and I wanted to explore that. And while I was exploring that, I found things that seemed to comment on my own experience and on what I thought about violence and masculinity and the relationship of the citizen to the soldier and of the soldier to the nation at war.
BC: We’ve discussed this a little bit in person, but I think it bears revisiting. You’re probably one of the hardest working writers I know. Can you run it down for me one more time, your process that takes a story from idea to finished pages?

PK:  Sure. How the idea comes is a little different each time. For the first story, I had the first sentence before anything else. For “Psychological Operations,” it was the image of a body’s fading heat through a thermal optic. I write a first draft by hand. There are always huge holes in my knowledge at this point and that first draft is invariably terrible, but I’m training myself to write the story, so it’s OK. I usually do a little research, write it out on a computer without looking too much at the handwritten draft. Most stories I rewrite by hand a second time. I do more research. Then back to the computer. Eventually I send it, in stages, to six people — Chris Robinson, Lauren Holmes, Roy Scranton, Pat Blanchfield, and Jessica Alvarez. This involves a lot of rewrites. Chris and I once added up the word counts and figured that he’d read about 90,000 words worth of different versions of just one story. During this process, I’ll also send it to other people who I think could help me. I’m lucky to have a community of veteran writers who have been incredibly helpful, and I’m lucky to have a community of non-veteran writers, like you, who have been equally helpful. I’ll also send stories to people who have a special expertise, like an artilleryman or a priest or a Foreign Service Officer who spent time in Iraq. The last step for this book was sending the manuscript to Andrea Walker, my editor at Penguin, who had such a smart read of my work and who I was lucky to have. Then I put in the last edits.
What about yourself?

BC: My routine changes a lot. When I wrote Southern Cross the Dog, I used to write primarily in the morning — 6 a.m. — before heading off to work. Now it’s the opposite. I’ll get home around 7 p.m. and get an hour or in before bed. I’m an incredibly plodding writer. I’ll obsess over an off-sounding line for an agonizing amount of time. I can go over a single paragraph for weeks before finding some way forward. Once I managed to edit an entire chapter into complete nonexistence.

I’ll go through periods of writing at home, then writing in places that are distinctly not at home. Dunkin’ Donuts. Chinese bakeries. Coffee shops. Subway cars. When I was doing the last edits on the book, I was ducking in to hotel lobbies. I’ll write on my computer, on my iPad, in composition notebooks. Whatever feels right at the time. Eventually I’ll burn up whatever juice I’m getting from these different devices and venues, then move on like I’m trying to stay one step ahead of the universe or something.
I’m not a superstitious person, but I do keep little totems and things around me. I don’t rely on them or anything, but I find them comforting. During the last leg of drafting the novel, for example, I set the desktop background on my computer to this weird photo collage of everyone we know at Hunter College. It served as a kind of reminder that no book is ever written alone. I remember, once for instance, you sat with me for like three hours at the Brooklyn Diner going page after page, line by line, through my manuscript.

I really appreciated that.

It’s amazing to have people, yourself included, willing to give their sensibilities and, more important, their time to your work.

Speaking of Hunter College, what was your overall experience of getting your MFA?  I imagine yours might be a little more unique, having more or less just come back from your tour of duty in Iraq and then entering into this new act in your life.

PK: Going from the Marine Corps to an MFA program is, well, something of a cultural shift — though while in Iraq I did work for a very sharp colonel named William Faulkner. Still, I don’t think it’s as different as you might think. I knew brilliant, fascinating, insane people in the Corps, I found the same at Hunter. And I tried to keep up the work ethic I’d had in the Corps. The biggest thing, which is obvious, was that at Hunter I found a community of fiction writers, serious writers just starting out but really amazing to work with. And those folks, like you, read my work in a different way. A harder way to take, sometimes. I was shocked the first time Colum McCann called me out on my BS in a story. Non-vets aren’t supposed to be able to point out that the voice you gave someone is Iraq is ringing false. Who are they to call me out? I’d been there! Of course he was right, which made it worse.

Eventually I figured I’d just drink it all in. Here’s how Patrick McGrath reads Conrad, here’s how Claire Messud reads Proust, here’s how Peter Carey reads Bill Cheng, and here’s how Nathan Englander reads me. And here’s how all the students read each other. Honestly it was a delight. And then I left and kept on with my own work, but remained a part of the community.

It helps you get outside yourself, I think. So the fact that I had that experience, and that I had the readers I did, ended up being really critical to my ability to write the book. I like that bit about your photo collage reminding you that a book is not written alone. That is certainly true for me.

And of course, in addition to the living, breathing people you’re interacting with, there are also the writers you’re reading whose work feels alive, like something you want to respond to by writing your own work. There’s a German philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, who talks about books being “thick letters to friends.” I like that. So, Bill, who are those authors for you, the ones you feel a relationship to?

BC: My first great love was with Raymond Carver. At the time, I thought that’s it. This is where we were always supposed to be going with the English language. And of course, that’s a ridiculous thing to think but there was something so intimate about what he wrote and the way he wrote it. Those stories were so quiet, but also so explosive. Like a whisper in your ear. Now, my tastes tend toward the opposite direction. Towards the big. Books that have huge unfathomable arcs. Underworld. Ragtime. Shadow Country. Blood Meridian. Great meaty stories that when you read them they pull back on the overall portrait of what storytelling has been and what it can still do. I think that’s really what’s at the heart of it for me. You and I, we’re in this position of being able to read the way writers read. We’re ready, maybe even eager, to assume a certain risk with books as if every new voice will show us just a little bit more of that invisible country.

And we add to that how we can. And so on and so forth so that literature becomes this ever-expanding frontier.

I think part of that is being ready to take risks in your writing, in the level of your honesty, in the size of your ambition– all of which comes shining through in your stories here. Take the acronym-dense OIF, or the brutal morality in Prayer in the Furnace. They’re stories that are both technically and emotionally taut, but also have an expansiveness that show off what short stories are still capable of. Can you talk about some of the challenges that came in putting together some of these stories?

PK: I didn’t set out to do anything formally challenging. You start writing in a certain way — “OIF” had its genesis in an entirely different story where I was playing with acronyms and Colum pushed me to follow that thread — and as you write and rewrite you start figuring out why you are writing that way, and what that way of writing could possibly accomplish. It’s hard because I want to communicate as clearly as possible to the reader, and yet I’m usually in the dark as to what it is exactly that I even mean to say. I remember waking in the middle of the night and thinking, “It’s a love story!” and then getting up to start completely rewriting “Psychological Operations.” And then, of course, I had to rewrite it again and again, because it wasn’t exactly that either. The pieces start out simply enough and then they start demanding more and more, like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors.
Now, you were writing a novel, so I imagine you had a somewhat different experience, but within your novel you’ve got different voices and modes of consciousness and ways of storytelling. Did you write the novel straight through and then work on fully articulating the various voices within it? Did you focus on the individual sections as if they were each a short story and then weave them together? Or did you do something different altogether?

BC: I was lucky that the first chapter of the book came to me all at once: the image of these young children playing in the woods; a mother traumatized by the death of her oldest son; and the destroying flood that comes bearing down on these lives in a kind of cosmic retribution. The individual sections, I wasn’t quite as lucky. I knew what direction I wanted the story to move in and I knew the shape I wanted but taking the characters through specific points in plot was more difficult.
You can’t just tell them what to do, where to go.
In the end, I found it was good to have a mixed approach. I would work from two basic outlines. The first was the spine of the book. It would just block out the four or five major overtures I wanted for the novel. The second would be for individual chapters. These would just be a set of bullet points that I would need to hit in order to move the characters incrementally through the larger sections of the book. And as I was getting the characters from point A to point B, if they ever did anything unexpected or interesting, I’d just follow them and be ready to change my plans as necessary.
But the surprise is everything for me — seeing where the characters go without my prompting. Did you experience that?  Your writing is so sharp and precise and the amount of preparation you did– the books, the interviews, the research about different war-time experiences — all point to a confidence and control not every writer has. But was there a particular moment where a character showed you something you didn’t expect?

PK: I’ll say this, something cracked for me doing rewrites of the title story. I spent a lot of time thinking a lot about Cheryl, the wife of the main character. I think it’s very easy, on early drafts, to let your secondary characters be no more than scenery. And as you rewrite, they begin to exert themselves. So yes, I definitely felt that surprise. Constantly. Your ideas about what’s going to happen get subjected to the strain of creating real characters, and invariably those characters work utter havoc upon your ideas.