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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Phil Klay, a War-Time Poet at the Stanford Literary Festival

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In no time at all, the first image I have of Phil Klay’s new book, Missionaries, is not the book’s colorful cover but a picture of a bombed-out plane plane with the slogan, “STOP THE BOMBING, STOP THE ABUSES, STOP THE WAR, STOP THE VIOLENCE.” This startling image permeates the book, a collection of 20 short stories from five soldiers, who first fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and returned to America as disillusioned soldiers and civilians. Klay crafted these short stories in response to interviews with veterans who came to him, asking if he was interested in writing about their experiences. “It was clear to me I needed to tell this story,” he says, “because there was a lack of any record for the former soldiers.” As a result, Klay built a narrative out of the collected narratives, which range from the war stories of a Catholic solider who grew disillusioned with his mission, to a psychotherapist and combat veteran whose impact on a stepfather is felt to this day. These stories are evocative, authentic, and quite short. With Klay, writing is remarkably straightforward, economical and direct. “It was supposed to be,” he says of his Pulitzer-Prize winning memoir, The Echo Maker, “a delicate marriage between words and the human heart.” After collecting the stories, he found that many of them turned on how soldiers (and citizens) feel after they return home, and how those feelings evolve as they find themselves in different circumstances. “The stories,” he says, “very clearly reflect the kinds of wounds that you get back, and the kind of service people go through.”

Or read below.

If you go:

Missionaries is out on October 7. There will be a reading with Klay at 7 pm at the Bologna Conference Center, 608 W. 47th St., Chelsea; http://missionariesny.com.

Additional reporting by David L. Ulin.

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