Like so many war veterans before him, Phil Klay returned from his tour of duty with the Marines in the Iraq War with many unanswered questions. He first explored those in fiction with his National Book Award-winning story collection, “Redeployment.” Now he turns to nonfiction in his new essay collection, “Uncertain Ground: Citizenship in an Age of Endless, Invisible War,” which comes out Tuesday. Klay is also the author of the novel “Missionaries.” He teaches at Fairfield University in Connecticut.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
KLAY: I just read Abdulrazak Gurnah’s “Afterlives,” which opens pre-World War I in Africa. He just won the Nobel Prize. It’s beautifully written and the characters are intensely vivid. It’s one of those books that re-orients your sense of history as you are reading it.
BOOKS: How would you describe yourself as a reader?
KLAY: I don’t read just novels. I also read nonfiction and poetry. Tom Sleigh’s recent collection, “The King’s Touch,” was exceptional. He has done journalism in conflict zones with refugees so his poetry is concerned with issues I write about.
BOOKS: Do you have favorite war novels?
KLAY: David Jones’s “In Parenthesis” is one my favorite books from World War I. He spent years writing it. Auden wrote to him to tell him he was madly jealous of him. I love Michael Herr’s book about the Vietnam War, “Dispatches,” and Vasily Grossman’s “Stalingrad” and “Life and Fate.” I’m a big fan of the contemporary writers Elliot Ackerman and Matthew Gallagher. Gallagher’s last novel, “Empire City,” which is about America’s political occupation with war, is really important.
BOOKS: Did you read anything in preparation for going to Iraq?
KLAY: I read Isaac Babel’s “Red Cavalry,” David Jones, Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” and Hemingway short stories. I memorized T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” in Marine Corps training but that was more to pass the time.
BOOKS: Did any of that reading actually prepare you for Iraq?
KLAY: In an odd way, I think so, though maybe not right at the time. More than anything, when you are done, you want to make sense of the war. What the hell was that? What was I part of? Those are old questions. This rich tradition of writers who have fought their way through war and homecoming can help you try to make sense of it.
BOOKS: Do you have any guilty pleasures?
KLAY: It’s all a guilty pleasure. I love short stories. I love Flannery O’Connor and Amy Hempel. I’ve been thinking of getting into spy fiction. For a while I was reading essays in Helen Macdonald’s “Vesper Flights” and in Brian Doyle’s “One Long River of Song” each morning. They write so beautifully about the natural world and religious faith. It got my head in the right place everyday, to appreciate life in a rich way.
BOOKS: Do you have a favorite novel no one has heard of?
KLAY: A brilliant Egyptian novel, “Beer in the Snooker Club” by Waguih Ghali. He wrote one book and then committed suicide. It’s extremely funny. It’s set in Egypt during the Suez crisis. It has the lightness and humor of an Evelyn Waugh book but it’s actually a really profound book about colonialism and race.
BOOKS: What is the last classic that you read?
KLAY: “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” by Katherine Anne Porter. It’s set during a pandemic and a time of war, so it’s a very timely book. She’s an exceptional writer. There are mind-bending passages about a character with a high fever that she handles masterfully.
BOOKS: What are your reading habits?
KLAY: When I’m reading, I keep a pencil in the book to take notes. I always underline things and then make a little index of favorite passages in the first page. So my books are irreplaceable.
BOOKS: What have you been reading your kids?
KLAY: My 4-year-old is super big into Dr. Seuss. The older one loves Roald Dahl. When I read the scene when the giant in “The BFG” farts in front of the queen to my 6-year-old, he thought it was so funny he had to stand up and hop around while laughing. That was probably the greatest amount of joy I’ve ever had reading a book.