Phil Klay was born in White Plains, New York, in 1983. He studied English, creative writing and history at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, before joining the US Marine Corps. Between January 2007 and February 2008 Klay served in Iraq as a public affairs officer. After he was discharged he completed a MFA in creative writing at Hunter College, New York. Klay lives in Brooklyn with his wife.
Who is your perfect reader?
Anyone who seriously and critically reads the work and then wants to talk about it with friends.
What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?
Jason Porter’s Why Are You So Sad? – it’s insane, weird, brilliant and utterly hilarious. You couldn’t ask for a more delightful reading experience.
Which books are on your bedside table?
The FARC: The Longest Insurgency by Garry Leech. I’ve got advance copies of Scott Cheshire’s amazing High as the Horses’ Bridles, and Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, which is incredible. There’s also Willy Vlautin’s The Free and Hassan Blasim’s remarkable The Corpse Exhibition.
Which book changed your life?
Certainly, my exposure in high school to writers like Flannery O’Connor, Shusaku Endo, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Graham Greene was formative. When I was in marine training I memorised The Waste Land, which was a significant experience in terms of really breaking apart language and thinking about how the different voices in that poem function.
What is your daily writing routine?
I write first by hand, then transfer to the computer, usually without looking much at the terrible first draft. Then I send to friends. It’s a slow process of having my blind spots exposed to me.
Where do you write best?
Everywhere. I write in coffee shops, libraries, parks, museums. I get antsy and then get on my bike and go someplace else, letting the ideas spin around in my head as I dodge taxis.
What music helps you write?
Everything from Biggie Smalls to Carlo Gesualdo. I love opera. I love jazz, especially Mingus. This makes me sound highbrow: I’m not. My friends will see this and tell me, “Be real, Phil, you wrote that book listening to ‘Call Me Maybe’ on repeat.”
Which literary character most resembles you?
My wife says Winnie the Pooh. Does that ruin my street cred?
What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?
Study Chinese. Sadly, I did not listen.
If you could own any painting, what would it be?
Giovanni Bellini’s “St Francis in the Desert”. The first time I saw it I was so moved I could hardly speak.
What book do you wish you’d written?
Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim.
How would you earn your living if you had to give up writing?
Teaching, which I love. I briefly taught fifth to eighth graders, and it was wonderful.
What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?
Watership Down [by Richard Adams]. Or most things by Roald Dahl.
What does it mean to be a writer?
I hope it means getting readers to deeply, empathetically engage with experiences unlike theirs and thereby broaden their understanding of their fellow humans.
Phil Klay is author of ‘Redeployment’ (Canongate/Penguin Press)