The other night, the veteran’s book club sponsored by the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum met with Phil Klay to discuss his new novel, Missionaries. I’ve posted twice before about the book, which I admire very much. In this posting I will report on the meeting with Klay. This was our first opportunity as a club to discuss a selected work with the author. It made for a very interesting evening. Let me say up front that my reporting is based on handwritten notes. I sometimes have filled in the gaps with my own imperfect memories, and sometimes I will add interpretation to pure reporting, I hope in a way that is clear and not intruding.
As a preliminary to my discussion of the Intrepid event, I’ll talk a bit about an interview with Phil Klay that was sponsored a few weeks ago by Hunter College. Some of this interview had to do with the craft of writing. Going by my notes, most of the discussion had to do with Klay’s reasons for writing this book. Actually, an interesting point he made both in this interview and at the Intrepid event was the mutual dependency of these two elements of writing (craft and motive, or message). Of course, some craft is needed to convey the sense or reason an author has in writing. This is why the career of a writer usually involves an intense apprenticeship. A writer may have to write a million words before developing the facility needed to tell the tale or express the thoughts and feelings that may be in her mind. For Klay, and for most if not all writers, I suspect, the reverse is also true. We find it hard to put the right words on paper until some progress has been made in finding the emotional or moral center of what we want to say.
Klay also said in the interview that by depicting U.S. involvement in military operations abroad, he was hoping to encourage a greater degree of knowledge and involvement concerning the American military. The military constitutes a lot of what we do as a country. The armed forces are to a degree separate and different from civil society. That is good and necessary, but communication between the two sides is necessary to provide civilian oversight and so that the armed forces can understand what the people expect of them. The President, as Commander-in-Chief, should go before Congress to explain U.S. military actions abroad: Who we are killing, and why.
I’ll turn now to the book club event, which took place on 15 December. Aside from Klay and myself, participants included two representatives from the Intrepid, two Vietnam vets, Marine and Army, a Coast Guard veteran, a younger woman Army vet, and the wife of a retired special forces officer. All attending had a chance to ask Klay at least one question. We went the full two hours, and there could have been more.
In response to participants’ questions, Klay talked in some detail about the 6-year process of writing the novel. He conducted numerous interviews, generally following no particular plan but going where various contacts and referrals would take him. He was aided in this by the fact that his wife is Colombian. Several of the events in the novel are drawn from real life. Klay sent out chapters for comment to friends. He developed a spread sheet for the scenes in the novel, the first half of which proceeds in a non-linear but (thanks to his painstaking approach) coherent narrative.
As in the Hunter College interview, when talking about writing, Klay stressed the importance of finding the emotional center of the work you’re doing. He remarked that when he began writing fiction in college, his aim was to write a good story, but that later his focus became a desire to communicate something. (Sounds like Conrad’s “to make you see” doesn’t it?) This center develops over time, ideally becoming less shallow and more complex. Sometimes, Klay noted, characters in stories seem to have no other function that to represent viewpoints to be repudiated. They are caricatures, and their views are so badly put as to be easily refuted. In Missionaries, Klay presents the views of a variety of viewpoints. He may prefer some to others, but his intention was in effect to give the opposing viewpoints a fair hearing.
Perhaps the central debate of the novel concerns the use and efficacy of force to establish and maintain order and justice. The Colombian officer Juan Pablo is most committed to this course. The opposing viewpoint is perhaps not represented by a single character so much as by the narrative itself, which depicts the unpredictable ripple effects of every act of violence, every bombing, raid, or assassination. The character of Juan Pablo reminds me a little of Rubashov in Darkness at Noon. Both characters are at the center of debates on the use of force. Rubashov comes to repudiate his own belief in the efficacy of force, while Juan Pablo does not. We are left, at the end, with a choice, both sides of which have their appeal and their warnings.
Coming Up: Taking Sides and Phil Klay’s Work in Progress