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Phil Klay (MFA ’11) Wins National Book Award for Stories Honed at Hunter

When Phil Klay was named a National Book Award finalist in 2014 for Redeployment, his collection of stories about the Iraq war, he spoke of the guidance he’d received from the faculty in Hunter’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, citing in particular Colum McCann and Peter Carey.

“As a vet, you feel like you can talk about war to civilians — and who are they to criticize you? Well, in the case of Colum and Peter, they’re really brilliant writers who know when you’re not being truthful,” Klay said.

Klay earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth, where he was mentored by acclaimed poet —  and future Hunter faculty member — Tom Sleigh.

When Sleigh learned that Klay was joining the Marine Corps and heading to Iraq, he urged him to read Hemingway, Tolstoy, Babel and Celine. “He figured if I was going to war, I should be learning from some of the most brilliant minds to ever write about it,” Klay recalled.

When Klay returned, he felt compelled to write about his experience and those of his fellow soldiers. And at Hunter, he found a rich, creative environment. Sleigh had already joined the faculty, and Klay — named a Hertog Fellow — was allowed to develop his research skills alongside the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford.

“Hunter’s MFA is incredible,” Klay said. “One of the critical things for me was the other students. These are the people I still trust to read my work,” he added, mentioning fellow graduates and published authors Bill Cheng (Southern Cross the Dog) and Christopher Robinson (War of the Encyclopaedists).

While at Hunter, Klay wrote and rewrote a powerful story that begins with a pet owner’s plainspoken admission that he and his squad purposely killed dogs as well as people in Iraq. The literary magazine Granta accepted the story in 2011, the year Klay graduated.

It caught the attention of publishing houses, including Penguin, which published Klay’s entire collection, Redeployment, in 2014. The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani praised the author’s “keen awareness of language and storytelling craft,” and The Times named Redeployment one of the 10 Best Books of the Year. In November, it won the National Book Award for Fiction.

After a year of accomplishment and accolades, Klay continues to write full time. And he still returns to Hunter to visit the very classrooms where he grew as a writer. The difference? Redeployment is now likely to be assigned reading.

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