By Alan Bisbort, Fairfield University

I’m a Catholic writer who had a Jesuit education, and the Jesuit worldview played a big role in shaping who I am.

— Phil Klay, author


Down by Seaside Chapel on Enders Island, as the waves of the Atlantic Ocean lap over the coastal rocks behind him, Phil Klay talks writing with several military veterans who are enrolled in Fairfield’s MFA creative writing program.

Winner of the National Book Award for his first collection of short stories, Redeployment (2014), Klay stands on the glistening rocks with his back to the water while the students form a semicircle around him.

Participants in Fairfield’s MFA program come each semester for a 10-day residency on the island located off the coast of Mystic, CT, to live in the retreat’s guest rooms, eat in the dining hall, and talk about their work.

At the end of their time in this idyllic setting, the students head back to their respective homes to complete the semester’s curriculum under the mentorship of a writing program instructor.

On this sweltering late July afternoon, Klay is relaxed as he walks the beautiful 11-acre grounds of Enders Island and talks about writing. “I’m a Catholic writer who had a Jesuit education, and the Jesuit worldview played a big role in shaping who I am,” said Klay. “Being at Fairfield is a good fit.”

In his long-sleeved, button-down oxford with its rumpled shirt-tail flying over his blue jeans, Klay looks every bit the charismatic young professor (he is 36). His obvious passion for teaching and, of course, the brilliance of his writing are what brought him onto the faculty of the growing writing program within the College of Arts and Sciences this year.

Klay’s Marine Corps experience infuses his writing, which resonates with the MFA students taking advantage of a program that offers up to $10,000 in financial assistance to veterans. Many have exhausted their GI Bill benefits, so the financial help is appealing, but that’s not the only reason they’ve chosen the Fairfield program. They’ve come because of Phil Klay — what they’ve read by him and what they’ve heard about him.

Klay taught creative writing at Princeton University before coming to Fairfield this year as the program’s first-ever writer-in-residence. His responsibilities currently include running the MFA residency program as the summer’s featured writer at Enders Island. He will also host workshops throughout the academic year to mentor the University’s creative writing students, and serve as a panel member at the Open VISIONS Forum series.

Earlier in the day, in one of the cozy seminar grottos of Enders House, an early-20th-century Arts and Crafts-style mansion, Klay led a two-hour class built around excerpts from the work of Vasily Grossman, the Soviet chemical engineer who became an unlikely, but unrivaled, war correspondent, particularly for his harrowing and heartbreaking descriptions of the Nazi siege of Stalingrad (1943) — one of the turning points of World War II.

“What is the central conflict here?” Klay asked the class, after citing a passage from Grossman that involved blowing up a Wehrmacht tank. “It is not just a conflict about war and the likelihood that the narrator might die. It’s about his life back home. Do you see how it inverts the expectations of the reader? You get his backstory, even while the narrator is describing the war setting.”



Klay’s own backstory inverts some expectations. Raised in Westchester, NY, he attended Jesuit schools, including Regis High School in New York City, before going to Dartmouth, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in creative writing.

“I first tried seriously writing in high school,” said Klay, who contributes essays to America, The American Scholar and The New York Times. “I was fascinated with how to make sense of the world. I never thought, then, of writing as a career. I was reading writers like Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Dostoevsky — people using fiction as a vehicle for getting at larger things.”

After graduating from Dartmouth, he volunteered for the Marines, explaining to one interviewer, “I wanted to serve my country in a time of war.” As a public-affairs officer, Klay spent more than a year in Iraq’s Anbar province.

“I was not a combat soldier,” Klay is quick to point out. “I didn’t do any of those things depicted in the stories in Redeployment that involved combat. But there is much of me in the stories, too. It’s hard to say which ‘character’ from Redeployment comes closest to me. They’re all me and they’re all not me.”

After completing his commitment to the Marines, Klay enrolled in the MFA writing program at Hunter College. Currently, he has completed a novel that is in the hands of a publisher. It’s about U.S. military involvement in Colombia, post-9/11.

In one of his stories in Redeployment (“Psychological Operations”) Klay skewers the scenario of a combat veteran ‘mansplaining’ things to a woman and civilian back home in a way that suggests he believes he’s somehow superior, or demands the center stage, because he is a veteran of war.

“That attitude has no place in my classroom, or anywhere, really,” Klay said adamantly. “Civilians have a role in conversations about war. My classes will have vets and non-vets.”

As for the attitude cited above, Klay continued, “The veterans I knew who participated in killing tended to speak about that in a way that was very different from the casual blowhard way depicted in the stories. There’s a mode of talking that a unit has within its own members that is different than the one that is used outside of the unit.”

Teaching creative writing, Klay has discovered, is not an impediment to pursuing his own writing projects. “I find it stimulating rather than hindering to my writing to be teaching about writing,” he said. “Creative writing classes are different than other classes. They often feel like an exploration for the professors, as much as for the students.”

For more information, or to apply to Fairfield University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, please visit

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Fairfield University Magazine and is re-published here with permission from Fairfield University.