David Moloney’s Barker House—a novel-in-stories that is propulsive, brilliantly funny, and both generous and precise in its descriptions of rough-around-the-edges correctional officers employed at a for-profit prison—is the equivalent of an album full of singles. Every story in Moloney’s debut stands impressively alongside the others, every ending earned and unpredictably landed.
As a society, there are voices and stories we’ve long ignored or have not properly elevated, which, in part, allows systems of brutality and oppression to keep chugging along. Among these voices are those we’ve tasked with doing the grunt work of sustaining the aforementioned systems. Moloney worked for four and a half years as a correctional officer in the Hillsborough Country Department of Corrections in New Hampshire, and with Barker House, he takes us into a for-profit prison, revealing with surprising humor and compassion the struggles his characters face in maintaining their humanity while their employer profits stripping it from others.
The Millions: You worked in a correctional facility from 2007 to 2011. When did you first approach that time in your life through fiction? Was there any hesitancy in doing so?
David Moloney: I didn’t want to write about that time. When I left the jail, I wanted to leave it all behind me: co-workers, inmates, smells, sounds, my boots, all the people I saw wronged. I wanted to pretend like none of it happened. But when I returned to school, whenever a writing teacher heard I worked at the jail, they insisted I write about it. Reluctantly, in 2013, I started with poetry and then short fiction. It was mostly poorly written retellings of true events. I basically just changed the names. But the characters were real to me but not to anyone else. I couldn’t genuinely flesh out the real people on the page because I was resistant to the idea. Once I embraced fictionalizing these events and creating characters instead of mirroring real people, I felt liberated. Fiction can do that. Instead of writing towards a catharsis, I tricked myself into putting my repressed emotions onto my characters.
TM: To that, the nine corrections officers who narrate Barker House are each distinct. Their biographies, their voices, the way they interact with inmates and colleagues, these differ dramatically from one to the next. On a craft level, how was this accomplished, this movement from real people to characters I’d recognize if they walked past me?
DM: I typically start a story with character or setting first, plot second. I like to find my character or setting and let that dictate where the plot goes. For Barker House, the setting (for the most part) was already established after the first few chapters. So that gave me some freedom from dealing with setting. Instead, I tried to explore how each character handles working in the jail, and how that affects their home life. We all live two simultaneous lives: work and home. Who we are at home is much different from work. I think that is why these characters feel real. They may be behaving badly in one environment, but are staunchly moral in the other. The phrase “leave your baggage at the door” was constantly thrown at officers who couldn’t separate their two lives, and I found that, over time, the door in which I needed to leave my baggage at—home or work— became murky. Where was it where I could deal with my baggage? So I asked my characters, where should they deal with theirs?
TM: It’s fascinating the grand variety of ways it becomes increasingly difficult for these characters to keep that line clearly defined. One concerns bodies. These characters are employed by an institution that contains and controls bodies, and they often attempt or wish for this same sort of mastery over their own but are thwarted.
DM: Yes. We see O’Brien struggle with keeping his ideal weight in the face of his alcohol addiction. He also wants to be physically fit, because that is what the jail expects of him. There is also an expectation of the inmates. There’s a handbook, rules, calorie-controlled diets, programs, security levels, standing head counts, timed visitations. But they don’t want to cede their individuality to the jail, even if there are consequences. The officers and incarcerated individuals, within the walls, are intimately linked, even if they don’t know it. Many people are in a struggle with themselves, specifically their addictions. There’s a strained attempt at keeping their appearance on the level while also indulging in these addictions. It’s sort of one of the grand lies we tell ourselves: if I can manage my work and family life, remain somewhat a decent human being, then why can’t I put what I want into my body? The problem arises when the latter crosses into the workplace, the bedroom, the back of a police cruiser, and we no longer can remain in denial. We’ve been found out. It’s similar to having to exchange an identity: civilian clothes for an orange jumpsuit, locked cell for a home, porcelain toilet for metal. What I’m trying to say is that being controlled by an institution such as a jail is deliberate, on both sides of the steel doors. But the way we are controlled by our mental health, addictions, relationships, is not. It is an unseen source, which can be more difficult to master.
TM: These characters’ voices and the ways in which their stories unfold don’t feel like anything I’ve read before, but assuming that there is nothing new under the sun, who were those writers or works that inspired your prose and this book?
DM: I was inspired by Adam Johnson (Fortune Smiles), Luke Mogelson (These Heroic, Happy Dead), Alice Munro, Ottessa Moshfegh (Homesick for Another World), Rebecca Curtis (Twenty Grand) and Joy Williams. I wrote the first draft of this book while completing my MFA. I consumed many books during that time, but once I decided (or realized) I was writing stories as chapters, I turned only to short story collections and literary magazines. I read back issues of Tin House, New England Review, The Yale Review, and a decade’s worth of Best American Short Story anthologies.
TM: Did you encounter any difficulty in going deeper into the prisoners’ stories?
DM: Honestly, I don’t believe I did. When I worked at the jail, I carried around a slim notebook I kept tucked into my pants above my ass. Every so often an individual would pull me aside and lay bare their entire life (or what they wanted to portray their life to have been). And most of the time it was the typical “I didn’t do anything wrong” talk but sometimes—I could just tell—they were being genuine and their story would touch me. So, I’d dive into an unoccupied cell and jot down the details, the way they spoke. That notebook I still have a decade later. Much of it I can’t read (because of ass sweat), but the parts I can still remind me those people. Not much of it made it into the book, but those notes and memories brought me back to the tier, which sometimes I truly needed.
TM: I understand that your fellow correctional officers are excited for Barker House’s release. Any hopes for how they’ll experience the book?
DM: I hope they see I rendered the details of the job accurately. I want them to know that even though there’s a feeling officers who quit the job are abandoning their brothers and sisters, it isn’t the case. If I didn’t leave when I did, I truly believe I’d be dead, or in jail on the wrong side of the doors.
I have sent the book to a few of the officers I worked with. One, a female officer who I worked with for a few years, read the book in three days. She kept texting me “So true!” and “You nailed this.” It felt good. I didn’t write to an audience but I always thought about what COs would think of the book. And that former co-worker recently sent me a document. She’s written a 40,000-word account of her story.