Grand Lies We Tell Ourselves: The Millions Interviews David Moloney

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.

Literary Testimony: Fernando Aramburu Tells the Basque Story

As it turns out, Spanish author Fernando Aramburu and I frequent the same bookstore in the Basque city of San Sebastian. Cozy and family run, the bookstore Donosti looks onto a fountain, sandstone apartment facades in the Belle Époque style, and foot traffic that crisscrosses the circular plaza. As far as I know, he and I have never squeezed past one another in the little space not occupied by books in the store. However, two summers ago, it was there that I first encountered his monumental novel Homeland, which has recently been released in English by Pantheon, translated from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam. At the time, the novel was featured on the bookstore’s front display and had likely been there since its publication nine months earlier. It was in its 19th printing then and had sold 350,000 copies.

I possess a healthy skepticism of the masses’ collective palate, yet the bookstore owners convinced me that Homeland was, in fact, the real deal. They gave me the novel’s thicker brushstrokes: Two Basque families in a village near San Sebastian are torn apart when the father of one is assassinated by ETA, the Basque terrorist group that the oldest son of the other family belongs to.

The 600-page novel tracks the two families as they approach an inevitable and fatal encounter and the decades-long process of trying to heal that follows. As humorous as it is heartbreaking, Homeland explores how various factions of Basque and Spanish society were violently pitted against one another for 50 years.

The novel has sold nearly one million copies in the Spanish-speaking world and will be coming to the small screen next year as an HBO Europe miniseries. Fernando Aramburu and I conducted our interview via email, with Alfred MacAdam translating Aramburu’s responses into English.

The Millions: Homeland opens in 2011 with ETA’s declaration of a permanent ceasefire. Did you start thinking of these two families at this time, and did ongoing developments affect the outcome of the novel?

Fernando Aramburu: The idea of telling the Homeland story using two families came to me in a natural sort of way. The two families are closely related.  There are nine people, nine protagonists who have their own narrative voices. The two families are made up of men and women of different ages and temperaments, with different life experiences and different destines. Combined, the two families constitute a small society. The ETA ceasefire creates a narrative situation that favors memory. Something terrible has finally come to an end, and the moment has arrived to turn it into a testimony, into a literary testimony as well. It’s also a moment for considering the possibility of reconnecting the social and emotional ties broken by the violence.

TM: Homeland tells the story of two families torn apart by terrorism and ideological fundamentalism, set in the larger story of the Basque Country’s complicated history over the past 30 years. Though the outside action is integral to the characters, they manage to be more than just a product of their environment—complex and complicated, they remain with the reader for reasons other than their political views. For those writers considering writing a work of fiction about the current fractures in their society (there’s plenty of material here in America these days), how would you recommend approaching the work so as to avoid the allegorical or polemical?

FA: I don’t think I’m in any way authorized to give advice to anyone about how to treat social conflicts in literature. Nor about any other issue. What I can do is briefly describe my way of working and my objectives. From the first sentence of Homeland, I knew I’d place my bet on literature. I’m not a historian, not a politician, and not a journalist. For me, words used in their musical combinations, in their aesthetic possibilities are as important as what those words can express. So, all my decisions must take into account the fact that the ultimate objective is composing a good literary work and that the work must offer readers the most complex image possible of each character. Other people can decide if I’ve achieved my goal or not. I’ve tried to avoid the two greatest dangers in any dramatic story: pathos and the subordination of the facts to a thesis. I’ve limited myself to narrating private lives, not historical events. I haven’t theorized. I haven’t made a judgment as to who is good and who is bad. I’ve never paused the narrative to point out anything on the ideological or political level. I’ve followed each character over the years and tried to have each one own his or her voice. All of that, of course, within the context of a novelistic structure. When all is said and done, a novel is a means whereby we impose order on human experience, always leaving to the readers the possibility of reaching their own interpretations.

TM: You are a Basque writer living in Berlin. Do you feel that this life experience, of living outside your homeland, affects your portrayal of any of your characters or the Basque Country itself? And has this geographical distance made it easier or harder to write about the events that touch your characters’ lives?

FA: The first 25 years of my life I lived in el País Vasco, enough time for me to get to know the habits, the culture, and the people there. I suppose that living far away has given me a panoramic perspective, the same kind a chess player would have viewing the board from above. Depending on the issues at hand, it may well be that such an all-inclusive perspective, one that takes in the entire chessboard, is preferable to the perspective of one who sees his side but does not understand the general sense of the game. At the same time, never in all these years have I had any problem with regard to travel, with verifying things, reading books and newspapers, talking with other people, etc. The fact is, the internet has cancelled distances.

TM: There’s an interesting literary technique in Homeland that I’ve never come across before. The book’s narrator, or perhaps narrators, would interrupt and supplement the narrative by asking questions in response to the story as it is being told to us. How did this technique come to you? Can we find it in your other books or is it something this particular novel required?

FA: It may well be that some other writer used that technique before I did. Don’t we always say there’s nothing new under the sun? I had no desire whatsoever to narrate episodes in a conventional manner, so even before beginning the work I decided that the characters would intervene in the novel in their own voice and that they would do so as soon as they had something to say, even if that were to happen in the middle of a sentence spoken by the external narrator. I also decided that the text, conscious of being the foundation of a narrative, would intervene from time to time. Since the text cannot speak, what it does is pose questions to the narrator, demanding more exactitude or new facts. From the first pages, I realized that this way of telling the story—it doesn’t matter to me if it’s a novelty or not—has immense creative possibilities.

TM: I recognized many of my family members in the strong female characters that populate Homeland. These are Basque women, typically older, who tend to rule many aspects of society, including even the speed at which foot traffic moves along the sidewalk. But for American readers who are unfamiliar with the Basque Country, what aspects of Basque culture and society do you think they should know in order to more fully appreciate the book?

FA: I’d have to wonder if the culture and social life of the País Vasco could be completely strange to the American reader. That reader might certainly find strange elements, but always within life parameters known to the American reader. For example, the mothers. Mothers are an institution for Basques. There are many mothers who are women of strong character, hardworking, brave, decisive, who govern the family and handle themselves well in arguments. The American reader will find a land where it rains a lot and where people have a great fondness for good food. People say Basques are cooks by nature. The American reader will find that the men tend to be of few words, disciplined, serious, and fond of sports. So, nothing that an American reader doesn’t already know, even if it all comes in different doses.

Troubling Silences: On Bernardo Atxaga’s ‘Nevada Days’

My aunt has a story about Bernardo Atxaga, the Basque Country’s most read and translated author. She lives in a village of scattered houses and rolling hills that faces the Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian Sea to which it belongs. That day, she happened to be in a neighboring province’s capital. Here is how she tells the story: She was at a café with a friend, seated near the window, when her friend pointed across the street. “Look,” the friend said. Bernardo Atxaga was walking into the post office. “It’s the writer.”

That’s the story.

I was expecting more, too.

But such an anecdote, as brief as it is, speaks to the position Bernardo Atxaga holds in Basque society. Like Euskera, the isolate and pre-Indo-European language that he writes in, Atxaga’s fame may be unique. It was a short story collection through which he rose to eminence. Obabakoak won the Spanish National Prize in 1988 and has been translated into 32 languages. Since then, he has remained the English-reading world’s primary access point to the Basque Country. While there has long been a dearth of Basque authors translated into English, we’ve recently been treated to Martutene by Ramon Saizarbitoria and Still the Same Man by Jon Bilbao, both from Hispabooks. Before these, there was Kirmen Uribe’s Bilbao – New York – Bilbao, with Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest coming this month and Patria by Fernando Aramburu arriving to our shores next year. Nevertheless, it is Atxaga’s stories of village life, with its joys and nightmares and magic and the ways in which the political interrupts and informs it, that, for the last 30 years, have defined Basque literature for so much of the world’s readership.

Which is peculiar given that so many of Atxaga’s major works are, in part, set outside of the Basque Country: The Lone Man in Catalonia, Seven Houses in France in the Congo, The Accordionist’s Son in California. Congregated as they are along the coastline, Basques have long looked out at the sea and felt the pull that drowned Narcissus: Perhaps I can find something of myself in it. Yet, while home may have disappeared behind the horizon, the idea of it looms larger than a swell ever can. Atxaga’s characters are not spared this. The tension of the home they left and, for many, cannot return to persists through their days so that even the most innocuous incident acts as a reference point, a portal that transports them back to the Basque Country.

Such is the case for Atxaga’s newest work Nevada Days, a genre-blending novel that chronicles Atxaga (or a character who bears his name and biography) and his family’s nine months in Reno, Nevada, where he serves as the writer-in-residence at the University of Nevada Reno’s Center for Basque Studies. In brief journal-entry chapters translated into English by the inimitable Margaret Jull Costa, Atxaga’s grand curiosity never dulls or wavers, nor does his wife’s and two daughters’. Part of the thrill of Nevada Days is to marvel at a family’s ceaseless desire to explore America at a crossroads during the limited time they have.

The family disembarks in Reno in the fall of 2007, a moment in American history when our war on terror has slipped into the routine, relegated to a background noise we hardly notice anymore. Atxaga, however, has not yet been made deaf. Instead, he arrives in Reno so finely tuned as to be able to hear the silence or, as he writes, “what you subjectively experience as silence.” For the Americans he will call his neighbors, colleagues, and friends during the next nine months, this silence is what we accept as reality, what we don’t protest: military helicopters as common as hawks in the sky, the anesthetizing bad news reaching us from Iraq and Afghanistan, health insurance too expensive to afford, biased documentaries and news programs that celebrate our military history, the business of incarcerating a large percentage of Americans, elementary schools running active-shooter drills, the economic exploitation of brown bodies, sexual assaults on college campuses, etc. Atxaga becomes the frog introduced late to the boiling pot in which the rest of us obliviously sit.

The silence is an interesting space for Atxaga to position his novel. The Basque Country and, in it, the fictional village of Obaba where Atxaga’s characters primarily hail is a loud dinner table at which the whole population—the rich and poor, politically left and right, dreamers and realists—sits. The absence of that community here is immediately felt. The suburban streets are as barren as Nevada’s deserts, and the air-conditioned casinos are vacuum-sealed—no sound, only a green light, emanates. It is the eerie silence of the American West, of great spaces. But it is also the silence that affected so many Basque immigrants who came to states like Nevada to work as shepherds. The silence that can be a gulf separating them from the home they left, a silence upon which they project the past. Just as it no doubt did for those who wandered in solitude through Nevada before him, Atxaga marvels at how “thoughts and memories [keep] getting mixed up in my head.”

The memories are often of his own country’s wars—the Spanish Civil War, the dictatorship that followed it, the violent separatist movement in the Basque Country these produced, and how this history bound and tore families and his community.

Atxaga’s characters are helpless to such memories. They’re overwhelmed by them, carried off before ultimately being returned to the present, richer for having made the journey. Contrast this with the collective remembering that Atxaga finds Americans participating in. During one of his first nights in their new home, he stays up to continue watching a World War II documentary after his wife and daughters have gone to bed. “Everything in the documentary,” he observes, “that appealed to heart and guts was aimed at the present, not the past.” Months later, on Veterans Day, one of his daughters returns with a book that a veterans association produced for the children. In it, there is an exercise to add vowels to incomplete words like “turr_t,” “g_n.” “On Veterans Day,” the book reads, “we should honor and thank those who have fought in the United States Army defending our freedom.” When Atxaga’s two daughters are running around a war memorial for Nevadan soldiers lost during “America’s various wars,” a woman there yells at them for not “showing some respect for the dead,” insisting, in essence, that they bow their heads and remain silent like her. Atxaga doesn’t offer his own critique, but by then, he has given the reader enough such instances that we wonder what this woman’s silence has allowed and what respect our country has for its young men and women to perennially send them off to foreign lands where our freedom, Mr. Magoo-like as it is, has wandered off and once again must be defended.

A country, one hopes, can only take so much of this. So when politicians come along promising change, to break that silence, America, especially its youth, works to elevate that voice. This is late 2007 and early 2008, and as such, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton make several cameos in the novel. Partly because this is the swing state of Nevada but also because the family is determined to experience all that they can during their nine months there, they often stand in line to listen to the two Democractic front-runners. Though history will prove him wrong (the book was originally published in 2013 and presciently features a section devoted to Clinton’s fainting spells), to Atxaga’s credit, he includes his bet for who should win. “She was a great speaker,” he writes. “The other candidates, and especially Barack Obama, may have garnered more applause, but she garnered more silence, more respect.” Which is why, especially in America in 2008, she won’t win. The silence, as Atxaga observes throughout Nevada Days, can be fatal.

It is a silence that troubles him. Early in the book, a University of Nevada, Reno student is sexually assaulted. Atxaga is greatly affected by the news article and is troubled by the lack of attention it appears to receive among those he comes into contact with. When he mentions the attack to one of the university’s professors, she is surprised. “No one had said a word about it,” she tells him. The assaults continue, but the cops prefer not to spread alarm. Atxaga moves through the library astounded by the students. “All of them seemed perfectly calm. But were they?” It takes months for the community to get as worked up as he is, and as is the American way, we shift quickly from ignorance to hysteria. At this point, “fathers went to pick up their children [from school] wearing a gun at their waist.” The attacks multiply, encircle Atxaga’s neighborhood. The police chief tells the community, “We must carry on as normal, but without allowing ourselves to succumb to a false sense of security. We must remain vigilant.”

Such is the America that Atxaga and his family encounter: an alert and anxious nation where the “current of daily life keeps flowing,” despite the threats. “We always return to our daily life,” Atxaga observes. “We have nowhere else to go.” Nevada Days won the Euskadi Prize, the Basque Country’s highest literary prize, in 2014. One assumes that the novel was a fascinating sort of travelogue for his Basque and Spanish readers—a report on America from one of their country’s most gifted storytellers. For Americans, though, in the five years since the novel’s publication, the chronicle of Atxaga and his family’s unflagging enthusiasm as they look for this thing called America may offer us something far more necessary—what the family discovers is the prologue to the country we find ourselves in today.