It comes as no surprise that first time novel writer, Robert Barsky, spent 8 years researching and writing his latest book, Hatched. The novel combines intrigue, money and cooking, a seemingly unlikely combination, but one that has proven to have all the right ingredients.
Barsky, a professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, has authored 8 books. His non-fiction is known for its immense depth and discussion of intense subjects including international law, human rights, migration, language theory, literature, and Noam Chomsky. His current novel has proven to be nothing short of the same level of meticulous preparation he is known for. Barsky brings to the table a sumptuous treat in Hatched, and has quickly become one of Sunbury Press’ current bestsellers.
Robert, thank you for talking with us. Hatched is quite different from your previous work. What inspired you to write this novel and what was it like moving from more serious topics to something light and fun?
I quite literally dreamed up this plot while on my honeymoon with Marsha, 9 years ago, on the isle of St. Bart’s. I turned to her one morning and said “You would not believe the dream I just had, it was like a film! I dreamed that….” and then it was gone, I couldn’t remember a thing. Then, suddenly, it all came back, and poured out of me. I was excited, and spent the next 8 years researching and writing it, finding out amazing details relating to the plot as I went along, including, of course, details regarding Fabergé eggs.
Hatched has so many wonderful layers to it, including a Fabergé egg inspired restaurant. It’s such a specific vision. Where did that idea come from?
Eggs were part of the initial dream, and Fabergé eggs became part of the story from the earliest days. They represent perfection, intricacy, beauty, and the very height of what human beings can create. At the same time, though, they are a metaphor for indulgence, excess and the vast distance that existed in Czarist Russian times between the aristocracy and the people of Russia. I don’t remember exactly what made them central to the novel, but it may be that they were already there, in my subconscious, at the time of my dream….
Over the course of 8 years, I imagine you had many ideas come and go. How did you weed through all of your ideas to solidify the current story? What advice would you give to emerging writers?
I followed the narrative, and would work on it tirelessly, rehearsing new scenes, and then tinkering with them as new revelations came to light. It was as though the story already existed, and I had to pay careful attention to document it all correctly. I remember one scene, for example, that takes place on Long Island, when Jude’s truck has broken down, and, in one of the many coincidences of the novel, he is picked up by John, the owner of Fabergé restaurant. In the car is Tina, who oversaw the kitchen, as well as two characters in the backseat, fooling around. I had to keep looking and looking at that scene, and one day realized that one of the guys in the backseat was “the new guy” who had been working in the restaurant before its collapse. When I realized it, I felt that I was seeing the obvious, but it was also something that had evaded my attention for months. I think that emerging writers would do well to take that kind of time in order to consider the details of their stories, because I’ve come to believe that we as authors know much more about the story than we realize, and we need to give it time, like fine wine, to open up.
The intrigue of your novel stems from former college roommates who are planning to counterfeit billions to shake up the U.S. economy. Do you feel that your previous work on Chomsky inspired this story line?
Noam’s Chomsky is indeed a constant inspiration, and has been for decades. He wasn’t there in the dream, although he has been in many of my dreams, but it’s sure that his work and my own work deriving from it has inspired me on all sorts of levels. So when I asked the question, why do these three roommates wish to effect change in US Treasury policy, answers had to have some relation with their desire for a “good society”, something that I believe runs through Noam’s work, from A-Z.
I heard that you have experience cooking. Did you train professionally or are you the official cook at home?
I did train professionally, starting at the very bottom. I was working in Cape Cod as a construction worker, very difficult work, for $3.35/hour (in the early 80s). I was living with friends in Nickerson State Park, all summer long, and we were all cobbling together enough money to live, as well as sufficient savings to help out with the cost of college. Each day, I drove by this gorgeous restaurant called The Joy of Dining, in my dump truck, and one day I got up the nerve to stop and ask for a job. I was asked to come back the following day, and as my first task the owner asked me to cut a vegetable, probably a zucchini. Anyhow, I displayed to him immediately that I knew nothing, and so he started me out as a pot washer. Over the next few summers, he sunk deeper and deeper into debt, and as a consequence, he trained and promoted me for higher tasks, culminating with my being employed as a sauté chef. He was SO exacting, fastidious and meticulous that I felt each day that I was learning important things for my life. But it was torture, in a sense, because he was also uncompromising and demanding. My training with him served me well. I also worked in Switzerland as a bartender the year after graduating college, and my training was crucial to surviving there as well, since I was working in an extremely fancy hotel. Since those years, I’ve kept up a strong interest in cooking – and my wife is a superb cook, much better than me!
What kind of research did you do for this novel? Did you spend time in restaurants, for instance? What did you learn during that process that supported your characters or locations?
I did tons of research for this novel, including of course drawing from my experiences in restaurants, in Cape Cod, Montréal, and Verbier. The areas I needed the most help in, though, were related to counterfeiting money, and here is where serendipity, my favorite thing, played another important role. I invited a scholar to work in our Vanderbilt Bandy Center, and she in exchange invited me to give talks in Milano. One night she told me that I was “busy,” and that she was going to take me somewhere. We drove for around an hour, to a warehouse area, where she introduced me to her father, who wanted to show me his collection of Italian motorcycles. I myself drove a Moto Guzzi at that time, and now drive an Aprilia, and so was treated to 100 motorcycles, from 1914-2014, all Italian. Amazing! When he was done starting all of them for me, he invited me upstairs to see his factory; as it turned out, he is in the business of making…MONEY! He is one of the three printers involved in the process of making the Euro, as well as other currencies worldwide. He showed me a bit of the process, and even gave me a key tool to printing numbers into the bills. Unbelievable!
Your professional history is as impressive as your books. You’ve been a professor at Yale, McGill, Toulouse, and University of Edinburgh, to name a few. Have these years of travel and cultural immersion created experiences that you draw upon when writing? Do you foresee those experiences impacting any of your future fictional work?
Indeed, all of these experiences impact my work, my writings, my life. I’ve noticed that when I meet people I can usually guess when they’ve traveled a lot (or read a lot); there’s something about putting yourself “out there,” as it were, in different settings, different paradigms, that changes us. Some of my travels, to Rwanda, Burundi, Morocco, and China, have been very exotic, very difficult, I suppose, which again helped me to imagine my own world differently. I’ve been tempted to write a novel that involves extensive travel, particularly after Hatched, which for the most part occurs in one building!
As a writer with a strong non-fiction background, were you inspired by real life events and people when writing Hatched?
I was indeed, yes; my own roommates in college, my cooking experience, what I learned about financial markets in my early (bizarre) investments in the silver market (in the 1970s), what I learned as a visiting professor at the Toulouse School of Economics, and of course ideas about how people live, love, interact, in the so called service industries, and beyond. Notice, though, that it has NOTHING to do with universities; Jude said that he learned everything as a mover, at Asphalt University. I love that.
What kind of transition was it going from writing non-fiction to fiction? Is it something you hope to do again?
I do indeed look forward now to the next one, I loved it, it was like a sumptuous dessert, a delectable diet of pleasure and imagination.
Back to food. Who doesn’t love to talk about food. What is your favorite dish to eat, to make and of course, what is your favorite way to prepare eggs?
Funny thing about eggs, which I think I learned in that restaurant. The owner and head chef at the Joy of Dining was a tyrant, an impossible, difficult perfectionist, but he was also someone who made food we’ve all eaten, like sunny side up eggs, or omelets, or lobster, and he did so in ways that were so mind-blowing that you were made to feel that you’d never tasted those dishes before in your life. That remains the kind of food I like best, and so I especially LOVE to eat out in China, in Italy, in France, where the knowledge of the ingredients, and the preparation of the food, is so incredible. At the end of the day though, I suppose that caviar (another egg), and amazing handmade Italian egg noodles are among my favorite egg dishes, along with custard, and a perfect omelet, and lobster eggs, and.!
Being from Montreal, does Poutine make your top 10 comfort foods list?
No, it is on my top 1,000, except for when it’s freezing cold (-30 or so), and I haven’t eaten for a week. Then it would be pretty high up there!
Hatched is available for sale through Sunbury Press and where books are sold.