Irene Sabatini spent her childhood in the laid back city of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, gobbling up books from the Public Library. After University in Harare she ventured across continents to Colombia, excited by the chance to live in, learn from, and be inspired by a new culture.
Irene Sabatini holds a Masters Degree from the Institute of Education in London. She has followed a varied and international path: from teacher in Bogota, to researcher in the Caribbean, editor in Harare and author in Geneva. Her debut novel The Boy Next Door won the Orange Prize for New Writers in 2010.
Geosi Reads interviews Irene Sabatini:
GR: You studied at university in Harare before you moved on to study at the University of London. What were some of your observations between these two environments?
IR: I went to university in Harare in the late 1980’s: the student body was very politicized and we had many demonstrations against issues such as government corruption and in support of, for example, the Palestinian cause. I remember lots of running (from riot police) and the campus being filled with tear gas, and rampant sloganeering. So there was the palpable excitement of that and, for me who came from the rather sedate city of Bulawayo, it was exhilarating, liberating and frightening. London, on the other hand, was a return to quiet.
GR: The Boy Next Door is your debut novel which has been well received among the literary community. How did you arrive by that title? What inspired the book?
IR: That title seems to have been always there; I can’t really isolate a moment when I decided on it; I think that it captures the spirit of the story. Literally, it really is about the boy next door, Ian, as seen through the eyes of Lindiwe. The title is also playful in the sense that ‘the boy next door’ is an archetype- a good looking, shy, middle of the road person- now Ian is this brash boy with a very distinctive way of talking and of seeing the world (but he is handsome, in Lindiwe’s eyes at least), so it’s a kind of subversion of that term. Finally, the novel is set in Zimbabwe but I really wanted to steer away from exoticizing the story by having a title that had, I don’t know, jacarandas, sunsets…and rather focus on what the story is really about: two people trying to make sense of their lives as individuals, and as a family.
It was inspired primarily by a phone call I received about a fire that had taken place at the house next door to my childhood home. Unconnected to all this, months later an editor suggested that I write a memoir about growing up in Rhodesia and then in independent Zimbabwe. I said no to the memoir idea but somehow it must have lodged (and grown) inside my head because, a year or so later when I sat down at my computer the memoir idea (growing up in the eighties in Rhodesia, Zimbabwe) conflated with the fire (which had actually happened in the 2000’s but, this is fiction!); the first line- “Two days after I turned fourteen the son of our neighbour set his step-mother alight”- was the synthesis (or alchemy) of these two moments, and it has remained constant throughout the different drafts.
GR: Completing a novel is one of the happiest moments of a writer’s life, I presume. Were you certain about how the book was to end when you began to write? Share with us about the process of writing the book?
IR: No, I had no idea how the book would end, or when it would end! Every day when I sat in front of the computer was a moment of nervous expectation- where were Lindiwe and Ian going to take me? The novel wasn’t consciously planned- there were no outlines or chapter by chapter expositions; I had no idea of what the plot was, or if there was any plot. So, the first draft was finished, and really, the novel as it is in the published book is essentially that draft, there were no substantial changes to the story. Later, talking with my editor, the story became more fleshed out, and the characters too; details were added, for example, my editor wanted to know more about Ian’s mother, so I think a whole new chapter arose from that. Usually the editorial process requires a lot of cutting but with The Boy Next Door there was actually a lot of adding; I think my very first draft was about eighty-eight thousand words, and the published book contains over one hundred thousand. I enjoyed the editorial process; getting to know the characters better!
GR: By the end of reading your book, the reader is well-informed about the rich history of Zimbabwe. How much of research went into the writing of your book?
IR: Well, I lived that history! I was in Zimbabwe during the eighties and in most of the nineties. My childhood was spent in Bulawayo where both Lindiwe and Ian come from. I went to the University of Zimbabwe. So I had lots of fun going down memory lane, and borrowing certain details from my childhood- which is not to say that Lindiwe is me! That’s what’s fun about writing fiction- you start from a certain point of reality and then, you fly away! For certain historic details (dates and figures) I read a lot.
GR: I must confess that you write beautifully and rich prose. I was particularly amazed about the way you built the whole relationship thing surrounding the lives of the two main characters, Lindiwe and Ian. How did you achieve that?
IR: Oh, thank you for your very warm words. Well, this is all a mystery, to me. Nothing was consciously planned. Lindiwe and Ian arrived in my head as they were and stayed with me in a very real way. They were people with their hopes and desire, their foibles; they were a couple with their love and misunderstandings, their fears. Once Lindiwe was on that verandah, I was swept away with her. Many people comment on Ian’s voice and ask me how I did it. I can only say that Ian must come from somewhere, obviously; perhaps he is a mash-up of all the white boys I used to see and hear around Bulawayo with their rather exotic mannerisms; or he is a product of the books I read, perhaps Shane by Jack Schaeffer which is this story of this lone, silent cow boy (Ian seems to be the opposite of that but maybe the toughness of Shane filtered though). So perhaps the answer to that question is that everything I had experienced up to the point I sat down and wrote the very first lines of the book made the book and story what it is, and that magical, mystical thing we call, imagination.
GR: How much of your book can be described as a love story?
IR: I think that the book is essentially that, however flawed it is; this pull and attraction between two very different people, and how they have to work their way through cultural, racial and political mores.
GR: To what extent is your book dependent on your own personal experiences?
IR: As I’ve mentioned before certain elements in Lindiwe’s childhood in Bulawayo are riffs off my own childhood there, for example, the beloved Ford Cortina, and so too the university years…the relationship between Ian and Lindiwe is pure fiction!
GR: You won the Orange Prize for New Writer’s in the year 2010. Was it a surprise to have won this prestigious award? How has life before and after the award been like?
IR: It was a complete surprise and shock to win the prize; I had absolutely no idea, and when they called out my name it was like a dream, I was shaking. Winning the prize has brought more coverage to the book; before the award no newspaper had reviewed it and it was pretty much disappearing into oblivion; happily more people have heard about the book and are reading it, which is just wonderful and humbling. Also, the award has opened up a whole new world of literary endeavors, for example just having this conversation with you is a real privilege and honour because for so long my writing was a very solitary thing in the sense that I didn’t have a support system of literature lovers. And I get to do talk about the book, for example, I’ll be at the University of Hull in March for an International Women’s day event. And, it has opened up the avenue of tutoring; In October I will be doing so at the Arvon Foundation with the inspiring Bernardine Evaristo. But, most important of all, it has given me great confidence in my writing!
GR: How did you end up as a writer? Are you satisfied as a writer?
IR: I think it was just something I absolutely had to do. I love reading, immersing myself in a story and, growing up in quiet Bulawayo, reading was a way of venturing into more exciting terrain, so I guess I’ve always wanted to do that, go forth…I’m satisfied when I’m sitting down writing, or thinking about characters, stories, but of course, I’m never really content, there is always striving, questioning, wanting to do more, better…
GR: In writing ‘The Boy Next Door’ did you have in mind any specific audience?
IR: My specific audience was a reader, any reader; any one who would pick up the book, perhaps read the blurb at the back, perhaps the first paragraph, or whatever you do when you are deciding to buy a book, and who thinks “umm, this looks interesting, I’ll give it a go…”; someone who wants to be surprised and who has no preconceptions.
GR: Zimbabwe as a country is going through many turbulent times. It is not the Zimbabwe we used to know some time ago in the eighties. Are you optimistic about the stature, economy and stability of the country in the near future?
IR: You know, I haven’t been back in Zimbabwe for a long time, so perhaps I still carry an idealized vision of it. I always have hope.
GR: Who is/are your literary icon(s)? Any writer(s) you admire?
IR: Oh, I admire so many. I’m always reading. I love Margaret Atwood just for the sheer scope of her imagination and how she renders it on the page. I’m really drawn to quite a few American writers because they seem to have this incredible breadth and scope; older writers like John Steinbeck; I go though splurges (or, more accurately, binges) where I’ll read book after book of a particular writer; at the moment I’m into Mario Vargas Llosa, I’m into the fifth book- The War of the End of the World and I’m just in awe of how he can change perspective mid paragraph, and just write as if it is the most natural thing in the world and you the reader are at first confounded, you have to orientate yourself, but then you go into his world because it is so natural, he has made you believe in it, in its rules…it’s learning from the greats, absorbing, usually unconsciously, their artistry…so I always read. And then, from that, I think you get the belief, the energy, to strike out on your own. Yes, you can!
GR: I am curious to know the kinds of books you read growing up as child. Were you involved in so much reading?
IR: I read Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Sue Barton (of course); and a lot of books written by male authors, one of my favorites I’ve mentioned earlier, Shane by Jack Schaffer, also the Ring of Brightwater by Gavin Maxwell which is about otters in the Scottish Hebrides, a book I found very affecting- you can imagine this eleven year old girl in a landlocked country who has never seen the sea, never mind an otter…but that’s what’s great about books- they carry you up, out and away, lifting you away from the mundane to the extra ordinary.
GR: Reading and writing? Which of the two do you often engage yourself in?
IR: It depends. If I’m really into the story I’m writing I won’t have any distractions, I don’t want other characters from someone else’s story impinging on mine, or their voice; I have enough on my plate. But if I’ve reached a lull, a pause in my writing, then boy do I read; I want my head to go elsewhere, I want distraction and usually the distraction brings me back to my own work.
IR: I always say it was a huge dollop of luck, of serendipity, all the elements coming together, finally. I met an editor at the Geneva Writer’s Conference who loved this other novel I had but who couldn’t get the rest of his team in the publishing house on board (see how complicated it is) but I kept in touch with him and two years later I sent him some chapters of The Boy Next Door- he was now in a publishing house that published only non-fiction, so he sent the pages over to an agent friend of his and from then on everything happened pretty quickly because the agent knew just the right editor to show it to. I guess what you can draw from this is: to go out there, get in touch with writing communities wherever they are and now with the internet there are so many places for the writer to go for advice and to make contacts; and not to give up…you know, thinking about it now, the most magical moment in this road to publication happened about eight years ago when I went to my very first writer’s conference; it was in England and for the very first time I read my work out aloud to a room full of strangers; it was such an electric atmosphere when I finished reading, and seeing people looking at me differently, taking in words that had been in my head, and then to have their feedback, it was the moment that I knew that there were people out there who would read what I had to write; I always knew I had something to say, but would anyone want to read it…
GR: What are you reading at the moment?
IR: I’m reading The War of the end of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa and I am occasionally dipping into The Cross of Redemption, Uncollected Writing by James Baldwin.
GR: In just a sentence, what would you say to the reader who has not yet picked up your book from the bookstore?
IR: Allow this book to take you on a journey that will capture both your head and your heart.
GR: Is there any question you think I should have asked? Your final words?
IR: Will there be a sequel?!