Irene Sabatini on The Boy Next Door
  • The origins of THE BOY NEXT DOOR

    By author Irene Sabatini

    How did The Boy Next Door begin? When did I know that this was the story? When did I meet Lindiwe, Ian? Each of these questions could have a myriad of answers. The most simple would be to locate an event, a date, a time, and say, well it was on such and such a day and this thing happened, and that that’s the root, the germ of the story, right there.

    So then, a phone call, sometime in early 2006. And the first line came some months later. Much changed in the story itself (draft after draft), but that first line has remained constant, true. The phone call was from Bulawayo. A fire had broken out next door to my parents’ house, the house of my childhood. Just that. A fire. And then, my first line — Two days after I turned fourteen the son of our neighbor set his stepmother alight — there it was: the story; the sum and whole of it, its core . . . from there springs Lindiwe’s story; without this line, her story would be another story, shaped by some other thing.

    But where exactly did that line come from? What did some fire (in 2006) have to do with that line, which takes place in the early ’80s? What was it that drew me all the way back to that time, that period, to then?

    Ah, in between the phone call and the line, a suggestion from an editor that I should write a memoir of growing up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. My response was no. I wasn’t ready for a memoir. But his idea, his suggestion, opened the door for memory, for childhood, for the broad strokes of Lindiwe’s childhood: the bookworm in Bulawayo; the family outings; the cherished Cortina. Bulawayo as I knew and breathed it so many years ago. The Bulawayo that is in my veins, in my heart, in my spirit. Borrowed from my childhood but once again worked over.  Imagined and reimagined until it became that Bulawayo, the Bulawayo of the story. Lindiwe’s Bulawayo.

    But, perhaps because I’ve been musing about this very thing — where do our stories, characters, begin — with another writer, I’m inclined to think that this story, these characters, come from everything that has gone into making me who I am today, everything that has fed my body, my mind, my spirit, over these forty plus years; all that I am conscious and unconscious of, ranging from books I’ve read, to music I’ve loved, to, well, perhaps what I had for breakfast seventeen years ago; what remains behind, embedded, I suppose, in my psyche. In conversing with this writer, I suddenly had an inkling, a suggestion of where Ian might have come from. And the discovery made me smile at the wonderment of it.

    When I was a teenager in Bulawayo, I went to a youth club at church where for a long time I was the only black member. There were those white teenage boys who, though so close, were complete strangers to me, foreigners. I watched them and, unbeknownst to them (and to myself), they were handily stored in my subconscious: one day I would find myself sitting at my desk in a town so far away from dear Bulawayo, and there the fragments of these boys would become shaped and shifted into this new boy, Ian. And now, another memory: during my last two years of high school (I went to an all-girls’ Catholic school), I took science classes at Christian Brothers College (an all-boys’ school). Imagine, then: this girl, this studious, book-loving girl (with no brothers), one of only six “science girls,” for the first time exposed to a bunch of rowdy sixteen- to eighteen-year-old boys, with their practical jokes, their energy, and their bouts of sudden shyness and self-consciousness when around “the girls.” Imagine what my memory kept and layered with memory and with whatever it is that is imagination, the gift of it. But here lies a mystery, of what happens when the writing begins and feeds on itself: Ian is not the sum of those boys lost, kept. For starters, he is a working-class boy, with his particular vocabulary. The boys I met those years back were middle class. Another memory strikes me: could Ian be formed from the fragments of my sister’s stories when she worked for the Commercial Farmers Union and she had all those farm boys going in and out of the office with their muddy veldt-skoeners, their knee-length socks and home-done hair cuts? Or could he be crafted from the bits of unemployed, lowly-educated white boys who were filed in a separate drawer (away from the Indians, the blacks, the coloreds) at the Harare employment a

    Irene Sabatini reveals how a simple phone call led her to write her debut novel, a powerful love story set in post-independence Zimbabwe.

    gency where I worked for a month? But wait, growing up, I read many books about the rugged male heroes of the American prairie; my favorite book, Shane, by Jack Schaefer: could it be that Ian has something of that in him? What was already there, as well as that great intangible, what we imagine, brought him into being. Ian is unlike any boy I have ever known. I would recognize him instantly if he stepped into a room, and yet he would also have the capacity to surprise me. He is himself.

    Paperback edition of THE BOY NEXT DOOR

    Irene Sabatini's THE BOY NEXT DOOR, winner of the Orange Award for New Writers