Irene Sabatini had long held ambitions to write a novel, but had never quite mustered the confidence to do so. All it took, in the end, was a glimpse of the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez eating breakfast in a hotel.
This unexpected sighting of the novelist in a hotel in Colombia back in the Nineties gave her the self-belief to kickstart her own writing career. That career reached a high point yesterday, when her debut novel, The Boy Next Door, was shortlisted for the Orange Award for New Writers.
"It was seeing [Garcia Marquez] in the breakfast room at a hotel in Cartegena... He was just sitting there with a companion and I thought, wow, a real living author, and such a great one. They really do exist," Sabatini said. "It was so inspirational for me. I had been doing some writing, but at that point I thought maybe I could be a small bit of the big writer he is."
The 42-year-old, who was born in a coal-mining town in Zimbabwe and grew up in Bulawayo, moved to Colombia after studying at the University of Zimbabwe with her husband, who works for the United Nations. Now living and working in Geneva, she has about seven unpublished novels on her computer – all written since her encounter with Marquez. She began writing her first published work of fiction after rejecting her American editor's suggestion that she write a memoir about growing up in Zimbabwe, and she completed the book within a year.
"I didn't want to write a memoir, but one day I got a phone call from Zimbabwe telling me that a neighbour at my childhood home had been murdered in a fire. That sparked my idea for the novel," she said.
The result is a love story between a white man and a black woman, set in the politically volatile and repressive Zimbabwe of the late-20th century. The novel begins with the murder of a white neighbour who dies in a fire, a crime motivated by a domestic feud.
"It is essentially a love story in which two people come together, but because they are living in Zimbabwe over this period of seismic change, politics naturally comes into the story," she said.
Also shortlisted for the prize are the British author Jane Borodale, who was selected for The Book of Fires, a period novel set in 18th-century England; and Evie Wyld, for After Fire, a Still Small Voice, which has already gained critical recognition.
Orange Award for New Writers: The nominees
The Boy Next Door by Irene Sabatini
Lindiwe Bishop's white neighbour is murdered. She strikes up a friendship with the boy next door, until he departs for South Africa. Years later, they embark on a relationship, contending with racial prejudice and the hostility of Lindiwe's mother.
The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale
A historical novel which tells the story of 17-year-old Agnes Trussel, who is carrying an unwanted child. Stealing a neighbour's savings, she runs away to London and soon becomes lost in the dark, labyrinthine city.
After Fire, a Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld Frank Collard travels from Canberra to a small town in eastern Australia after breaking up with his girlfriend. He makes a new home for himself in his grandparents 1950s shack amidst the cane fields.