How I Wrote It: Katherine Boo on "Behind The Beautiful Forevers"
Throughout her career, primarily at The Washington Post and now at The New Yorker, journalist Katherine Boo has aggressively pursued stories about poverty and disparity, largely out of a deep concern that those issues are typically "over-theorized and under-reported." Her efforts to understand poverty and portray people's efforts to escape it have earned her a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur "genius" grant. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, her stunning depiction of life in a Mumbai slum, she takes on a seemingly insurmountable task: giving Western readers a reason to care about people half a world away, many of them subsisting on a meager income from recycled garbage.
Boo spent three years visiting the Annawadi slum, in the shadows of Mumbai's international airport. In the beginning, she found it difficult to do the kind of reporting she prefers, which is to get to know people where they live and work, and not interview them at a table with a tape recorder. A breakthrough came when she was sitting in a shed watching a boy named Abdul sort garbage (to support his family of eleven). A rival group of kids came by, fascinated by the petite white woman in their midst, and the Abdul scoffed: You fools, she's just a reporter.
"It was exciting to them at first and then I was just this boring woman doing her work," said Boo, whose reporting tools included a laptop, camera, tape recorder, and video camera. (See the video, below).
In this interview, Boo admits that she harbored deep concerns about finding an audience. "Who's going to buy a book about a slum in February? It's not the ideal Valentines gift," she said. So it's been gratifying to earn praise from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and to be named the Spotlight pick among Amazon's Best Books of the Month.
She also discusses how the film "Slumdog Millionaire," which came out during her reporting, haunted the writing. She worried that her editors would insist on a happy ending. Instead, they insisted she tell the story she needed to tell.