National Book Award winner Katherine Boo on 'Behind the Beautiful Forevers', 'unsexy' topics, and 'American Idol' recaps
Last night, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo won the National Book Award in the nonfiction category for her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. We weren’t surprised at all by the win — Forevers is a stunning, must-read account of life in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum where unbelievable atrocities are an everyday occurence. Upon the book’s publication in February of this year, EW’s Jeff Giles predicted Boo’s book would be “a conversation starter, an award winner.” After a night of celebrating, Boo took the time to talk to EW about what it means for a difficult book like hers to win a major award — but before we could get into any of that, she had to get this out of the way: “I really like Annie Barrett’s American Idol recaps. They were like my therapy. I’d be tense over writing my book, and I was like, ‘I need to read Annie Barrett.'”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were up against some legendary authors in your category. Were you shocked to win?
KATHERINE BOO: I was surprised. I thought it would be Robert Caro [for Passage of Power]. And I think that Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain is a great book and Anthony Shadid, for anybody who is writing overseas, is a legend. So I was quite surprised. It’s a whole thing where you’re supposed to write a speech in case you win, and I thought that was kind of lame. [Laughs] I couldn’t do that. I was sitting there realizing, “Oh gosh, I should have written a speech.”
The subject matter of Forevers is so gut-wrenching. Were you worried, at first, that you would have a hard time finding an audience?
Completely. I thought, “Who is going to read this?” Also, when you go into a project like this, obviously you don’t know what’s going to happen, and there were some really quite sad — I mean depressing, grim — things that happened one after another. So I was thinking that these stories need to be told. But for people who pick up a book and think, “I want my Slumdog Millionaire where there’s the triumph of the human spirit at the end and a boatload of money” — how do I engage that reader when that’s not what life looks like?
When you were witnessing some of these events that you describe in the book, did you know that something would make a compelling story when you saw it?
No. I think one thing that did strike me immediately is when Abdul knew the police were coming, that he couldn’t think of anywhere to go but into his garbage shed. That struck me. I guess I was thinking in the movies, you’d be running away and the police would be chasing you, but in real life… It was just an example of how small your world is. For Abdul, the places he took his garbage, that was all he knew of the world. So he was doing what he could given the limited information. That struck me.
You won a Pulitzer for newspaper reporting, so you’re no stranger to major awards. What do they meant to you as a writer and for a book like this?
I think I’m the type of person who feels guilty about that sort of thing. But a fellow writer who knows more about the publishing industry gave me a different way of looking at it. When a book like mine — which is about people buying and selling garbage in a slum and it’s not sexy — if it does well, that helps future writers. Because the assumption is, nobody’s going to read this. If people do read this, if it does well, that allows publishers to be more receptive to the next three writers who are trying to write about unsexy topics, difficult topics. It’s just so hard now to get people to pay attention. So if that’s the case, if a publisher can come along and say, “Well, you know, this book seems like a real downer, but like Behind the Beautiful Forever, this might be worth a look.” That makes me happy.
It’s great how far of a reach your book has had. When we talked to John Green, who’s basically like a Messiah to a lot of young readers, about his favorite book of the year, he named yours. And just last night, he was Tweeting about your win to millions of young Followers.
That’s great. The last person to read my book before it went to print was my nephew, who’s 12. While I wanted my book to speak to people who knew a great deal about India, I also wanted it to be accessible to people who are closer in age to the people that I’m writing about in the book. So it was a great help to me that he read it. There was one part he didn’t get, which was sort of a sex scene. But the rest he got.
As a reader, what were some books you loved this year?
That’s such a hard question. I admired Steve Coll’s Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power. When great reporters turn their attention to powerful institutions, that’s a real thrill for me. I also counted the seconds until I could get my hands on Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her. I read everything of his. I loved that book.
That was great, and a worthy nominee in the fiction category.
Yeah, and now I really want to read the Kevin Powers, the Louise Erdrich, and the Ben Fountain.
Really, all the nominees in fiction and nonfiction were great — and I wouldn’t say that every year.
There’s that old cliche, “Oh, it’s nice to be nominated,” but it really is when you’re in that company.
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Behind the Beautiful Forevers