Presenter of the National Book Awards

2012 National Book Award winner,
Nonfiction

Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Random House

Katherine Boo, by Heleen Welvaart

Interview by Mira Ptacin

Mira Ptacin: This is your first book. How did you manage to take such a complex subject with so many tentacles, and write about it in a tight, boiled down way, where it reads almost like a novel?

Katherine Boo: I didn’t want to write a tome, in part because I had in mind two diverse sets of readers: people who knew a lot about Indian social dilemmas and people who knew very little. And the only way I could think to reach both imagined audiences was to structure the book as a compact hybrid. Through a narrative that forefronted the intimate experiences of residents of a single slum (individuals whose complex perspectives I felt might transcend the usual class, ethnic, religious, and geographic divides), I hoped to keep ordinary readers from abandoning the book when the subject matter grew dark. But I was also intent on having a conversation with more expert readers, so I inlaid the “story” with investigative reporting on corruption and my analysis of some of the broader social and economic issues, among them the question of why unequal societies in the 21st century so rarely implode. Since there are loads of other books competing for a reader's attention, I tried to respect that limited time with my writing. I was tightening ideas and characterizations until the bitter end.

MP: Did you have a certain idea of what you were trying to say in this book before you entered the field? And did you write as you went along, or did you do your field research first then write the story?

KB: The only certainty I had when I started work in 2007 was that there was a lack of depth to the reporting on how India's phenomenal growth was affecting daily lives in low-income communities―and particularly the lives of ordinary women and children. It took two years of immersion and investigative reporting before I began to sense what the larger story might be, so I was fortunate that I had a patient editor―one who shared my belief that starting any reporting project knowing what you'll find is a great way to miss what's really going on.

MP: How did you gain so much access to government records, prison documents, information about the court system, etc.?

KB: India, unlike China, is an open society, and its landmark right-to-information act is not unlike the U.S. Freedom of Information Act―an act I often used when investigating social issues in the United States. These laws represent a beautiful alternative to access journalism. Ordinary citizens can petition for government documents, no sucking up to politicians required―though in both India and the U.S. it often takes months or years of appeals to secure records that officials don’t want you to see. To me, the time and effort is worth it, because if I'm going to accuse government officials of criminality or negligence, or write about institutional failures that affect the lives of the powerless, I don't want to be trading in rumor and anecdote. The more evidence I secure, the better I sleep.

That doesn't mean that I'll break into an unfolding narrative to announce, "I’ve studied the records of every burning case treated at the public hospital for the last four months.” But having internalized those records as part of my research, I think I'm able to recount a single burning case at a public hospital with greater perspective and conviction. I also think many readers can tell the difference between a sentence that is tossed off and undersourced and a sentence that has been more rigorously earned.

MP: In being married to an Indian man, how much influence did your husband’s knowledge (or opinion) about the Indian culture and climate influence your work?

KB: My husband, Sunil Khilnani, is a political historian and writer, and in our years together I’ve received an osmotic education on Indian cultural and social dilemmas―and also the occasional earful about Western journalism on Indian subjects that seemed to him exoticized or badly informed. That home-education gave me a sense of some of the mistakes I didn't want to make in my book―among them writing solely for a Western readership. (I worked hard, once the book was finished, to make sure it was published and reviewed in India at the same time as it was released in the United States.) As for Sunil's influence on the content of the book itself, the slums of 21st-century India aren't his subject as an academic, but he was magnificently supportive during some difficult bits of the reporting.

MP: What were your reasons for interviewing younger children?

KB: Many events in my book were hotly contested, and in trying to get to the truth, I often found the children of the slum to be more reliable witnesses than adults―mainly because the kids’ perspectives weren’t as freighted by religious, ethnic, caste, economic, or personal biases. Not every child is an impeccable witness, obviously. But when you spend years in a single place, you get to know the children whose perspectives you can trust. A stunted 12-year-old boy named Altamas Shaikh was crucial to my reporting of several central incidents in the book; he was also one of the slum children who learned to use my video camera, documenting police brutality and other injustices in their lives. I’m not being sentimental when I say that without the help of kids like Altamas, and their vibrant senses of fairness, I wouldn’t have a book to speak of today. Their optimism and moral instincts were propelling.

Mira Ptacin is a creative nonfiction and children’s book author, New York Times bestselling ghostwriter, as well as the founder and executive director of Freerange Nonfiction Reading Series & Storytelling collective. She currently teaches nonfiction writing at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. www.miraptacin.com
Twitter: @MiraPtacin

Photo credit: Heleen Welvaart