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Daily Pilot

Author proves that tough topics have an audience

Journalist Katherine Boo, who investigated slum conditions in India, speaks to a sold-out crowd at the Newport Beach Public Library.

By Emily Foxhall

3:39 PM PST, February 14, 2014

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When journalist Katherine Boo began working on her book "Behind the Beautiful Forevers," she wasn't sure if anyone would read it.

The nonfiction work, which chronicles the lives of slum dwellers near the Mumbai airport, has since been translated into 30 languages. It has received the National Book Award and been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

To Boo's delight, the narrative also drew a crowd of nearly 200 for a sold-out lecture at the Newport Beach Public Library on Thursday night.

"The fact that this book about ordinary people in a slum found any sort of readership, that's just bananas," Boo said at the start to the Library Live event presented by the Newport Beach Public Library Foundation.

Her aim with the book, published in 2012, hadn't been to write the sexiest story possible, Boo explained.

Rather, she wished to reveal the structure of a society and the larger financial market forces at play within it through ground-level reporting — in this case at an impoverished Indian community called Annawadi.

She wanted to follow the intricacies of real lives, even when they defied her expectations as a reporter.

Boo resisted the temptation to label anyone. She pushed back on assumptions. With the help of a laptop and cameras, she took the necessary time to listen and observe the circumstances around her.

"I believe that the details matter," she said, likewise emphasizing the importance of public records and statistics.

For Boo, those she met were not just passive subjects to write about but active investigators in her pursuit of the truth amid rampant corruption, she said.

The result? Seated no more than a mile from the pristine California coastline, in a city where luxury homes and top-tier restaurants abound, guests who live in a radically different world than the people in Boo's book could connect with them nonetheless.

"We come to know them, their relationships, their squabbles," said Adrian Windsor, a Newport Beach Library Foundation board member, who introduced Boo. "What fascinates us is a dramatic plot that evolves and the depth with which we come to understand it."

That such narratives about tough topics, when rooted in specifics and fact, can succeed makes an important point for publishers who may not have considered them worthwhile before, Boo said.

Their success also encourages writers who might not know they have an audience, she added.

Both elements help to ensure that books that investigate inequality — that make wrongs visible — continue to be produced.

"I like to think that such small stories have a way of interrogating or complicating the big story," Boo explained. "Better policies are going to get made if we know about individual lives."

Next on the slate of library speakers, sports journalist Rick Reilly will talk at 7 p.m. Feb. 21 and 2 p.m. Feb. 22.