The Guardian first book award: the shortlisted authors introduce their work

From the slums of Mumbai to the sink estates of Aberdeen, the frontline in Iraq to the revolution in Libya – plus a hit novel about US college baseball – the titles on this year's shortlist confront some of the most urgent issues of recent years

Katherine Boo

As a journalist covering issues that affect the poor, I'm not too interested in poignant snapshots of passive people in squalor. What obsesses me is how more people might get out of poverty. I'd spent 15 years reporting on that subject in the US when I met Sunil Khilnani, an Indian writer and historian who is now my husband. Suddenly the newly prospering India was part of my life, and given my intellectual preoccupations, I was keen to understand how the country's new wealth was changing the infrastructure of opportunity in low-income communities. In the cities, I was also kind of amazed (as I've been in western cities) by how societies with such intense, juxtaposed inequality manage to cohere instead of imploding. Though there were plenty of theories on both subjects, there had been little rigorous reporting. And eventually I began to think that the kind of reporting I do in the US – a combination of long-term immersion and documents-based investigative journalism – might also have some value in India. I decided to follow families in a single Mumbai slum over the course of several years, considering (among other things) who got out of poverty, who didn't, and why.

The reporting challenges ranged from hostile police officers to the difficulty of convincing first-rate translators to join me in a setting rife with malaria and TB to the fact that many slum-dwellers had never spoken of their lives in detail, even to members of their families. But patience is an underused journalistic commodity, and after three years in a settlement by the international airport, I'd come to know many residents in their thinking, choosing, imaginative complexity. Meanwhile, I'd been able to document in real time a staggering level of corruption in government, schools and charities – corruption that occasionally erased murder from the public record and routinely kept hard-working families from reaching the middle class.

Still, when it came to writing the book, I was intent that the obstacles families faced not be the end of the story. The creativity with which people manoeuvred around obstacles inspired me throughout the course of the reporting, and I wanted the reader to get that too. The overarching hope was to draw out a more respectful, constructive connection between slum-dwellers and readers than the default sentimentalism and pity. That sense of connection matters to me inordinately, because without it, my efforts to document serious structural injustices tend not to do a whit of good.

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum
Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum Photograph: Public Domain

Extract from Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Asha had by now seen past the obvious truth – that Mumbai was a hive of hope and ambition – to a profitable corollary. Mumbai was a place of festering grievance and ambient envy. Was there a soul in this enriching, unequal city who didn't blame his dissatisfaction on someone else? Wealthy citizens accused the slum-dwellers of making the city filthy and unliveable, even as an oversupply of human capital kept the wages of their maids and chauffeurs low. Slum-dwellers complained about the obstacles the powerful erected to prevent them from sharing in new profit. Everyone, everywhere, complained about their neighbours. But in the twenty-first-century city, fewer people joined up to take their disputes to the streets. As group identities based on caste, ethnicity and religion gradually attenuated, anger and hope were being privatised, like so much else in Mumbai. This development increased the demand for canny mediators – human shock absorbers for the colliding, narrowly construed interests of one of the world's largest cities.

Over time, of course, many shock absorbers lost their spring. But who was to say that a woman, a relative novelty, wouldn't prove to have a longer life? Asha had a gift for solving the problems of her neighbours. Now that she had a local politician's ear, she could fix more such problems, on commission. And when she had real control over the slum, she could create problems in order to fix them – a profitable sequence she'd learned by studying the politician.

Guilt of the sort that had overcome the previous slum boss was an impediment to effective work in the city's back channels, and Asha considered it a luxury emotion. "Corruption, it's all corruption," she told her children, fluttering her hands like two birds taking flight.

Baseball Player Swinging at Pitch
Chad Harbach: 'I wanted to be a writer, but with no idea of how to do it.' Photograph: Corbis Flirt/Alamy Photograph: Corbis Flirt/Alamy

Chad Harbach

In 1998, Mark Wohlers, an all-star relief pitcher for the Atlanta Braves, suddenly lost the ability to throw the ball over the plate. He was sent down to the minors (a great humiliation for such an established player) and struggled there too. That July, in a series against the Milwaukee Brewers, my hometown team, the Braves tried to work him back into their bullpen. Throwing a baseball into the catcher's mitt was something Wohlers had done with ease all his life; it was like breathing for him, but now he could no longer breathe. He fired a ball 10 feet over the catcher's head. He walked around the back of the mound, gathered himself, and did it again. He was sweating profusely, his face turned a purplish colour – he was essentially having an anxiety attack in front of 48,544 people, plus a TV audience. After two batters, the manager took him out. The next day he pitched a full inning, with worse results.

At the time, I was 22 years old and just out of college, with a vague idea that I wanted to be a writer, but with no idea of how to do it – or, more to the point, what I was going to write about. I was living at home, and I saw one of the games on TV, and was there in person for the other. The agony on Wohlers's face was evident – every pitch was a referendum on his entire being, or at least he'd convinced himself that this was true. It felt cruel and voyeuristic to watch. His team-mates and coaches and the fans treated him very tenderly, and that made it all the sadder, because athletes don't want to be treated tenderly. Something like this has happened to enough prominent ballplayers – Chuck Knoblauch, Rick Ankiel – that it has a pseudo-medical name: Steve Blass Disease, after the pitcher first afflicted with it. Few of them ever play as well as they did before. The phenomenon – of becoming unable, for mysterious psychological reasons, to do what one has always been best at; and of having to come to terms with that in a very public way – was incredibly fascinating, I realised. It would be another year and a half or so before I finally started writing the book that would become The Art of Fielding, but looking back, that was the moment the idea of the novel was born.

Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding Photograph: Public Domain

Extract from The Art of Fielding
(Fourth Estate)

Moments later the South Dakota coach strolled on to the field with a bat in one hand and a five-gallon paint bucket in the other. He set the bucket beside home plate and idly chopped at the air with the bat. Another of the South Dakota players trudged out to first base, carrying an identical bucket and yawning sullenly. The coach reached into his bucket, plucked out a ball, and showed it to the shortstop, who nodded and dropped into a shallow crouch, his hands poised just above the dirt.

The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman's glove with the sound of a gun going off. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report. Schwartz, intrigued, sat up a little. The first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove, and dropped the balls into the plastic bucket at his feet.

The coach hit balls harder and farther afield – up the middle, deep in the hole. The kid tracked them down. Several times Schwartz felt sure he would need to slide or dive, or that the ball was flat-out unreachable, but he got to each one with a beat to spare. He didn't seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone …

Then the coach's bucket was empty and the first baseman's bucket full, and all three men left the field without a word. Schwartz felt bereft. He wanted the performance to continue. He wanted to rewind it and see it again in slow motion. He looked around to see who else had been watching – wanted at least the pleasure of exchanging a glance with another enraptured witness – but nobody was paying any attention. The few fans who hadn't gone in search of beer or shade gazed idly at their cellphone screens. The kid's loser teammates were already in the parking lot, slamming their trunks. Fifteen minutes to game time. Schwartz, still dizzy, hauled himself to his feet. He would need two quarts of Gatorade to get through the final game, then a coffee and a can of dip for the long midnight drive. But first he headed for the far dugout, where the kid was packing up his gear. He'd figure out what to say on the way over. All his life Schwartz had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent, some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call genius. Now that he'd seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn't let it walk away.

Lindsey Hilsum in Tripoli
Lindsey Hilsum: 'I was in Libya reporting for Channel 4 News, but it wasn’t enough. I had to write a book.' Photograph: Channel 4 Photograph: Channel 4

Lindsey Hilsum

There is a moment during a revolution when people suddenly realise that they are free to talk. For decades, maybe a lifetime, fear has forced them into silence. Once they start, they can't stop – family secrets, suppressed memories, jokes that are no longer banned, everything comes out. It was my good fortune to be in Libya at that moment in 2011 as revolution swept the country. I didn't need to go looking for people's stories – they came looking for me. I was in Libya reporting for Channel 4 News, but it wasn't enough. I had to write a book.

I soon realised that the 1996 Abu Salim prison massacre, in which 1,270 men were gunned down in a single day, was the key to understanding the revolution. I felt guilty that I hadn't known about it before. After the Brother Leader fled Tripoli, I visited the now empty prison, and it was there I met Wanise Elisawi. His story of how he spent 19 years in jail and witnessed the massacre is at the heart of the book. Huda Abuzeid told me how she was smuggled out of Libya by people-traffickers at the age of seven, after her father was deemed an enemy of the state. And I still think of Razia, who worked for Gaddafi and would love him for ever. I wanted to weave their life stories into the story of revolution, to write a book that would read more like a novel than a journalistic account.

The Gaddafi family were certainly like fictional characters. The second son, Saif, fêted by Tony Blair as a reformer, described his hobbies as "reading, painting, working out, falconry and keeping pet tigers". The third son, Saadi, loved football, so he bought a team and then bulldozed the clubhouse of its rival. From documents that became available when Tripoli fell, and the story of the former jihadi Sami al Saadi, I discovered that MI6 and the CIA facilitated the "extraordinary rendition" back to Libya of Gaddafi's enemies – the Lockerbie bombing and his support for the IRA now just inconvenient memories.

Libya is in a new phase now. People are free to talk, but they don't feel the same urgency. They're too busy trying to survive, to rebuild their lives. How lucky I was to be there as they told their stories for the first time.

Lindsey Hilsum, Sandstorm
Lindsey Hilsum, Sandstorm Photograph: Public Domain

Extract from Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution

I walked into the comfortable middle-class living room in Benghazi and knew immediately that this would be a less than comfortable encounter. It was early March 2011 and the revolution was not yet a month old. There were some twenty people sitting on the plump sofas which lined the walls, men on one side of the room, women on the other, each silently holding up a portrait photograph pasted on to a board. These were the Abu Salim families, relatives of men who had been murdered in Colonel Gaddafi's most notorious prison. A stooped, elderly man, wearing a traditional dark-red fez and huge black-rimmed glasses which dwarfed his thin face, came forward to speak. Fouad Assad Ben Omran described how every two months he used to make the long journey to Tripoli, taking food and clothing to his brother-in-law in Abu Salim.

"I used to go to Tripoli with his wife and children. His son was seven and his daughter five when we started," he said. "We took the basic things he needed and gave them to the guards. They told us he was there, but we weren't allowed to see him. We used to spend a day or two at the gate. We did this for fourteen years before we were told that he was dead."

That haunted me for days after the meeting; it haunts me still. A massacre is somehow an imaginable horror. But fourteen years of false hope, the deliberate not-telling, allowing the families to keep faith that one day their men will come home, when in fact their bodies were lying in an unmarked pit, concreted over, possibly yards from where they queued to deliver their baskets of food and piles of clean clothes, seemed to me cruelty of a different order.

Kerry Hudson: 'Stories emerged, parts of my past chasing me around a sheet of paper each time I sat down to work.' Photograph: Murdo MacLeod Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

Kerry Hudson

It's appropriate that I find myself travelling through south-east Asia working on my second novel as I write this, because that's where Tony Hogan began. Actually, before that, it started as a 500-word piece about a pregnant Aberdonian fishwife and then a story about a girl from a council estate wishing for brighter things while swigging alcopops on her local seafront. Similar stories emerged, parts of my past chasing me around a sheet of paper each time I sat down to work.

Once I started to write Tony Hogan, during six months in Vietnam, the novel came fast, with the protagonist Janie Ryan's insistent little fists drumming at my back if I took my eye off the prize. I honestly thought the novel would never be published, which meant that each day I wrote with as much honesty as I could stand, as well as I was capable of, and with a blissful lack of self-consciousness. I'd never attempted something that length before and I was daunted, but just as Janie's years pass and she grows and matures, so did the novel. I came home to London with a book drawing on the rough love and laughter of my own upbringing in Scottish council estates, B&Bs and fading seaside towns of the 80s and 90s. It still didn't feel like a "proper" novel, though; the whole thing had been handwritten in noodle-spattered Vietnamese exercise books and then typed up in internet cafés beside schoolboys playing Street Fighter.

For a long time I believed that only people from certain backgrounds could write. As I grew up, books and libraries were my best friends and brought to me all the things literature should to a young person: broadened horizons, bigger ideas, a sharp glint of hope. But right into my adulthood I thought that novels were something other people did. I told myself when I began Tony Hogan that my only intention was to write the story I wanted, perhaps needed, to write. I thought of it as a gift to the younger me, who for all her reading couldn't find books that helped her understand the things happening around her. So I wrote Tony Hogan to help her make sense of the funny, sometimes brutal, often joyful, bright, raw world she'd found herself in – for her and others to gain insight into that sort of life.

Kerry Hudson, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma
Kerry Hudson, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma Photograph: Public Domain

Extract from Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma
(Chatto & Windus)

"Get out, you cunting, shitting, little fucking fucker!" were the first words I ever heard. The midwife, a shiny-faced woman who learned entirely new turns of phrase that night, smoothed Ma's hair.

"Yer both fine. We'll have tae give yeh a quick stitch-up later, but – baby girl just ripped you a wee bit coming out."

Ma laid me, sticky and slack-limbed, on her chest and wondered how something so pink, puckered and fragile could be so vicious as to tear the person who was meant to love her most in the world. But that was the Ryan Women: fishwives to the marrow, they were always ready to fight and knew the places that would cut deepest.

I was not vicious, though. No one could tell if I was clever, or sly as my grandma had predicted while blowing Benson & Hedges smoke rings over my ma's swollen belly. I was a "bad baby", forever gurning and spitting out my ma's nipple. My delicate skin had mottled with the indignation of being ripped by forceps from a warm, cosy spot where I was perfectly happy.

For all my fretful kicking at the air and scratching at my own face, my saving grace was beauty. Everyone said so; a golden baby with extra-blue eyes, the slope of my nose and forehead just so.

"She'll be a wee heartbreaker," Grandma said, smoothing down her mint-green nylon trousers. "But she'll have a lot o' jealousy. An' I know wha' a burden it is tae be born with beauty."

Grandma's violet eyes filled and the tears seeped through her pale powder into the wrinkles underneath.

Ma held me to her bony chest, resting my bum on the roll of flesh under her sharp ribs, which was all that remained of my home.

"Aye, she takes after her daddy. He was gorgeous. Those American blue eyes. She's the spit of him."

Ma's face crumpled, her mouth sagged in a whine and her face turned pink. I wondered what I'd been born into.

Other mas in the ward came over and eyed me suspiciously, checking I wasn't heavier, livelier or prettier than their babies. Ma's – my – family came and held their faces so close to mine I could smell whether they'd had booze or food for breakfast. It was mostly booze.

US troops in Iraq
Kevin Powers: 'If there is any true thing in this world it is that war is only like itself.' Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian Photograph: Sean Smith/Guardian

Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds began as an attempt to reckon with the one question I was most often asked about my service in Iraq: what was it like over there? Sometime in 2007 I thought I might be able to find an answer to that question, not only for the many people who had asked it but also for myself. As soon as the first words of the book were put down on the page, I realised I was unequal to the task of answering it, that if there is any true thing in this world it is that war is only like itself.

People, however, are all the same: grief and fear, shame and anger, are as alike in each of us as is our breath or blood, in spite of differences of scope or scale, or the useless divisions between their common or uncommon causes. I hoped that I could begin again with this in mind, understanding now that the difficulty of contending with this question was not that it remained unanswered, but rather how I might find a way to say that the answer could be known to each of us if only we'd allow ourselves to be reminded of it.

Over the course of almost four years I tried to find a way to do this. I started making something like progress that summer of 2007, writing late into the night in my rented room in the Jackson Ward neighbourhood of Richmond, Virginia. Sometimes I dedicated whole days of my tenuous employment at a credit card company to furtive work on the novel. I wrote as much as I could whenever I could. I spent the last of those four years stripping away anything and everything that didn't seem essential.

I finished The Yellow Birds in Austin, Texas in late September 2011. What ended then was not just the writing of a book, though it was mostly that, but also something else I had begun seven years before and 7,000 miles away from the wooden porch where I went to have a smoke when it was finished. Though I hope I've told one small part of the truth about that war, what I've written is not meant to report or document, nor is it meant to argue or advocate. Instead, I tried with what little skill I have to create the cartography of one man's consciousness, to let it stand, however briefly, as my reminder.

Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds
Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds Photograph: Public Domain

Extract from The Yellow Birds

The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire. Then, in summer, the war tried to kill us as the heat blanched all colour from the plains. The sun pressed into our skin, and the war sent its citizens rustling into the shade of white buildings. It cast a white shade on everything, like a veil over our eyes. It tried to kill us every day, but it had not succeeded. Not that our safety was preordained. We were not destined to survive. The fact is, we were not destined at all. The war would take what it could get. It was patient. It didn't care about objectives, or boundaries, whether you were loved by many or not at all. While I slept that summer, the war came to me in my dreams and showed me its sole purpose: to go on, only to go on. And I knew the war would have its way.

• The Guardian first book award is judged by five Waterstones' reading groups across the UK and a panel of judges – Jeanette Winterson, Ahdaf Soueif, Kate Summerscale, William Dalrymple and Guardian deputy editor Katharine Viner, chaired by Review editor Lisa Allardice. The winner will be announced on 29 November. To order any of the shortlisted titles at a discount with free UK p&p, or all five (RRP £69.95) for £48 with free UK p&p, call Guardian book service on 0330 333 6846 or go to

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