Issue #63, How We Teach
An interview with Ted Conover
Ted Conover has spent his entire career delving into different cultural worlds. “Why not?” he asks. “It’s a big universe to explore.” Conover’s empathy runs as deep as his curiosity. He is a writer, as William T. Vollmann observed in a review of The Routes of Man, who cares about “not merely that convenient abstraction, humanity, but people in particular.” Indeed, people—everyone from hoboes riding freight trains to Mexican immigrants to prison guards—animate the pages of Conover’s books. Living with them, sharing the indignities they suffer and the pleasures they enjoy, is the foundation of his immersion journalism—a beat he shares with Barbara Ehrenreich, Lauren Kessler, and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, among others, each of whom opens up the experiences of frequently ignored people and communities.
For his first book, 1984’s Rolling Nowhere, Conover spent a year riding the rails across America, collecting the stories of his fellow travelers. Inspired by that book’s success, he turned his focus to Mexican migrants on both sides of the border, which he crossed four times doing research for Coyotes. His deft use of first person created a lens for seeing unique individuals as well as the social issues surrounding immigration. And then, defying easy classification, Conover turned from the disenfranchised to the elite for his next book, Whiteout: Lost in Aspen. Driving a taxi and then writing for the Aspen Times, he reported on New Age resorts and celebrity hangouts, exploring the seductions of fame and money. But those hazards paled against those posed by the research for his next book, Newjack. After the New York State Department of Correctional Services denied his request to spend time with a corrections officer or to shadow a recruit through training, Conover instead applied for the job himself. For nearly a year, as a corrections officer in Sing Sing, he steeled himself against the work’s constant stress and the need to maintain a secret identity.
In each of these books, Conover shifts with ease between storytelling and broader discussions of the promise and disappointments of American life. In The Routes of Man, he explores the impact of six roads in six different countries. Together, these stories detail how development, disease, and military occupations are changing lives in locations as diverse as the Peruvian jungle and the West Bank.
Conover’s latest book, Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep, shares the practical knowledge he’s gleaned and places immersion journalism within the broader context of creative nonfiction and ethnography. He acknowledges ethnography as a “literary cousin,” drawing on the participant observation methods he learned as an undergraduate anthropology student. He balances the anthropologist’s quest to understand other cultures with the compelling narrative style of his literary ancestors, including the New Journalists.
As a faculty member in New York University’s journalism program, Conover teaches this blend of research methods and literary nonfiction forms. Immersion now makes that knowledge available to readers. Practical advice covers how to choose a subject and gain access, take notes and check facts, report for story, and confront varied ethical issues. Conover discusses voice, story structure, character development, and other techniques he’s learned from crafting experience into indelible narratives. This publication will likely bring more than a few new adherents to participatory journalism.
We spoke recently via Skype; Conover, in his office in New York City, looked relaxed in a sweatshirt and jeans. He reflected on how teaching has added depth and dimension to his thinking and writing about diverse cultural worlds.
By the end of our conversation, the surprise was not that Conover does such challenging and sometimes dangerous work. Given the satisfactions he described, I wondered why everyone else doesn’t.
—JOANNE B. MULCAHY
CNF: Immersion draws together the work you’ve done over many years. The opening epigraph, from the poet Richard Wilbur, points to a central theme: “Go talk with those who are rumored to be unlike you.” I wonder where this drive to cross borders comes from?
CONOVER: I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about it myself. The best answer I’ve come up with is that the seed was planted in high school when I was bussed to an almost all minority high school downtown (as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan in Denver). My friends and I were an ethnic minority for the first time. It made me think of how different the world looked in that situation. It got me thinking: What if I’d been raised a different way? What if I belonged to a different group? And what did I make of the privilege of my class, which meant that I got to go to college, to spend time studying abroad? It empowered me in important ways. One of those was the idea that there was value in trying to make sense of other cultural ways of being. When I got to college, I discovered anthropology and ethnography. These offered opportunities to do a deeper, more thoughtful journalism.
I came up with this idea of riding freight trains as ethnographic research. I thought they would never buy it, because it does have a whiff of folly, but it all worked out. Riding freight trains led me to meet some Mexican hoboes. I thought about how much was not known of undocumented migrants other than the fact of their criminality, right? That’s changed—there have been other books since mine, and the culture is more sophisticated now about migrants from Mexico—but back then, it was still thought of as pretty transgressive to go do that. Yet I learned from riding the rails that people would talk to somebody like me. This way of doing research has the advantage of turning the spotlight on people who don’t get enough attention. People say, “Why do you keep putting yourself through this?” I understand the question, but I also think, “What could be more enlivening or illuminating?”
CNF: In The Routes of Man, you tell a story about a prayer your father used to say when you were a child: “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” Did you grow up in a religious culture?
CONOVER: I did go to Sunday school at a Presbyterian church, but as my parents lost interest in it, I did, too. I’m not now a religious person, but when I was young, my father’s days would begin with books on religious themes. He’d sit in his study in Denver, every morning before going to work as a lawyer, and read what seemed to me boring books about God and responsibility. I’m sure that’s in my brain stem somewhere, but I can’t tell you exactly its effect on my work. I am always impressed by the Catholic Church and its emphasis on the rights of immigrants and refugees. I find that quite compelling.
CNF: In Immersion, you also mention Walt Whitman. I wonder about his influence and that of other writers who shaped your thinking.
CONOVER: I didn’t read much Whitman before graduate school, but he articulated things I felt. I can’t say that reading Whitman made me who I am. Rather, Whitman explained some things about myself, such as why I might think it’s important to talk to everybody. There’s a strain of American thought that you can trace back to Whitman, and I’m sure I’m part of it. There he was modeling that kind of discourse, and doing it close to where I now work on lower Broadway. I don’t credit New York for making me this kind of writer, either. In a way, people in western cities like Denver are more attuned to talking to strangers. Our ethnicities don’t matter so much there because we are all more recent arrivals. Back east, there are more ethnic enclaves, and that can be a real impediment to community.
CNF: Some writers articulate what we already know. That’s when they strike us most powerfully.
CONOVER: I agree. In Immersion, I mention other writers I admire. They’re all important in different ways. In high school, I read Tom Wolfe’s manifesto about New Journalism. Books like The Right Stuff, which is immersion writing, are models for me. Certain travel books are, too. When I read Steinbeck, I felt a great kinship with The Grapes of Wrath. Later, it was Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. He follows the idea that the brontosaurus skin in his grandmother’s cabinet came from Patagonia. There’s magic and mystery to his exploration. That’s different from a more analytic way of thinking.
Great writing can benefit from both; you don’t want to be too cerebral when it comes to encountering the world but rather encounter it as a human being in all shades of meaning. I tried to be a little bit like Chatwin, a little like Steinbeck. I was greatly influenced by Anne Tyler in college. Closer to the present, one of the immersion books I like best is Dance with the Devil by Stanley Booth. He’s a music writer who got permission to travel with the Rolling Stones during a fascinating part of American history—rock ’n’ roll in an era when people seemed to think it might change the world. There’s an energy I absorbed that helped make me who I am. It’s part of New Journalism, the ’60s, and the Vietnam War. A new tradition of writing started then.
CNF: In Immersion, you lay out the way that ethnography and journalism both influenced you. Could you talk about how you merged those two worlds?
CONOVER: In the writing of James Spradley, I came upon the idea of the ethnographer as a student of the people he wished to write about. Rather than the highly educated, sophisticated ethnographer going in and looking at a tribe as a scientist, you assume a very different model, of yourself as ignorant and your subjects as knowledgeable. What can they teach me? What do they know that would be interesting for the world? That research posture is wonderful, and I emulate it.
While never disowning the knowledge I have, I acknowledge how little I know compared to the poor guy climbing off a freight train who’s been riding three days from the border at Nuevo Laredo. He has a lot to teach me. His stories are valuable if only I can hear them.
Another way anthropology has been valuable is cultural relativism. No matter what your culture is, there are others to learn from. Many are going away as global culture expands, and others are changing in interesting ways. The world as subject matter is inspiring. I tend to write about American subjects, but I’m interested in others. If there’s one thing I’m really glad I took in high school and college, it’s Spanish.
CNF: You call ethnography one of immersion journalism’s “literary cousins.” Matthew Desmond, the author of Evicted, is a Harvard sociologist, but with the success of his book has sometimes been portrayed more as a journalist. Desmond has said in interviews that he’s not worried about labels as long as his work draws attention to issues such as poverty and evictions. Still, journalism and ethnography have been separate worlds. Do you see the differences between them starting to narrow?
CONOVER: There is more overlap now. When I wrote my undergraduate thesis, I was told it had to be in the third person; I don’t think that would be the case today. First person in journalism and the social sciences makes the material more accessible. It also states up front: this is my subjective rendering of the experience. We need to look at ourselves and how we change the room when we enter it. I am modest in my claims: no, I didn’t become a hobo, I didn’t become an undocumented migrant, but I got to know more about them than I would have if I had not had these experiences. Sociologists like Matthew Desmond and Alice Goffman (On the Run) are aware of the power of narrative and of putting themselves in the story. That said, both Evicted and On the Run segregate the most interesting personal material in the appendices, which are totally riveting! Sociologists are still wrestling with the fascinating first-person piece. They don’t feel comfortable foregrounding it in the main part of a book. As a journalist, I don’t have to pretend the personal is not important. I’m going to put it right out there and aim it at the general reader.
CNF: In Immersion, you say, “My position, as a teacher of writing and as an active writer, is that you have to earn your first person.” I wonder if you could talk about that phrase.
CONOVER: Some of my students reflexively write in the first person, which is usually OK. And yet, if your subject is other people or the world, it’s important to ask what the first person is going to add. If it’s a city council meeting, there’s probably not a lot to be gained. But with other subjects, the writer’s presence helps tell the story. You’ve earned the first person by virtue of your experiences. But if it’s just, “Look at me, look at me!” that’s not my first person.
CNF: The difficult things you’ve been through while reporting your books—getting arrested, physical trauma, and facing various other dangers—make me wonder what tools you think your students need for this work?
CONOVER: Most of my students are new to immersive research. In the course of a semester, immersion might mean spending three weekends with your subject. With some people, it’s hard to spend a whole day. Often, they decide early that this is enough. The kind of immersion that turns into books extends over weeks, months, and years. One tool you need is patience. Another is forbearance. You have to put up with annoying people; they have to put up with you. On the other hand, being able to live differently offers the freedom to experience another identity. Riding the rails week after week changes your relationship with the world. You’re thinking about your personal safety, wondering where you’re going to get your next meal, how you’re going to stay warm. . . . A whole new set of questions organizes your life. You need to be excited by the prospect of getting to know Mexican workers or working in a prison. Your work is going to be stressful and really ugly at times, but it will teach you something valuable. The necessary tools are common to many nonfiction writers: the ability to listen, to ask good questions, to take notes, to find ways to tell a story and not simply file a report, to get to know people well enough that they become characters. You can’t shy away from conflict, which will be interesting to read about. You need a hunger for a different experience, and I’m not sure I can teach that.
CNF: How do you know when the reporting ends and shaping the story begins? In Immersion, you use an analogy: “I can’t bake a cake before I know which ingredients I’ll have at my disposal, or how much of each one.” You do the field and library research, and at some point, you see the shape of the story. But if you start with a particular story and something intrudes on that narrative line, do you exclude it?
CONOVER: In most cases, I’ve had only the most provisional idea of a story. With Rolling Nowhere, I knew I wanted to ride freight trains and get to know people who do that. I thought I might want to travel around the whole West. You need to picture the travel: what it will include and who might be part of it. You don’t know who you’ll meet, what they’ll teach you, or where you’ll get arrested. You might get on a train that’s going in a different direction than you expected. Going in [to Coyotes], I knew Mexico would be a big part of this story. The Mexican side of immigration hadn’t been told in American writing. I wanted to live in a village, to cross over from the Mexican side. Once I had crossed the border for the first time, I thought, “I’m probably halfway done.”
But it’s very situational. You can’t over-determine in advance because you have to go where life takes you. That said, you can’t be completely dependent on serendipity. You’ll be about to cross the border and meet somebody from Uganda who says, “I’m at the end of my journey. Come join me!” It sounds great, but that’s a different book.
CNF: Your ideas are relevant for library research, as well. I heard Alexander Chee speak at a conference recently. He used the phrase “the kiss of the mermaid” to describe when you dive too deep into research and get the bends.
CONOVER: I love that, because there’s often a mermaid down there.
CNF: If you get entranced by the mermaid, you’re dead.
CONOVER: An editor once told me, “Indulge in digressions.” Those can be some of the most interesting parts of a book. But I think students more often need to hear “Resist the digression.”
CNF: Your discussion of structure in Immersion is incredibly helpful. Even though all of your work is narrative, the structures are quite different. The Routes of Man, for example, alternates chapters on places with reflective interludes on the concept of a road. How do you arrive at each project’s structure, and how do you teach this?
CONOVER: Teaching structure is one of the most important and difficult things I do. Students typically know how to structure an essay by declaring their intentions at the beginning and then citing examples, but they need to think about other structures for telling a story. In Immersion, I list several models that are time-tested—an anecdotal lede, in medias res openings where you put an emblematic scene at the beginning. I often have students experiment with two or three different approaches. You need to get good at that before you can try structures like the one in The Routes of Man, which is less conventional.
CNF: Most structures in immersion writing are less experimental than in the overall realm of creative nonfiction. You cite Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp as one example that reaches in an experimental direction. Do you see this changing? Or is there something basic in narrative’s power to create empathy in a reader?
CONOVER: Narrative suggests certain structures and restrictions. There is experimentation within that structure. But if you go too far afield, you’re not telling a story as we think of a story. In the world of the nonfiction MFA, there is a big emphasis on the lyric essay. There’s also some skepticism over traditional narrative writing because you have to exclude information that doesn’t help you tell a story.
I’m interested in Jen Percy because she’s walking a line between the lyric essay and more conventional narrative storytelling. She plays with language and point of view. She lets in the sense of something not entirely rational, a malevolent presence that this traumatized veteran thinks is real. She wants the reader to think of it as real, too. Some of it works for me; some of it doesn’t. But I want to stay open to new things. No sooner do you write a book about immersion journalism than you start defending how it’s been done against all comers. I don’t want to be that person. Literature stays alive when it’s open to new approaches. I’m curious to see what’s next.
CNF: You say the writer’s duty is to the reader and the writing itself, not the subjects, so you don’t show your subjects your work. But in a contribution to Telling True Stories, Walt Harrington describes writing about a suicide for the Washington Post. He felt the topic was serious enough to bend the rules and read the story to his subjects before publication. Are there times when that’s appropriate?
CONOVER: I think the proper starting point is not showing the work to subjects. As journalists or nonfiction writers, our primary duty is to our readers. We will not get at the truth by simply embracing our subjects’ views of the world. We need to be free to offer our own opinions and those of other people. We’re going to talk with people we disagree with politically. I hope we do more of that in coming years so that election results like the ones we just had are a little less of a surprise.
There are also circumstances in immersion writing where you’ve spent a long time with somebody who shared their life with you. They often have very little expectation of getting anything in return except for a piece of work that tells their story accurately. This is where it gets tricky. You show a piece of writing to the subject, and even if a panel of people would agree it’s perfectly balanced, the subject might disagree.
But sometimes with extended research, it makes sense to go over things early on. You say, “Look, here’s what I’m going to write about. I want to reflect your point of view even if my article shares other views as well.”
A couple of years ago, I wrote this long story about a veterinarian in Iowa. At first, he sounded very encouraging. “Come hang out with me. You’ll get to see everything I do.” Once I arrived, the downside suddenly presented itself, and he was scared. He said, “Come out back, Ted”—to the corrals behind his clinic. He said, “I have a lot to lose here. You’re going to see me doing things that cause animals pain sometimes, and that doesn’t look good. I can explain it to you, but how do I know how you’re going to describe it?”
I said, “You’re absolutely right. I’m not sure I’ll think everything I see is the way it should be. But how about if we agree that at the end of every day, we take fifteen minutes and you say, ‘So what do you think of what we did today? The castration, say, that we performed on that ranch?’” I’ll tell him, and then we’ll discuss it. You can negotiate this by being up front: I’m listening very carefully to you, but I’m not your mouthpiece.
You find a middle ground between the strict newspaper rule—the subject never sees the story in advance—and the almost equally strict academic rule that the subject gets anonymized and approves everything.
CNF: I’d like to go back to what you said about the aftermath of the recent presidential election. In Immersion, you tell the story of the editor who helped you think about the audience for Rolling Nowhere. He suggested you write the book for a friend. But do we also need to write for people who might never be our friends? Do you think there will be a shift in audience?
CONOVER: I wouldn’t be at all surprised. As a lot of “literary” writing becomes associated with the academy, with MFA degrees and creative writing programs, there is a tendency to write to the sensibilities of the academy. These are not the sensibilities of Trump voters. Attention to human rights, transgender rights, and the whole agenda of progressive thinking that many of us embrace—these are not universally embraced. Every writer is going to have to think about the possible alienating effect of showing your hand on certain issues—to consider whether your personal feelings and political views should be apparent in everything you write. Is it possible to write from a place of concern that doesn’t just speak to the choir but is open to a larger audience? I’m proud that Newjack found readers both among prison reform advocates and corrections officers. I like to think we can write that way and say something important that will matter to more than just our side.
CNF: In the afterword of Newjack, you say you received more than three hundred e-mails from corrections officers or their family members, and it’s very moving to see the range of responses.
CONOVER: It wasn’t 100 percent “Oh, thank you for this book.” There were people who thought I didn’t have the right to author such a book because I was just a newjack. There were reservations from various corners. But overall, I think I found a way to cross the aisle and speak to a larger audience. That is my personal preference—to think of people who disagree with me when I’m writing and to try to avoid provoking them unnecessarily. Sometimes you can’t avoid it, but you can try to be more inclusive.
CNF: Newjack was the book that sent you undercover. In Immersion, you deal with the thorny ethical issues that surround that decision. Is there an inherent difference between someone who alters their racial or gender identity and someone adopting an occupational identity like being a prison guard?
CONOVER: The classic undercover writer goes in to expose some wrongdoing or malfeasance, right? It’s Nellie Bly in the insane asylum, showing the world how terrible the place is. She can only access that world by misrepresenting herself.
John Howard Griffin (Black Like Me) and Norah Vincent (Self-Made Man) are writers who went undercover, though not in the classical investigatory mode. Griffin wanted to show racism in the South in a graphic manner. He also, like Vincent, wanted to record the various affronts to his humanity by people who thought he was somebody else. I am interested in their examples because they take undercover work into this cultural realm. You’re not just talking about news. You’re talking about sexism and gender and racial stereotypes.
I tend to eschew the word undercover as the best label for some of my surreptitious work. I didn’t become a guard to expose corruption primarily, though I was certainly ready for that to happen when I found it. I spent long hours trying to document the problems people associate with prison—rape and brutality, for example, which are a part of the experience for so many people and deserve exposing. But what I had access to was interesting for other reasons, like the way prison changes people. I think it makes prisoners more racist, and it does the same for officers. It brings out a bad side of all involved. These are deeper issues that don’t typically fall under the category of undercover reporting.
CNF: Given all the debates about cultural appropriation and identity issues, could Black Like Me be written now?
CONOVER: I don’t think so. It has certain facile propositions about what makes a black person.
CNF: These debates have been around for a long time, but certainly Lionel Shriver’s presentation at the Brisbane Writers Festival provoked new questions. She decried the movement against cultural appropriation, arguing that artists should be free to represent any ethnicity, gender, or other identity they choose. Has the current debate complicated those questions for you?
CONOVER: Well, sure. In a way, it was a relief to write about prison officers after having written Coyotes, because I would be writing about people of my own gender and ethnicity. Thinking about what knowledge you can claim as a writer has been a part of anthropology for forty years at least. It’s a part of me as a writer. But I don’t think the current debate should stop anybody of any ethnicity from thinking and writing about other people. If we all just start writing about ourselves, we’re not going to get anywhere. We need a multiplicity of voices to have a lively true literature.
CNF: The anthropologist Dell Hymes said ethnography is the perfect tool for a democratic society. Ideally, Mexican immigrants would study the culture of Ted Conover’s middle-class white family. We would all study the cultures of one another. It isn’t that the tools are flawed. Rather, the unequal distribution of power gives access to some people and not others.
CONOVER: That’s a good way to put it: it’s not the tools.
CNF: On the topic of tools, you need a lot of stamina for immersion journalism. Are you going to continue in this vein? What’s next for you?
CONOVER: I have two or three ideas on the back burner that I hope will take wing. The problem with two of them is access. That question doesn’t go away. I’ve gotten better at some aspects of immersion writing, but my track record can make it hard to do certain things. I’m more Google-able now, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
CNF: You’re now in the journalism school at NYU. How do you think teaching has changed you?
CONOVER: It’s required me to explain myself more than I would have otherwise. I have to think about my process at every phase. What’s a good idea? Does it need to be topical? Should it be political? Is there a market for it? Teaching has also required me to pay attention to lots of smart people who went before me. I wasn’t the first writer to get a job as a prison guard in order to write about it. A reporter in Chicago named William Recktenwald did that in the ’70s. I didn’t know about that until a couple of years ago. There are many writers whose work is part of a canon I appreciate, whether consciously or not. I can now tell you about The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, which I didn’t read until about five years ago. To be a teacher, you need to be aware that you aren’t the person who invented all these things.
I was afraid along the way that thinking too much could foul up my intuitive process. Do I want to subject it to the light of explanatory thinking? I’m OK with that now. Teaching also urges you to consider your connections with other parts of the academy, like social science. Creative writing programs don’t do that so much. But books like Evicted and On the Run are cousins of what I do. It behooves us to know about that branch of the family and to be able to communicate with it. We can help each other, but we also need to acknowledge that we’re different. Teaching broadened me. It keeps me in conversation with life in a good way. I’m not sure that a writer alone in a cabin in the woods is the best model for our new century. We need to be out there in constant conversation with everybody.
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