The Atlantic interview
A Conversation With Ted Conover, Participatory Journalist
by Daniel Fromson, March 16, 2011
You might call Ted Conover “Mr. Road.” The celebrated narrative nonfiction writer’s latest book, The Routes of Man, investigates the many roles played by pavement in a world of increasing interconnectedness–from smuggling rare wood in Peru to spreading AIDS in East Africa.
With the exception of Conover’s earlier work Newjack, in which he writes about working as a guard at New York’s Sing Sing maximum-security prison, his other books have similarly foregrounded the themes of transportation and migration. His first, Rolling Nowhere, was about hopping freight trains with hoboes; his second, Coyotes, chronicled illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border. Even Conover’s Whiteout, a look inside the big-money culture of Aspen, Colorado, is at least partially about moving from point A to point B. He reported it while working as a taxi driver.
Here, Conover discusses the death of “travel writing” as a genre, Jack Kerouac, and the awesome power of Google Maps.
What do you say when asked, “What do you do?”
I say that I write about other people, sometimes by putting myself in their shoes. Or, in the case of my latest book, in their cars.
What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people are thinking and writing about travel?
The Web, of course, and blogs. And the way it’s easier and easier to get almost anywhere on earth.
What’s something that most people just don’t understand about the sort of travel writing that you do?
Well, that it’s not travel writing per se. It’s storytelling and participant observation and attention to ideas, such as how will a road change this place?
What’s an emerging travel-writing trend you’ve been noticing?
I think that travel writing as a genre is mostly over. Adventure travel is so buyable that it seldom translates into a book advance anymore. And travel magazines don’t want “travel writers”–they want talented novelists, essayists, or memoirists writing artfully about place. Readers want more, as well, from travelers who write. Often that means a combination of topicality and deep cultural exploration, as in Rory Stewart’s The Places in Between, Peter Hessler’s Country Driving, or Christopher MacDougall’s Born to Run. Sometimes it means a combination of travel, memoir, and convincing personal quest, as in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or another good book I’m reading, Kook, by Peter Heller, about a middle-aged writer’s mission to become a surfer.
What’s a travel-writing trend that you wish would go away?
Breathless first person-ality.
What’s a place you became fascinated with while pursuing a story but that ended up taking you off track? (Or is getting off track part of what travel writing is all about?)
The subject of The Routes of Man is roads, but I kept getting lured off them–down giant rivers in the Amazon where unusual plants and animals live, for my chapter on Peru’s Interoceanic Highway, or way up dirt trails in the Himalayas, in my chapter on teenagers fleeing traditional villages in Kashmir. The river is a road of a sort, and the footpath is often a future road … but time and again I had to pull myself back to the pavement, because it was important to my project not to get too metaphorical: if you’re not careful, everything’s a road.
Who are three people you’d put in the travel-writing Hall of Fame?
Bruce Chatwin. In Patagonia expanded my idea of what travel could be about (myth, anyone?).
Bernal Díaz del Castillo. The Conquest of New Spain is the astonishing account of one world overrunning another, by a conquistador who traveled with Hernán Cortés in the 16th century.
Jack Kerouac. Because of how he turned motion into story.
What other field or occupation did you consider going into?
Back when I was in college, I thought about becoming a lawyer. What a mistake that would have been! More recently–don’t ask, I can’t explain it–I’ve gotten intrigued by wiring and electricity.
What’s one website or app that you rely on daily to do your job?
Google Maps, and especially the Maps app on my iPhone … once the GPS got integrated into it, the thing became awesomely powerful. You can navigate a lot of Port au Prince, for example, using this app (discreetly).
What song’s been stuck in your head lately?
“These Roads Don’t Move,” by Jay Farrar and Benjamin Gibbard. They wrote an album inspired by Kerouac’s Big Sur, which actually is better to listen to than the book is to read. The song is very catchy and the memorable lyric is “These roads don’t move/You’re the one who moves.” That line is nicely confounding, kind of like the album title, “One Fast Move Or I’m Gone.”