December 7, 2007

Paper Cuts

by Dwight Garner

Ted Conover’s most recent book is Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing.

1) What are you working on?

There’s a moment in “Newjack” where I’m driving a prisoner from Sing Sing up to a different prison upstate. We eat dinner at a service area on the Throughway and he comments that once he’s out, he wants to be a trucker. In other words, after confinement he wants to move, constantly.

And once I finished at Sing Sing, I felt the same way. I took an assignment for National Geographic about a new road between the east and west coasts of South America, and got to thinking there was a book to be written about roads – their power to change the places they connect and the people who use them. Now I’ve finished the research and am completing the writing of it. There are five roads, in five different countries, and I traveled each one in the company of someone to whom the road means something special. So it’s passages through some cool parts of the world as well as a meditation on the meaning of roads, now and in the past: how the same road that brings medicine allows for the spread of AIDS, how a road that helps develop the Andes speeds destruction of the rain forest. Every road is an intention; each is a path of human endeavor.

2) How much time – if any – do you spend on the Web? Is it a distraction or a blessing?

The information superhighway is also pretty interesting to me – sometimes too interesting. Wasting time, for me, used to be all about the phone, the refrigerator, the mail, the garden. Now it’s about the Internet. I recently moved the “new messages” indicator on my e-mail program off the screen so I won’t be distracted. That’s the curse. But being able to send out a question and hear back within hours, or even minutes, from somebody in Lagos, the West Bank, China – that’s the blessing.

3) Whose books are generally shelved next to yours in bookstores? How does it feel to be sitting between them?

Denver’s Tattered Cover, my hometown bookstore, lately shelves my books in “Cultural Studies.” There you’ll find Newjack between Bill Bradley’s “New American Story” and the “New York Intellectuals Reader” (ed. Neil Jumonvilla). “Whiteout,” my book about Aspen in the 80s which I’ve always thought of as a kind of ethnography, is nicely bookended by “White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Effort to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good,” by William Easterly, and “Who Really Cares: Who Gives, Who Doesn’t and Why It Matters,” by Arthur Brooks.

“Rolling Nowhere,” about my months of riding freight trains with hobos, is presently sold out at the Tattered Cover; most bookstores place it in travel writing, if they have such a section, or even next to guide books. Usually “Coyotes,” about my year with Mexican migrants, can be found in sociology or current affairs. As long as they keep it out of biology (I’ve seen that twice), I don’t complain.