August 12, 2003

On Being a Tour Guide

Ted Conover is the author of four books of narrative nonfiction. Rolling Nowhere chronicles the lives of hobos riding the rails; Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America’s Illegal Aliens documents his year traveling and working with Mexican immigrants; and Whiteout: Lost in Aspen, is an “ethnography of hedonism.” His most recent book, Newjack, recounts his 10 months as a corrections officer at Sing Sing prison in New York. It was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. Conover’s work has also appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic. Currently a Guggenheim Fellow, he is at work on a book about roads.

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working on a novel ever since I finished Newjack. And I’m about to begin a new nonfiction project about roads around the world. Roads, and the good and bad that they do. I have a handful of roads that I’m going to be writing about, and that will be my next work of nonfiction.

One of my questions was going to be why you chose non-fiction over fiction, and now it turns out you’re doing both. Can you talk a little about the fiction, how that came about?

I guess partly to keep life interesting and keep in my writing a sense of exploration and discovery. I love nonfiction writing and I’m scrupulous about sticking to the facts, but you know, in your idle moments, it’s fun to think how the story might have turned out if you hadn’t stuck to the facts. There was one situation in particular, an article I did several years ago for the New York Times Magazine where I just thought, what if it hadn’t happened quite that way, what if it had happened this way? So that’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and after Newjack, I felt it was time–it did well, I made some extra money and I thought, this is an opportunity. It is not finished yet.

Can you say what it is generally about?

I cannot! (laughs).

And the new nonfiction is about roads. Did that come out of the story that you did in Central Africa where you followed the trucks?

I wrote a story for The New Yorker about travels with a convoy of trucks in East Africa along what’s been called the “AIDS highway,” between Mombasa on Kenya’s coast and Rwanda and Burundi. Recently I was having dinner with a friend, and I told him about another story I’d done–it’s in the June, 2003, National Geographic, about a new highway in Peru that will connect the Pacific and the Atlantic when it is done. And he said “you’ve written a lot about roads.” And I said “I have?” And he reminded me of one I wrote about the Texas-Mexico border for Outside years ago, and there are a couple of others. Sometimes it is just a comment like that that makes you understand some of your interests and desires and helps you to organize your thoughts.

Will you use those pieces you’ve already written?

I might re-visit a couple of those roads, but I won’t use the same pieces. It will be a brand new book.

Can you talk a little bit about the research phase? Once you decide on that road, how do you start with the research, how do you figure
out where to go?

The research starts when you figure out what road. So you have to think about the whole world, and my idea is to focus on roads that represent certain ideas. So there is a theme for each road; in Peru it’s the environment, in East Africa it’s disease, and so on. There are about five which are thematically linked, that offer a larger statement about the power of a road in human history. It’s a bit wide ranging, but it’s also very specific. On each one I will travel the road in the company of someone to whom the road means a lot. So, it will follow the participant observation method I’ve used before, but it will just be a bit varied.

Once you get all that together, what’s the next step? How do you organize what you’ve done?

I believe in the possibilities of narrative journalism, so I look for stories. The stories materialize along the way when you find a person who can be a character in the narrative, and then you watch what the person is trying to do, and you go with them, often sort of complicating the plot. So I’m a character as well, but generally, I’m a minor one. I try to cast each experience as a story in its own right. So you look at your raw data and you imagine how to organize it so that it will be most intriguing to a reader. That’s something I’ve done since my first book, and I’m still working on it….

Your first book Rolling Nowhere — as I recall, that came out of your honors thesis at Amherst, is that right?

Yes, it was based on the same research as my undergraduate thesis.

How did you take that and make it into a book? How did that process go?

When I came back from riding the rails, I prepared to write an ethnography of railroad hobos. Traditional ethnography does not feature a first person narrator, but I also wanted to write about the personal experience, because it was so interesting. I had worked on a student-run magazine and I proposed a story about one morning with one hobo. They liked it, and then the college alumni magazine reprinted it as a cover story; a week or two later, an Associated Press reporter happened to see it, and interviewed me just as I was graduating. There was a lot of response to the story, including calls from NPR and the Today show–utterly unexpected and bizarre! I was getting ready to do a newspaper internship in Indianapolis, and instead I ended up getting an agent in New York and selling a book based on a short epilogue to my thesis which was about the field work–and the article. So, that’s how the thesis became a book —or the first part of how, anyway.

You said “I found an agent in New York” as if that were an easy thing to do. Was it for you?

Well, no, not exactly. I knew almost nobody in New York. But I had worked at a magazine in Washington D.C. one summer, and when I got called by the “Today” show, I thought well, it’s now or never if I want to write a book about the hobo journey. An editor at the magazine knew of a guy who had an agent and gave me his name, which was Sterling Lord. Sterling’s secretary said something like, “Why don’t you come by the office after the TV show and you and Mr. Lord can talk about your idea?” Sterling, as it turned out, had grown up in Burlington, Iowa, home of the Burlington Railroad, and seen hobo campfires as he walked to school. You certainly don’t expect it to happen like that; it hadn’t been part of my plan.

Had you intended to do more traditional journalism?

Yes, I had. But I’ve always enjoyed writing in the first person, and I love reading that kind of story as well. This kind of book, it struck me when I was writing Rolling Nowhere, was a great way to combine the journalism which I’d been doing since junior high school with the anthropology that I had just learned and the methods of participant observation that are so central to anthropological research. My first book, Rolling Nowhere, showed me how those two really worked together. I thought: this could be taken in so many directions! After two years of graduate school in England, I had the idea for Coyotes. It seems as though I’m still on that road.

You do such an amazing job of telling your story, but not having it be just about you. How do you do that?

I write about myself, but I don’t want the book to be a book about me. It’s a big world out there, and I think that, all things considered, there are more interesting things in it than me. That said, I know that my experiences in some of these strange worlds are what will be bring people into them. That is, it’s not easy to get the average reader to go into prison. It’s not a pleasant place. And a lot of folks are made uneasy by illegal immigration–they don’t want to think about it or don’t imagine they can know those people. So I sort of become a tour guide and I try through my voice to provide an entrée into these worlds, a way in. I want readers to care about me as a means of caring about these subjects. I strive for a balance. I think it’s important that I be there as a voice and as a presence, but I don’t want to take center stage. Occasionally, of course, I do: things happen. I get slugged and it’s about me. That’s the way it works and that’s fine. It’s all a question of proportion.

In Newjack in particular, but also in Rolling Nowhere, the people you were interacting with didn’t know you were a writer —

In Rolling Nowhere I didn’t even know I was a writer. And, I purposely did not bring it up in Sing Sing.

What challenges did that present for you? It is certainly different from sitting down and interviewing somebody.

Newjack is the first and probably the only book I’ll ever do “undercover.” Secrecy is something that I think a journalist or a nonfiction writer should only use as a last resort, because whenever possible in this life it’s good to be up front with people. But as you know, I had tried to do this story in the traditional way. The New Yorker asked me to write about guards, the State wouldn’t let me go to work with them, and I knew I had to see the workplace to understand the guard’s life. So I applied for the job, and was truthful on my application. I actually didn’t expect to get hired because I wrote down the name of my alma mater, Amherst College, which I was sure would immediately disqualify me or subject me to suspicion. But for whatever reason, I don’t think they’d heard of Amherst College. I don’t even know what they thought. I learned there are other red flags they’re looking for–credit card debt, evidence of a hot temper, a felony conviction–things that really might be a big problem in prison work.

I did not offer an explanation of my ambitions to the people I worked with. I felt if I did, some would be suspicious that I was just going to do a cheap exposé along the traditional lines of evil prison guard beating defenseless inmate. Or word would get out that I was a journalist and I’d be fired –I really think that is very likely — if not beaten up in the parking lot, the other likelihood. However, nobody asks about your background in corrections work, nobody brings it up. And they certainly never ask if you’ve been to college because if you had, why on earth would you want that job?

The other difficult part of the secrecy was that these ten and a half months were an extremely stressful and dismaying time for me because prison work is really hard, and you see ugly things and it is important to talk about them and yet it’s difficult to talk about when you’re leading a secret life. I had a handful of friends whom I could confide in but you can’t always reach them when you need them. My wife knew most of what was happening, but not everything because I didn’t want to frighten her or bring prison into our kitchen. And she was working full time and had her own problems to deal with and I didn’t want to burden her more than I already had by being gone practically every weekend, leaving her with our newborn daughter and our three year old son. She was already doing heroic things. So that was really the hardest part of the job, keeping it quiet. And I felt I understood why so many undercover narcotics agents get divorced and become drug addicts: I mean it’s unhealthy to keep secrets and it’s unhealthy to live a double life. I feel like I’m still mending these two parts of my life back together.

Did it present challenges during the writing because you couldn’t go back and ask somebody “what were you thinking during that?”

A little bit, such as in the few cases where I couldn’t remember things like “How many cells were on that floor, 62 or 58?” I saved a handful of those questions for the very end when I started telling my colleagues, the guys I worked with, what I had done, and told them I’d written a book which was coming out. And most of them sounded kind of excited about that, were curious if they were going to be in it and what they were going to be doing in the book, and I told them. So I saved that kind of question until the end because I didn’t know, frankly, how they would react. And if someone was going to get upset I didn’t want them to get upset until later because I didn’t want to have to worry about it while I was still writing.

That brings up another issue that I think all immersion writers have to deal with, the issue of betrayal. You’ve put yourself in this place, you’ve gotten to know these people, you like them, and now you’re going to write about them “warts and all.”

Well, you greatly lessen the chance of misunderstanding if you’re up front about what you’re doing. In most cases it is not an issue. People might take exception to some of what you write, but if they knew your project, it generally remains a disagreement on a small point.

But Newjack was of a different order of magnitude because nobody knew, and I was very apprehensive about that. You’ll know from the book’s afterward that there was a very exciting evening in the Ossining Public Library when I gave my first reading in the neighborhood. The room was packed, and the first two rows were filled with gray uniforms. The librarian, as she pinned the mike on, whispered to me that she hoped I hadn’t been worried about the policemen who had been posted at the front door. “What policemen?” I asked her. “Well, the Sing Sing librarian called and scared our reference librarian by warning her there was going to be trouble tonight,” she said, smiling. I was about as scared then as I’ve ever been.

But as I began the reading, I started seeing officers nodding as I said things that struck them as true. And at the end, most of them came up and told me how much they liked it. The book is very candid–I tell about the many good officers, but also about the bad. But what the book gives corrections officers, which they don’t usually get, is treatment as human beings. I think the fact that I put myself in their shoes and acknowledged the way the work made me feel, how it brought out a side of me that is not my best self, means a lot to CO’s.

The greatest resistance to my book has come from the top echelons of the Department of Correctional Services which, I think, feels foolish because I snuck under their radar — by telling the truth, no less — and because I criticized the system, which is in urgent need of reform. That’s why the book was banned and is now censored, and why they wouldn’t cooperate with any fact-checking. They are very fearful and they’re worried about their grip, and I believe they are a little worried about their legitimacy. They are not fond of me.

What is the worst part of the writing life for you?

Hmm. I have to say it has many challenges. It’s not always easy to write, and it doesn’t always pay as well as you wish it would. You can’t always write about your first choice.

Here’s a difficult part of writing. I never sit down to write without having thought about what I’m going to write that day beforehand. This is something that took me awhile to learn. Rolling Nowhere was very hard to write — I still remember the days I sat in front of that blank computer screen with no thoughts coming to my head. The cure for that for me has been to make sure I think about it before hand, usually starting the night before when I go to sleep. Often when I wake up in the morning, I think “okay, where am I in this story, and where might I take it today?” I’ll try to have some rough ideas in my mind. I will get energized about it, I’ll get excited about it — and then my daughter will have strep throat. And it kind of lets all the air out of the balloon. And you don’t know when to fill it back up — is it the next day? will she be able to go back to school? or won’t it be the end of the week? That’s a challenge I didn’t use to have — but I’m learning how to handle it.

How do you balance writing — especially since you do so much traveling for your writing — and teaching and all that entails, with your family life?

I try not to be away from home for too long at any one time. One of the advantages of the roads book is that I’ll be able to research it pieces. So I hope never to be away from home for more than a month or two — even that is a lot, but in the larger scheme of things, it then allows me to be at home for at least a year and not go away at all, which is a rare privilege these days I think, and to have a lot of flexibility in terms of my schedule. You pay a price up front, but then I think there’s compensation.

Who do you read? Who are your favorite authors?

One of my favorite authors is George Orwell. John Steinbeck, Bruce Chatwin, Robert Stone, Tracy Kidder. I read a lot of fiction because often that is where you find the best storytelling. There’s a great new book by Adrian Nicole Leblanc, Random Family, her work is an inspiration for me — her persistence and the intimacy she achieves just through incredible commitment to her subjects. She’s amazing.

I love Susan Orlean as a stylist — not all nonfiction writing has to be about profound and serious subjects. She is a perfect example of how life is not all gravity — nor is it silly. I like her a lot.

What are you reading right now?

I’m reading Robert Caro’s book The Power Broker, about Robert Moses, the New York City highway builder, and I have a novel on my shelf–I can’t wait – Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. I like a varied diet. I bet that at least half the books I read are fiction.

And Harry Potter?

Yes, I am reading the current Harry Potter — what a big project! My son is now 8 and he loves it!

RITA RADOSTITZ, a former attorney for death-row inmates, is a second-year student in the literary nonfiction program at the University of Oregon.