February 14, 2010

Suite 101: An Interview with Ted Conover


When Ted Conover wanted to interview corrections officers (COs) at the infamous Sing Sing prison, he was told to get lost. His solution? Become a CO. When he was interested in the lives of hobos and illegal immigrants, he lived with them. Just writing about other people’s lives isn’t enough for him–he prefers to immerse himself, to feel the pepper spray in his own eyes and the dirt underneath his own fingernails.

His research has materialized into five books: Rolling Nowhere, which originated as his senior thesis, Coyotes, Whiteout, Newjack, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the coveted Pulitzer Prize, and The Routes of Man, his latest book (Knopf 2010). His most recent book is about roads, so, naturally, Conover traveled them with the people to whom they mean something. Of the book, he says, “It’s about the power of roads to change a place and to change the people on them.” His writing has also appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, and National Geographic. He currently teaches at New York University.


Did you always see yourself being a writer? What was the first piece of writing you published?

No, I didn’t. Being a writer didn’t seem like a realistic thing to wish for. I didn’t know any writers. I was daring in different ways, but I wasn’t daring in thinking that I could be a writer. I had a lot of random jobs; I worked in a Spanish sausage factory and a spice warehouse, I was an aerobics instructor, and I taught an SAT prep class, all just to make money.

My first published piece was an essay in Bicycling magazine called “Finishing.” It was a description of the last hour of a coast-to-coast bicycling ride my friend and I took from Seattle to New Jersey the summer before college. College was the first time I wrote about my experience; until then, my experiences were more important to me than writing about them was. Once I sold the piece, I saw how writing and my experiences could go together.

What writers were/are inspirational to you? Were you inspired to write immersion journalism through reading other people’s work, such as Tom Wolfe’s?

Yes; I read and admired George Orwell, Jack London, and Bruce Chatwin. Those were three writers who had interesting lives that they wove into their writing. When I rode the rails, I didn’t even know that Jack London had done that; I learned that later.

In Newjack, you say that you are fascinated by walls. Is this a metaphor for not only that project, but for all of your projects?

I’m fascinated by places I can’t get into, places I’m not supposed to go. Maybe it’s a private club, maybe it’s a neighborhood in Nigeria that’s dangerous for a person who looks like me. Those are the places I want to go, so the idea of a wall works for me.

A statement in the beginning of Newjack explains that some dialogue has been recreated. What are your feelings on the much-talked about issue of author honesty in nonfiction books lately? How do you ensure that you are recreating dialogue honestly?

The dialogue in a book like mine can’t be 100 percent accurate because I can’t record the conversations and I can’t take notes during them. Truman Capote claimed he could remember nearly 100 percent of the dialogue; I don’t know anyone who can do that, but with practice, you can commit to memory several lines of dialogue. I would often find myself thinking of my mind as a series of drawers, and in each drawer was a line and I’d try to keep it alive until I got alone and I could get it down. While the dialogue in the book is not verbatim, in most cases it is close to it. That’s not good enough for a feature article in The New York Times Magazine or The Atlantic–you need verbatim quotes for those–but for a book based on personal experience, I think the standards are different.

What do you think the recent controversies surrounding truth in nonfiction have done to the nonfiction genre? How do you think the nonfiction genre is viewed by readers now? Is there a trust issue? How has this issue shaped and affected your own reporting and writing?

The trust issue is more pronounced in memoir than in my work; while it’s first person and based on my experience, it’s less memoir than it is reportage. I was trained first as a reporter, and that’s different from James Frey who first considered himself a novelist. I think that nonfiction is a contract with the reader in which you say, “This really happened,” not, “Something like this happened.” In a way, I’m glad for this controversy because the lines were becoming blurred. The net result of the controversy is that writers and publishers will be more careful about the truth.

You choose to live the subject about which you are writing. Do you think this is necessary for writers of nonfiction, or do you think that stories can be written successfully through reporting and observation?

There’s fabulous nonfiction without immersion, and there are degrees; it’s not all or nothing. But I think that participation offers a way to go beyond what’s possible in an interview. If you were to hang out with me for the next 24 hours, even if I didn’t talk to you, you’d learn things about me that didn’t come out of an interview, and some of those things would be interesting. Not everything you might want to know in a nonfiction story is something a person will tell you; some of it could be what you hear, see, smell, or think about while something is happening. We’re not just recording machines; the more ways you can research something, the better.

What is a subject you would love to write about but haven’t yet?

I think about that a lot but I don’t have an answer. It would be fun to be a rock star, a girl, a fighter pilot..

You’ve done some amazing things: you’ve crossed the border with illegal immigrants, you’ve lived with hobos. Is there a subject you would never want to live, never want to write about?

I came close to it with Rolling Nowhere, but I think it could be homelessness or mental illness. To come closer to those subjects could be very frightening. I want my work to be serious but I don’t want it to be depressing. Also, I only want to research a book that I think would be fun to read. I’m not sure every writer has that test for their projects. Could you imagine your best friend being interested in this? I think all writers should answer that question “yes” before starting something.

You tend to write about the underdogs, the overlooked, the people with bad reputations. What inspires you to do this? What fascinates you about these people more than, say, public figures?

Coming from the middle class and being well educated has given me access to all kinds of interesting lives, but I think that simultaneously, because of the world we live in, it’s cut me off from others. Many nonfiction writers are attracted to power, and I’m kind of the opposite. I want to know more about people you wouldn’t normally hear about.

What advice do you have for writers who are interested in emulating the kind of writing that you do?

Talk to strangers. When it’s safe, go places alone, because you’ll meet more people that way. A good exercise is to think of yourself as a character in a story, to think of yourself in the third person.


Read more at Suite101.com: An Interview with Ted Conover: Journalist and Award-Winning Author