The first time Ted Conover was asked if he was a tramp he wasn’t sure how to respond. The son of a successful lawyer, Conover had been jumping on and off trains for months, riding the rails as research for his college anthropology thesis. He certainly looked the part; even his parents didn’t recognize him when he showed up on their doorstep. In fact, he had entered the life so completely that when another tramp tried to jump into his boxcar (a violation of hobo etiquette), Conover barely hesitated before stepping on the man’s hand, sending him flying off the moving train. “I guess I am,” he answered uneasily, all too aware of the vast expanse—economic, social, intellectual—separating him from his veteran-tramp interlocutor.
It is this expanse that Conover has spent the last two decades exploring, first in Rolling Nowhere (1984), the cult classic he wrote about his hobo travels, and then in his three subsequent books—Coyotes (1987), Whiteout (1991), and Newjack (2000)—about Mexican illegal aliens, Aspen celebrities, and prison guards. Together, they have cemented Conover’s reputation as one of the finest participatory journalists of his generation.
Those who have read only one or two of Conover’s works might cubbyhole him as the bard of gritty, rough-and-tumble subcultures. While not untrue, the description is incomplete. It obscures Conover’s real subject: the fine lines separating “us” from “them,” and the elaborate rituals and markers—“parts of town, railroad tracks and boulevards, places in the heart and mind,” he writes in Coyotes—that we have developed to bolster such distinctions.
In Conover’s hands, migrant workers, rootless hoboes, and prison guards become vivid, morally ambiguous characters, deserving of praise and scorn, admiration and pity. Without sacrificing the commitment of the early-twentieth-century muckrakers, or the gusto of the nineteenth-century literary adventurers in whose footsteps he walks, Conover combines “a sociologist’s eye for detail with a novelist’s sense of drama and compassion,” as The New York Times’s Michiko Kakutani wrote of Coyotes.
Born in 1958 in Okinawa, Japan, where his father was stationed as a navy pilot, Conover was raised in an affluent Denver neighborhood. In high school, he was bused to a newly desegregated school (50 percent black, 40 percent white, and 10 percent Hispanic), and he credits the experience with inspiring his love of anthropology (a discipline he calls “philosophy as lived by real people”). “I learned that one’s own culture is not necessarily normative,” he says, “that there are many ways of looking at the world.”
In 1980, after three years of studying anthropology at Amherst, Conover wearied of the college’s elitism. Conover proposed to ride the rails for his senior thesis. He wanted to learn whether hoboes were great American rebels (“renegades, conscientious objectors to the nine-to-five work world”), infantrymen in the army of homeless who were then inundating cities across America, or both. The college said they couldn’t sanction an illegal activity, but Conover completed the fieldwork on his own time, hitting the road armed with little more than an emergency stash of traveler’s checks.
Conover returned to Amherst to write his senior thesis gaining approval for the project after the fact, when his professor saw the notes he’d taken on the trip. He also spun off an autobiographical article for a student magazine, which caught the attention of several television producers. His enthusiasm for the subject bolstered by the attention, Conover turned down the reporting job he had been offered at The Indianapolis Star and decided to write a book about his adventures.
Rolling Nowhere was published in 1984. Washington Post staff writer Chip Brown noted the peculiarly American themes—expansion, restlessness, the myth of the West—that would mark much of Conover’s future work. “Freight trains possess grandeur. They cast an epic spell. With their long whistles and their magical names, they summarize something in us, for they have carried not just the steel and wheat of America, but the nation’s westwardness and some measure of its spacious dream,” Brown wrote.
After graduating from Amherst summa cum laude, he won a spot as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University. It was not long before Conover was back on the road, expanding on the insight he had gained writing Rolling Nowhere: “Mexican farmworkers were the new American hoboes.” For Coyotes, Conover crossed the U.S.-Mexican border four times, traveling with migrant workers through California, Arizona, Idaho, and Florida. He picked lemons and oranges, and lived for a time in the village of Ahuacatlan, Querétaro, the hometown of a number of the illegal immigrants he met.
Again, some critics realized that Conover was writing about something more fundamental than the immigration debate. “What makes it really glow on every page is Mr. Conover’s realization that he is dealing neither with a crime nor a tragedy, but with another of those human adventures that make America a country that is constantly renewing itself,” wrote T. D. Allman in The New York Times Book Review.
Back in New York, Conover was rankled at a cocktail party when a friend introduced him as “Ted Conover, a writer who makes his living sleeping on the ground.” The accuracy of the remark disturbed him. “I was unsettled to feel so easily typecast at age thirty, and began to wonder whether my participant-observer method could be used to write about people who weren’t remote or poor.”
The result was his 1991 book, Whiteout: Lost in Aspen, in which Conover conducted what he described as “an ethnography of hedonism,” observing Aspen’s celebrity culture from his perches as a local cab driver and reporter at the Aspen Times. As with his previous books, Whiteout was a meditation on the author’s ambiguous relationship to the phenomenon he chronicled—the “great celebrity laboratory” that Aspen had become. Some critics were disappointed by Conover’s turn away from the dispossessed. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Richard Eder felt that Conover’s considerable “talent overmatches his subject.” Others perceived a continuity. “His subject is Aspen, the glittering ski resort and celebrity enclave in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The underlying theme, however, is similar to that explored in his earlier books: the promise and betrayal of the American Dream,” wrote Kakutani.
In the early nineties, Conover asked the New York State Depart-ment of Correctional Services for permission to write an article for The New Yorker in which he would follow a guard through training. The U.S. prison population was at an all-time high, and he conceived of the story as being as much about economics as society. The Department is New York State’s second-largest employer, and ailing communities throughout the region routinely bid for new prisons in the hopes they will revive the local economy.
When his formal request was rejected, Conover applied for a job as a guard, carefully navigating the ethical and legal minefield of undercover reporting. He offered no false information on his application, but did omit mention of his three books, and he vowed to himself not to write anything about the experience until after he had quit. “When I was a guard, I wanted to be 100 percent a guard,” he says, living on a guard’s salary and eschewing writing assignments. Fortunately, journalists and guards do share one thing—both carrying around notebooks in which to jot down their observations. Every night, from March 1997 to January 1998, when he returned from Sing Sing, Conover would type up pages of single-spaced notes (nearly five hundred in all), elaborating on the day’s observations. It was part journalism and part therapy, as he tried to unburden himself of the awful things he’d witnessed—and taken part in—every day.
The project required complete secrecy, and Conover’s double life took a toll. He was wracked with terrible headaches and found he was often sullen around his family. He feared he was allowing the anarchy of Sing Sing to seep into his placid home life. Published in 2000, Newjack won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Conover was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003 and is at work on a book about roads. In February 2004, Conover received the kind of compliment life pays to art. Using Newjack as their guide, a group of Sing Sing inmates hatched an ingenious (though unsuccessful) escape plan in which they would pose as guards.
Do you think of yourself as a “New Journalist”?
It isn’t a phrase I use, although I wouldn’t object if someone called me that. Wolfe’s essay on the New Journalism was important to me because it articulated and validated many of the methods—saturation reporting, attention to detail, attention to status, etc.—I was already practicing. I feel lucky to have started my writing career at a time when writers like Wolfe were experimenting with the tools of the fiction writer.
So if not “New Journalism,” what do you call your genre of journalism?
I write nonfiction narratives. I like that phrase because it doesn’t have the pretensions of “literary journalism,” and it stresses the fact that storytelling is the backbone of my work.
What subjects are you drawn to?
I guess mainly those that seem socially significant and underreported, particularly if they allow me to participate in the story in some meaningful way. I might discover a situation or group—sometimes a marginal or strange subculture—which I find fascinating. By participating in that world, I try to offer the reader a level of insight and detail he would not otherwise have. I prefer smaller, overlooked stories. I’d rather not be competing with the presidential press corps. I like to take my time and to be a bit contrarian.
In college I studied anthropology, which dovetails with journalism in fascinating and productive ways. If you’re a journalist who has the luxury of time and a willingness to get your hands a little dirty, you will be able to get stories that nobody else gets.
An example is the story I told in Newjack. Here is an important subject, a worsening problem—incarceration, the boom in building new prisons—whose significance, I felt, was underappreciated by society at large. I found an unexplored angle from which to approach: guards are a stigmatized, insular subculture which have, for all their notoriety, rarely been written about. And guarding—working as a correctional officer—turned out to be something I could do.
So why not just interview prison guards?
Because I would only get part of the story. The interview will only take you so far, especially when you are talking to people who are uncomfortable with the press or who have things to hide. You can get further by conducting many interviews, over time, in different places. That was my original plan when I got the assignment from The New Yorker: I would follow a family of corrections officers at work and at home. But the New York State Department of Correctional Services turned down my requests for access to the prisons. And I thought, “Until you’ve seen somebody doing this kind of work, you probably won’t know a thing about it.”
I suppose what I’m getting at is like the distinction between tourist and a traveler. The tourist experience is superficial and glancing. The traveler develops a deeper connection with her surroundings. She is more invested in them-the traveler stays longer, makes her own plans, chooses her own destination, and usually travels alone: solo travel and solo participation, although the most difficult emotionally, seem the most likely to produce a good story.
Do many of your stories begin as an opportunity for role-playing, whether you are writing about hoboes, illegal immigrants, or prison guards?
I guess there’s some role-playing involved. I’m fascinated by the idea of wearing different hats, of how one’s outlook changes depending on one’s position in the world, by the whole question of identity. For my first book, Rolling Nowhere—which started as a college thesis—I lived for four months as a hobo, with hoboes. The prospect was total wish fulfillment for me—several freight lines run through my hometown of Denver, and I grew up with a bit of an image of the hobo as a cultural hero, the kind of romantic figure you find in Kerouac. Riding the rails seemed, on the one hand, a great adventure.
But I knew it was something else, too. This was 1980, when the word “homeless” was just entering our vocabulary because of the large number of street people appearing in cities. I wondered to myself, Were the transients on freight trains homeless people? Or were they—as they insisted—something else entirely? Were they a social problem, or—the more romantic option—conscientious objectors to the nine-to-five world? I liked the dialectic. So the project was two things, as I guess all my books have been: an intellectual inquiry, and an adventure.
Why did you study anthropology in college?
I’d always been interested in philosophy, and anthropology seemed like philosophy as lived by real people. It was the study of how different groups of people view their experience of the world. Anthropology combines the abstractions of philosophy with the concreteness of lived experience.
What about the notion of multiple views and experiences of the world interested you?
I think it started a long time ago. One big piece comes from high school in Denver, where I was bused by court order from a predominately white school to a predominately black school. I was a racial minority for the first time in my life and it taught me a lot. The world looks different when your own group is not in charge. Also, there was a core of progressive teachers who were determined to defy the larger community’s expectations that there would be a riot and that the experiment in integration would fail. The students embraced the possibility that it could be a new kind of school, one without the archetypes of jocks, freaks, and nerds. It was a place where you could be something new: a white person cheering the basketball team, or a black person cheering the soccer team. I found it profoundly liberating.
How do you connect those lessons to the kind of journalism you practice?
One result was that it made me want to avoid the kind of journalism that relies heavily on “credentialed” sources. I sometimes think of what I do as a kind of a guerrilla action. I try to find people and groups who have not been heard from. I depend on the newness of this information to keep my audience interested in my writing.