Writer Ted Conover has spent four decades immersed in cultures most of us don’t have access to. He’s described his experiences in a series of articles and books –– from crossing the southern border with undocumented Mexican migrants (“Coyotes”) to working nearly a year as a corrections officer at Sing Sing maximum security prison (“Newjack”). His current project is about homesteaders in a poor, off-grid part of Colorado. Conover, head of NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, reads from his work Wed., Oct. 23, at 7 p.m., 101 Textor Hall, Ithaca College. He spoke recently with Ithaca Times freelancer Barbara Adams.
IT: As an Amherst undergraduate, you’d already done some journalism, but what really prompted you to take a leave of absence and head out to ride the rails?
TC: In an anthropology course, I’d learned about ethnography and field methods –– it was like journalism except that you had to spend a lot more time and learn from your direct experience of people, from hanging out with them. It struck me that maybe anthropology could lead me to a deeper journalism, one based on shared experiences. Growing up, I’d read books on hoboes and had a romantic idea of that life. So it was a perfect starting point: I could discover how much was false and how much was real. And I could have an adventure but treat it really seriously.
IT: What rules or boundaries did you set for yourself?
TC: I decided I would never tell a lie. And I would never misrepresent myself. But I didn’t feel a need to disclose myself right up front. “Participant observation” is the social scientist’s phrase for what I do: taking part and yet having one foot out, remaining an observer while participating. The same is true of a critic at a play or a sports reporter at football game: they have their own agenda, and it’s a productive place to be. I try to move to the participatory end of the spectrum, but without ever going all the way –– going native. That’s when you lose the perspective to tell the story to the people where you came from.
IT: Your work gives us insight to key social issues, like race and incarceration.
TC: People say “journalism is the first draft of history.” I try to capture a moment, some essential sense of things –– the enduring meaning at the heart of every story. That’s the great promise of journalism: the world is full of problems and you can go out there and take them on.
IT: Any regrets?
TC: Like all nonfiction writers, I regret that at some point you need to stop reporting and start writing or you’ll never produce anything. I always think, Oh man, if I just had another three months, I would have gone there, had that experience, learned so much more. There’s a real correlation between experiences and how vivid and exciting the story is.
IT: How hard is it to gain access?
TC: Access is the great thwarter. It would be great to infiltrate a gang or the White House –– but how to get in is a recurring problem. It depends on the situation: Getting that job at Sing Sing took me three years; my other secretive project was two months as a meat inspector; it took two years to get there.
IT: Once in, how do dissolve into another culture, adapt?
TC: Generally, the longer you’re out there, the more you absorb the culture. The skills a journalist brings to the project are really helpful –– coming into the room with your tail wagging, a friendly face and a sense of humor, trying to start conversations. Most people have a lot to say if they feel someone who cares is listening. I find it more valuable to listen than to talk. But you can’t get to know people unless you offer some of yourself.
IT: You’ve had some rough times. What have been the greatest challenges?
TC: At Sing Sing I was really scared a lot of the time and couldn’t show it. And I was pretty nervous on the rails as well. Traveling with migrants had a lot of the same perils as riding the rails, but they were mostly young guys my age. They were out having an adventure and I was too; they looked after me. I could fall asleep and not worry that something bad would happen. Falling asleep among strangers is one of the scariest things. And crooked cops, random violence.
IT: You’ve been called courageous and intrepid. Do those terms describe you?
TC: So many kinds of bravery are shown in everyday life –– I don’t necessarily think I deserve a lot of credit for all the things I’ve done. My main goal is to learn something and not get hurt. It’s much more modest than to come off as brave or bold –– I’d just like to get back in one piece.
IT: Why do you do this? There are easier paths…
TC: I can’t think of any so interesting, I really can’t. And maybe it’s part of the old hobo ethic: The 9 to 5 is harmful to the spirit and you need to get out, away from the clock, from expectations. There’s something great out there if you go.