Ted Conover’s name has become shorthand for a certain kind of journalism, one that requires months or even years of embedded reporting and takes on subjects that are usually overlooked by other writers. Sometimes this work takes place undercover, but more often it just requires lots of patience, a sympathetic interest in the lives of others, and a willingness to go wherever the story may lead. The sportswriter Frank Deford has called Conover the “proletarian George Plimpton.”
In 1984, he published his first book, Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes, which began life as Conover’s undergraduate anthropology thesis. A year spent living with Mexican migrants to the United States became Coyotes, followed by two years driving a taxi in Aspen, Colorado, for Whiteout. In 2000, he published Newjack, a nerve-racking account of his time as a corrections officer at New York’s Sing Sing state prison, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His most recent book is Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep, a survey of the past half century of literary journalism that is also, he says, “a kind of memoir.”
On a recent afternoon, I visited Conover at his office at New York University, where he is the director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. On the shelves were books by George Orwell and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and hanging on the wall was the scabbard he had worn when he worked as a slaughterhouse inspector for the United States Department of Agriculture, an experience he wrote about for Harper’s Magazine in 2013. Conover picked up a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine from his desk: Ben Mauk, a young writer he had mentored, had written the cover story. Conover told me his classes tend to focus on the methods of an effective reporter, which he says are often overlooked in journalism programs.
Christopher Cox: How did you choose the term “immersion journalism” to describe your work?
Ted Conover: I didn’t realize I was an “immersion” writer until maybe ten years ago, when people started applying that label to me. I didn’t resist it—it makes sense, and it’s a good way to point out the similarities between my favored research posture of putting myself in the story and the field methods of anthropology, which I studied as an undergraduate.
CC: If you had become an anthropologist rather than a journalist, how do you imagine your writing would have been different?
TC: I would have chosen different topics. There are plenty of intriguing subjects in the world that aren’t meant for a big audience. In Immersion, as you know, I mention how after I finished my time as a USDA meat inspector, I was really interested in writing about knives because they’d been so important to the job, but it’s hard to imagine the audience for that essay. I mean, I could imagine a small audience, but if you hope to survive as a freelance writer, you need to think about an audience that’s a little larger.
The other side of it is that academics often have one or two great subjects in their anthropology careers, but the nature of journalism is more about having serial subjects. I’m always looking for the next good story.
CC: In Immersion, you describe how the idea for Newjack had to sit dormant for a couple of years while you waited to get into the training academy for prison guards. Do you have a bunch of ideas like that, slowly gestating in the background?
TC: I remember my astonishment when Shane Bauer of Mother Jones got hired as a private prison guard in about two weeks. But such is the demand for that kind of work. Because I chose a union job in New York State, I had to wait a long time.
I have all kinds of ideas percolating, along with the knowledge that most of them aren’t going to work out. In fact, there was another job I waited almost three years to get. A year and a half ago, I finally had my interview. Tragically, one of the interviewers had heard of me, and knew what my agenda might be. I did not get the job.
CC: What was that job going to be?
TC: It was going to be in Child Protective Services in New York City. I was disappointed, but I’ve moved on to something else now. And who knows, maybe I’ll come back to it someday. It would have been a very hard project, but it’s an important one.
CC: Was that the first time that happened, that someone recognized you before you could be hired?
TC: Yes, though I actually haven’t had that many ideas for surreptitious reporting. Prison and the USDA, and this would have been the third. I always use my real name, which in the digital age means you’re easy to look up.
CC: You don’t consider Rolling Nowhere to be an undercover project?
TC: I didn’t even think of it as reporting. I thought of it as what it was, which was research for an undergraduate thesis. I never guessed it would be published as a book. That said, I thought the right thing to do when I hit the rails was to declare my true identity to the people I met. I did that for about a month, until a man I met up with for the second time said, “You know, you really gotta stop saying that to people.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, they’re going to take it one of two ways. Either they’re going to think you’re bragging about being a college student and trying to hold it over them, or they’re going to see that you don’t know what you’re doing out here, and they’re going to try to take advantage of you because of it.”
CC: I also sense some discomfort with the idea of describing your “surreptitious reporting” projects as “undercover.”
TC: Yes. For me, it comes from the suggestion that undercover work is done to uncover a misdeed. The police go undercover to infiltrate the mob or drug gangs. So if you’re undercover, you’re out among the criminals. I have never approached it that way. I went to Sing Sing aware that I might see brutality and maybe even crimes, but that wasn’t the main goal of the endeavor. I wanted to know what it was like to work as a corrections officer.
The undercover label suggests that I’m out to get the goods on people. If the goods are presented to me, I will accept them. But I’m more interested in capturing a piece of life. I would have been delighted to have discovered some twenty-first-century horror in a slaughterhouse, and in fact I did see a few, but the biggest message of my piece was about the culture, the sort of sanitized impersonality of a contemporary slaughterhouse, compared with the ones Upton Sinclair visited for The Jungle.
CC: Do you feel a connection to the muckraking tradition of someone like Sinclair or, going back further, Ida B. Wells?
TC: It’s a related thread, but that’s not my main thing. I was reading about Sinclair recently and remembering how an exposé of meatpacking was not what he intended at all. He wanted to raise awareness of the life of immigrant workers there and really press the case for socialism. I think those are noble goals, but I am probably less explicitly political than that.
I remember after Coyotes was published, I was visiting New York from Denver and, at a party, David Remnick, who is now the editor of The New Yorker, introduced me as a writer who makes his living sleeping on the ground. I thought, “Oh man, that’s maybe more of a pigeonhole than I want to occupy for the rest of my career.” So the next book I wrote, Whiteout, was about Aspen. I try to sleep other places as well.
CC: But in your writing you do seem to return again and again to examining how society is functioning—or not functioning—for some of its poorest members. That’s not an accident, I imagine.
TC: I think that’s important work to do, and I’m proud to do it. I’m perennially thinking of what my life would have been like without the advantages I’ve had, whether I could have made it in another world, a world where I was somebody else. All these immersions have an aspect for me of personal test, where I’m seeing, Could I make it riding the rails, could I make it crossing the border and keeping out of sight, could I make it if I had to work in a prison? I like having my wits tested. I like having my bravery tested, and my capacity for getting along with unusual and even difficult people.
CC: There must be limits to that, though? Have you found yourself with any characters who are so unsavory that you can’t spend another minute with them?
TC: Fortunately I’ve never hitched my wagon to a particular person in that way. I mean, I meet plenty of people who are hard to spend time with. The good thing is you can move on to the next hobo on the next train. Or you can get transferred to a different floor of that prison.
CC: You’ve talked about the choice an immersive reporter has to make between being an observer and being a participant—just as anthropologists have to balance these functions. Is there one project that in your mind stands out as being, Ah, I really went too far toward the participant side of things?
TC: Living in Aspen was very seductive to a young, single guy—I ended up staying there two years instead of one. Extracting myself from that life was a challenge to my writing, sort of a pleasant challenge, but every bit as real a challenge as the unpleasant immersion into the prison world, which really isolated me, because I couldn’t talk about it even with my closest friends.
That job brought stress into my household because I saw things during the day that I didn’t want to talk about, that my wife could sense were weighing on me. The challenge there, ultimately, was sort of psychic, or psychological. It was traumatic and it was scary, and I could not openly acknowledge those things. But it seems to have produced the book that has meant the most to the most people. So sometimes I guess that’s the price of creating something that matters.
I can tell you that the most fun I had with any of these projects was the year I spent with Mexican migrants. These guys were young and ambitious and we were basically the same age. They looked on their trips north as adventures that could turn out well or poorly. If it turned out well, they might find love and money, and if it didn’t, then the worst that was likely to happen was they’d get sent back. I mean, obviously worse things can happen than that, but that was the most common way for things not to work out. They looked out for me in a way that the railroad tramps had not. That’s the book that I look back on most fondly.
CC: Have any of the subjects of Coyotes talked to you about how they were depicted in the book?
TC: Evangélica, who is the sole woman who accompanied one of the groups that went across the border and up into Idaho, friended me on Facebook recently. It’s kind of great. She’s back in Mexico and divorced. She’s gotten quite religious. She just likes to say hi now and then. When I go back down there, I will look her up. I like this idea that these relationships can last past a book.
There’s a prisoner from Newjack, whom I also reconnected with through Facebook. He’s got a big appetite for education and always wanted more. He has sat in on my NYU journalism classes and spoken to my students.
CC: Are there certain writers that you go back to for inspiration?
TC: There’s always been writing that makes me want to write. A book that still does that for me is Stanley Booth’s Dance with the Devil: The Rolling Stones and Their Times. There’s an experimental energy in that book. And in Tom Wolfe’s early writing, and in Joan Didion’s. And in the work of some poets—James Tate and Tony Hoagland come to mind. There’s this really infectious energy of people trying new things and seeing how far they can go with them.
CC: Do you talk with your students about how to navigate a world in which journalists are increasingly under attack, at least from some quarters?
TC: I’ve been teaching for a dozen years now, and I think that a concern with ethics is a defining feature of this generation. Those who are attracted to journalism are aware of all the charges against it in the current political climate, many of which are bogus and ill-founded. But also with the ethically implicated nature of journalism itself, especially long-form and immersive journalism, where the reporter isn’t simply conducting an interview and moving on but spending days, weeks, months with a subject.
If you’re spending all this time with your subjects, it is a very reasonable thing to ask: What do you owe them, what does it mean if they don’t recognize themselves in what you write? How do power dynamics related to race and class and so on change things? What can a journalist even pretend to know about somebody else? What gives you the right to say something about somebody unlike you in the first place?
These are questions that come up all the time during my classes. I think it’s really a good thing. It’s a discussion that is part of the whole transformation of journalism into something that’ll serve a different world. The horror of this presidency has only intensified that transformation and really made people think hard about how journalism can be the best it can be.
CC: You sound hopeful about the profession.
TC: Yes, though I often talk to people who are much less so. Maybe it’s just because I spend the week with students, who go in knowing that employment is not assured and likely not remunerative, and that more disruption lies ahead, but they... I don’t know. They still believe in journalism, and it rubs off on me.