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Ted Conover: On the journalism of empathy

The Write Stuff

This is the fourth of five profiles in The Write Stuff series featuring literary journalists from around the world.

I was intrigued by a Latino officer I'd seen in the line-up room. Like the rest of us, he kept his little yellow "Standards of Inmate Behaviour" booklet in his breast pocket, but, unlike us, he had written "Fuck No" in block letters along the top edge of it – the part of the booklet that peeked out of his pocket. It was his personal message to inmates, and, actually, a pretty good summary of the booklet itself. It made me think he was probably a good officer, funny but tough, an enforcer of the rules. Then a friend of mine spent a week working with that officer and told me how every morning an inmate would fix him his coffee, passing the mug out through the bars of his cell. There was no rule against it, but what favours was the officer passing back in the inmate's direction How could you ever trust an inmate enough to drink his coffee?"
from Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing


TED Conover's writing interests have always lain in exploring hidden worlds. Every one of his five nonfiction books immerse his reader in a journey to the unknown, whether it be exploring homelessness, foreign lands or the secret life of prisons. His most recent book explored the technique of immersive writing itself.

For Conover, this immersive writing journey began with Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America's Hoboes (1984), the first book he wrote, which started as a pitch for his senior thesis at Amhurst College, Massachusetts. It was at Amhurst he began his career as a writer. For eight months, Conover lived as a homeless man, mingling with other homeless folk and essentially learning how to get by day-to-day, in a sub-strata of life where nothing is guaranteed.

He explored the homeless experience, a place no one wants to live, and delved into how his fellow rail-riders ended up there. He gradually understood that these people were "neither wholly romantic nor wholly tragic, and [were] very much like the rest of us".

'Writing that matters will attract comment and, sometimes, criticism. We do the best we can; we listen to our wisest critics, and then move on.'

Thirty-five years later, now based in New York City, Conover is the Director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University and teaches a course in "Journalism of Empathy". In describing his own work, he has no trouble with terms such as literary journalist or narrative nonfiction writer, however, he steers away from the term "immersive writing". "[For] some people, the phrase evokes writing for virtual or augmented reality simulations. I prefer immersion writing," he said in an email interview with Newsworthy.

Conover took his immersion writing to a new level in Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (2000), which is regarded by many as his greatest book. With it, he steps beyond saturation research or observation, becoming a prison guard in New York's Sing Sing Correctional Facility. In the book, he not only details the people he meets in prison, his personal experiences and how the facility smelled and appeared, but he reflects on the man he became while he worked there. He details the brutality of a correctional centre, tackling the moral issue of isolating criminals and knowing how to "walk the fine line between leniency and tyranny that distinguishes a good guard".

In living alongside his subjects, Conover can better explore their hidden worlds and gain a more authentic and genuine experience of their lives. Combining immersion within the style of narrative nonfiction also gives him a greater license to extract and tell their truths.

In adopting this style of writing for "projects of substance", Conover acknowledges there are ethical considerations. "Every writer should consider: have I spoken to the right people and aimed for fairness? When your subjects are people with less privilege and education, it raises a whole raft of considerations".

In The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World (2011), Conover explores how roads, both metaphorically and literally, can transform and "impact communities, unite worlds … and reveal the hopes and fears of those who travel them". He tells of six different worlds, including chasing mahogany through an untracked part of the Amazon basin and speaking with truckers linked to the spread of AIDS in East Africa.

Asked what inspires him to write about such hidden worlds, Conover says "there is a lot that needs fixing in the world, and a lot to explore. I guess I'm motivated by curiosity and a desire to make things better. I've been inspired by the example of writers who have tried to do that". He reels off the names of John Steinbeck, Jack London, Joan Didion, Adrian LeBlanc, Stanley Booth, Anne Fadiman, Bruce Chatwin and William Finnegan.

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CONOVER'S exploration of the world began in Asia in 1958: he was born in Okinawa, Japan where his father was serving as a United States navy pilot. Upon return to the US, he spent his childhood in Denver, Colorado, before heading east to study anthropology at Amhurst College, Massachusetts. After graduating summa cum laude, Conover spent two years at Cambridge University, UK, as a Marshall Scholar. In the years since, as well as writing six books, his work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, The Atlantic and National Geographic.

Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle award for non-fiction and was shortlisted for a Pulitzer Prize. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honour society and the recipient of an honorary doctorate (from Amhurst) and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

It's an impressive CV. Conover has not only succeeded as a writer but as a mentor to the generations of student would-be writers who followed.

Of his reputation as an immersion writer, he says he didn't consider himself that way until others started labelling him as one. His writing style gained so much attention that he was approached to write a book on the subject. In 2016, Immersion: A writer's guide to going deep was published.

Conover, who was apprehensive at first, enjoyed the process of writing the book, explaining in the Creative Nonfiction Podcast: "I saw … [the book as], a chance to, I guess, add coherence between my writing life and my teaching life ... I never thought of assembling [immersion writing] into a statement about how a person might do this for a range of topics … I saw the chance to sort of make sense of that in a coherent, point A to point Z way and I thought that actually might be enjoyable."

Like every author, when Conover emerges from the immersion of his research and writing, he must face his audience. Time has taught him he cannot please everyone.

"No writer with something to say can make everyone happy. Writing that matters will attract comment and, sometimes, criticism. We do the best we can; we listen to our wisest critics, and then move on."

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