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Immerse (yourself in) this!

Note: This is a guest blog from far-flung Lighthouse instructor Jeremy Miller, who we’re secretly hoping will move here back from New York City.

Ted Conover reads at Tattered Cover Colfax on 3/19.


–by Jeremy Miller

Ted Conover, it has often been said, is a writer who cares.

In addition to being the author of five books and a regular contributor to publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine and Virginia Quarterly Review, Conover is also a professor of Journalism at New York University. There he teaches a popular graduate-level course called the “Journalism of Empathy.” I have not taken the class myself, but have heard it described as an exploration of the literary, immersive and humane brand of nonfiction Conover employs—and has very much made his own.

Empathy as practiced by Conover is a rare commodity in journalism today. His writing, steeped in anthropology, not only embraces multiple cultural viewpoints but seeks to elucidate those viewpoints through vivid and intimate depictions of the people and places he visits.

Conover’s idea of empathy – which should not be confused with flattery – relies heavily on the participant-observer approach and a deep immersion in a subject. Rarely is Conover satisfied with merely writing “about” something. First, it seems, he must live it. In the course of his career, he has ridden the rails with American hoboes, lounged with Aspen socialites and ski-bums, and crossed the U.S. border from Mexico with undocumented migrants

The reporting for his acclaimed book Newjack – which, in 2000, was awarded a National Book Critics Award in nonfiction and earned him a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize – pulled Conover into a new realm of immersion. In order to write about life as a guard inside of a high security prison, Conover went to work, that is, went to work for a year as a corrections officer at New York’s infamous Sing Sing prison.

And we are richer for his risks. The story of Newjack is one that could not have been told by a reporter on the outside. The book interweaves history, reporting and gripping first person narrative. In several places, Conover’s authorial conscience breaks through, and he considers the repercussions of his reporting, weighing the potential impacts of his undercover work on the lives of his sources.

This, it seems to me, is the essence of the journalism of empathy.

Part of his outlook, he says, comes from his youth in Denver, Colorado, where in the 1970s he was bused by court order from his white, upper-middle class neighborhood to Manual High School, in the predominantly black, working class neighborhood of Whittier.

“I was a racial minority for the first time in my life and it taught me a lot. The world looks a lot different when your group is not in charge,” Conover told the journalist Robert Boynton. But the Manual High of those years, says Conover, was a wonderful experiment where a group of progressive teachers embraced the school’s new diversity and refused to bow to the widespread cynicism, even opposition, toward desegregation.

“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.”

Conover’s new book, The Routes of Man, is an immersive travelogue that explores the impacts of several roads on societies around the world — and the costs that connection inevitably brings. The book showcases Conover’s restless curiosity, his abiding humanity and his unparalleled ability to find a unique vantage. But the subtle and powerful storytelling reaffirms the fact that Ted Conover is simply one of the best nonfiction writers and storytellers working today.

The road brings him home to the Tattered Cover-Colfax, 7:30 PM, March 19; and the Boulder Bookstore on March 21.

In the meantime, he agreed to answer four questions about The Routes of Man for Lighthouse.

1. In the book’s introduction, you describe the magnetic pull the road has exerted on you throughout your life. You talk about your education as an alternation between the classroom and the road. How have these instincts, influences and experiences shaped your approach to writing about the road?

I guess they’re behind the blend of meditation and narrative. I want to take some chances, and I want to tell an adventure story, but I don’t want to do it in some yahoo, oblivious way–I want to do it with mind engaged. A lot of the thinking probably comes from the formal education, the “book learnin,” as Huck Finn called it. But the desire to see new places, to test myself physically and test my wits outside a classroom, to get to know people regardless of their education, to know the world’s struggle, I think most of that comes from someplace else.

2. Were there conventions of road reporting that you sought to avoid, even upend, in this book?

 Well, I’m not so into the “exploits” approach to adventure travel, not so interested in “look at me.” The world is full of people with stories more amazing than mine. Less interesting than sneaking across the border, to me, is sneaking across the border with them. While sober.

3.  Your reporting for the chapters in The Routes of Man led you to people in places largely overlooked by the western media. Truck drivers in Kenya, ambulance drivers in Lagos, road-trippers in China, mahogany haulers in Peru. And yet, the human actors in your stories never seem to pale against the vibrant and exotic backgrounds. What are some ways you manage this difficult reporting and writing task?

That’s funny–it’s not a tension I feel. The places are indeed amazing but the people in them always matter more. And in this book, too, my approach is pretty straightforward: to write about key roads, in interesting places, by focusing on the people on them. Yes, it’s cool that we’re walking along the bottom of a Himalayan gorge, or winding down the back side of the Andes into the rain forest. But I think of this as an anthropology of roads, really, which gives these amazing places the status of scenes across which actors move.

4. In your essay “Slipping from Shangri-La,” you participate in a 40-mile, mid-winter walk taken by villagers in a remote mountain valley in India. This journey, known as the chaddar, is over a frozen river of ice and is literally the only road out of the Zanskar Valley at that time of year.  At one point you admit that you have hired porters to help carry some of your gear. This seems entirely reasonable considering the difficulty and danger of the journey. Yet you seem slightly embarrassed. What does such an admission tell us about your approach as a writer?

When you are a white person traveling in a less developed country, there’s a historical context you need to grapple with. This is important both in terms of how you conduct your research and how you present yourself to the reader. I don’t tend to deal with the colonial legacy explicitly–climbing into the truck usually does that a lot of that work for me. But in Zanskar I came up against the long Himalayan tradition of using porters on treks. As you know, I’m from a part of the world where it’s a point of pride that, in the backcountry, you carry your own stuff. (The only exception might be if you’re helped by a horse!) So the exchange I have about the subject with my guide, Seb, is both an accurate reflection of how I managed my unease, and a way of anticipating the reader’s possible questions.

One comment on “Immerse (yourself in) this!

  1. Chris Ransick
    March 13, 2010

    I’m looking forward to Conover’s visit to Denver. I had the chance to introduce him when he spoke at my college just after the publication of “Newjack” and he gave great background on the experiences behind the book. I’m sure he’ll provide similar insight about the new work. This guy is unique in the literary world, both for his subjects and the way he unfolds and develops the stories.

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This entry was posted on March 11, 2010 by in Good Books, Member dispatches.

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