By Hannah Kubbins
Award-winning immersion journalist, Ted Conover, made a visit to Denison as a guest for the Beck Lecture Series on March 27. Conover was invited to do readings from several of his books, and to answer questions following his readings.
Conover attended Amherst College as an Anthropology student and is now a professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.
Conover selected passages from several of his books including, Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes (1984), Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders with America’s Illegal Aliens (1987), Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (2000) and The Routes of Man: Travels in the Paved World (2011).
Conover focuses on a unique form of journalism defined as “narrative nonfiction” or “creative nonfiction,” which tells true stories about real people in narrative format. In regards to Conover’s work, he stated that, “I try to not make myself the main character in the stories I tell.”
Conover got his start during his time at Amherst. He decided to write his thesis on the American Hobo culture and asked the school if he would be permitted to ride the rails illegally with this group during his schooling.
The University did not allow Conover to follow this goal while he was enrolled; however, Conover made the decision to leave school for about five months.
After returning, Conover wrote his thesis and, consequently, got a book contract to further his study of American hobos.
Since his graduation from Amherst, Conover has used his degree in Anthropology in combination with journalism to tell stories of marginalized groups of people. To further explain how Conover does his work, he quotes his editor, “Conover, you seem to like to go to places that you’re not supposed to.”
Conover, with a bashful smile, replied saying, “Yeah, I suppose you’re right.” However, by observing and participating in these forbidden spaces, Conover exposes walks of life that are not in everyday discourse.
One of the forbidden lives Conover attempted to experience was the life of a prison guard. Newjack, the winner for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Non-Fiction and Pulitzer Prize Finalist, traces Conover’s first-hand experience as a corrections officer.
“When I moved to New York in the 1990s, one thing that struck me were the headlines of record-breaking numbers of imprisoned peoples.” However, Conover also stated that, “One group of people that haven’t been written about are prison guards…they’re broadly stereotyped, and some of these stereotypes are true, but I felt that there was more there.”
Initially, Conover was assigned by The New Yorker to cover a story on a family of prison guards. With nothing but pushback, Conover decided to take another route: to become a prison guard himself.
Conover’s journey to become a prison guard took a total of three years, but he notes that “some things you really have to spend time with, but as a journalist it’s difficult because of deadlines.” By working as a corrections officer, Conover commented how he took on his “first, real, secretive investigation.”
After the readings, Conover took the time to answer questions about his style of writing, and offered his thoughts to aspiring writers.
An important topic Conover discussed was the how to tell someone else’s story: “You’re making someone else’s story your story, and that’s a big responsibility.” Humbly, Conover also stated, “I approach all of these situations to learn, and these people know things I don’t. I never try to make myself the most important person in the room.”
Though Conover lived the lives of the people he observed, he remarked that, “I’m careful about my claims. I don’t claim to know anything about actually being a hobo, but after my experience, I know a little more than when I started.”
In closing, Conover addressed the writers in the room: “Treat yourself with care as a writer, it’s a hard road to take. But being a writer provides you the gift to use your full potential.”
Photo Courtesy of Jewell Porter