Conover has produced five eye-opening works of non-fiction and a slew of long-form articles for magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s and many others. He rode the rails with hoboes for Rolling Nowhere, crossed the border with Mexican immigrants for Coyotes, guarded prisoners at Sing-Sing for Newjack, and explored overlooked communities and the issues of roads around the world for The Routes of Man. More recently, he was hired as a meat inspector for the USDA and wrote a long piece for Harper’s.
If you aren’t familiar with his work and enjoy outstanding non-fiction, start with Rolling Nowhere and Coyotes and work your way through the books. There’s a reason they’re all still in print today. Conover has a singular, engaging voice. You’ll soon recognize his style. Plus, he’s an exacting reporter who takes incredibly detailed notes and turns around and tells compelling stories about real—and often overlooked—citizens of the world. I read Routes of Man twice and took away much more on the second spin (on audio). Here’s hoping that someday there will be a book-form compilation of his best magazine work, too.
For Immersion—A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep, Conover imparts the lessons he’s learned. In addition to his ongoing projects, he’s an associate professor of journalism at New York University and this brisk book (152 pages before the end notes) lays out an approach to thinking about this unique form of journalism. In typical clean Conover fashion, the book is presented in six chapters—Why Immerse?; Choosing a Subject and Gaining Access; Once Inside; Undercover: Moving Beyond Stunt; Writing It; and Aftermath.
There are many ways to dive into a subculture and Conover offers a wide range of tips and ideas for going about your business as a writer and reporter, particularly the tricky business of building trust “inside.” Conover is upfront about some of the mistakes he’s made along the way, both in identifying his role as he moves into the world he intends to cover and as he builds relationships within.
Conover draws from his own experiences and dozens and dozens of others—the bibliography offers an extensive list of reading suggestions from Katherine Boo to Sebastian Junger to Alex Kotlowitz. One doesn’t doubt he’s read and studied them all. Drawing examples from his many cohorts who practice the same style of reporting endeavor, it’s clear Conover recognizes himself as a member of large community and part of a long tradition.
It’s easy to see that Conover’s standards for ethics and integrity are set the highest level. He’s a stickler on notes and fact checking (as any writer for The New Yorker should be, would be).
“If you are seeking out an experience that you intend to write about, taking notes should be a major part of it,” he writes. “Maybe, if you’re a committed personal essayist, it will just be a journal you update over coffee, or before bed. Or, if you’re a literary journalist, it can be lines scribbled in a small spiral notebook and/or typed into a laptop or mobile device more or less continually during the day. The point is two-fold: (1) notes will only bolster your memory, not detract from it; and (2) specificity … gives writing power. It also gives you the option of writing journalism, which requires the citing of factual data, not just best-I-could-remember data.”
The care Conover puts into his writing is obvious when you read his work. Precision rules. There’s a genuine confidence, along with an easy-to-read style that is utterly engaging. That’s in part because Conover always makes it clear he’s from another world, though trying his best to empathize with the lives and cultures of others.
Since he uses first-person (judiciously, I would argue), Conover’s chapter on “Writing It” includes some cautionary ideas about writers using the “I” voice. Conover makes a convincing case that you have to “earn” that voice and that it has to contribute to the larger story as you draw from your own experience and reveal to the reader the struggle involved in the immersion itself. It’s a tricky tightrope of trust for would-be immersionists and there are a host of ethical issues to trip over. This book will help you think through those issues and, perhaps, save you some trouble.
I would suggest, in fact, that Immersion would be useful for “regular” journalists too—in how they think about their relationships with their sources and think about the larger story they want to tell. Any beat reporter is, essentially, living among his or her subject for a long period of time (a City Hall reporter, say, or anyone covering a single organization for an extended period). No, it’s not the same as hopping freight trains with hoboes, but there is an overlap in technique, standards, and maintaining integrity.
Given the political landscape and what (I hope) is a resurgence in the strength and numbers of news organizations, now we need the production of high-standard journalism, immersion or not, like never before. We all need better windows in the lives of others, in this country and all around this big old world.
Previous Q & A with Ted Conover – The Routes of Man.
Previous review, The Routes of Man.
Previous review, The Fair Opelia.
Ted Conover’s website.