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Ted Conover: On Traveling and Being Free Behind Bars

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Eight years after Ted Conover's book, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (Random House, 2000), came out, a Pew report found that 1 in 100 Americans were behind bars. Although the overall prison population has declined in each of the last three years under the Obama Administration, time has not improved conditions for individuals incarcerated behind particular or general prison walls. Just yesterday, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), filed a complaint about the abuse of female prisoners at Wetumpka, Alabama. According to the EJI, there are close to 2.3 million prisoners in the country today, and the statistics for African American men in particular are grim, being jailed at six times the rate of white alleged perpetrators of crimes and one third of them likely to spend time in prison.

What, exactly, could a writer of non-fiction bring to this equation that highlights injustice far more than it serves fairness? First, it seems, a long history of immersing himself in the lives of those who people his books. Born in 1958 in Okinawa, Japan, Conover grew up in an affluent Denver neighborhood, but in 1980, after three years of studying anthropology at Amherst, he took a leave from college and rode the rails as a hobo for his senior thesis. The result was Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails With America's Hoboes (Viking, 1984). Coyotes: A Journey Through the Secret World of America's Illegal Aliens, (Vintage Books, 1987) a book that grew out of his understanding that Mexican farm workers were the "new American hoboes," followed to critical acclaim. In describing his work, Michiko Kakutani wrote in a review of Coyotes for the New York Times, that Conover combines "a sociologist's eye for detail with a novelist's sense of drama and compassion." It is a mix of journalistic integrity and personal generosity that has served him well and brought Conover much attention for his in-depth reporting about the issues of our times in articles for The Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, National Geographic and VQR among others. Conover went on to write about the lives of the priviledged at Aspen, in Whiteout: Lost in Aspen (Random House, 1991) and, nearly nine years later, after having been denied access to research the lives of the guards at Sing Sing, he applied for and obtained employment at the prison. This past week, Conover returned to Sing Sing as a guest.

RF: In order to write Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, you served as a guard at New York's Sing Sing, a maximum security prison. You have spoken about the fact that although you couldn't help sometimes seeing things the way your fellow guards did, a terrible version of us v. them where you were the good guys, you returned home to your family after most shifts, a journey which brought back nuance to your world view. What was it like to return to Sing Sing as a visitor this time around? 

TC: I never expected to go back -- Newjack is still considered contraband, until authorities redact the pages they don't like. It's pretty much been radio silence since the Department told factcheckers from the New Yorker, "He didn't get our permission to write his book and so we're not going to help make sure it's factual." That said, I spent a lot of time there, and have been curious.

The first familiar face I saw was that of Tawana Ellerbe, the darling of my class at corrections academy, who supervised the guests passing through security. She was glad to see me, and vice versa -- there has never been bad blood between me and most officers. And I must say, though the prison remains a horrible place in my memory, the occasion was a good one. The play I saw, an adaptation of Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men, was acted almost entirely by prisoners. It was well-done, and moving. I blogged about the ten minutes afterwards when the actors were allowed to approach the edge of the stage and shake hands and otherwise meet members of the audience. It was the most joy I've ever felt in a prison setting.

RF: As a writer of non-fiction, your credibility is based on your deep and often difficult commitment to living the story you are trying to write. To what extent, then, can the writer of fiction who is addressing similar themes of war and change, who is intentionally fictionalizing history and has often not "lived through" the events about which he or she is writing about, contribute to our understanding of "how things really were/are?" Is there a real divide between the two forms when they address past or current historical events, or does each contribute something different to our news of the world? 

TC: That's a hard question. To me there's no substitute for actually being in a place -- eating, speaking, walking, breathing there. On the other hand, there's no guarantee that by merely visiting you'll "get it." And there's no substitute for the kind of deep engagement from afar that (for instance), you've had with Palestine.

When Newjack came out I was invited to a television game show called To Tell The Truth. Four celebrity panelists and the studio audience listened to opening statements and then asked questions to suss out who was "the real undercover prison guard" -- me or two impostors. I spent nearly three hours before the show in a room with my impostors, waiting our turn in the studio. (Ahead of us were a tour guide from tornado country, the dog trainer from the TV show Frazier, and the president of the National Nerd Society.) I was intrigued by my impostors' opposing strategies. One wanted to know everything about me (in exhaustive detail!). The other, who eventually had to leave the room, wanted to know nothing -- he thought that he could make up a convincing, coherent story of his own and that the fewer of "the facts" he knew, the less vulnerable he would be to contradicting himself. Both seemed to me reasonable approaches -- one was nonfiction, and the other was fiction. (As it turned out, the first impostor received the most votes -- but that may also be because he just looked more like people's ideas of a prison guard!)

RF: In an essay titled, 'My Life as a Guard' (New York Times, May 7th, 2007), you reflected on the implications of the photographs that came out of Abu Ghraib. You wrote that, "... the true test of the officer, the system and indeed the nation (is): how will you treat those who are helpless before you?" and you go on to make a very clear connection between the treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo and those at Abu Ghraib as well as the culpability of the president under whose watch these events happened. Do you often find yourself compelled to use what the knowledge that you have gained through your research, (essentially "insider information"), to speak out against the apparent injustices of our time?

TC: I worked as a guard at the close of the 20th century. The 9/11 attacks took place at the dawn of the 21st, and I was struck by the way incarceration issues loomed so large in their aftermath. Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, "black sites" and "extraordinary rendition" -- all are key to the so-called war on terror and all have to do with incarceration. So yes, my life as a guard gave me some unexpected authority when it comes to assessing my country's conduct of this war.

RF: While researching Rolling Nowhere, you jumped the freight trains, going from being distrusted and robbed by the hoboes you were writing about to making a place for yourself in their lives. In Coyotes, you had yourself smuggled across the Mexican/American border and worked on a ranch to experience life as an undocumented worker. In Newjack, you learned what it was like to be part of a mostly white corps of guards simultaneously in charge and in fear of a mostly black prison population. You cross the line between anthropologist/observer and active creator of narrative. How do you reconcile the tension between being an investigative journalist, a compassionate humanist and an ordinary guy with an exit-route built into the adventure? 

TC: The tensions are part of what makes it interesting, and they don't always get reconciled. My first-person character is very important to the story -- I want readers to experience vicariously what I felt, whether it's doing push-ups as punishment in the training academy, frisking a prisoner outside the mess hall or driving home on the day I got punched in the head. I studied anthropology and I practice ethnography; they inform much of my writing. But they take a back seat to the storytelling, to communicating with my readers. I try to be evenhanded in my descriptions -- but participation lends a subjectivity that I think is important, that "keeps it real."

RF: In your new book The Routes of Man (Knopf, 2010), you visit six roads that have changed the place and culture into which they've been set: Peru, the West Bank, East Africa, China, Nigeria and East Africa. You lay out your themes by way of introduction: "development vs. the environment, isolation vs. progress, military occupation, transmission of disease, social transformation, and the future of the city." In every instance, the road itself becomes a character, imbued with the motives of those who paved it (those who support the harvesting of mahogany in Peru), those who are permitted to use it (Israelis but not Palestinians), and those whose lives will be absorbed more swiftly into the not-usually-equitable global give and take (the teenagers of Jammu and Kashmir). In what way has your own traversing of these and other roads transformed the conduct of your life? Do you find yourself in possession of a greater understanding of the political events in the places where you've visited and written about, or drawn to deeper research about some aspect that was revealed while you were there?

TC: I like to think I'm a bit wiser and more worldly than before I began the book. I'm also, strange though it sounds to say it, less fearful; I saw some scary things but many more that inspired me. As for one thing leading to another-that happens all the time. Riding the rails, for example, I kept meeting Mexicans doing the same thing. The American hoboes said they weren't hoboes at all ("they're just Mexicans") but clearly they had everything in common with an earlier generation of tramps, recent immigrants riding freights in search of work. Mexican immigration, of course, is a big story in the U.S. and when I realized Mexicans would talk to me, I felt as if I had opened a door in my modest house and discovered a huge new room. My book Coyotes was the eventual result.

An experience I had while working at Sing Sing was similarly behind The Routes of Man. I'd been assigned to a transportation detail -- driving an inmate, a gang member, to a new prison after he'd gotten in a fight. The new place was several hours away and we stopped for a meal when it got dark. He'd been silent until then but over our fast food he started talking about the big trucks parked all around us. That's what he wanted to do when he got out of prison, he said -- get a job driving one of those, and just keep going. It immediately made sense to me, travel as the opposite of incarceration, as a corrective.

RF: Writer and one-time editor of the New York Herald Tribune Burton Rascoe once said that, "a news sense is really a sense of what is important, what is vital, what has color and life -- what people are interested in. That's journalism." What people are interested in, however, is often defined by the breadth of their own personal experence, their reading, and their intellect and, therefore, the journalist/essayist must balance that reality with the desire to be true to their subject when they write. Your essays have appeared in most of the publications that a politically conscious and literary readership holds in high esteem and you have taught at America's premier graduate programs in journalism. What rule/s do you feel should govern the reporter who finds himself writing a story that has not been told by a native of the place, and yet holds greater currency in the minds of the American public and, therefore, the ability to color the impression of a place/event?  

TC: The great strength of the ethnographic approach is the importance it places on local meanings. A journalist who embraces it learns to ask: how does this matter to you? What do outsiders fail to grasp about this place? She makes the local people her teacher.

The challenge for me, of course, is that the American public is not always hungering for the perspective of powerless people far away. So the journalist must engage in the art of the possible. How to write about AIDS in Africa? Take a long trip with somebody who has been implicated in the spread of the disease -- and who has an analog in the USA. Long-distance truckers, for instance. See how they live. See what they know. Learn why they would engage in risky behavior. Try to make sense of it, and try to depict them as people a reader might feel he can know. It takes time, which is a luxury in journalism, and it takes space in a publication, which is seldom abundant, and it can take money. But it's what we should aspire to.