The New New Journalism : Conversations with America's Best Nonfiction Writers on Their Craft
Forty years after Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Gay Talese launched the New Journalism movement, Robert S. Boynton sits down with nineteen practitioners of what he calls the New New Journalism to discuss their methods, writings and careers.
The New New Journalists are first and foremost brilliant reporters who immerse themselves completely in their subjects. Jon Krakauer accompanies a mountaineering expedition to Everest. Ted Conover works for nearly a year as a prison guard. Susan Orlean follows orchid fanciers to reveal an obsessive subculture few knew existed. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc spends nearly a decade reporting on a family in the South Bronx. And like their muckraking early twentieth-century precursors, they are drawn to the most pressing issues of the day: Alex Kotlowitz, Leon Dash, and William Finnegan to race and class; Ron Rosenbaum to the problem of evil; Michael Lewis to boom-and-bust economies; Richard Ben Cramer to the nitty gritty of politics. How do they do it? In these interviews, they reveal the techniques and inspirations behind their acclaimed works, from their felt-tip pens, tape recorders, long car rides, and assumed identities; to their intimate understanding of the way a truly great story unfolds.
Richard Ben Cramer*
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
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January 03, 2008
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Excerpt from The New New Journalism by Robert Boynton
The first time Ted Conover was asked if he was a tramp he wasn't sure how to respond. The son of a successful lawyer, Conover had been jumping on and off trains for months, riding the rails as research for his college anthropology thesis. He certainly looked the part; even his parents didn't recognize him when he showed up on their doorstep. In fact, he had entered the life so completely that when another tramp tried to jump into his boxcar (a violation of hobo etiquette), Conover barely hesitated before stepping on the man's hand, sending him flying off the moving train. "I guess I am," he answered uneasily, all too aware of the vast expanse--economic, social, intellectual--separating him from his veteran-tramp interlocutor.
It is this expanse that Conover has spent the last two decades exploring, first in Rolling Nowhere (1984), the cult classic he wrote about his hobo travels, and then in his three subsequent books--Coyotes (1987), Whiteout (1991), and Newjack (2000)--about Mexican illegal aliens, Aspen celebrities, and prison guards. Together, they have cemented Conover's reputation as one of the finest participatory journalists of his generation.
Those who have read only one or two of Conover's works might cubbyhole him as the bard of gritty, rough-and-tumble subcultures. While not untrue, the description is incomplete. It obscures Conover's real subject: the fine lines separating "us" from "them," and the elaborate rituals and markers--"parts of town, railroad tracks and boulevards, places in the heart and mind," he writes in Coyotes--that we have developed to bolster such distinctions.
In Conover's hands, migrant workers, rootless hoboes, and prison guards become vivid, morally ambiguous characters, deserving of praise and scorn, admiration and pity. Without sacrificing the commitment of the early-twentieth-century muckrakers, or the gusto of the nineteenth-century literary adventurers in whose footsteps he walks, Conover combines "a sociologist's eye for detail with a novelist's sense of drama and compassion," as The New York Times's Michiko Kakutani wrote of Coyotes.
Born in 1958 in Okinawa, Japan, where his father was stationed as a navy pilot, Conover was raised in an affluent Denver neighborhood. In high school, he was bused to a newly desegregated school (50 percent black, 40 percent white, and 10 percent Hispanic), and he credits the experience with inspiring his love of anthropology (a discipline he calls "philosophy as lived by real people"). "I learned that one's own culture is not necessarily normative," he says, "that there are many ways of looking at the world."
In 1980, after three years of studying anthropology at Amherst, Conover wearied of the college's elitism. Conover proposed to ride the rails for his senior thesis. He wanted to learn whether hoboes were great American rebels ("renegades, conscientious objectors to the nine-to-five work world"), infantrymen in the army of homeless who were then inundating cities across America, or both. The college said they couldn't sanction an illegal activity, but Conover completed the fieldwork on his own time, hitting the road armed with little more than an emergency stash of traveler's checks.
Conover returned to Amherst to write his senior thesis gaining approval for the project after the fact, when his professor saw the notes he'd taken on the trip. He also spun off an autobiographical article for a student magazine, which caught the attention of several television producers. His enthusiasm for the subject bolstered by the attention, Conover turned down the reporting job he had been offered at The Indianapolis Star and decided to write a book about his adventures.
Rolling Nowhere was published in 1984. Washington Post staff writer Chip Brown noted the peculiarly American themes--expansion, restlessness, the myth of the West--that would mark much of Conover's future work. "Freight trains possess grandeur. They cast an epic spell. With their long whistles and their magical names, they summarize something in us, for they have carried not just the steel and wheat of America, but the nation's westwardness and some measure of its spacious dream," Brown wrote.
After graduating from Amherst summa cum laude, he won a spot as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University. It was not long before Conover was back on the road, expanding on the insight he had gained writing Rolling Nowhere: "Mexican farmworkers were the new American hoboes." For Coyotes, Conover crossed the U.S.-Mexican border four times, traveling with migrant workers through California, Arizona, Idaho, and Florida. He picked lemons and oranges, and lived for a time in the village of Ahuacatlan, Quer�taro, the hometown of a number of the illegal immigrants he met.
Again, some critics realized that Conover was writing about something more fundamental than the immigration debate. "What makes it really glow on every page is Mr. Conover's realization that he is dealing neither with a crime nor a tragedy, but with another of those human adventures that make America a country that is constantly renewing itself," wrote T. D. Allman in The New York Times Book Review.
Back in New York, Conover was rankled at a cocktail party when a friend introduced him as "Ted Conover, a writer who makes his living sleeping on the ground." The accuracy of the remark disturbed him. "I was unsettled to feel so easily typecast at age thirty, and began to wonder whether my participant-observer method could be used to write about people who weren't remote or poor."
The result was his 1991 book, Whiteout: Lost in Aspen, in which Conover conducted what he described as "an ethnography of hedonism," observing Aspen's celebrity culture from his perches as a local cab driver and reporter at the Aspen Times. As with his previous books, Whiteout was a meditation on the author's ambiguous relationship to the phenomenon he chronicled--the "great celebrity laboratory" that Aspen had become. Some critics were disappointed by Conover's turn away from the dispossessed. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Richard Eder felt that Conover's considerable "talent overmatches his subject." Others perceived a continuity. "His subject is Aspen, the glittering ski resort and celebrity enclave in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The underlying theme, however, is similar to that explored in his earlier books: the promise and betrayal of the American Dream," wrote Kakutani.
In the early nineties, Conover asked the New York State Depart-ment of Correctional Services for permission to write an article for The New Yorker in which he would follow a guard through training. The U.S. prison population was at an all-time high, and he conceived of the story as being as much about economics as society. The Department is New York State's second-largest employer, and ailing communities throughout the region routinely bid for new prisons in the hopes they will revive the local economy.