The Challenge of First Impressions: Lisa Wells Interviews Ted Conover

LISA WELLS interviews TED CONOVER

 

Ted Conover

Ted Conover began reporting his latest book, Cheap Land Colorado, in May of 2017, in a scenic and unforgiving stretch of the San Luis Valley known locally as the Flats. He tells the story of a diverse cast of off-grid homesteaders, struggling to bootstrap a life on the rural margins. Conover was first introduced to the locals as a volunteer for a nonprofit called La Puente. Under the tutelage of a military vet named Matt Little, he went door to door offering help with basic necessities like food and firewood. Over the course of the next five years he became a regular fixture in the valley, splitting time between a rented trailer parked on the property of a local family (the Grubers) and his adopted home of New York City where he teaches in the NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Eventually, Conover bought his own parcel in the Valley, haggling down from twenty to fifteen-thousand dollars. When we spoke by phone in December, he said, “I’m probably not the only writer in New York on a crowded subway car who sometimes misses the place they grew up.”

This wasn’t the first extended homecoming for Conover, who was raised in Denver. He lived for two years in the blow-fueled glitz of 1980s Aspen, working as a cab driver and local newspaper reporter in order to write his 1991 book, Whiteout. Conover is considered a pioneer of the immersion method of reporting on closed cultures, and over the course of six books and four decades, he’s lived and worked among itinerant train hoppers, prison guards, and migrants crossing the Mexico-U.S. border. He also authored a book on writing, Immersion, which unpacks these experiences and the methods he evolved to document them. If immersion is his mode, his enduring theme—as diagnosed in a review by Michiko Kakutani thirty years ago—is “the promise and betrayal of the American Dream.”

It’s anyone’s guess whether or not those who first subdivided and sold the San Luis Valley believed the lines they drew would amount to a settlement. But like so many opportunists on the frontier, they successfully peddled an idea: the American fantasy of self-determination, a fresh start. It didn’t matter if the buyer ever set foot on the land, the dream only had to hold until the checks were cashed. In the years that followed, as Conover writes, the land “morphed in meaning from something that could be ranched, to something that could be lived on—or more accurately, something that could be sold with the idea that it could be lived on.”

You’d be hard-pressed to generate a better environmental antonym to New York City than the expansive valley and the mostly poor, crowd-averse residents of the Flats—a juxtaposition of extremes that seems to me evocative of the writer himself. A writer whom David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, once introduced at a party of literati as “a man who makes his living sleeping on the ground.”

These days, on the Flats, Conover sleeps in a trailer.

 

Lisa Wells: Let’s begin with setting. How did you describe the valley and the Flats to people in the beginning, and how has that description changed over the course of years?

Ted Conover: As I recall, I told my editor it was an alpine prairie—flat land at elevation. It has some things in common with the Great Plains, but it also has mountains all around. Basically, this is a lot of land without trees that’s cold in the winter and cold at night, even in the summer. And windy on and off all the time. I explained how people had just started trying to live out there, most of them isolated and on a shoestring, and I wondered who they could be.

I didn’t know then how much of a community there was—and even now that I’m more a part of it, “community” seems a bit of a misnomer. Because people in a community usually share things like schools or churches or parks. They have more things in common than being exiled, which is sometimes how it feels out there.

LW: Exiled by what?

TC: By being poor. Or by being unwilling to try fitting in in ways they might have once done. For example, Matt Little is a veteran with tours of duty in Iraq, and he doesn’t want to be part of the system anymore. But that’s just one kind of alienation. Two women he introduced me to one of our first days together call their homestead the Muumuu Ranch. Both left husbands in Oklahoma in order to live with each other, in what they consider a better place. A place that I think offers less scrutiny of who they are and how they’re living, and less judgment.

The community part seems to be mostly that people share similar living conditions. They each own their plot of land, and they each have a modest dwelling on it. Many have limited resources that make it hard to drive into town every time they might want to, because gas is expensive. They all know that there’s people out there you have to be careful of. They’ve got a certain caution about strangers, a paranoia in some cases. I think they’re also bound by a desire not to have government entities have dominion over them. They really resist…

LW: Meddling.

TC: Yes, zoning rules or any kind of fees or taxes. There’s a real libertarian streak.

LW: One interesting piece of this, or so I gathered from the book—it’s not so much that people live without judgment of one another, but the highest premium is placed on autonomy and self-determination. So, I might judge you, but I’m still not going to get in your way of pursuing whatever your idea of self-sufficiency is.

TC: I’d say that’s a fair take on it. There’s probably plenty of judgment, as much as in any place where people live together. You’re always talking about those neighbors.

LW: On the one hand, this is a time-honored story about rugged lives on the fringe. And it’s the American story of going out to the so-called frontier, bootstrapping something from nothing, there are guns and land scams—all perennial stories in the West. But on the other hand, by the end, this book felt to me like a microcosm of the quintessential national stories of the last decade, especially the last five years. There’s the drug crisis, there are cultish separatists, then the pandemic and all the paranoia and misinformation disseminated on Facebook. There’s a Black Lives Matter protest in the little town, and a skirmish with a sort of counter-protester that results in a shooting. There are wind turbines and solar panels, and even claims of UFO sightings… You remark at one point in the book that “history doesn’t always declare itself in the American West.” And I just wonder what you learned about the state of the country during your time on the Flats?

TC: What was surprising to me was, often if I was able to get through that first half hour of conversation about what the Democrats were plotting, or what new propaganda the government was spreading about COVID, and the way they’re preparing to clamp down and take our guns, blah, blah, blah—if you can just get through the prelude of that kind of thing, then you usually find yourself with people like you’ve known your whole life. People concerned about their family, their neighbors, their cars, the weather.

We have this giant challenge of first impressions, and this powerful distortion field created by our silos. It’s not like I’m immune from this—I have my own silo. And in today’s world, these silos have gained power to divide. One of the things I like doing out there is talking to people until I find something to connect to them with. It might be they don’t like police and they had a bad experience in a jail. And I can tell them, I’ve worked in corrections and maybe I have an insight into that story. I love to figure out a way to find something in common with somebody who you would guess I would not have anything in common with. I had no idea this project would be so much about that. Knowing that people are going to see me as a weirdo, liberal, New Yorker, and then trying to figure out, okay, how are we going to get past that? I am just filled with joy and energy every time I have the smallest success. And so I feel like I’ve been able to transcend some of the social constraint that binds me, that binds all of us.

LW: It seems like there’s not much appetite for getting past the prelude. Maybe because so much of how people interact with the world now is via these superficial and objectifying internet platforms. And there are also, of course, those who feel that you are empowering monsters if you try to understand someone who expresses disturbing ideas or misinformation.

TC: Yes, like you’d be giving up some ground.

LW: I’ve spent a fair amount of time writing about the rural West, and in my experience, people have long been off the grid, not just literally, but socially and politically as well. They are a lot less homogenous or predictable in terms of their identities and belief-systems than my urban, middle-class friends might presume. You write that you went out there expecting certain sorts of people and found, “in fact many more sorts of people.” How were your expectations thwarted?

TC: I did expect more of a redneck element than I found. And maybe more of a macho element, a hierarchy based upon how rugged you were, because it takes a certain ruggedness to make it out there. But that was not a common metric of status. I guess because there’s just so few people with the resources to build a big, whatever, ranch, or a growing operation. These things take energy and money and constancy, and those can be hard to find out there. But yeah, there’s definitely points given to those who make it through the winter, and a reluctance to engage with people before they have done that because—

LW: They might be a short thing.

TC: Exactly. They’re going to need something, and you’re going to feel obligated to help. There’s a reticence about getting to know people until they’ve shown they have basic skills to make it. And that’s where being connected to La Puente and being able to help people find things they were short of, including firewood or propane, was a great way to meet people. And also nice, as a journalist, to be able to offer something besides just asking for people’s time.

LW: I’m glad you bring up La Puente. Going property to property as a volunteer was your first access to the community. The ways in which that would serve you as a writer are clear enough. But I wonder, were there ever instances where it worked against you, or added complication, meeting people that way?

TC: There are a handful of people who don’t like La Puente, many of whom have received services from them, which always perplexed me a bit. There’s a handful who feel mildly insulted that a person from La Puente would ask how they’re doing and if they need anything. There’s just such a premium placed on self-sufficiency out there, a reluctance to accept “charity.” And so there are some people who wanted to stop the conversation right at the beginning, which is of course absolutely fine. I’d say more people were open to conversation and maybe glad to meet me, just in case—in case they ran out of something, or in case they couldn’t afford a turkey at Thanksgiving, because La Puente has this tradition of delivering turkeys. I’d say, on balance, it was more helpful than not.

LW: If I need services sometimes, and yet I feel offended when you ask if I need help, I suspect that’s because everything in my life has taught me to disavow the vulnerability of needing, maybe to disavow needing other people altogether. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if learning that you’re an East Coast writer on top of that would increase the anxiety of being looked down upon.

TC: Well, yeah. There’s a huge stigma attached being from New York, and being a writer or journalist just makes it worse. And then when I get to the fact that I’m a professor, which is another—

LW: Also a mark against you!

TC: Yeah. Those were impediments I hoped I could transcend with time, if people got to know me as a person. I think time was my greatest ally, just being there again and again, and being recognized. And then people would figure out that I was living with the Grubers, and that I also knew Sam and Cindy—Sam and Cindy were longtime locals. I eventually bought a place near Troy; everybody in that area knows where that is. And almost as significant, everybody eventually recognizes your truck.

I spent more than four years visiting for two to four weeks at a time before I began to write. One goal was being able to see how things changed in that window, because that’s one of the hardest things to learn when we are writing about somebody else, how their lives are over time.

LW: That’s your definition of story. Or it’s the definition you gave in The New New Journalism: character, conflict, and change through time. In this book, maybe more than your others, that makes you a main character, because you exhibit some of the greatest change over time.

TC: I’d say that’s fair. And while I don’t usually want the attention to be on me, I tend to think this is one of the best ways of offering some transparency to readers about where this book came from, right? Why would this person speak to me? There are many valid approaches to documentary art. I respect people who keep themselves out of it, but I know that if they do, I’m going to be wondering, Where were you in that room when that was happening? Or Why were you in that car?  I’d rather just acknowledge that I’m there up front and that I’m going to be the guide for this trip, and you’ll get to know me a bit along the way.

LW: I don’t think there’s undue emphasis on your personal story. But for people who’ve read your other books, or who have an interest in your book on the form, Immersion, there’s a divergence here, because you bought into the Valley. In your other books, you were dependent on the people around you for your survival to some extent. But you were also gone before the book went to print. I’m curious how this is playing out for you with Cheap Land. I would assume that you continue to be in relationship with a lot of the folks you write about because you’re a landowner. You’ve even said that Matt Little is one of your best friends in any context. I imagine there would be strong temptation to cover for your subjects, or to pull your punches, if you’re going to continue to have a relationship with them. Can you talk a bit about that?

TC: So there’s always a tension, I think, when you’re a writer describing somebody you’ve gotten to know really well. It’s a tension between wanting to honor that relationship and wanting to tell the unvarnished truth. Those things are in conflict. Journalists who eschew participation explain that they don’t want personal feelings or friendship to limit what they can write. They will say, “My greatest responsibility is to the reader.” And I suppose that if a year ago, I had just moved away and planned never to go back and did not stay in touch, I would’ve been able to write a book without those fetters. And I think by staying in touch and writing what I believe are nuanced portraits of whole people, I’ve been able to do something better. Now, are there a few things I’ve left out? Maybe, but I’ve never left out the most important things. The reader still learns that Troy was an alcoholic. They still learn that the Grubers took part in butchering cattle that were not their own.

LW: A great scene.

TC: I had to ask Matt Little when he told me he had testicular cancer, “Can I put that in my book?” Because if he didn’t want me to, I wouldn’t have. That’s personal information. But he said, “You’re the writer. You decide.”

I’m here for the long term, and I have sympathy for them living in this situation. And so that is a starting point that I do not think every writer has. This idea of a foundational sympathy with somebody. And if I had been so unlucky as to rent from a different family, let’s say where the parents had addictions and weren’t treating their kids well, or where the more I learned the worse I felt about knowing somebody, I would’ve had to make some hard calls. Because what do you do if your main subject turns out to be a deeply problematic person, not doing well by their children? Thank God I didn’t have to deal with that… I did have a neighbor who turned out to be an unregistered sex offender—actually there was more than one. Or the guy who runs puppy mills—we were on good terms until I learned that. And then I’m like, “Hey, it’s in the newspapers, it’s going in my book.” We may not be friends after this, but there it is.

LW: You offer a scale in Immersion that has “observer” on one end and “participant” on the other. You comment that the goal is not to become a full participant, because that would mean losing touch with “your own previous group,” and thus, losing perspective. When I read that, it struck me that outside of my spouse and child, I’m always somewhere on the observer end of the spectrum. Even with longtime friends, albeit to a lesser extent, I’m an observer. That might be my temperament, or it may be some kind of a psychological defense, but either way it inclined me to this kind of writing you helped pioneer. When you think back to your formative years, were you also “observing” your peers while you were “participating” with them? Or is this something you’ve cultivated for work?

TC: Oh man. Don’t you think almost every writer is to some degree an outsider in their milieu? Apart from perhaps their family and a close circle of friends. I just think it is part of a writerly temperament to feel some distance between a situation and how we think of it. It’s like Socrates’s idea that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s an odd thing, really, just stepping back like that and getting meta, but it’s what we do.

I do think that some degree of separation helps us become writers and empowers us to write about experience. But there is an extra thing going on when you’re trying to get to know a group of people who are not your normal circle. It’s about how close are you going to feel to them, and how are you going to keep your perspective if the distance narrows? I’d say with this book it’s been ultimately more difficult than it has for any of my other books. I’m not happy to be done with it. I still want to go hang out there. Stacy Gruber messaged me last week with some prairie gossip and I wanted to know all about it. So I’m not done. It’s an ongoing part of my life, and I have no idea what to do about that.

LW: On that subject, you have a chapter called “Fallout” in Immersion, which is, of course, the thing that so many of us are concerned about, especially with our subjects: how this thing going to be received? You talk about how it’s often the little things that you would never anticipate that piss people off. Whereas, what might seem to you, the writer, a glaring moral failing just doesn’t even register.

TC: Exactly.

LW: So what has the fallout been like in the valley?

TC: The worst fallout may have been when my publisher’s page for this book went live. The jacket copy mentioned some of the more sensational aspects of life out there, like people with outstanding warrants, the abuse of opiates, and the number of firearms. It got shared to a valley Facebook group where somebody commented, “It looks like a hit job in the making.” And I thought, “Oh, shit. I should have anticipated this.”

Fortunately, it wasn’t too late to tweak the copy and make it more balanced because the book is more balanced. And I didn’t want to be undone by the promotional effort—didn’t want a brush fire to become a forest fire. Meanwhile, others who knew me were coming to my defense. Somebody wrote, “Hey everyone, please don’t judge the book if you have not read it.” There has been a lot of positive response since then.

That was a glimpse of how things could go south. I’m absolutely sure there are going to be people unhappy about this book, so it is a frightening moment, but it comes with the territory. You stick your neck out when you do something like this and not everyone’s going to love you afterward.

LW: Can you talk about your experience of fear over the course of your career? Some nonfiction writers get juiced on danger, on the endorphins. I’m on the more anxious end of the spectrum. I don’t tend to make decisions based on it, but it’s always something I’m managing. You have reported in some dangerous situations, and I wonder, what is your relationship to fear when you’re working?  For example, if you write something that pisses off the heavily armed puppy mill operator down the road, are you worrying about your personal safety?

TC: Oh, absolutely. Especially because firearms are a fact of life out there. In the case of that particular person, I don’t think of him as trigger-happy. And I don’t think of myself as one of his main antagonists. I don’t know if he’s read my book or if he’ll care, but it will put me on high alert when I’m back there and I’m at a 4th of July potluck and I run into somebody who I did not depict in a flattering way. I’m definitely going to be on my guard.

There are so many other kinds of fear to talk about as well. There’s the fear I have of just approaching a stranger, or actually having to get away from my computer and go knock on somebody’s door or beep my horn in front of their homestead and hope they’ll come outside. And what do I do if they come out with a weapon? I think you’d have to be unbalanced not to be afraid in those situations. But I also think that if you don’t represent an active threat to somebody, your chances of being hurt by them are not great. In particular, if you’re not just a random isolated person, but you are connected to this charitable group, or you are living with another neighbor. It’s not as scary as it otherwise would be. I think you can take certain chances that are reasonable. But there are scenarios I work hard to avoid. I’m always more afraid around alcohol, for example, just because people who’ve been drinking do things they wouldn’t do while sober.

LW: How about in a more cut-and-dried dangerous situation? Like when you were reporting Newjack. I’ve heard you talk about the depression that came from being undercover and from not being able to share those experiences with people around you. But what about the fear?

TC: The research for Newjack was often quite frightening because my workplace was a place of violence. It’s a place of institutional violence in which are housed men who have committed acts of violence. So yes, there’s lots to be nervous about there, and I was. One of the greatest challenges was simply not showing it, because if you look scared, it’s going to be worse. So I would pretend. I would act as though I was going to be fine and hope that the reality would follow, and it usually did.

I don’t know if you remember early in the book, a prisoner feigned hitting me under the chin with an uppercut. He was much bigger than me, and his fist stopped about an inch from my chin. I leaped back, and he and his companion laughed. The officer I was with did nothing. And that felt bad. I’m not superhuman—I am capable of being frightened. And it’s important to be capable of being frightened because I think ultimately it keeps you—

LW: Safe?

TC: Yes. But Newjack had both the actual threat of violence, and the repercussions of acting like I wasn’t scared. Which is basically a repression, a repressed emotion that comes out later. It came out in dreams I had where I was a prisoner, and I was afraid.

We could talk for an hour about fear, but if I had to summarize, I would say I’m willing to take certain kinds of chances because I think the odds of getting through it unscathed are pretty good. And the result, assuming I do, is potentially fantastic.

LW: I admit, I’m relieved to learn that you do experience fear.

TC: Oh my God, yeah.

LW: Sometimes I don’t understand why I love this work because I’m basically a wimp. Didion has a comforting line about how many times she sat on a hotel bed trying to call some assistant DA on the phone. And I’m like, okay, maybe I’m not the most avoidant writer to ever have existed.

TC: But that can be really hard, right? It can be really hard to call somebody cold, especially if they’re disinclined to like you. None of us seeks conflict, at least I don’t think most of us do.

LW: At one point in Cheap Land you wonder of your subjects, “if we can see in them an answer to the question, who is America for and who is it not?” It’s an interesting construction, and one you don’t answer. So I wonder if you, Ted Conover, see an answer to that question in the people you met?

TC: I think as a country we have limited patience for people who don’t want to work or who can’t work. There are messages that if you are not a wage earner, you’re a burden. And there’s a survival-of-the-fittest dynamic in the capitalist economy. The people who get to live in nice houses are people who can make it work, who are making the payments on their cars or their houses, they’re holding it together, they’re not falling to pieces in a way that makes them unemployable. When you get out on the prairie, you’re in a world of people that’s no longer true for. A lot of them have messed up in various ways. Or they’ve been used up, right? They’ve outlived their usefulness to the economy because their bodies don’t work as well as they used to. Or their spirit is not up to the challenges of daily life. And they seem most comfortable out of the public eye and out of the mainstream, and sometimes quite alone.

There are so many ways to answer that question, and I didn’t answer it on purpose. It’s easy to lose your way in this country and to alienate people who love you, and to find yourself without money or a home. It’s pretty easy. I’ve seen patterns, but I leave it to another writer to analyze the patterns. I wanted to tell a story of what life is like in this place.

 

Ted Conover ’80, H’01 is the author most recently of Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge, one of The New Yorker’s best books of 2022. His other books include Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Rolling Nowhere, based on his Amherst thesis research. Conover, who has received a Marshall Scholarship and a Guggenheim fellowship, has written for publications including The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Harper’s and The Common.

Lisa Wells is the author of Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World, a finalist for the 2022 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, and The Fix, winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, Granta, The New York Times, The Best American Science & Nature Writing, and in Orion Magazine where she writes the column “Abundant Noise.” She lives in Seattle.

The Challenge of First Impressions: Lisa Wells Interviews Ted Conover

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