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The Daily Tar Heel

Q&A with journalist, author and Writer-in-Residence Ted Conover

Frank B. Hanes, courtesy of Susan H. Irons

Frank B. Hanes, courtesy of Susan H. Irons

Ted Conover, a writer and journalist, is the 2017 Frank B. Hanes Writer-in-Residence. He is offering a reading tonight in Genome Sciences Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Assistant University Editor Aaron Redus talked with Conover about his position and being a writer.

The Daily Tar Heel: What are you most excited about as being a Writer-in-Residence at UNC?

Ted Conover: Already I'm about to be on this panel about meat, which is related to an article I wrote for Harper's (Magazine) about working undercover as a federal meat inspector. And I'll be visiting courses on travel writing and memoir writing and just connecting with, well with young journalists and people with a wide variety of interests who connect to my work in various ways. So, it's really fun to visit the University with so much happening and so many points of connection to the stuff I've done. 

DTH: Have you been a writer in residence for any extended period of time at a University before?

TC: I have. I've done it at various places, from Berkeley to the University of Oregon and, oh, I've done it all kinds of places. It's different everywhere. Sometimes you actually teach workshops and meet students individually. Here it's not so much; it's more classes and public audiences and stuff. 

DTH: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

TC: So, I started working at my school paper in junior high and got an internship in high school at some suburban newspapers, but what took me off a more traditional journalist path was discovering anthropology and the whole idea of living with people in order to know them better. And it seemed to me this could lead to a deeper form of journalism than just short-deadline, interview-based journalism. This possibility of learning by being with people was pretty fascinating to me. 

I thought maybe it could be applied to railroad hobos and that worked out pretty well, and as you know, I wrote my undergraduate thesis about an experience riding the rails. And while I was doing that, I met Mexican workers who were getting around that way and would talk to me I guess because I spoke passable Spanish. I was on my own, right, so they weren't afraid of me. One thing led to another, and I think readers often really connect to a writer who's engaged in a personal way, you know what I'm saying? (Someone) who doesn't just have a passing interest, but is there and breathing the same air. 

DTH: Do you have a favorite project or book that you've worked on in your career?

TD: I love them all for different reasons. I love "Rolling Nowhere", my first book, because it was my first book and it actually happened, you know, I actually published a book about my experience … That was really fun. That was a big adventure. My next book, "Whiteout", about living in Aspen, was completely different, you know, seeing if you could do ethnography among wealthy people. And that was probably, that research was the hardest to stop, because I was having such a good time living in Aspen. "Newjack", my book about prison, which is the one I'm best known for, was the hardest to research and the most challenging and the most frightening. But it's had the biggest impact …  And then my most recent book, "Immersion", was sort of an attempt to put into words how I've done this and how other writers I admire have done it. 

DTH: Do you have any sort of special routine or schedule you follow when you're working on a book?

TD: Yeah, sure, so all my writing projects have sort of two phases. There's the reporting, or the research, and then there's the writing. And they're quite different, as you know. They involve different skills. The first phase involves social skills and putting yourself out there and trying to figure out how to learn what you need to know. And the other part involves being a good writer and converting data to stories, right, that people will want to read. They're each challenging in their own way and I really like both.

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