Ted Conover, a “master of experience-based narrative nonfiction” (Publisher’s Lunch), is the author of five books including Rolling Nowhere: Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes, Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders With America’s Illegal Migrants, Whiteout: Lost in Aspen, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize), and, most recently, The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing the World and the Way We Live Today. He is a distinguished writer-in-residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute of New York University.
How did you get started traveling?
In 7th grade, I delivered the Rocky Mountain News from my bicycle. I folded about 70 papers on my front porch, loaded them into handlebar bags, and set forth on Denver’s empty East 6th Avenue, a normally busy one-way thoroughfare, at around 5:30 a.m., with my dog. This was solo travel into a strange neighborhood — the streets were generally deserted. Often there was adversity (snow, other dogs, people lurking). I was sleepy, nervous, and excited all at once. I was traveling on my own.
How did you get started writing?
Creative writing assignments and school newspapers. Also, I remember the first time I came upon the term “freelance writer” — it was in an article in an airline magazine. I asked my mom and she told me what it meant. Yet still, somehow, I associated it with being a knight errant. I think it was the “lance” part!
What do you consider your first “break” as a writer?
Possibly becoming co-editor of my high school paper. Possibly selling an essay to Bicycling magazine when I was still in college. Possibly getting a summer internship at U.S. News & World Report.
As a traveler and fact/story gatherer, what is your biggest challenge on the road?
Not getting too lonely.
Have you ever done other work to make ends meet?
Almost always: early on I managed apartment buildings, tutored kids in Spanish, and taught SAT preparation for Stanley Kaplan. I even taught aerobics in order to get a gym membership. Sometimes the work became part of the book: picking citrus in Arizona (Coyotes), driving a taxi and reporting for the local newspaper (Whiteout: Lost in Aspen), working as a corrections officer (Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing). Lately I also teach writing.
What travel authors or books might you recommend and/or have influenced you?
In a recent interview for The Week, I mentioned books by authors like Bruce Chatwin, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Jack Kerouac, Cormac McCarthy, John R. Stilgoe, and Rory Stewart.
In addition, I would add Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which is an in-depth examination of the costs and benefits of road-building. And I would recommended Mary Morris’ lively collection, Maiden Voyages: Writings of Women Travelers.
What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone who is considering going into travel writing?
Don’t think of it as travel writing. Think of it as getting to know the world.