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Issue #63, How We Teach


Diving Deep
An interview with Ted Conover
Joanne B. Mulcahy
Ted
Conover has spent his entire career delving into different cultural worlds. Why not? he asks. Its a big universe
to explore. Conovers empathy runs as deep as his curiosity. He is a writer, as William T. Vollmann observed in
a review of The Routes of Man, who cares about not merely that convenient abstraction, humanity, but people in
particular. Indeed, peopleeveryone from hoboes riding freight trains to Mexican immigrants to prison guards
animate the pages of Conovers books. Living with them, sharing the indignities they suffer and the pleasures
they enjoy, is the foundation of his immersion journalisma beat he shares with Barbara Ehrenreich, Lauren
Kessler, and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, among others, each of whom opens up the experiences of frequently
ignored people and communities.

For his first book, 1984s Rolling Nowhere, Conover spent a year riding the rails across America, collecting the
stories of his fellow travelers. Inspired by that books success, he turned his focus to Mexican migrants on both
sides of the border, which he crossed four times doing research for Coyotes. His deft use of first person created a
lens for seeing unique individuals as well as the social issues surrounding immigration. And then, defying easy
classification, Conover turned from the disenfranchised to the elite for his next book, Whiteout: Lost in Aspen.
Driving a taxi and then writing for the Aspen Times, he reported on New Age resorts and celebrity hangouts,
exploring the seductions of fame and money. But those hazards paled against those posed by the research for
his next book, Newjack. After the New York State Department of Correctional Services denied his request to
spend time with a corrections officer or to shadow a recruit through training, Conover instead applied for the job
himself. For nearly a year, as a corrections officer in Sing Sing, he steeled himself against the works constant
stress and the need to maintain a secret identity.

In each of these books, Conover shifts with ease between storytelling and broader discussions of the promise
and disappointments of American life. In The Routes of Man, he explores the impact of six roads in six different
countries. Together, these stories detail how development, disease, and military occupations are changing lives
in locations as diverse as the Peruvian jungle and the West Bank.

Conovers latest book, Immersion: A Writers Guide to Going Deep, shares the practical knowledge hes gleaned
and places immersion journalism within the broader context of creative nonfiction and ethnography. He
acknowledges ethnography as a literary cousin, drawing on the participant observation methods he learned as
an undergraduate anthropology student. He balances the anthropologists quest to understand other cultures with
the compelling narrative style of his literary ancestors, including the New Journalists.

As a faculty member in New York Universitys journalism program, Conover teaches this blend of research
methods and literary nonfiction forms. Immersion now makes that knowledge available to readers. Practical
advice covers how to choose a subject and gain access, take notes and check facts, report for story, and
confront varied ethical issues. Conover discusses voice, story structure, character development, and other
techniques hes learned from crafting experience into indelible narratives. This publication will likely bring more
than a few new adherents to participatory journalism.

We spoke recently via Skype; Conover, in his office in New York City, looked relaxed in a sweatshirt and jeans.
He reflected on how teaching has added depth and dimension to his thinking and writing about diverse cultural
worlds.

By the end of our conversation, the surprise was not that Conover does such challenging and sometimes
dangerous work. Given the satisfactions he described, I wondered why everyone else doesnt.

JOANNE B. MULCAHY

CNF: Immersion draws together the work youve done over many years. The opening epigraph,
from the poet Richard Wilbur, points to a central theme: Go talk with those who are rumored to
be unlike you. I wonder where this drive to cross borders comes from?

CONOVER: Ive spent a lot of time wondering about it myself. The best answer Ive come up with
is that the seed was planted in high school when I was bussed to an almost all minority high
school downtown (as part of a court-ordered desegregation plan in Denver). My friends and I
were an ethnic minority for the first time. It made me think of how different the world looked in
that situation. It got me thinking: What if Id been raised a different way? What if I belonged to a
different group? And what did I make of the privilege of my class, which meant that I got to go to
college, to spend time studying abroad? It empowered me in important ways. One of those was
the idea that there was value in trying to make sense of other cultural ways of being. When I got
to college, I discovered anthropology and ethnography. These offered opportunities to do a
deeper, more thoughtful journalism.

I came up with this idea of riding freight trains as ethnographic research. I thought they would
never buy it, because it does have a whiff of folly, but it all worked out. Riding freight trains led
me to meet some Mexican hoboes. I thought about how much was not known of undocumented
migrants other than the fact of their criminality, right? Thats changedthere have been other
books since mine, and the culture is more sophisticated now about migrants from Mexicobut
back then, it was still thought of as pretty transgressive to go do that. Yet I learned from riding the
rails that people would talk to somebody like me. This way of doing research has the advantage
of turning the spotlight on people who dont get enough attention. People say, Why do you keep
putting yourself through this? I understand the question, but I also think, What could be more
enlivening or illuminating?

CNF: In The Routes of Man, you tell a story about a prayer your father used to say when you
were a child: Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Did you grow up in a religious culture?

CONOVER: I did go to Sunday school at a Presbyterian church, but as my parents lost interest in
it, I did, too. Im not now a religious person, but when I was young, my fathers days would begin
with books on religious themes. Hed sit in his study in Denver, every morning before going to
work as a lawyer, and read what seemed to me boring books about God and responsibility. Im
sure thats in my brain stem somewhere, but I cant tell you exactly its effect on my work. I am
always impressed by the Catholic Church and its emphasis on the rights of immigrants and
refugees. I find that quite compelling.

CNF: In Immersion, you also mention Walt Whitman. I wonder about his influence and that of
other writers who shaped your thinking.

CONOVER: I didnt read much Whitman before graduate school, but he articulated things I felt. I
cant say that reading Whitman made me who I am. Rather, Whitman explained some things
about myself, such as why I might think its important to talk to everybody. Theres a strain of
American thought that you can trace back to Whitman, and Im sure Im part of it. There he was
modeling that kind of discourse, and doing it close to where I now work on lower Broadway. I
dont credit New York for making me this kind of writer, either. In a way, people in western cities
like Denver are more attuned to talking to strangers. Our ethnicities dont matter so much there
because we are all more recent arrivals. Back east, there are more ethnic enclaves, and that can
be a real impediment to community.

CNF: Some writers articulate what we already know. Thats when they strike us most powerfully.

CONOVER: I agree. In Immersion, I mention other writers I admire. Theyre all important in
different ways. In high school, I read Tom Wolfes manifesto about New Journalism. Books
like The Right Stuff, which is immersion writing, are models for me. Certain travel books are, too.
When I read Steinbeck, I felt a great kinship with The Grapes of Wrath. Later, it was Bruce
Chatwins In Patagonia. He follows the idea that the brontosaurus skin in his grandmothers
cabinet came from Patagonia. Theres magic and mystery to his exploration. Thats different from
a more analytic way of thinking.

Great writing can benefit from both; you dont want to be too cerebral when it comes to
encountering the world but rather encounter it as a human being in all shades of meaning. I tried
to be a little bit like Chatwin, a little like Steinbeck. I was greatly influenced by Anne Tyler in
college. Closer to the present, one of the immersion books I like best is Dance with the Devil by
Stanley Booth. Hes a music writer who got permission to travel with the Rolling Stones during a
fascinating part of American historyrock n roll in an era when people seemed to think it might
change the world. Theres an energy I absorbed that helped make me who I am. Its part of New
Journalism, the 60s, and the Vietnam War. A new tradition of writing started then.

CNF: In Immersion, you lay out the way that ethnography and journalism both influenced you.
Could you talk about how you merged those two worlds?

CONOVER: In the writing of James Spradley, I came upon the idea of the ethnographer as a
student of the people he wished to write about. Rather than the highly educated, sophisticated
ethnographer going in and looking at a tribe as a scientist, you assume a very different model, of
yourself as ignorant and your subjects as knowledgeable. What can they teach me? What do
they know that would be interesting for the world? That research posture is wonderful, and I
emulate it.

While never disowning the knowledge I have, I acknowledge how little I know compared to the
poor guy climbing off a freight train whos been riding three days from the border at Nuevo
Laredo. He has a lot to teach me. His stories are valuable if only I can hear them.

Another way anthropology has been valuable is cultural relativism. No matter what your culture
is, there are others to learn from. Many are going away as global culture expands, and others are
changing in interesting ways. The world as subject matter is inspiring. I tend to write about
American subjects, but Im interested in others. If theres one thing Im really glad I took in high
school and college, its Spanish.

CNF: You call ethnography one of immersion journalisms literary cousins. Matthew Desmond,
the author of Evicted, is a Harvard sociologist, but with the success of his book has sometimes
been portrayed more as a journalist. Desmond has said in interviews that hes not worried about
labels as long as his work draws attention to issues such as poverty and evictions. Still,
journalism and ethnography have been separate worlds. Do you see the differences between
them starting to narrow?

CONOVER: There is more overlap now. When I wrote my undergraduate thesis, I was told it had
to be in the third person; I dont think that would be the case today. First person in journalism and
the social sciences makes the material more accessible. It also states up front: this is my
subjective rendering of the experience. We need to look at ourselves and how we change the
room when we enter it. I am modest in my claims: no, I didnt become a hobo, I didnt become an
undocumented migrant, but I got to know more about them than I would have if I had not had
these experiences. Sociologists like Matthew Desmond and Alice Goffman (On the Run) are
aware of the power of narrative and of putting themselves in the story. That said,
both Evicted and On the Run segregate the most interesting personal material in the appendices,
which are totally riveting! Sociologists are still wrestling with the fascinating first-person piece.
They dont feel comfortable foregrounding it in the main part of a book. As a journalist, I dont
have to pretend the personal is not important. Im going to put it right out there and aim it at the
general reader.

CNF: In Immersion, you say, My position, as a teacher of writing and as an active writer, is that
you have to earn your first person. I wonder if you could talk about that phrase.

CONOVER: Some of my students reflexively write in the first person, which is usually OK. And
yet, if your subject is other people or the world, its important to ask what the first person is going
to add. If its a city council meeting, theres probably not a lot to be gained. But with other
subjects, the writers presence helps tell the story. Youve earned the first person by virtue of
your experiences. But if its just, Look at me, look at me! thats not my first person.

CNF: The difficult things youve been through while reporting your booksgetting arrested,
physical trauma, and facing various other dangersmake me wonder what tools you think your
students need for this work?

CONOVER: Most of my students are new to immersive research. In the course of a semester,
immersion might mean spending three weekends with your subject. With some people, its hard
to spend a whole day. Often, they decide early that this is enough. The kind of immersion that
turns into books extends over weeks, months, and years. One tool you need is patience. Another
is forbearance. You have to put up with annoying people; they have to put up with you. On the
other hand, being able to live differently offers the freedom to experience another identity. Riding
the rails week after week changes your relationship with the world. Youre thinking about your
personal safety, wondering where youre going to get your next meal, how youre going to stay
warm. . . . A whole new set of questions organizes your life. You need to be excited by the
prospect of getting to know Mexican workers or working in a prison. Your work is going to be
stressful and really ugly at times, but it will teach you something valuable. The necessary tools
are common to many nonfiction writers: the ability to listen, to ask good questions, to take notes,
to find ways to tell a story and not simply file a report, to get to know people well enough that
they become characters. You cant shy away from conflict, which will be interesting to read
about. You need a hunger for a different experience, and Im not sure I can teach that.

CNF: How do you know when the reporting ends and shaping the story begins? In Immersion,
you use an analogy: I cant bake a cake before I know which ingredients Ill have at my disposal,
or how much of each one. You do the field and library research, and at some point, you see the
shape of the story. But if you start with a particular story and something intrudes on that narrative
line, do you exclude it?

CONOVER: In most cases, Ive had only the most provisional idea of a story. With Rolling
Nowhere, I knew I wanted to ride freight trains and get to know people who do that. I thought I
might want to travel around the whole West. You need to picture the travel: what it will include
and who might be part of it. You dont know who youll meet, what theyll teach you, or where
youll get arrested. You might get on a train thats going in a different direction than you
expected. Going in [to Coyotes], I knew Mexico would be a big part of this story. The Mexican
side of immigration hadnt been told in American writing. I wanted to live in a village, to cross
over from the Mexican side. Once I had crossed the border for the first time, I thought, Im
probably halfway done.

But its very situational. You cant over-determine in advance because you have to go where life
takes you. That said, you cant be completely dependent on serendipity. Youll be about to cross
the border and meet somebody from Uganda who says, Im at the end of my journey. Come join
me! It sounds great, but thats a different book.

CNF: Your ideas are relevant for library research, as well. I heard Alexander Chee speak at a
conference recently. He used the phrase the kiss of the mermaid to describe when you dive too
deep into research and get the bends.

CONOVER: I love that, because theres often a mermaid down there.

CNF: If you get entranced by the mermaid, youre dead.

CONOVER: An editor once told me, Indulge in digressions. Those can be some of the most
interesting parts of a book. But I think students more often need to hear Resist the digression.

CNF: Your discussion of structure in Immersion is incredibly helpful. Even though all of your work
is narrative, the structures are quite different. The Routes of Man, for example, alternates
chapters on places with reflective interludes on the concept of a road. How do you arrive at each
projects structure, and how do you teach this?

CONOVER: Teaching structure is one of the most important and difficult things I do. Students
typically know how to structure an essay by declaring their intentions at the beginning and then
citing examples, but they need to think about other structures for telling a story. In Immersion, I
list several models that are time-testedan anecdotal lede, in medias res openings where you
put an emblematic scene at the beginning. I often have students experiment with two or three
different approaches. You need to get good at that before you can try structures like the one
in The Routes of Man, which is less conventional.

CNF: Most structures in immersion writing are less experimental than in the overall realm of
creative nonfiction. You cite Jennifer Percys Demon Camp as one example that reaches in an
experimental direction. Do you see this changing? Or is there something basic in narratives
power to create empathy in a reader?

CONOVER: Narrative suggests certain structures and restrictions. There is experimentation


within that structure. But if you go too far afield, youre not telling a story as we think of a story. In
the world of the nonfiction MFA, there is a big emphasis on the lyric essay. Theres also some
skepticism over traditional narrative writing because you have to exclude information that doesnt
help you tell a story.

Im interested in Jen Percy because shes walking a line between the lyric essay and more
conventional narrative storytelling. She plays with language and point of view. She lets in the
sense of something not entirely rational, a malevolent presence that this traumatized veteran
thinks is real. She wants the reader to think of it as real, too. Some of it works for me; some of it
doesnt. But I want to stay open to new things. No sooner do you write a book about immersion
journalism than you start defending how its been done against all comers. I dont want to be that
person. Literature stays alive when its open to new approaches. Im curious to see whats next.

CNF: You say the writers duty is to the reader and the writing itself, not the subjects, so you
dont show your subjects your work. But in a contribution to Telling True Stories, Walt Harrington
describes writing about a suicide for the Washington Post. He felt the topic was serious enough
to bend the rules and read the story to his subjects before publication. Are there times when
thats appropriate?
CONOVER: I think the proper starting point is not showing the work to subjects. As journalists or
nonfiction writers, our primary duty is to our readers. We will not get at the truth by simply
embracing our subjects views of the world. We need to be free to offer our own opinions and
those of other people. Were going to talk with people we disagree with politically. I hope we do
more of that in coming years so that election results like the ones we just had are a little less of a
surprise.

There are also circumstances in immersion writing where youve spent a long time with
somebody who shared their life with you. They often have very little expectation of getting
anything in return except for a piece of work that tells their story accurately. This is where it gets
tricky. You show a piece of writing to the subject, and even if a panel of people would agree its
perfectly balanced, the subject might disagree.

But sometimes with extended research, it makes sense to go over things early on. You say,
Look, heres what Im going to write about. I want to reflect your point of view even if my article
shares other views as well.

A couple of years ago, I wrote this long story about a veterinarian in Iowa. At first, he sounded
very encouraging. Come hang out with me. Youll get to see everything I do. Once I arrived, the
downside suddenly presented itself, and he was scared. He said, Come out back, Tedto the
corrals behind his clinic. He said, I have a lot to lose here. Youre going to see me doing things
that cause animals pain sometimes, and that doesnt look good. I can explain it to you, but how
do I know how youre going to describe it?

I said, Youre absolutely right. Im not sure Ill think everything I see is the way it should be. But
how about if we agree that at the end of every day, we take fifteen minutes and you say, So
what do you think of what we did today? The castration, say, that we performed on that ranch?
Ill tell him, and then well discuss it. You can negotiate this by being up front: Im listening very
carefully to you, but Im not your mouthpiece.

You find a middle ground between the strict newspaper rulethe subject never sees the story in
advanceand the almost equally strict academic rule that the subject gets anonymized and
approves everything.

CNF: Id like to go back to what you said about the aftermath of the recent presidential election.
In Immersion, you tell the story of the editor who helped you think about the audience for Rolling
Nowhere. He suggested you write the book for a friend. But do we also need to write for people
who might never be our friends? Do you think there will be a shift in audience?

CONOVER: I wouldnt be at all surprised. As a lot of literary writing becomes associated with
the academy, with MFA degrees and creative writing programs, there is a tendency to write to
the sensibilities of the academy. These are not the sensibilities of Trump voters. Attention to
human rights, transgender rights, and the whole agenda of progressive thinking that many of us
embracethese are not universally embraced. Every writer is going to have to think about the
possible alienating effect of showing your hand on certain issuesto consider whether your
personal feelings and political views should be apparent in everything you write. Is it possible to
write from a place of concern that doesnt just speak to the choir but is open to a larger
audience? Im proud that Newjack found readers both among prison reform advocates and
corrections officers. I like to think we can write that way and say something important that will
matter to more than just our side.
CNF: In the afterword of Newjack, you say you received more than three hundred e-mails from
corrections officers or their family members, and its very moving to see the range of responses.

CONOVER: It wasnt 100 percent Oh, thank you for this book. There were people who thought I
didnt have the right to author such a book because I was just a newjack. There were
reservations from various corners. But overall, I think I found a way to cross the aisle and speak
to a larger audience. That is my personal preferenceto think of people who disagree with me
when Im writing and to try to avoid provoking them unnecessarily. Sometimes you cant avoid it,
but you can try to be more inclusive.

CNF: Newjack was the book that sent you undercover. In Immersion, you deal with the thorny
ethical issues that surround that decision. Is there an inherent difference between someone who
alters their racial or gender identity and someone adopting an occupational identity like being a
prison guard?

CONOVER: The classic undercover writer goes in to expose some wrongdoing or malfeasance,
right? Its Nellie Bly in the insane asylum, showing the world how terrible the place is. She can
only access that world by misrepresenting herself.

John Howard Griffin (Black Like Me) and Norah Vincent (Self-Made Man) are writers who went
undercover, though not in the classical investigatory mode. Griffin wanted to show racism in the
South in a graphic manner. He also, like Vincent, wanted to record the various affronts to his
humanity by people who thought he was somebody else. I am interested in their examples
because they take undercover work into this cultural realm. Youre not just talking about news.
Youre talking about sexism and gender and racial stereotypes.

I tend to eschew the word undercover as the best label for some of my surreptitious work. I didnt
become a guard to expose corruption primarily, though I was certainly ready for that to happen
when I found it. I spent long hours trying to document the problems people associate with
prisonrape and brutality, for example, which are a part of the experience for so many people
and deserve exposing. But what I had access to was interesting for other reasons, like the way
prison changes people. I think it makes prisoners more racist, and it does the same for officers. It
brings out a bad side of all involved. These are deeper issues that dont typically fall under the
category of undercover reporting.

CNF: Given all the debates about cultural appropriation and identity issues, could Black Like
Me be written now?

CONOVER: I dont think so. It has certain facile propositions about what makes a black person.

CNF: These debates have been around for a long time, but certainly Lionel Shrivers
presentation at the Brisbane Writers Festival provoked new questions. She decried the
movement against cultural appropriation, arguing that artists should be free to represent any
ethnicity, gender, or other identity they choose. Has the current debate complicated those
questions for you?

CONOVER: Well, sure. In a way, it was a relief to write about prison officers after having
written Coyotes, because I would be writing about people of my own gender and ethnicity.
Thinking about what knowledge you can claim as a writer has been a part of anthropology for
forty years at least. Its a part of me as a writer. But I dont think the current debate should stop
anybody of any ethnicity from thinking and writing about other people. If we all just start writing
about ourselves, were not going to get anywhere. We need a multiplicity of voices to have a
lively true literature.

CNF: The anthropologist Dell Hymes said ethnography is the perfect tool for a democratic
society. Ideally, Mexican immigrants would study the culture of Ted Conovers middle-class white
family. We would all study the cultures of one another. It isnt that the tools are flawed. Rather,
the unequal distribution of power gives access to some people and not others.

CONOVER: Thats a good way to put it: its not the tools.

CNF: On the topic of tools, you need a lot of stamina for immersion journalism. Are you going to
continue in this vein? Whats next for you?

CONOVER: I have two or three ideas on the back burner that I hope will take wing. The problem
with two of them is access. That question doesnt go away. Ive gotten better at some aspects of
immersion writing, but my track record can make it hard to do certain things. Im more Google-
able now, and thats not necessarily a good thing.

CNF: Youre now in the journalism school at NYU. How do you think teaching has changed you?

CONOVER: Its required me to explain myself more than I would have otherwise. I have to think
about my process at every phase. Whats a good idea? Does it need to be topical? Should it be
political? Is there a market for it? Teaching has also required me to pay attention to lots of smart
people who went before me. I wasnt the first writer to get a job as a prison guard in order to write
about it. A reporter in Chicago named William Recktenwald did that in the 70s. I didnt know
about that until a couple of years ago. There are many writers whose work is part of a canon I
appreciate, whether consciously or not. I can now tell you about The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,
which I didnt read until about five years ago. To be a teacher, you need to be aware that you
arent the person who invented all these things.

I was afraid along the way that thinking too much could foul up my intuitive process. Do I want to
subject it to the light of explanatory thinking? Im OK with that now. Teaching also urges you to
consider your connections with other parts of the academy, like social science. Creative writing
programs dont do that so much. But books like Evicted and On the Run are cousins of what I do.
It behooves us to know about that branch of the family and to be able to communicate with it. We
can help each other, but we also need to acknowledge that were different. Teaching broadened
me. It keeps me in conversation with life in a good way. Im not sure that a writer alone in a cabin
in the woods is the best model for our new century. We need to be out there in constant
conversation with everybody.

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