The 24 writers will receive a free round-trip ride on one of Amtrak’s long-distance rail lines that might inspire peripatetic prose. Some of those routes, like the California Zephyr, cross vast stretches of the United States over multiple days in beautiful sleeper cabins and glass-topped observation cars. For many, it’s the perfect place to write.
That notion—and perhaps the prospect of a free ride—inspired 16,000 applications to the inaugural residency, according to Amtrak, which receives federal funding but mostly subsists on fare revenue. Though romanticized by many, long-distance train travel in America has suffered from a lack of investment in the kind of high-speed rail systems found in much of Europe and Asia. Amtrak’s own reputation for reliability is spotty, especially in the northeast US.
“Our long distance trains don’t just connect small towns to big cities, they connect families, friends and loved ones,” Amtrak wrote in a blog post, obviously trying to capitalize on enthusiasm for the residency program. “They offer a chance to connect with other travelers, experience the American countryside without the stress of driving, and to unplug and take in the inspirational experience.”
The writers selected for the residency run the gamut from journalists to novelists to the poet and singer Saul Williams, the most famous person selected.
Full disclosure: I played an unwitting role in this program’s creation. In October 2013, novelist Alexander Chee was asked, in an interview with Pen America, for his favorite place to write. “I still like a train best for this kind of thing,” he said. “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” Jessica Gross, a writer, tweeted that quote, and I retweeted it, catching the eye of Amtrak’s social media team, which replied:
I demurred, but Gross took up the offer and wrote about the experience for the Paris Review. From there, the residency was officially born.
Those who weren’t selected for the program can wait to see if there’s a second round—or create their own residency by paying full fare and hopping aboard. The quiet car is recommended.