In the 1930s, hobos illicitly rode the rails; nowadays, authors are being invited onto trains thanks to Twitter and a new writers residency program launched by Amtrak.
On Wednesday, Amtrak announced the first class of resident writers, 24 authors who will ride its long-distance routes over the next year. The two dozen authors were selected from more than 16,000 applicants.
The writers who will find themselves on trains this coming year are a diverse group. The list includes journalist Farai Chideya, bestselling author Karen Karbo, National Book Critics Circle Award winner Darin Strauss, tech entrepreneur Tynan, Gothamist's Jen Carlson, film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum, YA author Anna Davies, pioneering transgender author Jennifer Boylan and Southern California writer Deanne Stillman.
"I love writing on trains," Stillman told the Los Angeles Times. "I've reserved a spot on the California Zephyr, which goes through the Great Plains, where my next book takes place. The book is 'Blood Brothers,' about the unlikely friendship between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, and I'm writing it for Simon & Schuster. I'll be seeing the plains from the point of view of the Iron Road, which I haven't done before."
The residency was the result of a spontaneous social media campaign inadvertently generated by writer Alexander Chee, author of the forthcoming novel "The Queen of the Night." In a December PEN Ten interview Chee said that trains were his favorite place to write, then commented, "I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers."
The hashtag #AmtrakResidency was born, and its huge popularity got Amtrak's attention.
By March, Amtrak had invited a writer, Jessica Gross, to ride the trains as a test of the program. "I've always been a claustrophile, and I think that explains some of the appeal — the train is bounded, compartmentalized, and cozily small, like a carrel in a college library ..." she wrote of the experience at the Paris Review. "The journey is bounded, too: I know when it will end. Train time is found time."
Chee served as one of the judges who selected the first class of writers, alongside Amtrak's Joe McHugh, Samuel Nicholson from Random House and Amy Stolls, director of literature at the National Endowment for the Arts.
"I was impressed with Amtrak's outreach to writers the first time I heard about the residency program and how it came about," Stolls said in a release. "As a judge, I was won over completely."