Amtrak launches writers residency after author requests

The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner traveling on the Pacific Coast. Amtrak has begun offering writers residencies on its trains.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Ask and ye shall receive. At least when it comes to authors and Amtrak.

Amtrak has launched a still-unstructured writers residency program thanks to an offhanded remark by Alexander Chee and some impassioned pleas on Twitter.

In a PEN Ten interview that posted Dec. 23, Chee, author of the forthcoming novel “The Queen of the Night,” said that trains are his favorite place to write. He then commented, “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.”


Not two months later and Amtrak does. The first writer to accept its residency and blog about it is Jessica Gross, who traveled from New York City to Chicago and back.

That was thanks to Twitter, where Gross was among the several writers who enthused about Chee’s idea and included Amtrak in their tweets. Amtrak took notice, and residencies were born.

Like the best writers’ residencies, Gross’ stay with the host (Amtrak) was free. The train company asked, in exchange, that she post about her experience on social media.

Understanding that she’s not an impartial reporter but a writer finding space and time to write, here’s how she described her experience for the Paris Review: “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. Everything has its place. The towel goes on the ledge beneath the mirror; the sink goes into its hole in the wall; during the day, the bed, which slides down from overhead, slides up into a high pocket of space. There is comfort in the certainty of these arrangements. The journey is bounded, too: I know when it will end. Train time is found time.”

Gross was the child of a train enthusiast, she explains, making her a better-than-average person to receive one of the first writers’ residencies on Amtrak.

The program hasn’t yet been formalized, but her stories about it have launched a new wave of Twitter hopefuls. Writers see Amtrak as a refuge for concentrating on their work.

But even Amtrak’s spaces aren’t entirely insulated from the world; many trains have WiFi, so writers trying to focus on their work still have to exert self-control to resist the lure of the Internet. Then again, hanging around on Twitter can be productive -- it’s what brought the Amtrak residency into being.


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