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Amtrak Residency Program on the Write Track

Why do some writers find the train to be such a fruitful work environment?

| BY Donald Liebenson

Amtrak’s Residency Program for writers is the little program that could. Twenty-four participants drawn from the literary community are on board as the first group of writers selected for the opportunity to work on writing projects aboard a long-distance train.

The program officially pulled out of the station in October. Two writers per month will travel round trip (gratis) along Amtrak’s 15 long-distance routes. Amtrak received more than 16,000 applications.

The Amtrak Residency Program was inspired by author Alexander Chee, who, in an interview with PEN America, when asked what was his favorite place to write, responded, “I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” Social media picked up on the comment and Amtrak got creative, ultimately offering Manhattan-based writer Jessica Gross a “test run” last March. The result was a piece published in the Paris Review, “Writing the Lake Shore Limited.”

“Amtrak Residency was designed to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment,” Amtrak spokesperson Christina Leeds wrote Millionaire Corner in an email. “Long-distance train travel offers the chance to unplug and take in the experience.”

Why do some writers find the train to be such a fruitful work environment? In her Paris Review piece, Gross quotes Emily St. John Mandel, who described working on a novel during her morning New York subway commute as found “extra time. I began scrawling fragments of the third novel on folded up wads of scrap paper, using a book as my desk.”

Millionaire Corner reached out to Ksenia Anske, a Seattle-based author (“The Siren Suicides Trilogy”) and blogger who will begin her Amtrak residency in March. Born in Soviet Russia and trained as an architect, Anske arrived in the United States in 1998 knowing scant English. Huffington Post calls her “one of social media’s most popular authors (with more than 50,000 followers); a bubbly, positive and enchanting Deepak Chopra of prose.”

Anske responded via email about her connection to train travel and her expectations for the experience. Here is an edited transcript of her replies:

Q: What compelled you to participate in the program?
Ksenia Anske: I love trains. I grew up riding trains. In Russia it was metro trains, and interurban trains, and then I took a sleeper train from Moscow to Berlin and back every summer for four years. There was always something romantic in looking out the window and watching the scenery pass to the staccato of the wheels, passing lands that were impassable by any other methods. And sleeping. Sleeping on the train was what I loved most, knowing that while I'm dreaming, my body is traveling in space. My family didn't have a car, so trains were the most common means of transportation. We learn to love what we have in our lives, right? 

Q: What about train travel so resonates with you?

KA: The rhythm, the steady pace, the ability to move around, to go from car to car, or, in Moscow interurban trains, I used to go between cars, where metal plates grated each other, and watch the ground pass under my feet. It seemed to me like a long metal worm that's alive, carrying me places in its belly. Still is. The road trip is different. You pass cities, places of human habitation, you stop at red lights. On the train there is none of it. It's a smooth ride through strange dark forests or grassy steppes or deserts, places where for miles you can't see any sign of human life. I love it. It's surreal and creepy and beautiful at the same time.

Q: When does your residency begin?

KA: I'm going on a train in March 2015, from Seattle to Chicago, will stay there a few days, then go from Chicago through Texas plains to LA, stay there a few days (I'm visiting my daughter who is a graphic design student), and then go back via the same route. I've never been to Chicago, despite having studied its architecture back when I was in school. I know all the famous buildings from pictures, and now, almost 20 years later, I get to finally see them.

Q: What will you be working on?

KA: I'll be starting to write the first draft of TUBE: Trans-Urban Blitz-Express. It's a novel about a people-eating train, naturally. A troupe of Bolshoi ballerinas will be on tour in the United States and will disappear one by one in car number 5. Are you scared yet?  My goal is to finish the whole thing while on the train, so in about 2 weeks. I wasn't sure I could do it, but I have recently finished the first draft of CORNERS, a novel I'm writing right now, in 2 weeks, so now I know I can. Onward.


About the Author

Donald Liebenson

Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.  

A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.