For some, writing is best tackled in solitude. For others, linguistic discoveries are best made with a little ambient noise in the background.
Today, Amtrak named 24 writers who will get free access to the sounds of human chatter and the whir of landscapes rushing past as the background to a short-term residency.
The Amtrak Residency program was launched in February, after an unintentional beginning. In December 2013, PEN Ten published an interview with “Edinburgh” and “The Queen of the Night” author Alexander Chee, who expressed his love of writing while hearing those pulsing train hums:
“I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.”
A week later, New York-based writer Jessica Gross jumped into the conversation with a tweet that quoted Chee, sparking the idea. Gross’ subsequent Twitter conversation with Amtrak landed her a 44-hour roundtrip “test run” residency to Chicago and back, and culminated in a story in The Paris Review.
Now, 24 writers will get to follow Gross. “Half a Life” author Darin Strauss (who has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Book Critics Circle Award for his work) and Lindsay Moran (a freelance journalist and former clandestine officer for the CIA) are among the diverse and distinguished writers who will get a complimentary long-distance ride.
Award-winning author and journalist Farai Chideya will be another Amtrak Residency guinea pig. The voice behind the “One with Farai” podcast, Chideya is a distinguished writer-in-residence at New York University’s Journalism Institute and writes both fiction and nonfiction. She’s looking forward to being surrounded by that “human noise” on the train.
“I love to be able to be really immersed in what I’m doing and then be able to take a break simply by looking around or eavesdropping. It may be impolite, but I’m a big fan of eavesdropping because I learn so much about human nature from it,” Chideya told Art Beat. “You hear parents and children talking, you hear couples and lovers talking. You hear things that take your brain in that direction of cultivating your narrative sense.”
Jeffrey Stanley, the playwright behind “Tesla’s Letters,” wrote on his blog that he has “no idea when I’m leaving, where I’ll be going, or what I’ll be working on.”
But Chideya has a plan. She wants to ride 1,995 miles on the Sunset Limited from New Orleans to Los Angeles, a 48-hour journey each way.
“That’s a very evocative route because I covered Katrina, I love New Orleans, I lived in Los Angeles, and also there’s a lot of history specifically of African-American migration, from New Orleans to Los Angeles in the early 1900s and throughout the 20th century.”
We tend to look at long train rides with romantic nostalgia of times past, an element or emotion that may play into some of the works that these 24 writers will create. But, according to Chideya, the residency isn’t as retro at it might appear.
“This was really a social media-driven project, from the writers who initially came up with the idea and started tweeting at Amtrak, to Amtrak’s response. I would love to say that I was chosen just on my literary merits, but I also think what factored in is that I have a very active social media presence and I suspect, if you run down the list, you’ll see a bunch of people with an active social media presence,” said Chideya.
“There’s something very classic and timeless about trains, but also a very modern social media aspect to the entire enterprise of the residency.”