What an appealing idea: US rail company Amtrak has begun offering writers residencies on trains, after the author Alexander Chee expressed a wistful longing to write on trains in a recent interview. The writer Jessica Gross tweeted her approval, “because it would allow for uninterrupted creativity and window-gazing”, and Amtrak picked up on the idea; Gross has now travelled to Chicago and back, writing about her journey for the Paris Review, and Chee is due to take his own journey later this year. More trips – free, or as low-cost as possible – will follow, Amtrak told The Wire. The eventual goal, said Julia Quinn, social media director for Amtrak, is to “engage with writers several times a month”.
What’s so great about writing on a train? “I’ve always been a claustrophile, and I think that explains some of the appeal – the train is bounded, compartmentalised, and cosily small, like a carrel in a college library. Everything has its place,” writes Gross in the Paris Review. “The journey is bounded, too: I know when it will end. Train time is found time. My main job is to be transported; any reading or writing is extracurricular. The looming pressure of expectation dissolves. And the movement of a train conjures the ultimate sense of protection – being a baby, rocked in a bassinet.”
At MobyLives, Emma Aylor has it that “though there’s a kinetic excitement to the setting out, there’s also something to the coming home. Taking Amtrak’s Northeast Regional from my temporary home in New York to my family home in Virginia last summer, I experienced the reverse of my trip north. Where I had been jittery with anticipation, I was, southbound, a little weepy, watching more and more magnolias pass as I came closer to home. I wrote, and it wasn’t any good, but the experience was all.”
Here in the UK, in 2012 crime author Julia Crouch was a writer in residence between London and Harrogate, penning the short story Strangeness on a Train, and saying that “working onboard the train seemed like being in a bubble of concentration as I moved through time and space, only being distracted when eavesdropping on the dramas of my fellow passengers as swaths of the countryside flashed past the windows, which were useful distractions”.
I am half-minded to ditch my responsibilities and hop on board a train myself. Sadly, it’s not to be – but in honour of Amtrak’s move, I shall content myself with remembering some of my favourite train journeys in literature, from Blaine the deadly riddling Mono train in Stephen King’s Dark Tower books (“Blaine is a pain, and that is the truth”), to – of course – Murder on the Orient Express. If you’ve literary train journeys of your own to cite, then please, do join me on board.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2014