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Amtrak’s Residency for Writers lets 24 American writers ride the American rails

Seattle writer Ksenia Anske prepares to board the Empire Builder for her all expense paid writing trip. Her route: Seattle --> Chicago --> Los Angeles --> Chicago --> Seattle (Photo courtesy of Ksenia Anske)
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Train travel is steeped in romance. It’s nostalgic and old fashioned, there’s beautiful scenery whizzing by and the opportunity to have a proper meal, with cloth napkin, in the dining car. And this romance is not lost on writers.

So when Amtrak announced their very first writer’s residency program last year, 16,000 people applied, hoping they’d be chosen to do their writing on a cross-country train, all on Amtrak’s dime.

“We basically said, ‘Anyone who deems themselves a writer can apply to the program,'” said Amtrak spokeswoman Julia Quinn. “We got everything from New York Times bestselling authors to kids in high school who are interested in going and getting a literary degree at college. We got graphic novels and screenplays. We were just looking for an interesting story. We didn’t just look at their writing, we also asked why they felt like one of Amtrak’s cross-country trains would benefit their writing.”

Amtrak sought out some literary judges who were tasked with narrowing 16,000 applications down to 24 writers in residence. Seattle writer Ksenia Anske made the cut. She describes her writing as “urban fantasy, little bit of horror, little bit of magical realism. You know, strange things.”

Anske spent two weeks writing, reading and sleeping in a private roomette on Amtrak’s Empire Builder, while the train chugged along from Seattle to Chicago to Los Angeles and back.

“I was always enamored with trains because I grew up in Russia,” Anske said. “Most of my life, traveling-wise, was on the trains. I’ve never been across the U.S. I’ve always wanted to go and see Montana and the mountains, Texas and the prairies and just all around. I thought wow, this is cool you can just sit and do your thing, look out the window and they feed you. I mean, what could be better?”

The train was the perfect environment for the eerie, creepy book Anske is writing.

“I was alone there sitting at night and you look out the window and you can’t see anything, it’s black. And you go, ‘Oh my God, am I alone?’ And then you open the door and the corridor is quiet and there’s nobody there and you just feel surreal,” Anske said. “Here you’re going through, let’s say, Glacier Park. Just wilderness, animals. Wooooh!”

The writers could write about whatever they wanted, or not at all &#8212 there was no rule about how much they needed to produce. But Anske was inspired by the journey, and set out to write a train-inspired novel.

“When I got on the train, I got this whole idea for a killer train &#8212 the train that kills its passengers. Then I got this idea that it would be Russian ballerinas from Bolshoi, traveling on tour in the U.S. and they will be killed one by one. It’s such a sweet, upbeat story, don’t you think?”

Anske said she holed up in her roomette and wrote about five hours a day, and then would venture out to the dining car for dinner and sit with strangers and hear their stories.

“What else could you wish for as a writer? You’re alone, you’re looking outside, you’re watching all these things roll by that are beautiful. You get to write, you get to cry or laugh and then you get to eat for free,” Anske said.

Amtrak is hoping to do the program again this year, stay tuned for their submission announcement.

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