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Amtrak Opens The Door To Writing On The Rails


Things can take off fast on Twitter. And that's what happened when a couple of writers expressed how much they like riding trains, Amtrak specifically. It started with an idea: Wouldn't it be great if Amtrak would offer writers a chance to ride the rails for free and do some writing along the way? Soon, the idea was being tweeted and retweeted, and Amtrak replied: Sure.

NPR's Leah Binkovitz explains.

LEAH BINKOVITZ, BYLINE: Alexander Chee had been thinking about this for a while. He's a novelist working on his second book. Last year, the literary organization PEN American Center asked him in an interview: What's your favorite place to write?

ALEXANDER CHEE: I said that I like to write on trains and that I wished Amtrak had residencies for writers.

BINKOVITZ: His comments started a conversation amongst friends and writers on Twitter. The idea seemed to take on a life of its own.

CHEE: I can see all of the people retweeting it and adding their own emphasis and excitement, all caps, exclamation points.

BINKOVITZ: That caught the attention of Julia Quinn. She's Amtrak's social media manager.

JULIA QUINN: We, right off the bat, thought it was an interesting idea.

BINKOVITZ: Like many Amtrak employees, Quinn is a frequent passenger. She says she does a lot of her own writing on the trains and saw the potential. From there, Amtrak got in touch with both Chee and Jessica Gross, another writer who picked up Chee's idea on Twitter.

CHEE: That was when I thought, oh, this is actually - this is going to happen.

BINKOVITZ: Within days, Quinn offered both a chance to test it out.

CHEE: It was just incredible to me. I kept thinking like, certainly, there's - well, not some kind of mistake, but I just kept thinking, they're really going to do this?

BINKOVITZ: Yep. Quinn arranged trips for both writers with a sleeper car set up with a bed, desk and plenty of outlets. Gross went first. She rode from New York to Chicago and back. She wrote about it for The Paris Review. Quinn says that essay set off an even bigger Twitter storm. At that point, the idea was still in a trial phase.

QUINN: We literally, in a seven-day period, had over 20,000 direct contacts made on Twitter. We quickly realized we needed to formalize this program.

BINKOVITZ: This past weekend, Amtrak released the details. After filling out a quick online application, a few questions and a writing sample, 24 writers will be chosen by a panel. Each resident will get a roundtrip ticket. There is a slight catch: Amtrak is asking applicants to surrender the rights to those applications for potential promotional use. Many writers aren't happy about that. Chee emailed his own concerns. Quinn says Amtrak isn't for rights to anything written while in the residency, just application materials.

Still, Amtrak received more than 5,000 applications in the first weekend. Chee can't believe how quickly it all happened. He's going to take his residency in May from New York to Portland.

CHEE: It's one thing to dream about these things. It's another thing to try to create them. And usually when people try to create residencies for artists and writers, you have to go through so much red tape.

BINKOVITZ: Now, his Twitter bio reads #AmtrakResidencyinventor. But Chee says he thinks he might have one more out-of-the-box residency up his sleeve.

CHEE: I have a couple of ideas for hotels because I think, you know, not everyone loves a train but a lot of people love a hotel.

BINKOVITZ: Of course, they could still get there by train. Leah Binkovitz, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C'MON 'N RIDE IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leah Binkovitz