Greetings, culture lovers (as Mr. Know-It-All used to say). I’ll be departing this Saturday, November 1, from Portland, Maine, for 17 days as the second of Amtrak’s “Writers in Residence.”
The first resident was the lovely Bill Willingham, who travelled from Redwing, Minnesota to Seattle and back on the “Empire Builder” in mid October. He kept an ongoing blog of the residency’s maiden voyage, which you can read here. He also provided a helpful list of suggestions for those of us who follow in his shoes, including, Get a plug for all your electronic devices, and Bring slippers.
Bill and I are Thing One and Thing Two of this still-experimental program, which was actually accidentally christened by writer Alexander Chee last spring in an interview with PEN; his lament, “I wish Amtrak had a residency for writers” has blossomed into this new program. Jessica Gross re-tweeted his comment, and Amtrak, in what I must say was a moment of tremendous agility, basically said, “Make it so, Number One.” (Jessica’s piece, “Writing the Lakeshore Limited” appeared in the Paris Review here.)
Amtrak then formalized the program, and sent out the call: writers were asked to send in a story to apply, and just like that, 16,000 of us had put our hats in. (Which, as I have said elsewhere, ought to be a seen as a small measure of exactly how eager American writers are to get out of the house.) Inexplicably, I was one of the 24 winners. The full roster is here. It’s a diverse list in many ways– equal numbers women and men. I believe I’m the only transgender writer among the bunch, although who knows? The night is young.
I think my journey is likely to be the longest of the group, if for no other reason than the fact that I’m starting out in my home state of Maine. I’m bound for Chicago on the Lakeshore Limited; and from there (after a short stop in Indiana, about which more below), then to San Francisco on the California Zephyr. I’m going to hole up in Big Sur for a few days before heading north: Salinas to Seattle on the Coast Starlight. I’m giving a talk at a college in Seattle, and then it’s back on the Empire Builder– from Seattle, through Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and down to Chicago; from there I’ll hop onto the Lakeshore Limited once more, and back to Boston. And finally, getting on the Downeaster for the journey home, from Boston to Freeport, Maine.
It’s seventeen days. My best estimate is that it’s 7,298 miles. Say this in the voice of Jeff Probst: ”One transgender American. Nine trains. Twenty-one states. One— Survivor!”
I’ve had a couple very, very distinct reactions to the news of my residency. One group– a smaller number, admittedly– says, “Why on earth would you do this?” A smaller subgroup says, “You know they won’t have an exercise room. And the wifi service is spotty. And there will be big stretches out west where there’s no cell service at all.”
To which I kind of want to say, “Oh god, I hope not.” (Although my own experience with Amtrak’s wifi service is that it’s fairly dependable, if not exactly lightning fast, while also being, oh yeah: FREE. This is in the beloved Northeast Corridor, which is a whole different kettle of fish.)
The other group of people, in hearing of my residency, have given me a dreamy sigh, and simply said, “I’ve always wanted to do that.”
Well, I’ve always wanted to do it too. The last time I went coast to coast in something that had wheels on the ground was 1982, when my friend Peter Frumkin and I drove from New York to Portland OR. That was the first time I saw the Rockies emerging out of the plains. I have never forgotten that sight. I can’t wait to see it again.
Another thing I visited on that 1982 trip was the Museum of Retired Ventriloquists’ Dummies, in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, about which more need not be spoken at this time, although I am not too proud to post a photograph of a much younger, and differently gendered me, looking out through the dummies. Photo by Peter Frumkin.
Like our Patron Saint, Alexander Chee, I have always loved writing on trains, although most of the writing I’ve done on Amtrak has been grading papers. And reading, too. There is something about time on a train that brings out the dreamer in me. And dreaming, for writers, is kind of our version of batting practice.
I have two projects I’ll be working on during the residency. One is the final four chapters of a novel I’ve been working on for about two or three years now; if I actually finish and publish this, it will be my first time publishing adult fiction as a woman (since 2001, and the whole presto-change-o I have published exclusively nonfiction, with the exception of the novella, “I’ll Give You Something to Cry About,” which came out earlier this year from She-books.). The other piece I’m working on is the long delayed third book in my young adult series, “Falcon Quinn.” I’m on about page 75 of that– I was hoping to hold FQ 3 to under 125 pages, but it keeps growing.
As a writer, I have always had plenty of other projects taking up my time; I’m the co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD, which is a very big commitment. I’m also the Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard, and a Contributing Opinion Writer for the New York Times. You add those things together, plus– oh yeah, having a family: my wife Deirdre and raising our two sons (now safely launched to college), and there hasn’t been a whole lot of time to stare out the window the last few years. Plus we are in the heart of building a new house, and selling the old one: don’t even ask.
One more thing I’m doing during this trip is stopping in Indiana on Day 3 to attend a Board of Trustees meeting of the Kinsey Institute for Research on Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. Kinsey has just this week announced its new president, and this– along with the museum debut of the Institutes collection of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe– means that I’ll have plenty to consider during my days in Indiana. I was thinking, in fact, of calling this journey “The Sex Train,” but I suspect that my sponsors at Amtrak might not be thrilled. So let’s call it “The Love Train.”
I’m looking forward to the writing. I’m looking forward to the work I’ll be able to do. I’m looking forward to that indescribably romantic sound: clackity clack, clackity clack.
Most mostly I’m looking forward to looking out the window at this country. And seeing the mountains emerge from the plains.
Here’s the itinerary:
Day 1: The Downeaster from Maine to North Station Boston. (ME –>NH –> MA) Subway to South Staions Boston. Board the Lake Shore Limited. (MA –> NY –> PA –>
Day 2: PA –> OH –> IN Arrive in Waterloo, IN. Car to Bloomington IN for Kinsey and Mapplethorpe show.
Day 3: Bloomington IN. Kinsey Institute Board of Trustees Meeting.
Day 4: Car service Bloomington to Indianapolis. IN –> IL Board the Hoosier State, Indy to Chicago. Board the California Zephyr. IL –> IA –> NE
Day 5: On board the California Zephyr NE –> CO –> UT
Day 6: UT –> NV –> CA Arrive San Francisco, CA (A night in a hotel in SF).
Day 7: South on the Coast Starlight: San Francisco to Salinas, CA. A night at Big Sur.
Day 8: Another night at Big Sur.
Day 9: Another night at Big Sur.
Day 10: Depart Salinas on the Coast Starlight, heading north.
Day 11:On the Coast Starlight: CA –> OR–> WA. Arrive Seattle. A night in Seattle.
Day 12: Teaching a class at a Seattle college. Then, boarding the Empire Builder. WA –> ID –>
Day 13: On the Empire Builder: ID -> MT –> ND
Day 14: On the Empire Builder: ND –> MN –> WI –> IL Arrive Chicago. A night in Chicago.
Day 15: Departing Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited. IL –> IN–>OH–>
Day 16: On the Lake Shore Limited OH–>PA–>NY–> MA. Arrive Boston. A night in Boston.
Day 17: The Downeaster, Boston to Freeport, ME. And home.
I’ll be posting (much shorter) updates on my website, www.jenniferboylan.net, which I believe will be cross posted on the amtrak blog, as the journey unfolds. I do fear that many of my observations will be along the lines of, “Wrote for a few hours. Looked out the window, man.” But I suspect there will be more to say. I have a knack for trouble, mostly of the good kind.
People all over the world (everybody)
Join hands (join)
Start a love train, love train
People all over the world (all the world, now)
Join hands (love ride)
Start a love train (love ride), love train
The next stop that we make will be soon
Tell all the folks in Russia, and China, too
Don’t you know that it’s time to get on board
And let this train keep on riding, riding on through