Amtrak picks 24 writers for 'residency' program

Two dozen writers will travel long-distance routes on the railroad and write about what they see as part of the #AmtrakResidency program.

WASHINGTON: Amtrak has named the 24 writers who will participate in the inaugural #AmtrakResidency program, in which they will spend the next year working on the long-distance train network.

Two writers will travel round-trip on pre-selected long-distance trains each month. Amtrak received more than 16,000 applications for the program, which includes 15 long-distance routes. A panel including published author Alexander Chee, Amtrak VP of government affairs and corporate communications Joe McHugh, Random House Editor Samuel Nicholson, and director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts Amy Stolls evaluated semifinalists.

Amtrak social media director Julia Quinn said the program is unique because it does not demand output from its riders or a "content creation requirement." Amtrak will follow its writers just like any other passenger. Should they post anything relevant to their trips on social media, the organization will ask their permission before sharing it on social networks and look for ways to engage them during their trips.

The Amtrak blog currently has its own content on different long-distance routes, said Quinn.

She added that the railroad accepted applications on a rolling basis between March and June before sending 115 to judges, who narrowed them down to the final 24 riders and evaluated them for completeness as well as an applicant’s social media audience. Quinn noted that some may have had large social media followings, but others had larger online audiences elsewhere.

The applicants who made it to the round of 115 and beyond were those who "aligned with the Amtrak brand," she added.

The winners include The Year Without Pants author Scott Berkun; Gothamist deputy editor Jen Carlson; BuzzFeed editor Katie Hearney; novelist Erika Krouse; and former CIA officer and writer Lindsay Moran.

The program received negative reviews earlier this year. The Washington Post said its terms and conditions "prescribe a search for publicists, not the next great American novelist," but went on to say "the nation’s writers seem energized by the residency." Other media outlets such as PBS and New York magazine were frustrated with the contract, which has a clause stating Amtrak has "the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute and copy," application material.

Quinn explained that Amtrak made a decision not to use any material provided in an application.

"This has been a learning experience for Amtrak," she said, adding that it was a "huge lesson learned" and the clause may be changed in 2015 due to negative feedback. Amtrak will also work with the residents to "refine the program," Quinn explained.

The idea to offer 24 writers the chance to travel long distances "came from a very genuine place," said Quinn, who added that any "ancillary benefit" to Amtrak would be if there is any talk about long-distance travel "in a new and exciting way."

Amtrak said in a statement that the writers "were selected based on their desire to work on their craft in an inspiring environment, and the originality, creativity, and quality of their writing samples." Quinn called the group "an eclectic representation of the literary community."

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