All Aboard! 6 Books to Celebrate Amtrak’s Writing Residencies

View from train window

Have you heard? Amtrak is doing the coolest thing: sponsoring residencies for writers…on their trains! The concept is still in its infancy, but the unique concept is quickly gaining momentum via social media and moving full speed ahead (so many railway puns, so little space). The selection process for Amtrak’s 24 writing residences will begin on Monday, and they’re currently accepting applications. Go ahead and apply, we’ll wait.

While you cross your fingers and wait for your Amtrak residency to come in, check out the titles below, which prove what we already knew: trains and stories go hand in hand.

The Old Patagonian Expressby Paul Theroux
This travel writer extraordinaire has written a number of books about traveling by rail, but this one takes place closer to home. Theroux chronicles his journey from Boston to the southernmost points of Argentina on the Patagonian Express. He also captures the wide variety of characters he meets along the way, some famous and some not, all of whom annoy and confuse the writer. True, he’s a curmudgeon of the highest order, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but watching him get bent out of shape in exotic locales is a lot of fun.

Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie
On a snowy winter night, a full-to-capacity Orient Express traveling from Istanbul to Paris is forced by a snowdrift to stop in its tracks. The next morning, a passenger is found murdered in his compartment…with the door locked from the inside. Enter Hercule Poirot, Christie’s genius detective, to solve the case! First published in 1933, this Christie classic was also adapted into a well-known film, with a cast of famous names including Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, and Sean Connery. But, as we all know, the book is always better than the movie.

Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith
When miserable Guy and psychopathic Bruno meet on a train, the outcome is inevitable: murder! When these strangers begin chatting, they realize that they each have someone in their lives who is making them miserable (an ex-wife and a father, respectively), and it’s then that Bruno hatches an evil plan of mutual benefit: each man will “take care of” the other’s problem. What happens when they get off the train, though, is enough to make any passenger on mass transit fake sleep the second someone sits beside them. This one was also made into a famous movie, by Alfred Hitchcock, but its worth a read even if you know the story.

Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America with Interruptions, by Jenny Diski
This nonfiction title is part travelogue, part memoir, by a Brit who takes two cross-country trips across the states via Amtrak. Through a balance of introspection and observation, Diski captures the magic of what can happen on a long, winding train voyage—you can find a connection between the people around you, yourself, and the miles of land that are rolling by. The key, as Diski demonstrates, is having the patience and awareness to allow them all to meet.

John Henry Days, by Colson Whitehead
Everyone know the story of John Henry, right? The steel-driving man who built railroads and died trying to outrace the machine designed to replace him? Yep, that’s the one. This multi-voiced novel is set against the backdrop of the John Henry Days Festival, an annual celebration in Talcott, WV, which commemorates the folk hero. And Whitehead uses the goings on surrounding the festival to create a modern retelling of the folktale and to push readers to look at the consequences of a society that values production over all else, even if it kills you.

Drood, by Dan Simmons
OK, so this book isn’t centered around the rails like the others on this list, but it’s a train that is the crux of the novel here—or a train accident, to be exact. While traveling to London with his mistress, Charles Dickens is involved in a devastating train accident. A shadowy cloaked figure appears to Dickens among the wreckage, a presence that will haunt him for the rest of his life that is simply called Drood. Narrated by Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens’ real-life frenemy and fellow writer, this tale is a haunting imagining of the origins of Dickens’ last and unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Is Drood real? Is he a figment of Dickens’ imagination? Or are all of Collins’ suspicions byproducts of his growing opium dependency?  Victorian England, trains, Dickens, opium—what could be better?

What’s your favorite train travel–inspired read?

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