Writin’ The Rails: BHTP Interviews Bill Willingham

By Jim McLauchlin

The Amtrak Residency started, as many things do, with a tweet.

An interview with author Alexander Chee revealed that Chee loved writing on trains, and that he wished Amtrak had a writer’s program. That interview was tweeted by Zach Seward and Jessica Gross and quickly caught the passenger-rail system’s attention. In short order, The Amtrak Residency was born.

Amtrak took applications from authors to looking to simply “write on a train,” and the applicants poured in. When the judges finally selected their 24 resident authors, Bill Willingham was among them.

Willingham is the award-winning writer of the comic book Fables and the novels Peter & Max and Down the Mysterly River. In his residency, he learned much about travel, met some interesting potential characters, and guess what? He wrote a lot.

Bill Willingham. (Photo courtesy Bill Willingham.)

BHTP: So how’d you get involved in the Amtrak Residency project?

Bill Willingham: Well, I applied, and along the way, found they had 16,000 applicants. So I thought my chances were non-existent. But I think they looked at my online presence and my published work, and I think they were also looking for a variety of writers. They have bloggers, novelists, non-fiction writers, a guy who writes for the tech industry, all kinds of stuff. Somewhere in that critical matrix of work, Twitter, and variety, I came up as one of their 24 writers. I was very happy to make the cut.

BHTP: What trip did you make?

BW: I took the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle. I got on at Red Wing, Minnesota, which is near where I live. It was two and a half days each way. I was the first to go, in October 2014, because I’ll find a way to make anything a competition, especially things that are not competitions.

BHTP: What was the experience like?

BW: Great, great fun. Terrific. The cubbyhole sleeper they give you is called a “roomette,” and it’s not a room proper, but just the right size if you just need a place to sleep and a comfortable place to write. The nice thing about train travel as opposed to plane travel is that you can take a walk if you want. I hate that on a plane you have your seat and you stay in it, lest you become an annoyance to everyone else on the plane. I walked the train often, and still had my own private space for writing. That was a lovely, lovely aspect of it. There are wonderful common areas, and still you have your own private area.

BHTP: How can you make sure you’re creative on a journey like this?

BW: Part of the life of a writer is that when we finally run out of everything else possible there is to do, we’ll finally sit down and write for a while. One of the nice things about the train is that it filters out many of those other possible things to do. You can’t really watch TV all day, and even though there’s some magnificent scenery going by, you don’t want to just watch scenery all the time. So maybe after you’ve visited the club car and the dining car once or twice, there are still lots and lots of hours in the day. Time to write.

The next trick is to make sure you have plenty of different things to work on. Bring more than one thing. If you’re not in the mood to work on X, move on to Y. For me, it wasn’t a problem. I found I could really, really write in this venue. I finished two comic scripts. I worked a little bit on a screenplay that my agent is trying to sell. And, because I was on a train in October and in Room 13—both ways!—I felt compelled to write a haunted train story.

BHTP: What did you learn about the experience of train traveling?

BW: Train traveling is not the most efficient method. Freight trains have priority on the tracks; on the route I took, they own the tracks. So Amtrak is kind of the little buddy, and the schedule is only a suggestion. Still, Red Wing to Seattle, we were only about six hours late for the whole journey. So maybe that’s not too bad. But no one should travel by train long distances if their schedule is rigid. Fortunately, I had the luxury of time, and six hours didn’t matter to me. The whole experience was very enjoyable. It was kind of like getting a little blast from the past when maybe things weren’t so rush-rush. If you can just set aside your cares for a while, it’s glorious. It’s terrific to turn all responsibility over to someone else driving the train, and set your own schedule however you want. That was the perfect part of this.

BHTP: What’s your advice to someone making a similar trip?

BW: First thing is, if you have a schedule, make your schedule a series of suggestions, not an absolute iron rule. The world will knock your schedule off course, especially on a train.

And regardless of what you like sleeping in at home, a nice, proper set of jammies is required. The walk to the showers and/or the toilets in the middle of the night goes past other rooms with their sliding-glass doors, and you don’t want to take that naked walk. Or your neighbors won’t want you to.

Bring some power strips. Every room has electrical outlets so you can charge your stuff, but some only have one. It’s an absolute essential. You don’t want to make the choice between letting your computer die or your phone die.

Bring tip money. The sleeper cars have a porter who makes the bed, stashes things away, and if you don’t feel like hoofing it to the dining car, they’ll even fetch your dinner. Boy, do those guys bring the big service. So you’ll want to tip them generously.

BHTP: What kind of people did you meet?

BW: Well, the way they run the dining car is to put people together at the tables because of space constraints. You don’t eat alone. They fill up all the tables. So you’ll get into a ton of conversations that all start with, “Who are you and where are you from?” but quickly turn into full-blown life stories. People love chatting, and their favorite subject is usually themselves. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s great. The writer in me really went to town soaking up their stories. I think little bits and pieces of some of these people might wind up being supporting characters in some of my stories.

You can read Bill Willingham’s great travelogue from the Empire Builder or follow Jim McLauchlin on Twitter @McLauchlin. Your choice.