So Gross emailed the social media team at Amtrak to set the trip up, picked dates and a route (Amtrak recommended the Lake Shore Limited, because, you know, there tends to be room on a train headed to Chicago in mid-Winter), and booked her ticket. She rode the rails from NYC to Chicago to NYC again, writing the whole time. No one else on the train knew about her residency, Gross said, or if they did, they "definitely didn't act like it."
Now, perhaps the most important point: The residency was free. According to Gross, all Amtrak asked was that she send out a few tweets while she was traveling, and do an interview for the company's blog at the end of her trip.
When Amtrak begins offering this program on a regular basis, Quinn said "we need to weigh [whether] it's a good investment on our end" - because Amtrak can't just start giving away free rides willy-nilly. (Especially not when it has a significant amount of debt).
Americans generally, and this includes Amtrak and their employees, have a horrible tendency to think of trains as this weird extra thing -- sure it would be fun, they think, but are you really taking the train both ways? This program adds to this feeling of Amtrak as a gimmick, as an experience, and detracts from the fact that it is a sensible method of transportation. It's fun too! But giving writers random free rides to Chicago and Portland and straight back, rather than because they want to be in Chicago or Portland, isn't helpful.
I called Gross on Sunday evening to talk about her trip. I confessed that when I read those well-wrought sentences, I recalled Wallace’s concerns about Conroy’s cruise piece. How did she feel about using her evident talent, and her precious writing hours, for a piece that promoted Amtrak’s commercial goals? (She also let Amtrak use one of the photos she had taken on her trip, to accompany the Q. & A. with her that it published in January.) Gross reminded me that she had been interested in train travel since childhood and said she might have written about it even if she hadn’t gone on the Amtrak-sponsored trip. “Everything I wrote felt very genuine,” she said. She pointed out that she had disclosed to readers the nature of the trip and that her piece hadn’t been wholly glowing. The trip lasted “thirty-nine hours in transit—forty-four, with delays,” she wrote.
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