Two Seattle writers, Ksenia Anske and Scott Berkun, couldn’t be more different, both in their writing styles and their subject matter. But this year, they’ll both be doing the same thing: riding an Amtrak train across the country and writing, as part of the railway’s first writer residency program.
They were among the 24 finalists announced this week selected from a field of more than 16,000 applicants. Two out of 24 from the Emerald City? That’s a pretty good ratio, considering the long odds. “I’m proud,” said Berkun. “I think we are well represented, which is good because we are a great literary city with a lot of great writers.”
The winners will have access to a “private sleeping roomette, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside,” said Amtrak spokeswoman, Christina Leeds.
Anske, 38, is a Russian-born Internet entrepreneur-turned-writer. Her self-published novels, including “Rosehead” and the Siren Suicides Trilogy, have been described as magical realism and often contain lurid, trippy imagery.
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Berkun’s latest book, “The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work,” explores how business, creativity and productivity converge. When he’s not writing for The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, Berkun, 42, who moved to Seattle from New York 20 years ago, gives speeches about leadership and innovation around the world.
Anske’s 500-word application was as chimerical and free-flowing as her novels: she proposed writing a tale about a “people-eating train,” with a “flock of Bolshoy theater ballerinas being devoured by carriage number 5.”
She already knows the title: “It’s going to be about a train called Tube — the Trans Urban Blitz Express,” she said.
Berkun’s writing sample was from an unpublished work about the London subway system, and he proposed writing about the experience of writing on a train itself.
“I travel a lot — more on planes than on trains. I write pretty much anywhere,” said Berkun. “I like the idea of being an observer in a place where everyone else is traveling.”
Both were pleasantly surprised when they learned they had won, but weren’t sure why they were picked. Anske surmised that her 61,000-plus Twitter followers had something to do with it. “They are looking for people who have social media presences,” she said, noting that the inevitable tweets and Instagrams will provide great press for the struggling transportation outfit.
But Alexander Chee, a fiction writer and NEA Fellowship recipient and one of the four judges, said that the opposite was true.
“Unlike some have charged, unless someone stated their social media presence, and most didn’t, I didn’t know about if they had a significant online presence or not. If anything, people bragging about their Twitter followers in their app made me feel sad,” he said.
Chee was a fan of both Seattle scribes. “I just loved Ksenia’s sample,” he explained. “It’s the mix of goth and whimsy that is one of my sweet spots. Nothing else was like it, too.”
“Berkun’s app struck me as very sweetly sincere, but also a different style from what I’d expect from the titles of his books,” Chee added. “And it seemed like he wanted to try out a different kind of writing, to take himself in a different direction — and could back that up with his sample.”
The Amtrak residency actually stemmed in part from an interview that Chee gave to the PEN literary foundation in May 2014, saying: “I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” The idea picked up steam (pun intended) on social media, and he was soon the recipient of an early trial residency.
Both Anske and Berkun aren’t sure when they are cashing in their long-distance trip. Anske thinks she might take a ride to Chicago while she works on her novel. She wants to “power through it in one week,” she said. “It’s my personal challenge.”
Berkun, who was en route to a vacation in Hong Kong, looked forward to taking his as yet-undetermined trip. “It seemed like an unusual opportunity as a writer, so it’s exciting for that reason alone.”
As for Anske, she was still basking in the glory of it all: “I’m freaking out! This is crazy!”
Tricia Romano: firstname.lastname@example.org