Tuesday, March 11, 2014


Because having the better part of a week to sit on a long-distance train and do nothing but write sounds ideal, I applied for the new writers' residency program that Amtrak just launched. The application was pretty simple — in 2000 characters, address why you want one of the writers' residencies and how it will benefit you — so I knocked it out and sent it off. It's not exactly . From Twitter traffic on the #AmtrakResidency, it sounds like a zillion people are applying for the 24 spots, so I don't expect it'll work out, but it would be a nice treat, once I finish my book manuscript, to have time and space in such a congenial setting (I love train travel!) to work on the other project I have going — sporadically, out of necessity — on the side, a book for a more general audience.

This was my 2,000 (well, 1,973) characters' worth:

I would like to hold an Amtrak residency to complete a draft of a book in progress, tentatively entitled Empire’s Companion: How Reading Shaped the Conquest of the New World. This book will be a history of the books read by Spanish conquerors before they set off to the New World, and how the stories and ideas contained therein influenced their understanding of their own imperial project. These books included everything from works of fantasy, with descriptions of monsters and dragons that informed how Europeans saw the new species of birds, fish and mammals they encountered in the New World, to works of political theory that influenced the ways in which they treated the native American populations. This is a book intended for an audience of interested lay readers (i.e., not professional historians); and as a work of scholarship for the general public, I think that this project dovetails nicely with the public-intellectual goals of the Amtrak Residency program.

There are two main ways an Amtrak Residency would benefit my writing: 1) My project is about the conquest of a continent, and first-hand exposure to the sheer distances and changing landscapes across North America will give me some much-needed perspective on the scope of my subjects’ imperial undertaking. 2) Normally, I write mainly for an academic audience. This means frequent interruptions to the actual work of writing in order to check obscure references write detailed footnotes. This leads to a lot of jargon and minutiae not suitable for general readers. I have already done the bulk of the research for this book, and an Amtrak residency will help my writing by letting me do nothing but writing. By removing myself physically from my own personal library and my university library, I will be able to think solely about the craft of the prose and the narrative. I’ll have to go back and double-check references later, but the reader-friendly shape of the book will have already taken form.

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