Amtrak Resident: Bill Willingham

Bill WillinghamThe Amtrak Residency Thing: On Departing
It’s 8:12 on Saturday night. I’m in the tiny but picturesque Amtrak station in Red Wing, Minnesota, waiting for the 8:49 Empire Builder, bound for St. Paul, Fargo, and other parts west.

I’m anticipating a fine two days or so of writing, napping and riding, all on Amtrak’s generous  dime. The Roomette and meals are covered. The promised service detailed and attentive. Tips aren’t covered though, so I plan to do that with a vigor. I intend to seriously overtip, partially to compensate for my guilt at receiving anything for free, and partially to mess with the other 23 writers chosen for an Amtrak Residency. Set the bar high, right?

What will I write on this trip? I have a few things to finish on the final issues of Fables, coming to an end after 12 years and 150 monthly issues. So Shelly, my DC Vertigo editor, wants me to work on that. But there’s also the current novel that needs a bit of polish, not to mention my need to write a screenplay treatment of it, since Ken, my agent, has been typically deft at setting up many deals and opportunities. Then there’s the new comic series at Image Comics that could use some more script pages. And what about the other new project, still secret until announcements later in the year?

All are worthy projects deserving attention, but here’s the thing. I’m taking an extended train trip in October, both legs of which I’ll be occupying Roomette 13. That practically demands I set all of those more pressing projects aside and write a haunted train story. And so I will. My almost antique sense of occasion would allow for nothing less.

Here comes the train now. We’ll speak again.

Bill Willingham
Amtrak Writer in Residence
11 October 2014

The Amtrak Residency Thing: Day Two
Bill Willingham - Dining CarIt’s been too many years since I’ve slept on a train. I’m just old enough to remember when sleeper compartments were the standard method of cross-America travel. Okay, not more common than driving, but still more common than flying. They’d stick bunks four high back then, from floor to ceiling, in cars that were only one story high. Each Willingham kid got a narrow bunk, with only inches to spare from the one above, and a curtain to establish a pretense of privacy. But that was enough. The little bit of space that was mine was all mine.

The Amtrak Roomette is small, but luxurious compared to those old bunk berths. The bed is comfortable enough for one. The swaying of the train rocked me to sleep in a sure way that’s been long hard wired into the human experiment. But my dreams were vastly strange.

While I slept too well we passed through St. Paul, Minneapolis, St. Cloud, all in Minnesota, then on into Fargo, North Dakota. I woke sometime just before Grand Forks. We’re headed west now, through sprawling Dakota, past Devils Lake and Minot. It’s most fields of crops and cattle, who sometimes stampede away as the train passes. Sometimes there are lamas and fields of resting geese.

Minot, NDSo far there’ve been no murders on board, or mysterious disappearances, which is a tad disappointing. No missing Rembrandt Letters to recover, or Agents of Her Majesty’s Secret Service cleaning compartments of various super villains. I’m beginning to suspect our films haven’t accurately depicted the romance and adventure of train travel. I’m ready to solve though, so maybe soon.

In the meantime I’m writing my ghost stories, with occasional breaks to produce pages of comic scripts.

Bill Willingham
Amtrak Writer in Residence
12 October 2014

The Amtrak Residency Thing: Day Three
It’s 5:47 in the AM and I’m awake, showered and waiting for breakfast to begin. We just pulled into Spokane, Washington, where the train is about to be split into two, half of which will go to Portland, and my half of the train which will go to Seattle.

About seven hours to Seattle from here, then I spend a couple of days there, before getting back on the train and doing it all over, coming back the other way.

I made progress on the ghost story and may be able to finish it on the way back. Several script pages for comic books were also completed. Not too bad so far.

One of the other Amtrak Writers asked me for any helpful tips I might have, based on first experience, so here then is…

Some of the things I learned that may be helpful to the rest of the 24 Writers in Residence:

Bring a good pair of slip-on shoes or even slippers, for wearing the entire time while on the train. When the Roomette’s bed is deployed, there isn’t much room for bending over to tie laces.

Also pajamas are a good idea, for those nighttime walks to the bathroom, down the corridor, past all the other Roomettes full of innocent travelers.

The showers are nice, but small, a real luxury on a long trip though. They provide soap and towels in abundance, but no shampoo. I didn’t realize that. Bring all the lotions and unguents you need to be comfortable.

At least by my limited experience: If you reveal to other passengers that you’re one of the Amtrak Writers they will be fascinated enough by the program to grill you on it for the entire meal in the dining car (for instance). You won’t have a moment to ask them anything. This frustrated the writer part of me, who always wants to ask the questions, in hope of getting inside information on interesting professions, or locations, or anything else that might work it’s way into a story someday. I want to do what I can to promote the program, which I think is a fine one, but also have that need to be the one prying into Bill Willingham Power Cordother lives. It’s a dilemma.

Absolutely don’t forget to bring a power strip/charging station thingie (as in the photo here), to plug into the one outlet in your Roomette. Only being able to charge one device at a time would suck, right?

I brought snacks, but never touched them, since they fed me well on the trip. But better to have some, just in case, neh?

Don’t go to sleep with open containers of anything perched on the armrest/shelf above you. The train sways and you’ll end up wearing it. I kept my nighttime water in closed bottles after… well, let’s just call it the incident.

I found writing on board pretty easy — or at least as easy as writing ever is. But it takes more time because of the constant movement. I got into the rhythm of the sway, but it slowed down the basic mechanical ability to type. My words per hour rate was cut roughly in half.

Bill Willingham
Amtrak Writer in Residence
13 October 2014

The Amtrak Residency Thing: Day Four: Interregnum

It’s Tuesday and I’m in the Marriot Waterfront hotel in Seattle, my favorite city in the world. A couple of places in Italy come close. I’m thinking of living in Venice for a year to write, but Seattle still wins. I’ve already lived here three times, for more than a year each, so the math proves it’s at least three times better than Venice. Can’t argue with the math, right?

Photo by Stephanie Cooke

Photo by Stephanie Cooke

In a couple of days I get back on the train to return home. I plan to write more on the way back than I did on the way here, because I think I’ve finally gotten the knack of writing on a train. On the final day of travel, my typing during the constant clack and sway has sped up, not quite to my stable desk rate, but faster than the roughly half-speed it settled into at first. As is the case with most things, practice improved it.

Some things I forgot to mention on the first half of my journey. Tashi Gurung was the attendant for our sleeping car. He did an excellent job meeting all of my travel needs, turning an enjoyable trip into a lap-of-luxury trip. Thank you, Tashi. My waitress in the dining car was Donna. I regret I never got her last name. She was terrific and had a delightfully acerbic sense of humor. A funny waitress is a joy. A funny waitress who always gets your order right is a treasure. She was that.

Tashi and Donna were my most regular on-board liaisons with the brobdingnagian Amtrak organism. They acquitted themselves well and did their company proud.

One other thing I forgot to mention in previous posts, for which my assistant Stephanie has scolded me more than once, is to mention my Twitter name (or is it an address?), so that I can glean new followers from those who read these blogs.

Here’s the problem with that: I don’t like that they call such people followers. It smacks of cultism and I’d make a truly lousy cult leader. I don’t want all your money, I don’t want thirty wives, I don’t think we’re all going away to live in a comet together, and I hate living in big, crowded compounds.

I don’t want followers.

I do however want readers. More than once I’ve suggested the lords of twitter change followers to readers, but so far they seem unmoved. Still, Stephanie likes looking after me, and insists that social networking is important, so I’ll mention my twitter name. It’s @BillWillingham. If you’d like to be among the readers of my tweets, I invite you to come do so.

Photo by Stephanie Cooke

Photo by Stephanie Cooke

So far I’ve both tweeted and blogged my Amtrak Residency, one being more immediate and the other being more thorough. I plan to do the same on the way back. Even though my route wasn’t one of Amtrak’s wifi available trips, I was pleasantly surprised to find out how much connectivity was available, even in some pretty remote corners of our country.

My writing plans for the way back are to finish things started on the way here. One prose story, inspired by the trip, about a haunted train; one more comic book script (I finished one and started another on the way out); and more notes towards the screenplay. Also those tweets and blog posts.

And, if any other words of advice occur, to help the 23 other Amtrak Writer/Riders avoid possible pitfalls on their journeys, I’ll pass those along too.

Bill Willingham
Amtrak Writer in Residence
14 October 2014

The Amtrak Residency Thing: Day Six: The Return

It’s noon on Thursday the 16th. I’m in the architecturally impressive King Street Station in Seattle, killing time until my train home is ready for boarding. I’m also keeping an eye out for CBS News Producer Charlie Brooks and his camera crew. They’re going to ride with me on the way home, all the way, filming, interviewing, and maybe getting a good story out of the Residency program.

I’m going to cooperate, and even try my best to be helpful to them, because I like the program. I want Amtrak to repeat it in years to come. I want the fraternity of Amtrak Writers in Residence to grow to include hundreds. I want us to gather years from now in good bars, with scotch as old as I am, to trade war stories, and complain that the pups chosen for this year’s program have no clue what it was like back in our day, when we had it tough.

Having done this for all of three days so far, I’m not qualified to opine on whether or not writing on a cross-country train is practical (I suppose it certainly is, if you’re writing a story set on a train, but that has to be an atypical undertaking, even for fiction writers). But it sure is romantic (in the old sense of the word). I’d like to see a sense of romance return to train travel, for no better reason than I’m just old enough to have gotten a taste of it in its glory years and I want it back.

But here’s the thing. There are those born to be in front of the camera and those who aren’t. I belong in the second grouping. It’s not only a matter of physical attractiveness (although that can figure into it). I’ve a good friend who’s about as pretty as I am, which is to say we’re both proud UgloAmericans in good standing. But he couldn’t take a bad picture to save his life. Cameras love him, and I can’t for the life of me say why. There may be no rational or scientific basis to the notion that some people are photogenic and some not, but it’s still empirically true.

I don’t like being in front of cameras ever, and cameras clearly return the animosity. But I can’t always avoid it. I’ll try my best to bite the bullet and soldier on, and not entirely embarrass my hosts, the news crew, and the rest of the 24.

But any joy and composure will be faked.

More later.

Bill Willingham
Amtrak Writer in Residence

The Amtrak Residency Thing: Day Seven

It’s just shy of eight in the morning on Friday the 17th. We’re down out of the mountains of Glacier National Park and galloping like a pack of over eager cheetahs across the Montana planes, headed east, towards North Dakota and, eventually, Minnesota.

I’ll be filming the main part of my interview with the CBS news crew a bit later this morning. Veteran newscaster Dean Reynolds will be the one grilling me, about my career and about the Amtrak Residency. Over drinks in his much larger-than-mine super deluxe suite He gave me sage advice last night to better prepare for it: “Don’t screw it up,” he said, with a disarming smile. It worked. I’m disarmed. No guns.

Yesterday they filmed the establishing shots needed for the story. I don’t think that’s what they called them, I’m substituting comic book terms to camouflage my ignorance. They shot me boarding the train in Seattle, which I had to do twice, because I messed up the first take, by continuing a conversation with John (I apologize for forgetting your last name, but I’m not the one who forgot to bring his business cards – okay I forgot mine too, but I have a very good excuse, being absent-minded about such things) who runs the entire Empire Builder section of the Amtrak enterprise. I’d barely started grilling him on how one runs a railroad, so just brought him with me when we shot the here’s-Bill-boarding-the-train sequence.

On the second take I did it correctly, boarding alone. Sorry, John, but you just weren’t right for the boarding scene. Maybe later in the pirate battle sequence, or the sudden and surprising freak velociraptor attack.

And they filmed me at work in my cabin. This is me typing. Now I’m typing a bit. More typing. Scratching my nose (Excellent work, Bill. You really committed to the scratch!) and more typing. Oddly enough, I got a good deal of actual writing done during this process. Apparently I’m a method actor. Who knew?

The crew, Charlie the producer, Jake the cameraman, and Dean the talent, had already interviewed others of the 24 residency winners. Through them, and from other sources, I discovered I’m taking one of the shortest trips. I just went there and back again, from Minnesota to Seattle. Others have put together truly ambitious tours, circling through the entire nation. Truth is, I thought I was asking too much, when I proposed my route. I was fully prepared to go just one way and fly back on my own dime. Turns out I’m the wimp, the short haul guy.

Twelve years from now, when the hundreds of Amtrak writers are in that bar, reminiscing, Short Haul will be my beloved nickname, to which I’ll smile and pretend not to mind it.

The news story, if it airs, will most likely show on CBS Morning News, this coming Thursday. But be mindful big breaking news tends to push out less critical stories like this. We’ll see.

We just pulled up to Shelby. Time to stretch my legs and then get back to that ghost story.

One more entry to go.

Bill Willingham
Amtrak Writer in Residence
17 October 2014

The Amtrak Residency Thing: Day Eight: In which I return.

Everything went horribly, disastrously wrong on the final day of travel. First, I overslept, ruining my heretofore-perfect record of being first in line for the shower. Normally I’ve been waking about 6 in the AM, but traveling east meant the too ambitious 6 was arriving earlier each day. Having to stand in line for the shower made me late for first breakfast call, which delayed my morning writing by at least an hour.

Okay, looking back at the preceding paragraph, “horribly and disastrously” might be a tad too strong. But this blog needs drama, and since my fellow passengers conspired to commit no murders, perpetrate no mysteries, nor engage in not even a single small covert ops battle on the top of the moving train, The Tragedy of the Tardy Shower will have to do.

After breakfast I wrote for a while and spent the rest of the time grilling Amtrak employees about their various jobs; everything from dealing with dire criminals discovered on board, to train-meets-vehicle crashes, and any other scenarios I could imagine. The Amtrak folks were surprisingly forthcoming, and it turns out there are policies and procedures to cover the most unlikely of occurrences. Granted, as of now there are no official doctrines to deal with a sudden space-time rift resulting in a return of the over-tentacled dark old gods of Lovecraftian nightmare, but I’m now confident they’ll have something in place soon. Truth is, any cool material gleaned from the interviews (and there were tons of cool material) will have to wait for use in stories someday.

In the night we’d dropped down out of the Dakotas, into Minnesota. The final hours of the trip were all through familiar territory. I arrived at Red Wing station sometime in the afternoon to be greeted on the platform by beloved friends. At least that was the plan. Turns out said beloved friends got distracted by a gift shop featuring interesting Viking objects d’art (the ancient warrior culture, not the football team) and didn’t quite make it to the platform. But a rendezvous in the parking lot was nearly as welcoming, right?

On to the wrap-up paragraph then. This was a long, mostly relaxing trip, in which the goal of writing in comfort and an atmosphere of inspiration and romance was well met. With only one of the 24 Residencies completed, I suspect it’s too soon to pronounce this program a rousing success, or even a tentative success, but I don’t think I’m entirely out of line unilaterally pronouncing the program off to a good start. My hosts at Amtrak are too many to be thanked individually here, but I’d like to collectively thank them for the long good ride.

I’ll try to call attention to the various stories and projects that I worked during the trip, when they’re published and/or produced over the coming months and (perhaps) years.

Perhaps this is a good place for Amtrak to mention the next writer-rider about to go?

Bill Willingham
Amtrak Writer in Residence (Emeritus)
18 October 2014


The next Amtrak Resident to travel will be Jennifer Boylan. She will depart from Portland, Maine on November 1.