After Alexander Chee mentioned in a December 2013 interview that he wished Amtrak had residencies for writers, New York City-based author Jessica Gross took to Twitter to echo Chee's sentiment, and make the hope a reality. The company listened and, in March, started accepting applications for the first Amtrak Residency.

Last week, Amtrak revealed the 24 writers who will, over the next year, hone their craft aboard a long-distance train. Random House editor Sam Nicholson joined three other judges, including Chee, to select the first class of writers for the unique program. We talked to him about the experience.

How did you first hear about Amtrak's residency, and what was your initial response? How did you get involved as a judge?

I first heard about it the same way everybody else did - reading online about Alexander Chee's initial conception and Amtrak's subsequent inauguration of the residency. At the time, I was not part of the program, but I remember thinking that it was an inspired idea.

Melissa Milsten, our director of partnerships and business development, read about the residency program and reached out to Amtrak to see if it would make sense for us to get involved. At that point, Amtrak was putting together their panel of judges and I was asked to represent Random House, and that was that!

According to Amtrak, you received more than 16,000 applications for the residency. With such an unconventional setup, what were you looking for in a candidate?

Well, first off, not all of those 16,000 applications made their way into my hands. The other judges and I were given a packet of writing samples from 115 semi-finalists. We reviewed those and met together to discuss and choose the final 24.

Since this is the first full residency, there wasn't any predefined criteria, and in a way that was a lot of fun. I, and all the other judges, just looked for writing that moved us, surprised us, and made us excited. Of course, everyone starts a process like this with certain preconceptions, but the great thing about art, about writing, is that when you read something good, all those other concerns just disappear. I think all of the judges approached the process with an open heart, and I think that made for a fantastic class of residents.

Jessica Gross's test run of the residency culminated in a story in the Paris Review. What’s the hope for the work of these 24 writers? What are your expectations?

My hope is simply that each writer will use this unique opportunity – the resources Amtrak is generously providing, the chance to see the beauty of this country and its landscape from the unique vantage of a moving train – to enlarge and enrich their art. Anything beyond that, in terms of publications and such, is just gravy.

Aside from the romance of train travel, and the time it affords to devote to a craft, Amtrak is entirely separate from the writerly and publishing communities. Do you think this kind of corporate sponsorship of writers is something we should see more of?

I hesitate to use the term “corporate sponsorship” here, because to me that connotes something closer to Michael Jordan's Nike sneakers than to a Yaddo fellowship. Everything that I saw working with the people at Amtrak suggested to me that they are sincere in their desire to provide a sheltered space – a cover, if you will – for the arts. From the very beginning, they made their commitment to that goal clear.