With a rattle and a roll, award-winning author and artist Brian Floca takes readers on a ride across the country on the Transcontinental Railroad in his latest book, Locomotive (S&S, September, 2013). Floca’s lively text and detailed watercolor images paint a picture of these magnificent iron horses and the small towns and breathtaking landscapes they steamed through. Along the way, the author packs in information on how these machines operated, the people who worked and traveled on them, and how the Transcontinental Railroad changed America. Here the author discusses his longer-than-anticipated journey to Locomotive.
Tell us how Locomotive came to be.
A very early version of Locomotive was all about how the steam engine operates. I had little idea where [the book] was going or where it would be set. In asking those questions, I came to the Transcontinental Railroad, which totally upended the focus of the book.
You include a wealth of details in the book—sometimes you mention or draw a nugget only in passing. How did you decide what to include and what to leave out?
Momentum…I wanted to keep it in the narrative. An early scene about laying the rails was in and out of the book 10 times. The piece about the train’s construction feels so essential, yet it’s really its own story. Using it as the preamble for the trip felt right. If I had started with the idea of writing about the Transcontinental Railroad, I would have made a [very different] book.…In the end, I arrived at the trip in the way that a passenger would have experienced it. This book [is] about riding the train and what that felt like.
Were there any surprises in your research?
It was all surprise, which made it fantastic, and also difficult at times. Among the many things I enjoyed was [the language]—the phrase “double header” [is the term for two engines working together up a steep grade]. “Highball” is an old railroad signal to indicate that the way is clear; that’s where the drink comes from, though that didn’t make it into the book! Another surprise was how brightly painted, how beautiful the steam engines were. I expected them to be black, gray, and brown, but the companies were proud of them—they were the face of the company. These machines were the cutting-edge technology in their day and transforming the country. Someone commented that they were trying to “civilize” the technology, with Renaissance Revival details around the windows.
You traveled the path of the Transcontinental Railroad, and some of the photos you took attest to an unchanged landscape. Did those observations inform your work?
Absolutely. I had a very simple idea of what the landscape would be like before I took the trip—I was going to show the train approaching the Rockies, winding its way toward a wall of mountains. One of the things I learned making the drive was how ingeniously engineered the line was; you never have that moment when you’re on the Transcontinental Railroad route. [The tracks] wind their way in at the gentlest slope, near Cheyenne, WY. I would have [had that wrong] if I hadn’t made the trip. Almost everything that has to do with the landscape is indebted to that trip—even the endpaper elevation map.
In contrast to trips taken in your books Lightship (2007) and Moonshot (2009, both Atheneum), the path of the locomotive gave way to new cultures growing up around it and displaced others—the Chinese who came to work on the Central Pacific line and the Cheyenne, Pawnee, and Arapaho. And the African-American Pullman porters were an essential part of the rail system. The Transcontinental Railroad really changed America, in perhaps unanticipated ways, didn’t it?
Some of the most trying stretches in creating the book were spent thinking about how to address the more difficult issues that arrived with the train, especially with regard to Native Americans. The story of the porters is a fascinating story, one with difficult aspects, too, but with some positive aspects as well. The porters were men who might have been emancipated just five years earlier—and they’re not enjoying the journey the way a passenger might; they’re working, they’re enduring discrimination, but at the same time they’re crossing the country and their horizons are expanding. They are, it’s been argued, the beginning of the black middle class. There were so many ways in which the train transformed the country.
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