Elizabeth Farnsworth: A Train Through Time

Celebrated journalist and Topeka High grad Elizabeth Farnsworth made her literary debut this year with her first book A Train Through Time. Farnsworth is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, foreign correspondent, and former chief correspondent and principal substitute anchor of PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. As a foreign correspondent she shined light on others, but she has opened up about her own life in her memoir. A Train Through Time weaves a child’s imaginative adventures with vivid memories from reporting in danger zones like Cambodia and Iraq, exploring how she became involved in covering mass death and disaster.

The reviews for A Train in Time are stellar.

Jim Lehrer calls it “a magic potion of prose that has both the deep rhythms and cadences of poetry.”

Michael Chabon wrote: “It has been a long time since I read a book so moving, plain spoken and beautiful. The instant I finished it, I went back to the beginning and started in again.”

Elizabeth Farnsworth has strong ties to Topeka and Kansas. She grew up here and graduated from Topeka High School.

“The ancestors of my mother, Jane Mills Fink, were abolitionists who left comfortable lives in the East during the mid- 1850’s to join the anti-slavery struggle in Bleeding Kansas,” Farnsworth said. “My father, H. Bernerd Fink, was the first baby born in Elmhurst, a neighborhood laid out in a cow pasture of southwest Topeka in 1909, the year of his birth.”

Farnsworth has fond memories of Topeka libraries.

“I still dream about the beautiful, old library on the State House Grounds,” Farnsworth said. “I first checked out the Oz books there.”

She spent time at the current library too.

“I also remember checking out books in the current library. In 8th grade, I became briefly obsessed with the fate of courageous young Hungarians who in 1956 battled Soviet troops in a struggle for more freedom. At the library I checked out The Bridge at Andau by James Michener, one of the first books published in this country about the uprising and the Soviet response,” Farnsworth said. “Even now, more than half a century later, I remember checking out that particular book among many that I got during those years. I will always be grateful to Topeka’s librarians for enriching my life.”

Check out a list of Elizabeth Farnsworth’s recommended reads below, and then read on for a full interview to learn more about Farnsworth’s Topeka ties.


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Elizabeth Farnsworth Author Interview

You mentioned that your family has deep roots in our community. Could you tell us a bit about that history?

I come from a family deeply rooted in Topeka. The ancestors of my mother, Jane Mills Fink, were abolitionists who left comfortable lives in the East during the mid- 1850’s to join the anti-slavery struggle in “Bleeding Kansas.”

My father, H. Bernerd Fink, was the first baby born in Elmurst, a neighborhood  laid out in a cow pasture of southwest Topeka in1909, the year of his birth.

He was a businessman and an active volunteer for organizations like United Fund and Rotary International.  His mother’s ancestors fled from Maryland to Kansas after the Civil War because their farm was repeatedly pillaged by both armies throughout that conflict. Other ancestors in my father’s family traveled from Ohio to the Dakotas as pioneers. When the blizzard of 1888 killed their stock, my father’s great grandparents moved their family to Topeka because jobs were available on the Santa Fe Railroad. My grandfather – Homer Bernard Fink – split Santa Fe rails as a boy and retired as secretary and treasurer of the railroad.

I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where my father served during WWII. My parents, sister (Marcia Fink Anderson) and I returned to Topeka when the war ended, and I attended Randolph and Southwest Grade Schools. I graduated from Topeka High School in 1961.

My mother died when I was nine, and two years later my father married a widow (Ruth Garvey Cochener Fink), who also had deep roots in Topeka. Her three children — Bruce, Diana and Caroline – became Marcia’s and my step-siblings. As a new family, we lived in my stepmother’s house on Shadow Lane in Westboro.

Tell us about your own connection to Kansas and Kansas libraries.

I still dream about the beautiful, old library on the State House Grounds. The building seemed mysterious to me, almost magical. A haze – probably motes of dust – darkened the main room. I first checked out the Oz books there and now, many years later, I’ve featured a character from those books in my memoir, A Train Through Time – My life Real and Imagined.

I also remember checking out books in the current library. In 8th grade, I became briefly obsessed with the fate of courageous young Hungarians who in 1956 battled Soviet troops in a struggle for more freedom. At the library, I checked out The Bridge at Andau by James Michener, one of the first books published in this country about the uprising and the Soviet response.

Even now, more than half a century later, I remember checking out that particular book among many that I got during those years. I will always be grateful to Topeka’s librarians for enriching my life.

Your life experience including your beginnings in Topeka laid the foundation for your first book. Are there other ways that your connection to Kansas influenced your writing?

I am a lover of the prairie. For a while we kept a horse at a small farm just south of Topeka on Burlingame Road, and I came to love the stream and wide open pastures of that place. I think Kansas lends itself to storytelling. The state’s weather, geography and history are inherently dramatic.

How has your background in journalism influenced your writing style and voice?

In recent years I’ve occasionally experimented with combining the clipped style and tone of journalism with the allusiveness of poetry. I don’t pretend to be a poet, but in writing my book I occasionally used symbols and metaphor, the language of poetry, to explain something that affected me especially deeply. Most of the stories I tell in the book actually happened – for example, the reporting for The NewsHour from conflicted places like Cambodia – but sometimes I gave into my imagination and wrote fiction. At the end of the book I explain this more fully.

A Train Through Time is not written in a chronological narrative. Rather it moves back and forth between the past and present, from your girlhood to various assignments around the world. How did you decide on this ambitious structure for your first book?

Some years ago I had a wondrous encounter, described in the first pages of the book, at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California, where the soundscapes of 100’s of films (including the Star Wars movies) were created. I was overseeing the audio mix of a documentary film. That encounter, which I won’t give away here, set off a cascade of memories in my mind. A friend, the poet Brenda Hillman, encouraged me to write them down. The memories were unpredictable, including experiences in post-invasion Iraq and an unusual train trip with my father in 1953. The latter became the through-line of the book. I was clearly struggling to understand how my early life might have influenced my decision to become a foreign correspondent in dangerous parts of the world. I moved between past and present as I wrote, and Brenda Hillman encouraged structuring the book that way. I wouldn’t have dared to do it otherwise.

Who are some of your favorite authors?  Are there any must-reads that you would recommend?

I can’t list them all without using too much space. Thinking just about books featuring prairie, I have read and reread Willa Cather, William Least Heat Moon and Louise Erdrich, among others. I highly recommend the writing of fellow Topekan Linda Spalding, author of The Purchase and Who Named the Knife, which is partly about Topeka.

Miranda Ericsson

Miranda loves to talk lit! Her favorite reads are poetry, literary fiction, and speculative science fiction, and she's passionate about promoting great literature written by Kansas authors. She works with library programs that support and engage writers in our community, so ask her for more information about the Local Writers Workshop, Great Writers Right Here author fair, and Community Novel Project. Miranda is also a member of the library's Genealogy Team and Fiction Team, facilitates TALK book discussions, and co-leads the Bean There, Read That book discussion group.