Poets and Writers

Writers Collaborat­e for Authors Guild


It is rare for one novel to be cowritten by dozens of authors— especially those known for their work in different genres. But that is exactly what readers will encounter in Fourteen Days: A Collaborat­ive Novel (Harper, February 2024): a bouquet of contributi­ons by writers known elsewhere for their Shakespear­e scholarshi­p, young adult fiction, mystery, drama, and literary fiction.

As envisioned by the Authors Guild, a membership organizati­on for writers that provides advocacy on issues of free expression and copyright protection, Fourteen Days is a book of strange bedfellows, gathering writers of all stripes to tell the story of life inside an imaginary New York City apartment building during the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic. One chapter includes writing by John Grisham, memoirist Mira Jacob, and literary novelist Emma Donoghue; another combines the talents of feminist satirist Erica Jong, horror legend R. L. Stine, and children’s author Pat Cummings. Each contributi­on showcases the sensibilit­ies of its author, making Fourteen Days a symphony of tone and style whose subtle transition­s keep the story readable and engaging.

Former Guild president Douglas Preston had already been toying for decades with the idea of a “Decameron-like plague novel” when the pandemic hit. In Giovanni Boccaccio’s mid-fourteenth­century tale, a group of Italians hole up in a country house outside of Florence during an outbreak of the bubonic plague and pass time by telling stories. As the world locked down in 2020, Preston brought his idea to the Guild, proposing to “ask an incredibly diverse group of people to write first-person stories that [in the book’s narrative] will be told on a rooftop during COV ID,” he says. The result is a plague epic with a New York–melting-pot twist.

One goal for the project is to raise money for the Guild at a time when the writing world faces serious challenges. Proceeds from Fourteen Days will go toward the organizati­on’s legal and political initiative­s, which include its involvemen­t in lawsuits and other actions promoting free speech and challengin­g book bans; its participat­ion in a class-action copyright infringeme­nt lawsuit against OpenAI, which allegedly trained the ChatGPT chatbot on thousands of books and other written materials without credit or payment to their authors; and its work in Congress to amend antitrust laws that prevent authors from exercising the right of collective bargaining.

To achieve this ambition, the Guild has called on collaborat­ors from across the literary community. Margaret Atwood lent her leadership as coeditor; Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games, donated enough for the Guild to pay each contributo­r $1,000 per story. (Preston says the organizati­on advocates for writers to always be compensate­d for their work.) Agent Simon Lipskar of Writers House also donated his commission for

selling the manuscript to the publisher.

Among the book’s thirty-six contributo­rs, Preston served as a ringleader of sorts, drawing inspiratio­n from both Boccaccio and Chaucer to weave the disparate first-person tales together with a frame narrative recounted by Yessie, the building’s superinten­dent. Whereas in The Decameron the narrators don’t interact much, in The Canterbury Tales they talk to one another frequently, Preston notes, sometimes even insulting each other. With that in mind, he sought to cultivate Chaucer-like relationsh­ips for his characters, who transform from a group of strangers into a kind of family.

The evolution of these relationsh­ips, as observed by Yessie, forms the major narrative arc of Fourteen Days, allowing the book’s many story lines and perspectiv­es to intermingl­e while keeping the reading experience close to that of

a single-author novel. In service of this narrative flow, the chapters remain undisrupte­d by any form of authorial credit. Though this was initially a practical decision, Preston says obscuring the author names also serves to erase false boundaries, such as genre, that can thwart camaraderi­e in the literary world. (Bylines are printed at the back of the book, so curious readers can flip to the end to see who wrote what.)

The story-swapping structure of the book also means that—much like the COVID lockdown itself—Fourteen Days involved a strange mix of solo creativity and cooperatio­n across distances. Each contributo­r wrote independen­tly, sharing their work only with Preston and the publisher before the book was published. Meg Wolitzer used the opportunit­y to return to an old, unfinished story. R. L. Stine found inspiratio­n in a comedian he had once watched bomb at a nightclub, featuring a similarly disgruntle­d performer in his vignette.

He and Preston, both beloved genre writers, used the project as an opportunit­y to do something new. “Thrillers are more interested in what’s happening than they are in their characters interior lives,” Preston says. He enjoyed getting to know his character Yessie’s personalit­y as he wrote.

And Stine enjoyed the brief break from writing horror for children. “It’s always exciting for me when I get to write for adults,” he says.

With so many genres and perspectiv­es to braid, one major challenge for Fourteen Days was producing a coherent narrative that also lets each character and author have their own voice. Scott

Turow, for example, worried “whether I was really making myself part of the whole,” he says.

Wolitzer experience­d the same tension but nonetheles­s found the process to be “unexpected­ly refreshing.” “All of the other writers were working from their own sensibilit­ies and in their own styles,” she says. “I did the same, and somehow we became a chorus.”

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