In a world that’s post-pandemic in the same way that the US is post-colonial, the Authors Guild of America brings us a book that reminds readers of the first surreal days of COVID-19. Fourteen Days (Harper Collins, Feb. 6, 2024) is a collaborative novel co-edited by Handmaid’s Tale writer Margaret Atwood and Santa Fe-based The Lost Tomb author Douglas Preston that takes place in a Lower East Side tenement in New York City over the course of a two-week period during the initial days of lockdown.
Preston expanded the idea from one he’d had three decades ago, albeit in a drastically different form: He had wanted to write a Decameron-like book told by people sheltering from a pandemic, but abandoned the concept at the time.
“My original idea was a bunch of wealthy people retreating to an estate on the coast of Maine,” Preston tells SFR. “It would not have been a good book.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, however, the idea resurfaced.
Preston recalls being in New York City in early March.
“The National Guard was called out and surrounded the city and I’m like, ‘Holy fuck, this is no joke,’” he says. “All the restaurants were empty. The streets were empty. It was absolutely insane. Terrifying.”
Preston was the president of the Authors Guild of America at the time, and had been trying to figure out a way to put together an anthology that reflected the breadth of genres, talents and backgrounds of member authors.
“The problem with an anthology is that the Guild represents all writers,” he explains. “Science writers, romance authors, literary authors, thriller writers, nonfiction writers, journalists, poets.”
But what if he took the Decameron model—a group of quarantining storytellers—and combined it with the anthology format? That’s how Fourteen Days came to be. And so Preston brought on Margaret Atwood as co-editor, hoping a big name would help bring other Guild authors into the fray.
“We weren’t just looking for literary authors,” he notes. “We weren’t just looking for famous authors, and we certainly weren’t looking for a bunch of authors like me—old white men.”
Together, he and Atwood approached the legendary Suzanne Collins, who declined to contribute but offered to finance the project. The anthology also received financing from Daniel Conaway and Simon Lipskar of Writers House literary agency, both of whom waved their commissions. All proceeds support the Authors Guild.
Then came the logistics. Preston himself wrote the frame narrative from the perspective of Yessie, a building super, and contributed many of the other characters as well. He and Atwood invited the rest of the authors to contribute character ideas, but in order to avoid writing by committee, they shared very little of the narrative itself. The only strict guidance authors received was that their stories had to be told in the first person. The results were eclectic: micro stories, macro stories, poetry and experimentation. But the variety that makes the final book engaging made the labor Herculean.
In order to craft a cohesive narrative thread throughout the tales and characters, for example, Preston ended up rewriting his contributions. Looking back, he says, given the project’s singularity, it’s not surprising it required so much time and effort.
“When this idea started, we thought we needed to publish quickly because people are going to forget about the pandemic,” he points out.
For better or worse, Fourteen Days remains keenly relevant.
“[The pandemic] was a big shock to the human race,” Preston says. “We had become arrogant about our relationship to nature, thinking this kind of thing could never happen. And then it did happen, and it made us question who we are.”
Fourteen Days, he says, stands as a reminder of the people and stories the pandemic has claimed. It’s a visceral reminder of the early lockdown days spent fearfully watching case counts as the virus reached New York, and gradually—then much less gradually—as it began to spread. Fourteen Days’ narrator captures that time by recording case numbers day by day, a tactic Preston says was partly inspired by Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.
In keeping with the Guild’s philosophy, Fourteen Days strives to move away from the concept of the author as a celebrity by omitting bylines. Does Preston foresee the book heralding similar collaboration as a more commonplace practice?
“No,” he says. “It’s too difficult.”
All the same, part of the fun of the book is the guessing game and in sussing out literary voices such as Maria Hinojosa, Erica Jong and Tommy Orange. But to Preston, its relative anonymity is “a statement of inclusion—of accepting all genres, all types of writers without plugging everyone into a hierarchy. We’ve sort of fallen into the idea of the individual author as the only creative unit.”
Fourteen Days, he hopes, will become a step toward appreciating the value of collective creative work in literary culture as a whole.