Margaret Atwood attends the "LETTERATURE" - Rome International Festival at Colosseum Archaeological Par, July 5, 2023, Rome, Italy. Photo: Maria Moratti/Getty Images
With ’14 Days,’ Margaret Atwood and Douglas Preston Pull Off a Modern-Day ‘Decameron’
36 major literary voices from John Grisham to Erica Jong contribute to a lively ‘novel’ set in an NYC tenement / BY Rosemary Counter / February 8th, 2024
Imagine a novelist hard at work. I see a frustrated writer, staring zombie-like at a computer screen in the middle of the night, a bulletin board crowded with handwritten note cards and balls of scrunched-up paper at her feet. But who says this is the way novels must be born? And who gets to decide what makes a novel anyhow?
Something to think about as you read Fourteen Days, the brand new “collaborative novel” by – get ready for all this – Erica Jong, Angie Cruz, Monique Truong, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, Jennine Capó Crucet, John Grisham, Roxana Robinson, Maria Hinjosa, James Shapiro, Emma Donoghue, Celeste Ng, Luis Albero Urrea, R.L. Stine, Dave Eggers, Caroline Randall Williams, Mira Jacob, Ishmael Reed, Weike Wang, Tess Gerritsen, Stephen King, Diana Gabaldon and many more.
This innovative project comes from the Authors Guild of America, where Maine-based journalist Douglas Preston, who’s written some 40 books in 40 years, is the president and the brains behind Fourteen Days. The idea was equal parts lightbulb moment and slow-burner. “Thirty-five years ago, I started writing a pandemic novel like The Decameron,” says Preston. (A quick refresher: 14th-century author Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron features a group of 10 young people, sheltering from the Black Death that infiltrated Florence. They take turns telling a hundred stories that range from tragic to erotic.)
Preston’s one-time ode to Boccaccio, however, had one big problem: “It wasn’t any good,” laughs the 67-year-old author, who like countless writers before him, shelved the idea until inspiration stuck. “When the real pandemic occurred, it suddenly made sense again.”
The premise in a nutshell: “It’s a group of New Yorkers, not the rich ones who escaped to the Hamptons but the ones who were left behind, locked down in a shabby tenement building on the Lower East Side,” he says. Used to coming and going while hardly saying hello, 2020’s brought the pandemic and now they’re suddenly hanging out (six feet apart) on the roof of the Fernsby Arms, talking to each other and telling stories. The narrator, of sorts, is the building’s new super who calls herself “1A” and her neighbours a series of semi-friendly nicknames (“Vinegar,” “Hello Kitty” and “Lady with the Rings”). None is so easily stereotyped once they get to know each other, of course, and each and every one has their own story, style and voice. This part’s much like The Decameron, except, where Boccaccio used his imagination to write different perspectives, Fourteen Days farmed the stories out proper to 36 authors of all ages, genders and genres.
Canadian lit queen Margaret Atwood became the resident recruiter, calling up writers as she saw fit to tell them about the Authors Guild’s idea and request their participation. I’m using the word request loosely. “When Margaret Atwood asks you to do something, you say ‘yes,’” says Room author Emma Donoghue.
Like everyone else, Donoghue was given a deliberately vague writer’s prompt: “people gathered during quarantine on a roof of a mixed-rent building in New York,” she recalls. Other than that, almost anything goes. “It could be anything you want, long or short, as long as it was anecdotal and in first person.” Donoghue wrote a wild story about a couple who adopts a baby. All their friends throw a surprise party to celebrate the finalized papers, but convinced the birth parents have shown up at the 11th hour to take the baby, the couple hide as to not open the door.
The story (random and true, allegedly) had been floating around Donoghue’s head for years without ever landing on the page. Given the wide open writer’s prompt, Donoghue was given the moment and space to finally tell the strange story – and do so without a byline. Who wrote what chapter in Fourteen Days isn’t discernible until the addendum at the book’s end, so readers won’t know if the story at hand is by Erica Jong or Stephen King – fun for readers and writers alike. “It’s very freeing that nobody will know whether it’s you or another writer,” says Donoghue. “We all like to be freed from our masks every now and then.”
For other contributors, like Outlander author Diana Gabaldon, Fourteen Days was the chance to give a home to stories that were otherwise homeless – an all-too-common reality for career writers with clogged desktops filled with semi-finished ideas. “I didn’t have time to write a new story, but I had a few what I call ‘general purpose’ stories. This particular one, which involves my grandmother’s ghost, I’d actually written for my sister,” she tells me from her home in Arizona. Contributing to Fourteen Days felt much like collaborating on a TV show, says Gabaldon (who was also the consulting producer on Outlander), and not at all like writing a conventional novel. “When I’m writing a novel, I get to control everything, what all the characters are doing and saying and feeling.” Not so, in Fourteen Days.
The only contributor with some semblance of control was Preston, who, compared to everyone else’s free creative reign, had a far more difficult task. “My job, as the writer of the frame narrative, was to invent the characters who were going to tell these stories and put them in some kind of rational order with interaction and a narrative arc,” he says. If that sounds nearly impossible, you’re pretty much right. Especially with Atwood in the bunch, who wrote her story from the perspective of a predatory spider. “It was very daunting, I admit. I’ve written 40 books and this was definitely the most difficult one I’ve ever done,” he says. His first effort at the frame narrative had to be scrapped and restarted (a familiar nod to the traditional novel, I suppose).
The final effort, however, is a fascinating layered adventure of changing voices and genres that you’d never usually find together in one book, let alone mixed and mingling in disguise. “I wouldn’t usually be in a book beside John Grisham. Our parts of the literary world don’t usually overlap,” says Donoghue.
This means readers of Fourteen Days can read with my personal strategy and play detective as they go, cross-referencing stories with the answer-key-esque biographies in the back. Or they can read the old-fashioned way, front to back, without ever thinking of who’s penned what in any particular chapter. Donoghue suggests the latter. “I’d advise readers not to check who’s written what until the end,” she says. “Nobody wants to know how the sausage is made.”