Writers Collaborate for Authors Guild

Alissa Greenberg
From the March/April 2024 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

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-fourteenth-century 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 COVID,” 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.”    


Alissa Greenberg reports at the intersection of science, history, and culture. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Smithsonian, and elsewhere.