In Boccaccio’s Decameron, a group of travellers take refuge from the Black Death in a villa outside Florence and share their stories. In a forthcoming modern-day take for the Covid era, by authors ranging from John Grisham to Outlander author Diana Gabaldon, the characters are a group of neighbours in a Manhattan tenement during the coronavirus pandemic.
Edited by Margaret Atwood, Fourteen Days: An Unauthorised Gathering is a collaborative novel dreamed up by author Douglas Preston to support other writers during the pandemic. With contributors also including Tess Gerritsen, Emma Donoghue, Celeste Ng, Dave Eggers and Angie Cruz, the book is set during the early days of the crisis, as a diverse group of neighbours left behind “when the rich flee the city” gather on the rooftop of their building and begin to share their stories.
“I came up with the germ of the idea when I read the Decameron as a teenager. I’m a collector of stories, and my initial thought was to cram all those stories into a frame narrative like the Decameron, in which a group of people retreat to an estate on the Maine coast during a pandemic. But when I tried to write it, the result was incoherent, so I quickly abandoned it,” said Preston. “Then a real pandemic arrived.”
Preston is president of the Authors Guild, and the writers’ body had been thinking about doing an anthology. “But anthologies can be rather dull,” Preston said. “It occurred to me that the Decameron idea could be brought into the present day, and involve New Yorkers stuck in a tenement during Covid, who gather on the roof every evening and start telling stories to pass the time – all kinds of stories: outrageous, poignant, funny, horrifying, tragic and creepy.”
Atwood agreed to act as editor, and invited, said Preston, “an eclectic group of writers, from romance novelists to Shakespearean scholars, from poets to mystery writers, from children’s authors to journalists to science fiction writers”, to contribute.
“I was astonished at how many authors loved the idea and wanted to participate,” said Preston. “They didn’t just write stories, but also created characters on the rooftop to tell them. In this way, Fourteen Days became a sort of protest against the balkanisation of contemporary literary culture. The result is entertaining and lively, not unlike stories being told at a dinner party, late in the evening, by guests of dubious sobriety. I don’t believe such an eclectic group of authors, or works, has ever been brought together like this before.”
Atwood said that the characters created by her contributors “have much to say to one another about life during the pandemic and even more about life in general, sometimes getting into discussions, debates or outright quarrels – and sometimes finding resolution in unexpected moments of empathy and connection”.
The writers remain anonymous until the end of the book, when it is revealed who has written which story. “Reading the book is a fun literary guessing game, but it has a deeper message too, being a thumb in the eye of literary celebrityhood and the fetish of the byline,” said Preston.
The Authors Guild has signed a deal with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the US, and Vintage in the UK, to publish Fourteen Days in spring 2022. A “major” donation from Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins means that all contributors will receive an honorarium for the project, but all proceeds will go to the Authors Guild Foundation, which supports US writers; a recent survey found that authors reported losing 49% of their pre-pandemic income on average.