Douglas Preston is an author of thirty-nine books of both non-fiction and fiction, of which thirty-two have been New York Times bestsellers. He is the coauthor, with Lincoln Child, of the Pendergast series of thrillers. He worked as an editor at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and taught non-fiction writing at Princeton University. He is the co-editor, along with Margaret Atwood, and a contributor to the collaborative novel Fourteen Days and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for Fourteen Days?
The COVID pandemic was the "inspiration," if a horrific plague can be termed such. When I was president of the Authors Guild, after covid hit, we came up with the idea of a group of "left-behinds," people stuck in New York City during the terrible covid spring of 2020. They did not have the option of fleeing the city like so many others. Instead, they gather on the rooftop of their shabby Lower East Side building to cheer the first responders. But then, after a while, they start telling stories—of their lives and loves, tragedies, confessions, stories of crime and punishment, war and peace, ghosts and death. Gradually, this group of sundry and grumpy New Yorkers turns their rooftop gathering during lockdown into a sort of community—with a shocking revelation at the end.
To gather the tales they tell, we went out to the literary community and began collecting stories from authors in all genres: literary, children’s, romance, mystery, thriller, nonfiction, poets, journalists—everyone.
What was your process for putting together this novel with Margaret Atwood? Did one of you come up with the continuing story of the apartment building in New York during the early pandemic lockdown and then ask authors to write stories that fit your theme? Did you solicit submissions and then choose from the ones submitted? Or did you approach it in a different way?
We did it much as you describe. I came up with the original idea for the novel and later wrote the “frame narrative,” that is, the story that frames all the other stories.
Margaret was instrumental in contacting possible authors and asking them to contribute. Without her, the project would not have gone forward. She also wrote a marvelous story for the rooftop, told by a most peculiar narrator. I must also mention here Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games author, who made an extremely generous contribution to pay the contributors for their work, and Dan Conaway, the Guild’s literary agent, who waived his commission. The generosity and hard work of many people made this book a reality.
Collaborative fiction certainly isn’t a new concept. However, a work created by thirty-six different authors must be close to, if not setting, a new record! And they are such a wide range of writers known for writing many different types of stories. What was it like to work with so many marvelous authors to create Fourteen Days?
Creating Fourteen Days was as spectacularly rewarding as it was phenomenally difficult. The authors were fabulous, without exception—helpful and responsive. Working with them was a pleasure, a literary festival of the mind. Forging the remarkable diversity of stories, authors, backgrounds, and genres into a literary whole was a challenging task. One idea we had, which the authors went along with, was to eliminate the bylines. The stories are written by brilliant, award-winning authors, many of whom are famous. But when you read the book, the stories are told by fictional characters, and you do not know who wrote which story, unless you look it up in the back of the book. This is extraordinary, if not unique, in the contemporary literary landscape, in which celebrityhood and bestsellerdom have been made into something of a literary fetish.
Were there any surprises for you amongst the contributors (names you were not expecting to participate or writers you were certain would but were not able to contribute)?
I was continually surprised by the beautiful quality of these stories and also by their spontaneous nature, the steel they bend, and the astonishments they offer up. They actually do read like spur-of-the-moment tales told by a diverse group of people who have little in common. I was worried we might get some heavy, pretentious literary pieces that would not work, but that did not happen. The authors got into the spirit of the idea, and I love how spontaneous and human these stories turned out to be.
How long did it take you to complete Fourteen Days from inspiration to submission?
Are there any authors that you were hoping to include in the novel but were unable to for some reason?
There were some authors we would have loved to include who just didn’t have the time or inclination to contribute. But we had no lack of interest from others. We had an embarrassment of riches. We ended up having almost too much material, but it was so good we just had to use it. This is a fat book!
How did the novel evolve and change as you all wrote and revised it? Are there any characters, scenes, or stories that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
We received the stories first, as well as some vivid sketches of the characters who might tell them. I created the storyteller, a first-generation Romanian super of the building named Yessie, who secretly records the stories on her iPhone and then transcribes them late at night, adding her own wry and sarcastic commentary. Yessie is the Scheherazade who tells the story in which the other stories are embedded. After receiving all the stories, I put them in a kind of order, wrote the frame narrative from Yessie’s point of view, and had her tell the story of the fictional characters telling their stories.
Unfortunately, the first iteration of this frame narrative was not altogether successful. With the help of our superb editor at HarperCollins, Millicent Bennett, I had to rip apart the first frame narrative, reorder the stories, reassemble the narrative, and begin again. The second time, it worked.
You’ve written works of fiction and non-fiction, co-written novels with Lincoln Child, and you’ve also worked as a journalist. Is there a format that you prefer over the others?
I love writing nonfiction books as well as pieces for the New Yorker Magazine, and I equally love writing novels with Lincoln. I’m just so grateful and surprised that I’ve been able to make a career and support my family with something I love doing.
Is there something you haven’t done yet but are hoping to have the opportunity to try?
I just tried my hand a writing the libretto to an opera, which will be performed in Santa Fe at the Lensic Theater this summer. I was terribly nervous about accepting the commission because I’d never written a libretto before and felt out of my depth, but I love opera. So I wrote it and we’ll see in August how it is received. The composer, Joseph Illick, is brilliant, and, after all, it’s the music that counts.
Can you tell us a bit about the Author’s Guild, which not only created this novel but will benefit from it as well?
The Authors Guild is America’s oldest and largest professional association of authors. All proceeds from the sale of this book will directly benefit the Authors Guild Foundation, the charitable arm of the Authors Guild. The Foundation was established on the belief that a rich, diverse body of free literary expression is essential to our democracy. It fosters and empowers writers of all backgrounds and stages of their careers by educating them in the business of writing, providing resources, programs, and tools to authors, and promoting an understanding of the value of writers and books. The Foundation is the sole organization of its kind dedicated to empowering all authors, reflecting the spirit of the writers who founded it—Toni Morrison, James A. Michener, Saul Bellow, Madeleine L’Engle, and Barbara Tuchman, among others—who came from a diverse background of genres themselves. We are already deploying funds from the book toward fighting book banning, suing OpenAI and Microsoft for stealing books to train their AI systems, shutting down ebook piracy websites, advocating for collective bargaining rights for authors, and supporting in many other ways authors, books, and diverse literary culture.
What’s currently on your nightstand?
I read too many books at once. The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands, Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, and An American Genocide by Benjamin Madley. Including the audiobook in my car, Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Such a hard question.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
The Curious Lobster’s Island by Richard Hatch
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
Is there a book you've faked reading?
Gravity’s Rainbow... ugh
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Is there a book that changed your life?
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
War and Peace.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
War and Peace.
What is the last piece of art (music, movies, TV, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?
Bruch Violin Concerto played by Augustin Hadelich on New Year’s Eve.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
Hike up a snowy mountain with my dog, Ollie.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked but never have been? What is your answer?
I’m asked too many questions already.
What are you working on now?
A novel with my writing partner Lincoln Child, entitled Badlands.