At the height of the pandemic, a group of writers decided to do something different.
“The whole thing started when I got an email, to my huge surprise, from Margaret Atwood, saying, we're thinking of doing this weird project,” author Celeste Ng said. “We're all alone right now in COVID, everyone feels isolated. We want to do something where we can work together.”
Ng is the bestselling author of several books, including "Little Fires Everywhere." The idea she was being pitched was to contribute to a collaborative novel set during the early days of COVID: A group of authors working together on one book about tenants who gather on the roof of their apartment building during lockdown to get fresh air, bang pots and pans celebrating first responders, and to share their own stories.
“And when I heard that idea, I thought, oh, that's such a great narrative device to pull together so many different people whose voices otherwise might never connect with each other,” she said.
The final result is "Fourteen Days: A Collaborative Novel." Dozens of acclaimed authors contributed, including Ng, Margaret Atwood, John Grisham and Tommy Orange.
But the catch, Ng said, is this: The authors are not credited until the very end of the book, so you don't know who you're reading.
“It's fun to read it like a puzzle in a way, of kind of guessing who wrote what,” she said. “And I was surprised in reading some of it, going, oh, that was you? It's a fun chance to sort of try on a new voice, to almost do a little ventriloquism.”
Though the book is billed as a collaborative novel, Ng said she did not know the names of all the contributors while she worked on her part.
“We were kept pretty separate from each other, not by design, but just I think that's, you know, that's the nature of a writer's life. You're very solitary,” she said. “As I started hearing about more and more of the writers that had signed on, I was startled myself. I was like, oh, wow, you're writing this too? Like, R.L. Stine is going to be in this? I read your books when I was a kid. It's amazing.”
Seeing how the final story was woven together was fun for Ng as a reader, she said.
The process of writing about COVID in real time, as the pandemic’s initial lockdowns were happening, was a novel one for her.
“I have never been a writer who can write about the time that I'm in very comfortably, I feel like I need a lot more distance in order to see things clearly,” Ng said. “I'll have to look back in, you know, five, 10, 20 years and see if what I wrote says something about the pandemic.”
Ng’s piece was inspired by seeing racist attacks on Asian Americans, particularly older adults.
“The piece that I wrote does involve an Asian-American elder and her voice,” she said. “And I wanted in some ways to create that character and give her a little moment in the spotlight so that we remembered that she's a part of society, that what's happening now affects everybody in different ways, depending on who they are.”
The story she wrote — and the process of contributing to a collaborative novel — may end up being a parable for what it was like to live through the pandemic’s beginning, she said.
“I could not have written this book by myself,” she said. “And yet, when everybody puts in a little bit, you can actually come up with something pretty amazing. And I hope that's one of the things we'll take from the pandemic, that even when there are really huge societal problems, one person can't solve them, but everybody maybe can do a little bit, and that might add up to something.”