As news headlines continue to be populated with stories about the COVID-19 pandemic, the Boston Globe took a different approach. The paper recently published an exclusive novella online and among its printed pages written by bestselling author Ben Mezrich and illustrated by Globe design director, Heather Hopp-Bruce. Told over 21 chapters, “The Mechanic” is a thriller about a card shark and an ex-con looking for “the score of a lifetime.”
“It doesn’t seem like there’s anything else journalistically to cover that isn’t connected to the pandemic,” Globe editor Brian McGrory told E&P. “So, (we) made a decision to solicit fiction and give people a distraction as the story moves forward.”
There was a short list of authors the Globe had in mind for the project, but they decided to go with Mezrich because, besides being a popular storyteller, he is also a Boston local. The Globe reached out to Mezrich about mid-March, McGrory explained, and they only had one rule for the author: Do not write a story about a pandemic. McGrory was adamant that the story be an escape.
In a note to Globe readers, Mezrich admitted that he was both excited and terrified when the paper approached him with the idea for a serialized novella. However, he immediately saw what a great opportunity it could be.
“The Globe, and newspapers in general, have always meant so much to me, and the idea of a book unfolding in the pages of a daily paper—hopefully, an engaging distraction for those inclined to check it out—seemed perfectly suited for this difficult time,” he wrote.
Mezrich said that he spent about a week and a half plotting the story. From there, it was a back and forth writing and editing process between himself and Globe editors.
The first chapter launched online May 2 and published in print on May 3 (The Globe released the installments every evening online, and chapters appeared in print the following morning). One or two chapters were published a day in print and online until May 17 when the last chapter was published in print.
“The Mechanic” received an extremely positive reaction, according to McGrory. He said the Globe saw a spike in readers each time an email blast went out announcing the new chapters were out, and the novella also converted a healthy number of people into subscribers.
Additionally, the Globe saw many positive comments thanking them for something else to focus on during these challenging times. Although there were a few comments that questioned the Globe’s move to spend resources on fiction while battling a pandemic, McGrory said the paper did not reduce its commitment to covering COVID-19 or divert resources away from the effort.
McGrory said due to the response, he hopes they will be able to pursue different kinds of stories and authors with different perspectives.
“Today’s news cycle is just dominated by every aspect of one story that happens to especially grim,” he said. “We just thought that this would be something that would give readers a chance to focus on something else…to let them enjoy something at a time when joy is in short supply.”