EXTREME MAKEOVER, and where it came from

Extreme MakeoverSeveral years ago, I was writing a book. I had finished the first John Cleaver trilogy, and The Hollow City, and I was working on a new idea that, as much as I loved it, wasn’t working. Books are like that sometimes. I knew that the problem was dire when I realized I was so uninterested in my own book that I was literally looking for ways to avoid writing it. Which is how I found myself on the couch watching The 6th Day on TV.

The 6th Day is not a great movie, but it’s honestly not as bad a movie as you probably remember. It’s about cloning, and while most of it is fairly mindless there’s a scene that hit me really hard–hard enough that it not only inspired me to write a new book, but to mention the scene several years later in the acknowledgements of that book. The scene is this: Schwarzenegger crashed a plane in the wilderness, and everyone thinks he’s dead, but he makes it back home again, excited to see his family. As he walks toward his house, though, he sees himself through the window, talking to his wife and his kids, and he realizes two things. First is the plot thing: they thought he was dead so they cloned him. Second is the more profound thing, and the thing that smacked me in the brain and inspired the next several years of my life: he realized that he was no longer unique. That he wasn’t the only him. We are taught from birth that everyone is different and special, and that there’s nobody exactly like us, and that knowledge is a fundamental aspect of who we are and how we see the world. And this man was suddenly and irrevocably confronted with the fact that it wasn’t true anymore. There were two of him. His entire reality shifted, and the fact that someone was the same as him meant that he could never, ironically, be the same again.

I love that. I adore that. I wanted to write an entire book about that moment and that feeling, and pretty much discarded the other project I was working on right then and there. I would write a book about cloning. But, I told myself, there have been a zillion books and stories about cloning. How would I make mine different? We had recently recorded a Writing Excuses episode about developing ideas, and one of the principles we’d talked about was taking something normal and combining it with something weird–your main character is a spy, but he’s also a werewolf! Your magic system let’s people summon animals, but only animals you’ve eaten! So I sat on the couch during the next commercial break and asked what I could combine with cloning that had never been combined with cloning before. How about some kind of science, to explain how the clones are created? Sounds good, but what? We’ve already done genetic engineering and alternate dimensions and time travel and every other cool cloning technology. What was new and fresh? More to the point, what branch of science did I know enough about to come up with something convincing?

That last question was easy to answer: before I went full-time as an author, I worked in the health and beauty industry for eight years. I’ve described more lotions and shampoos and makeups than I ever thought possible, and written endless reams of website copy, box copy, ad copy, and more on the subject. I knew cosmetics inside and out, and it’s an industry practically overflowing with chemical innovation, so why not get something out of that? One of the big buzzwords in the beauty industry at the time was biomimetics–products that can intelligently adapt to your body and even your DNA–so it wasn’t a huge leap to posit a substance that flips that around and starts adapting you to it. A hand lotion that overwrites your DNA. That was new, and the more I thought about it the more I realized that it was a gold mine of fun and terrifying science fiction ideas. Want to look like a supermodel? We can literally just make you into a supermodel, down to the DNA, but maybe be careful about how you use the lotion and where you leave it–your friend wants to borrow some lotion for her dry hands? Now she’s a supermodel too. Your husband brushes past the bottle to reach something behind it? Better hope there’s no lotion left on the outside, or now he’s a supermodel too. And if your kids are anything like mine? Congratulations: your whole family are now supermodels, and not just that but they’re all the same supermodel, a whole little row of disconcerting duplicates. You are not the only you anymore, and nothing will ever be the same.

There are a lot of directions to take this idea, and it took me a while to figure out exactly what story to tell about that one exciting seed. What I settled on was, in hindsight, one of the most difficult: an epic, globe-spanning story that starts when the lotion is created and ends when it destroys the world. Because believe me: the world is not going to survive this technology. The apocalypse comes at the end, though, and in the middle I had the delicious opportunity to skewer the beauty industry I’d spent so much time in. The idea that you can sell beauty–that you can sell self-esteem–is unwholesome at its core. It’s an industry that feeds on insecurity, that makes its money telling people they’re not good enough without it; it’s a textbook abusive relationship, and one I’d been aching to slam for years. So I wrote a book about how the company that says you’re no good the way you are literally gets the power to turn you into somebody else. It’s an absurd corporate satire about the end of the world, and a deep dive into the social side of science fiction: how does a new technology really change the world and the way we live in it? The title, of course, could never be anything other than EXTREME MAKEOVER.

I love this book. It took me years to write it, and more years to publish it. It stretched me as an author and as a reviser, and changed the way I work, and I have never been more proud of a book than this one.

EXTREME MAKEOVER hits shelves on November 15. I hope you love it as much as I do.

Note: most of the images you see online have the title as EXTREME MAKEOVER: APOCALYPSE EDITION. This is my preferred title, and was the working title for years. At the last minute, consulting with booksellers, we pulled the APOCALYPSE EDITION because we didn’t want people to forego buying it because they wanted to get the regular edition instead. The physical books just say EXTREME MAKEOVER, but if you like I will happily write APOCALYPSE EDITION on there with a sharpie :)

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