The Big Idea: Lissa Price

Costco isn’t just a place to pick up a 36-pack of toilet paper or to snack on free, tiny spears of sausage, it’s also a place where you might just also pick up an idea for a novel. At least, that’s what happened to Lissa Price, who found the idea for her debut novel Starters in just that location. No, she wasn’t looking for a story idea there. Let’s just say it was something of an impulse buy. Here she is to explain how she walked out of the store with this particular unexpected item.


My Big Idea was that in the future, desperate teens would rent out their bodies to rich seniors who could then enjoy being young again.

It came to me in Costco, a few years ago. Trying to get a flu shot.

The pharmaceutical companies didn’t make enough vaccine that year. So the US government had to set up a triage system. The very young and the elderly, and of course the infirm, were to get the vaccine first. It looked like a dystopian future with long lines of people in the hollow ugliness that is Costco. I didn’t fall into any of those categories so I left without the shot.

But I had the Big Idea. I thought, wow, what if this was a devastating disease and the only ones left were the weakest members of society?

It wasn’t until a few years later that I put it together and wrote it as my debut novel. I created a near-future where the only people left after the Spore Wars were the ones who were vaccinated: the elderly, called Enders; and the kids and teens, called Starters. Almost all the parents were dead, leaving a landscape of silver-haired Enders with the young Starters. I loved the contrast.

Of course there are remnants of VIP Middles — politicians, movie stars and people of power — who were able to get the vaccine and survive. But they’re not who you see every day.

This was the world, the canvas. The character I wanted to battle this oppressive system was a 16 year-old girl who had to protect her sickly 10 year-old brother as they lived on the streets for a year, fighting for food and squatting in abandoned office buildings.  And when she discovers this place they call the body bank that will pay her enough money to get a home, she decides to take the risk. She allows them to plant a chip in her brain. I wanted to quickly get to the story, which was the “what went wrong” – that her renter wants to do more than just party, she plans to use the girl’s body to murder someone.

The rental place, called Prime Destinations, wasn’t stupid. They had programmed the renters’ chips so that no renter could kill. But the girl’s renter had also thought ahead, and had her tech guy alter the chip. However, in doing so, something else changed. Callie wakes up in her own body, displacing the renter. She enters the fairy tale life of her rich renter, living in a mansion, and going out with a senator’s grandson. More big twists follow, but that is the setup.

My focus is always on creating a fresh world as simply as possible that allows me to get to where I want to be, dealing with characters on different levels of reality. Some films that I like that address this are Inception and Memento, and a few books would be Never Let Me Go, Uglies, and Incarceron. I love to have two characters together in a room and at least one of them doesn’t know the truth about the other.  And the reason is because it gives me this rich ground for both intellectual intrigue and also emotional depth. So while I use thriller pacing, I’ll slip in moments that I hope will resonate with the reader long after they’ve finished.

I like to follow an organic writing process, where I work back and forth from ideas to outline to pages, always drawing from and reacting to what is already there embedded in the story. This manuscript came out fairly smooth, with lots of yes moments where I saw that something I had planted early on would dovetail with later plot elements.  One thing that changed was the first chapter. I tried different beginnings, thinking I should set up Callie’s life first. But one day I decided to do something that seemed so radical. I really wanted to dive in and start with her going through the doors of the body bank before you knew anything about her. And once I did that, there was no looking back.

Writers will understand my special challenges in writing this story after they’ve read it. But I don’t want to give away any spoilers here. One thing I can say is that I had to decide how much of the world and the history of the war I would explain, because I did not want to stop the thriller pacing of the narrative drive. When there was a choice between continuing the emotion, or answering what I imagined might be a question in the reader’s mind about the past, I opted to keep the emotion. It’s dystopian. It’s cautionary. But mostly, I want to take readers on a wild ride that leaves them breathless at the end, saying they never saw it coming.

When I finished writing, I got my agent in 24 hours via an email query. She sold it as a duology to Random House Children’s Books in 6 days, over a holiday weekend.

All this because I’m a Costco member.

From big-box stores come Big Ideas. Sometimes.


Starters: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the book’s site, which includes a trailer. Follow the author on Twitter.

29 Comments on “The Big Idea: Lissa Price”

  1. John, you really need a “hide all big ideas” button on here because they are killing my bank account.

    The cover of this book is stunning. This premise sounds really interesting. I’m adding this book to “the list”.

  2. Great reviews in L.A. Times and elsewhere.

    “My First Body”, a short story by my wife, Dr. Christine Carmichael, Space & Time #81, 1993, was also about commercialization of young sexy bodies for the future rich. My wife may have been influenced by other treatments of this idea in Science Fiction, but it has rarely been done at novel length as brillinatly as by Lissa Price.

    I’m glad to hear more, from the author.

  3. Wow! The stunning cover grabbed me (I actually skip a lot of the Big Idea posts) and the idea hooked me. Buying it.

  4. I guess I have the opposite reaction to the cover, which (along with it being marketed as YA) had me skim over this when I saw it elsewhere, but since it’s a Big Idea I went ahead and read the pitch. Wow. Very interesting.

  5. The pharmaceutical companies didn’t make enough vaccine that year.

    Wasn’t the problem in 2004 caused not by a lack of production of ‘flu vaccine intended for the US but rather having a substantial fraction of the US vaccine turn out to be potentially contaminated?

  6. “John, you really need a “hide all big ideas” button on here because they are killing my bank account.”

    Paul, you may need to complain to your local library about not getting these books.

    Chris Sears, the problem isn’t that you can only get eleven. It’s that you have to buy a package of ten ideas (get the eleventh idea free) but there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to do anything with the ideas.

  7. @Peter Eng – I bet my local library will get these books. I’m just not patient enough to wait for it to arrive.

    Or, more likely, I was just trying to be funny.

  8. great concept – I am intriuged. Right now I am in much more of a place where I prefer plot and action-pacing to info dump world building. I’d rather figure it out as I go along. Just my current personal taste.

  9. Sounds like a good read so I’ve pre-ordered on Amazon UK. Hardly ever comment but it’s fair to say your “Big Idea” posts have cost me dearly over the years Mr Saclzi! *shakes fist* ;-) Shifting slightly OT from the book to the initial idea it was born from. Is it normal for people outside of the most at-risk sections of the population to be queuing in Costco for a vaccine in the US? What I mean is, when not in short supply, do most get it regardless? Also, are wholesale supermarkets a usual place to receive this sort of thing? Asking purely as an ill-informed Brit.

  10. Oh dear, no edit button means I can’t correct my typo either. Sorry! Guess I’m shaking my fist at some other dude!

  11. John C-A,

    In the US, most vaccines are given in a Doctor’s office, but in autumn, Flu vaccines are more widely available. You can get them in pharmacies, supermarkets, and other locations. I usually get mine at work. I guess the idea is to get as many people as possible vaccinated as quickly as possible in order to build up herd immunity.

    Where does one get a flu vaccine in the UK?

  12. Hi Lissa,
    Great idea. Congratulations. I will definitely buy.
    Do you, and other Big Idea Whatever Blog writers, have a preference on how we purchase?
    I typically use Amazon just because it is so simple. But, I don’t know what sort of deal Amazon works with you.
    St Bruno

  13. Thanks Nickp. Sounds like a sensible solution to be able to get those jabs in after the weeks shopping! In all honestly I’m not entirely sure in the UK as I’ve never considered one, not being in an at-risk group. But I would assume from a clinic or GP (doctors), as usual. Perhaps more folks would have them if they were more accessible. The idea of seeing them in a wholesale store with the groceries somehow made us seems worlds appart for a bit there.

  14. Sounds really entertaining. I hope that the focus on keeping the action going over providing info about the world still leaves lots of juicy world for those of us who like rolling the concept around.

  15. okay, yeah, you had me at this: desperate teens would rent out their bodies to rich seniors who could then enjoy being young again.

    *adds to TBR pile*

  16. “James Davis Nicoll says:
    The pharmaceutical companies didn’t make enough vaccine that year.
    Wasn’t the problem in 2004 caused not by a lack of production of ‘flu vaccine intended for the US but rather having a substantial fraction of the US vaccine turn out to be potentially contaminated?”

    James, you are absolutely right. This is sort of a shorthand way of saying it and would have been more accurate to say “didn’t have enough…” I was at my launch signing tonight and there I told the whole story, mentioning the contamination.

    St. Bruno, it doesn’t matter to authors (or at least to me). What matters most is that readers buy during the crucial first week of sales. We don’t know all of the stores who report their sales numbers (the NYT keeps that a secret), but I’m told Amazon sales count. John is far more experienced than I in this and would have more info.

    I’m grateful for the kind words, guys. Thank you so much. I’ve loved The Big Idea thread so am tickled to be part of it now.

  17. …it might be fiction but even fiction should make sense. Building a story on survival of vaccinated elderly in times of some freak disease, over mature and healthy adults, makes no sense to me.

  18. John C-A,

    It’s the same here: a lot of people outside high risk groups don’t bother, but it seems that the local health services would like to change that. In years when there isn’t an unexpected shortage, announcements in local news broadcasts, etc. encourage everyone to be vaccinated. I got in the habit of getting one every year due to pestering by wife and mother who both have healthcare experience. Doesn’t do any harm, might do some good, etc.

  19. Nickp said:
    “Where does one get a flu vaccine in the UK?”

    Pretty much the same as in the US, from the sounds of it. From your GP, from a pharmacist, from some supermarkets (the ones that have pharmacies, anyway). My employer gets a nurse to come in once a year and provide flu vaccines for any employee who wants one, too. If you want a shot, it’s not difficult to find someone to provide it.

    I, personally, don’t bother, as I had a bad reaction to the one flu shot I got many years ago, am not in an at-risk group, and don’t seem to be particularly susceptible to the flu anyway.

    Man-flu, though – that’s a different matter. If they had a vaccine for man-flu I’d be first in line.

  20. Lorna, you should research the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which was especially devastating because it killed young people at a higher rate than the very elderly. It is the reason the military still requires all active duty personnel to get flu shots, because they had so many deaths. As I recall, most of the deaths came from an overly strong immune system response, so people with strong immune system response, so younger and otherwise healthier people had a significantly higher death rate than the young or elderly. Look at the Great Influenza by John M. Barry for more details. If it happened once, it could happen again.

  21. Sorry, to clarify my poorly written response:

    As I recall, most of the deaths came from an overly strong immune system response, so people with strong immune system response, younger and otherwise healthier people, had a significantly higher death rate than the very young or elderly, who would normally make up the bulk of the deaths in a flu pandemic.

  22. Robo-Bobo: They came up with this hypothesis in the last decade or so after getting a testable virus sample from that era. It’s called a “cytokine storm” if anyone wants more details.

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