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Monday, July 8, 2019

Interview with SL Huang

Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Zero Sum Game
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Null Set

Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is SL Huang? And why should everyone be reading your books?

Because they’re awesome! And math is awesome! Ha.

I’m an MIT graduate, Hollywood stuntwoman, and firearms expert who decided to write some books about math and guns. Billed by Tor as “the geek’s Jack Reacher,” they’re nonstop action-packed thrillers, and the main character’s superpowers are being able to do math really, really fast. Which she uses to kill people. As one does with math.

As a nonwhite woman, it was also important to me to make them very diverse books, filled with people who look like me and the friends around me in Los Angeles. And I do thrill in writing Cas, my main character, as something of an antihero who is also a woman—I think we have far too little female representation in the dark, snarky, and hypercompetent category.

When and why have you decided to become an author? 

I don’t think I ever really decided so much as I was always writing, since before I can remember. I’ve always, always made up stories and I’ve always, always been writing them down.

The clearer decision was when to start publishing. Aside from early childhood dreams of being an author and publishing Real Books—I did have those, though I also had dreams of being an astronaut and President—I didn’t have a strong desire to publish my fiction until I wrote Zero Sum Game, which is actually my fourth novel. Writing had for so long been the thing I did “just for me” that it was a big change to decide I was at the point where I wanted to share!

Before we get any further there’s this one thing I need to ask you about. On your website you mention that you were lit on fire four times, three times on purpose. Can you elaborate? 

Sure! As a stuntwoman, I’ve been lit on fire several times on purpose—it’s a stunt I love doing, and the fire teams I’ve worked with have been phenomenal and super skilled. I love doing big burns; it’s one of my favorite things.

The one time that wasn’t on purpose . . . well . . .

I have this very good friend. We’ve been friends since college, and every time one of us has a bad idea, the other one very much does not say, “no, maybe let’s not” but instead says, “THAT’S BRILLIANT WE SHOULD TOTALLY DO THAT.” So one year, when I decided to have a birthday party, and one of us said, “oh my god, there should be flaming shots!” the other of us said “YES THAT’S BRILLIANT WE SHOULD TOTALLY DO THAT.”

We looked up how to make flaming shots on the Internet. You can find anything on there, did you know?

Fast forward to midnight, when I was . . . no longer sober . . . and my friend made me another flaming shot. Which I promptly spilled on myself. Being, you know, no longer sober, I looked down at my hands—which were very definitely, very obviously covered in merry flames—giggled, and said, “I’m on fire!”

My friend, fortunately, took me to the sink and put me out before all the alcohol burned off and the fire got started on my skin.

What draws you to writing in the genre? And how would you classify your books? A science fiction thriller? A thriller with supernatural elements? 

Any or all of the above!

It’s quite hard for me to classify my books. They’re science fiction and thriller, they’re contemporary but supernatural, a little bit of an urban fantasy vibe but definitely not fantasy, and superhero but with a noir feel. I usually say scifi thriller, as that seems to fit them the best and conveys the “speculative genre” and “fast-paced excitement” parts.

I confess I didn’t set out to write in a particular subgenre—I wrote the books I wanted to read, and unfortunately they’re a little hard to slot into existing categories!

As for what drew me to writing genre . . . I’m not sure. Growing up, I read voraciously across all genre lines, and I don’t even really know when I started gravitating more and more toward speculative fiction. I think by the time I was reading mostly SFF and defining myself as a SFF fan, I couldn’t have looked back and said when that happened.

Because it’s what I read, it was never really a decision as to what I would write; I think I was writing SFF before I was even clear on what the genre lines might be. But I truly love speculative fiction as a lens for talking about the real world—I think it’s one of the most effective places to explore both deep thematic parallels to reality and also offer some raw escapism.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process. What do you start from? Do you start with a character, an image, or an idea? Talk a little bit about how a novel “grows” for you.

I definitely start with character. If I don’t have character, I don’t have a book. The characters’ motivations and choices are what drive the writing forward for me.

As this might indicate, I fall more on the side of “pantser”—someone who discovers the book as I go rather than writing to an outline. I do find it helpful to have a general idea of what the structure will be in my head, and I try to figure out large turning points like the midpoint and the climax I’m heading for when I’m still early on. But the characters can always overturn that if, when I get there, I realize that based on my setup they absolutely 100% would not do what I had planned for them!

What’s the hardest thing for you during the whole “writing experience”?

I think the same as a lot of other authors—when I get stuck, and whatever I’m writing just isn’t working. It’s an awful place to be, and I hate it! I also hate the self-doubt that inevitably follows, that I don’t know how to write a novel despite having written half a dozen, and this one I will fail at and never be able to get to work.

Fortunately, I’ve learned better and better techniques to deal with this when I fall into it, but it’s still the most awful part of the process for me.

What made you decide to initially self-publish as opposed to traditional publishing?

A variety of reasons. I’d heard horror stories about characters being whitewashed or book covers showing female leads in ridiculously sexist poses, and that made me gun shy, since the diversity of my cast is so important to me. I also really wanted to publish under Creative Commons, and I was intrigued about going through the whole publishing process myself, which is an experience I still feel was very valuable. I also wasn’t terribly attached to what I saw as the “cachet” of being published—I was happy with my job in Hollywood, and I just wanted to start putting the books out there at the highest production value I could give them so that other people could read them, too.

It’s also certainly true that I didn’t actually know how much I didn’t know about publishing at that point. I thought I had done all my research, but it turns out I was still very ignorant about a lot of things in the industry. And, more saliently, I had yet to learn which parts of self-publishing versus being with a commercial publisher would and wouldn’t work for me personally, which was a much bigger learning curve than I had expected. I kind of had to figure it out through my first years as I self-published novels and did some short works with small presses. I listened, I learned an incredible amount, and I’ve been lucky enough to land in a place where I have the ability to choose what I think will work best for me and for my books.

What made you decide to sign with Tor Books and republish your books, traditionally this time? 

By the year I got the Tor deal, I’d already come to the conclusion that, in the long run, going with a publisher was going to be much better for me. As I’d gotten more experience with self-publishing, with publishers, and in the publishing landscape generally, I’d started to realize that my own skills and limitations were a far better “fit” for traditional publishing. I’m still very glad self-publishing exists as an option, and other authors have found a great home there, but it was becoming clear that for me it wasn’t going to be the best long-term choice.

I was also getting an extremely good response to my work across the publishing landscape, which suggested that I was lucky enough to have the option of working with a publisher, if I wanted it. Agents and editors were expressing interest in whatever new work I might be thinking about, and I resolved to start working on a novel that I would query with and start my hybrid career.

I did, however, expect the Cas Russell books to stay self-published, as it’s extremely, extremely rare for a self-published series to get a publisher pickup the way mine did. Enter my magical agent,

Russell Galen, who drastically changed my career and, frankly, my life. I signed with him because I had movie interest on the books, and he told me that it was fine if I wanted to keep the books self-published—it would always be my decision—but that he was confident he could get me a six-figure deal with a Big 5 publisher.

Within my writing life, I’d already determined a more traditional career was what I wanted . . . and outside my writing life, I was at a career crossroads thanks to some health issues and surgeries. So when my agent said that, I jumped hard and didn’t look back.

He was right, and now I’m a full-time writer thanks to this deal launching my traditional career!

What did you find easy, difficult, or surprising about the publishing process?

Back when I first started working with editors on my short fiction, I think I’d say what surprised me most is how wonderful it felt to be part of a team. When I was self-publishing, of course I had my cover artist, editor, and other professionals I hired to help me, but I was the only one who was in the thick of it every day, intensely invested in the success of my book.

And the first time I had editors and a magazine alongside me in that investment? It was marvelous! I felt supported, and cheered on, and like I had other people than me doing heavy lifting to make sure everything was a success.

Looking back, I think I had some naïve ideas about “control” over one’s work versus working with editors, and I’m very glad those have since been knocked out of me. I’m not saying there aren’t poor editors out there, but I could not be happier with all of my editorial experiences thus far. My excellent editor for the Cas Russell series, Diana Gill, hasn’t taken any “control” from me at all—instead, she pushes me to make the books so much better. More of what I want them to be. She’s amazing, and I could not be more grateful to have her eye and talents. My whole team at Tor makes me so happy—my cover designer and his stunning art, my tireless, invaluable publicists, my copyeditors and proofreaders who catch literally everything, the editorial assistants who go above and beyond . . . I have a team now! And it makes me giddy!

I absolutely love your Cas Russell series. What was your initial inspiration for it?

I’ve long had an idea about science and math skills as superpowers, and it’s something I’ve had knocking around in my brain for years. It wasn’t until I figured out the premise for Cas, though, that I realized this is how I wanted to tell that story.

The initial idea I’d had was much more ensemble-cast and focused on a variety of powers. But I’d never really been able to get it to work. Once I hit on making the Cas books much more focused on mathematical powers than my initial idea was, and starring a particular, prickly, kickass protagonist in a grounded, contemporary setting, everything ended up fitting together very nicely!

You’ve created fascinating and unique characters. Cas is a mathematical prodigy for whom killing is not a big deal, Rio lacks empathy and can be described a weapon of mass-destruction. Both are great. Do you have a favorite one to write yourself? 

I love writing all of them!

Cas might be my favorite to write just because she gives no fucks and she can be so sarcastic and funny while also busting through her world with violence. As I mention below, my nerdy hacker Checker is the most like me, so I also get a big kick out of writing him. But I love Arthur and Rio too, especially their voices and the way they can so powerfully challenge Cas’s worldview.

In Null Set, we also see Pilar for the first time, and I want to give her a special shoutout. Pilar is a character type I feel we rarely see in a female action hero. Unlike the other characters, she’s not a math genius or a hacker or a serial killer or a private investigator. She’s not broken or a killer or a criminal. She stumbled into this world without much experience, and is a bit too delightful and kind and normal for it. But she learns fast and levels up, and I like to think she does it in a way where she never loses the core of who she is.

I like the fact Cas has male platonic male friends and isn’t engaged in any kind of romance. As a reader I dislike romance, but I know I’m in a minority. Do people contact you with expectations regarding Cas’s love life? Do you think that good fiction needs romance/sexual tension?

Oh, of course not! I think plenty of great fiction has romance as an element, but I certainly don’t think it’s necessary. We can write about the human condition so broadly in so many ways; there’s no element we have to have.

And I confess, I’m not as interested in romance myself as a reader, which is probably why I didn’t write very much in.

As for whether people contact me about Cas’s love life, well, a fair number of people ship her with one of the male characters (I’ve heard people root for Rio, Arthur, and Checker all three, but Rio the most—clearly what Cas needs most in her life is a relationship with a psychopathic serial killer). But the most common question I’ve gotten, mostly from queer readers who want more QUILTBAG portrayals, is whether they might be right in reading Cas as asexual. And they are indeed right! I intended from the beginning for Cas to be gray asexual, and I’m delighted people are picking that up. Her particular orientation is such that romance and sex aren’t off the table for her, but they’re also nowhere on her priority list. So however long the series runs, you can expect it to continue to be relatively low on the romance scale.

The main characters in any book are commonly considered a reflection of the author. Is this true in “Cas Russell series”?

Checker is! I often say Checker is the character who is most like me (although he’s a lot more talkative than I am). We’re both pretty intense in our geekery.

People ask a lot whether Cas is based on me, and I always laugh, because I really HOPE I am a nicer and less murderous person than she is. I do think, though, that there’s a little bit of my id in her—those sneaky hindbrain bits that wish that when someone condescended to me I could punch them in the face. (To be clear, I do not do this.)

Everyone’s favorite character, though, is Rio, my delightfully empathy-lacking serial killer. This makes me worry slightly about my readers. And no, he is not based on me at all.

What sort of research did you do for Cas Russell series?

So, so much research. Everything tech-related I mention, every bit of law enforcement procedure, everything I can think to ask a question about I’ve researched. For example, the way the EMP worked in Zero Sum Game was as close as possible to government reports I read on the subject, and the cell phone hacking in Null Set is also as near to reality as I could get it.

And, of course, the math. I do so, so much math for this series—many of Cas’s computations, I’ve done ridiculous research on the particular scenario and then walked through the calculations myself just to make sure it’s possible. And, of course, to pull some lines of texture. It’s not unusual for me to spend an entire afternoon on math research for about three lines of the book.

Would you say that Cas Russell series follows tropes or kicks them?

Both, I hope. As a lifelong SFF reader, I hope I both hit the tropes I love about the genre—and subvert the ones I think we can do better at!
For example, mind control is a big theme in the series, and I think that’s something SFF tends to treat in an abysmally cavalier way, from J.K. Rowling to Professor X. I’ve purposely been playing off that history in the way I approach it here, and at the same time pushing against it.

Which question about the series do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

I’ve always wished someone would ask me what Rio says to Cas in Tagalog in Zero Sum Game.
Because then I could explain that it means “I believe in your teapot.”

And then I could explain further, that it’s a reference to Russell’s teapot—a thought experiment that is often used in support of atheism. The mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell posited that if he said a teapot was floating in space above Earth, the burden of proof was on him to prove it, not on other people to disprove the existence of such a teapot. It’s commonly seen as a way of saying the burden of proof is on religious people to prove God exists, not on atheists to prove God’s nonexistence.

Rio, however, being religious, is using this extremely esoteric analogy to remind Cas that his faith is his guiding principle. The play on Russell’s teapot amuses him . . . but he’s also doing it deliberately in a language Cas doesn’t understand, because otherwise it might too obviously be an indication that the “Russell” in Cas’s name isn’t originally hers, and instead was chosen as a reference to that same mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell.

What can we expect in the next book? You’ve mentioned that republished books will differ from the first four self-published instalments. 

Yes, and they’re differing more and more as the series goes on. But the next book after Null Set will actually be a brand-new novel, never before seen in any form!

As to what to expect—without giving too many spoilers for Null Set, I’ll say:
Cas’s mental condition, which is a big part of Null Set, will continue to be an ongoing theme in the book coming after that. I’m not a fan of magical cures, and I don’t see a lot of SFF characters portrayed as having chronic, long-lasting mental health issues (even if supernatural). Stability, for Cas—even when she can attain it—is always an unstable equilibrium for her.
And again without giving too many spoilers—Cas is a selfish enough character that she doesn’t know that much about her friends’ lives, even a few books in. So she’s going to be very surprised to realize in Book 3 that her friends have intense lives, families, priorities, and histories that don’t have anything to do with her, and all of that suddenly gets dumped into her life in a big way!

Can you name three books you adore as reader, but that make you feel inadequate as a writer? 

Oh, wow, there are a lot more than three. I’ll choose:

Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Described as the great Ugandan novel, it’s not only far deeper and more important than anything I will ever write, but is a stunning, expansive, multi-generational epic that somehow makes each page riveting.

The Three-Body Problem, by Liu Cixin. I am such a fan of hard science fiction, and I will never be able to do it as well as Liu. The way he intertwined all that with Chinese politics stabbed me in the heart. And I could drink the prose (as translated by Ken Liu) all day.

The Love Song of Numo and Hammerfist by Maddox Hahn. The funniest, most creative fantasy I’ve ever read. I will never be able to invent a world or creatures that are this clever, or characters as alien and yet somehow intensely relatable. I don’t understand how that came out of someone’s brain!

Thank you so much for agreeing to this conversation, SL! We greatly appreciate your time and thoughts.

You’re quite welcome! Thank you for having me!



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