Interview: SL Huang

Cover of S L Huang's Zero Sum game showing a bullet hole in glassAbsolute Write’s own slhuang has kindly found some time for an AW interview. Tor releases the first of Huang’s Cas Russell books, Zero Sum Game, on October 2. Some of us have been following Huang’s self-publishing journey for a while. We aren’t even a little surprised that her Cas Russell books were picked up by Tor, but we’re hoping that #5 appears Real Soon Now.

What’s your elevator pitch for Zero Sum Game?

Billed by Tor as “the geek’s Jack Reacher,” Zero Sum Game is a science fiction thriller1)Some might call it a math thriller, too. starring a mercenary antiheroine whose superpower is doing math really, really fast. She uses it to kill more people than is strictly polite.

Did you have a playlist for Zero Sum Game?

You know, I can’t really listen to music with lyrics while I write. But like all Asian children, I was contractually obligated to grow up playing the violin, and it seeded a lifelong love of classical music in me. Back when I was living in LA, the radio station Classical KUSC probably saved me from countless roadrage-induced traffic collisions, and I still like to stream KUSC wherever in the world I am.

Also, classical music announcers are so delightful I even like listening to KUSC during their fundraising weeks.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Zero Sum Game? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

Oh, yeah. I’m mostly a “pantser,” which means I’m writing without knowing in advance where the plot is going and figuring it out as I type. So most of the developments and twists were a surprise to me!

I had a few vague ideas of where the plot might go, but at least some of them were wrong—to the point that at least one person I thought would die didn’t, and vice versa. Shows how much I knew.

Zero Sum Game has one of the best openings I’ve read in a very long time. Did you come up with it when you first started to write the novel, or was it added later?

Aw, thank you! The opening of Zero Sum Game was the third Cas Russell scene I came up with, and it was, indeed, the very first scene in Zero Sum Game I ever wrote. The first scene I penned didn’t feel like the beginning (it ended up in book 3). So I wrote an earlier-feeling one, which still didn’t feel like the beginning of her story, and I put it in book 2. Then I wrote the beginning of book 1.

The way I write, I usually have to nail the beginning before going any further. If I can’t write a good beginning in short order, for me it usually means the idea still needs work.

One of the things I loved about the Cas Russell books was that you initially published them under a Creative Commons license. Now that Tor has picked up the books, was the CC license a problem ?

Not an insurmountable one, obviously, but it did create some complications. One thing my agent warned me about is that CC licensed-works are an even bigger stumbling block for overseas publishers, so I do worry it may interfere with our ability to license foreign editions — but I have agreed to release the new, edited Tor editions under a traditional, all-rights-reserved copyright, so hopefully we’ll be okay. And I’m extremely fortunate to have an agent who knows CC licensing better than anyone else in the industry, because he also represents Cory Doctorow! So that has helped tremendously — I don’t think I could have navigated this without his help.

But yeah, Creative Commons is still, unfortunately, a little bit hard to make compatible with commercial publishing. For example, from the beginning, some of the agents I queried didn’t feel equipped to take on CC-licensed work at all.

I’m a little sad to let the CC licensing go—the original editions always will have that licensing, of course, and I still love Creative Commons dearly. But my idealism is tempered by pragmatism and also by competing ideals about accessibility. And I hope that by being flexible on agreeing to a more traditional copyright, I’m enabling my books to have higher levels of more traditional success — and thus they can become one more example of Creative Commons interacting with the publishing industry, and in turn make CC just a bit less scary and unknown to publishing professionals.

I’ve wondered for quite a while now: the backgrounds of the covers Najla Qamber originally did for your first three self-published editions of the Cas Russell book all have equations in the background. Are those actually part of something coherent or were they chosen purely for aesthetic values?

Purely aesthetic, but I was also very careful to point my designer to stock art that wasn’t nonsense! Nothing is worse than math texture that is actually incorrect gibberish.

But no, it doesn’t have any meaning in the context of the books. Think of it like English words that are indeed actual words but not at all chosen for their meanings. I told Naj I wanted mathematical texture that was more complicated and abstract than simple arithmetic, and, well, it turns out there is surprisingly little stock art of higher mathematics—we were fortunate to find this artist! And I was thrilled with what she did with it.

When Tor redesigned the cover, they actually asked me for correct mathematical equations for their texturing on the cover, which tickled the heck out of me. I broke out all my college textbooks and sent them a PDF of all the prettiest formulas I could find.

What’s your writing process like?

Oof. Not formulaic or repeatable enough for my tastes! Every book feels different, and every book there’s a point at which I feel like the car is completely disassembled on the garage floor and I’m not even sure I have all the right parts and also that bit over there is actually from a refrigerator and I am bone-certain even if I get it put together there are going to be three screws left over.

I start with a vague structural idea according to the Save the Cat three-act arc, but after that I often have to “write through” my thoughts to see if they work or not—which means I end up with almost as many scrapped words as stay in the final novel. Someday I will figure out a way not to write every book twice. Someday . .  .

It’s very clear after reading the first three Cas Russell books that you have a story arc in your head. What kind of planning did you do in terms of the arc, and how to you keep track of the back story?

As I wrote Zero Sum Game, a lot of the greater mythology unfolded in my head naturally as I figured out everything in the first book. So as I wrote Book 1, I also wrote hundreds of thousands of words of what I would call “fan fiction” on my own universe — in-between scenes, scenes from other perspectives, backstory scenes, and tons and tons of possible future scenes. I had scenes from book 5, book 7, book 8 written before I published book 1 — not the plots of those books, but important pieces of the mytharc.

I write an extensive reference guide with characters and timeline after I finish each installment, retroactively, and that helps for looking back at what I might forget. But the future bits of the storyline are almost all stored in prose snippets rather than anything useful or logical like spreadsheets or lists!

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I change it up. My most usual work environment is curled up on a couch or comfy chair with a laptop, but it helps me shake things loose sometimes to vary it — sometimes sitting on a yoga ball at a desk, sometimes flopped on my bed, sometimes (rarely) switching to longhand if I’m feeling blocked somehow. I also used to coffee shop it a lot, especially in Japan, where I’ve been living for most of the past three years — my room in Tokyo was so small it pretty much only held my bed, so that was also where I had to work when I was home!

Probably the #1 most productive environment for me is Amtrak cars, for some reason. I’m not sure why, but something about the comfort, lack of distraction, and limited time really focuses me. Maybe I should take a cross-country train trip the next time I have a deadline.

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked? I always ask this question, but in your case, since I know you write short fiction, please recommend short fiction, too.

These questions are why I’m really thinking I need to start tracking my reading better. I have such a terrible memory for what I’ve read recently. But here’s a whack at it — I’m sure I’m forgetting a lot of stuff, but these are all great!

Books:
Kintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders
Death’s End, by Cixin Liu
The SEA Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng
Alice Payne Arrives, by Kate Heartfield
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse

Short fiction:
• “Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time,” by K.M. Szpara
• “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™,” by Rebecca Roanhorse
• “Secondhand Bodies,” by JY Yang
• “Monster Girls Don’t Cry,” by A. Merc Rustad
• “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark
• “Mother Tongues,” by S. Qiouyi Lu

There’s a lot of short fiction being published, especially in SF/F. But sometimes short fiction gets lost in the background noise. Any suggestions for finding short fiction?

Some of the best SFF magazines are free online. For people just getting into reading shorts, I’d recommend browsing the archives at Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Apex, The Book Smugglers, or Tor.com. All of those places have quite a lot of quality short fiction.

But you’re right, even after finding publications that generally hit well for your tastes, it can be really easy to miss other great stories! The SFF short fiction scene has a couple of sketchy review outlets I wouldn’t trust, but two I do are by the following amazing reviewers who are extremely dedicated and thoughtful:

• Bogi Takács at Bogi Reads the World reviews a lot of short fiction (and also novels!) with a particular focus on diversity.
• Charles Payseur’s Quick Sip Reviews focuses on short fiction only, and Charles also does monthly public (not patrons-only) roundups of queer short SFF on Patreon.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

Save the Cat (and its companion book, Save the Cat Goes to the Movies) are the only writing books I use. I got them to learn how to write a screenplay, and instead learned a structure I really like using for novels — my books usually diverge from the beat sheet pretty far by the end, but the Save the Cat structure helps me hold the feel of the arc in my head. I find that very helpful for getting the emotional payoffs I want.

For writing science fiction, Michio Kaku’s popular science books are my absolute favorite inspirations, especially Physics of the Future and Physics of the Impossible.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

I just did an interview in which I was asked what my favorite gun is, but nobody’s asked me yet for my favorite topological space! (It’s SΩ.)
The above is also likely a good answer to the question, “just how much of a math nerd are you?”

What’s your favorite charity?

What a great question. The charities I donate to most are:

• The ACLU, because I am a staunch supporter of civil liberties.
Lambda Legal, because I particularly want to support the civil liberties of queer people.
• The EFF, because protecting our civil liberties online is horrendously, terrifyingly important. (There might be a theme here.)
The Southern Poverty Law Center
The Trans Lifeline
The Trevor Project
Planned Parenthood

In these present times I often add in organizations like The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) or immigrant and refugee-centric charities.

I donate mostly to domestic U.S. charities because I feel a personal connection and responsibility there, but I also want to give a shoutout to organizations that fight global poverty overseas, which are a favorite of one of my good friends. These charities figure out how to make a dollar go as far as possible, and put the money where it’s most effective at pushing back against wealth inequality on a global scale.

SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. Her debut novel, Zero Sum Game, is upcoming from Tor in 2018, and her short fiction has sold to Analog, Nature, and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016. She is also a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, appearing on Battlestar Galactica and Raising Hope, among other shows, and worked with actors such as Sean Patrick Flanery, Jason Momoa, and Danny Glover. She currently lives in Tokyo. SL Huang has a website and she’s active on on Twitter as @sl_huang.

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1. Some might call it a math thriller, too.

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