Interview with S.L. Huang: Writing, Fighting, and Kidnapping Characters

Hi everyone! Today, I have the joy of interviewing author S.L. Huang who sold her action-packed, self-published Amazon series to Tor, starting with Zero Sum Game. More about the book soon, but first onto the questions.

9781250180254_FCCongratulations on selling your series to Tor! You started this series as a self-published author, which gives you a lot of creative and financial control. What factored into your decision to sell the publication rights to a traditional publisher?

A few reasons. First of all, I’d discovered that I was not actually that good at self-publishing. I think I did a great job writing a book people loved and releasing it with top-notch production value, but it turned out I was not at all good at the sales-driving aspects. More importantly, I was not a fast enough writer to do well in self-publishing—I was only able to put out a book every nine months, whereas in self-publishing, it’s hard to do well if you’re going longer than three or four months between releases.

Meanwhile, I’d started working in short fiction and found that working with an editor and publisher suited me extremely well, and I love it!

So when I managed to get a fantastic agent and he asked me if I wanted to look into getting a traditional deal, I said yes. He was confident he could get me an incredible contract—which he did, and that’s why I said yes!

And I haven’t regretted it. I love my editor, and Tor has given me an unbelievable amount of support—I think the book is better than it’s ever been and is going to go to much greater heights.

Having a degree in mathematics (and probably loads of related classes like physics) must give you a lot to work with when getting Cas in and out of trouble. How do you know when to let up on the math and let in the muse?

My first draft I was actually worried about putting too much math in, so I went very light on the math details. My first readers, none of whom where math people, told me to add more! They said it didn’t matter to them that they didn’t understand it, but they wanted the texture of it, because in the book it’s so fun. I was delighted to oblige them.

Believe it or not, I can’t use a whole lot of my background for the little details—I didn’t, for example, take classes in the mathematics of exploding buildings or how blood spatters when someone is murdered. So I have to do a lot of research for each new bit of overpowered mathematics my main character works in the series, and often end up scribbling in a notebook to do the equations for real and figure out what’s possible.

Do you know where your towel is? If so, where did you buy it?

I do, and I didn’t buy it, I won it in a Japanese speech contest by talking about the tooth fairy. (True story. 歯の妖精.)

I frequently wrap it around my head to ward off the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.

AP - SL HuangWhat’s your favorite real-life hand gun and why?

A Belgian-made Browning Hi-Power in nine-millimeter. It is my very favorite gun.

As someone who’s worked in theatrical combat, you probably know that every fight tells a story. What’s your favorite screen or fiction fight? And how did that make you a better writer?

Oh, I 100% agree about fights telling stories! To me, the least interesting fights are usually two people whaling on each other with no stakes or relationship behind it.

It’s hard to pick a favorite fictional fight, but in my top handful would be the sword fights in The Princess Bride, and they were certainly one of the most illuminating to young S.L. Huang’s understanding of how fights work in narrative. When I was a kid, I was watching a commentary track in which some of the creators talk about the fight between Inigo and The Man in Black as being the second-best fight in cinema—after the fight scene between Inigo and Count Rugen, which comes at the end of the film. I didn’t understand what they meant by that until I’d started studying fight choreography.

If you’ve never seen the movie, the Inigo/Man In Black sword fight is the flashier, longer, funnier one. The technicality of the fight choreography is incredible, and it’s a great lesson in how to write a long clashing of swords in a way that still keeps unfolding in an entertaining manner.

But it doesn’t match the stakes of the second fight. Inigo and the Man In Black are nearly equal in blade mastery and not truly invested in killing the other; their fight functions like a very skillful and entertaining dance. Whereas in the Inigo/Rugen fight, Inigo is the clearly superior swordsman . . . but he’s also bleeding to death in three places while trying to complete the revenge quest that has consumed his entire life since age eleven.

The choreography and performance of the first sword fight is nothing short of marvelous. But the choreography in the second is much more entrenched in story and character and stakes in a way that was a revelation to me when I figured it out!

Who have been your favorite fight masters with whom you’ve either worked or studied? And how have they influenced your storytelling?

I’ve studied fighting nearly everywhere I’ve lived, and the amount I’ve learned from some truly incredible fight masters would take too long to list here. And of course on movie sets I’ve worked for stunt coordinators and fight choreographers who are the top of the field.

But I’ll say that one of the most significant and influential fight instructors I’ve had is still my first: Ted Hewlett, whom I credit with giving me a deep foundation and formative understanding that helped shape the rest of my career. It was Ted who first taught me about how much the characters’ relationship impacts how arresting a fight is going to be to an audience. He also taught me that the more two characters love each other, the more painfully they can hurt each other.

Who are your most beloved authors? 

Oh, this question is always overwhelming because I feel like I could easily list twenty names and still be leaving people out. So how about I give a little overview of the stories and authors that have blown me away lately?

Books I’ve read in the past few months that I’ve especially enjoyed include Death’s End by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu (last sequel to The Three Body Problem); Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi; All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders; The SEA Is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng; Alice Payne Arrives, by Kate Heartfield; and Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse.

I’m also a big short story reader. Some of my favorite short story writers include K.M. Szpara, JY Yang, A. Merc Rustad, Alyssa Wong, Isabel Yap, and S. Qiouyi Lu. I highly encourage people to check them out as well!

You, S.L. Huang, have to kidnap Batman with what you have at your place right now. How do you do it?

This might be the best question I’ve ever been asked.

I’ll have to be creative, because I just moved back to the U.S. from Japan and I have hardly anything in my new apartment yet. I only barely got a mattress. So this is how it’s going to go:

I invite Batman over to my place to see my trampoline, dropping my MIT cred and claiming it’s a new especially-bouncy trampoline that will help him leap up onto balconies. While he’s looking at it and determining that it is not, in fact, any sort of a special trampoline at all, I whack him over the head with a math textbook.

While he’s dazed I stuff his mouth full of the levothyroxin I take for my dysfunctional thyroid, a medication that I have just been assured causes “confusion, shock, and light coma” if taken in overdose. I gag him with my Japanese towel so he has to swallow, and then I wrap him in my hammock, tie it shut, and drag him to a proper hiding place.

Supplies needed: trampoline, math textbook, levothyroxin, aforementioned Japanese towel, and hammock, all of which were clearly so essential to me that they beat a mattress into my apartment!

Awesome! Thanks, Lisa!

Check out Lisa’s book:

A blockbuster, near-future science fiction thriller, S.L. Huang’s Zero Sum Game introduces a math-genius mercenary who finds herself being manipulated by someone possessing unimaginable power

Cas Russell is good at math. Scary good. The vector calculus blazing through her head lets her smash through armed men twice her size and dodge every bullet in a gunfight, and she’ll take any job for the right price. As far as Cas knows, she’s the only person around with a superpower…until she discovers someone with a power even more dangerous than her own. Someone who can reach directly into people’s minds and twist their brains into Moebius strips. Someone intent on becoming the world’s puppet master. Cas should run, like she usually does, but for once she’s involved.

There’s only one problem… She doesn’t know which of her thoughts are her own anymore.



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