From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Interview: SL Huang

SL Huang is a Hugo-winning and Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. She is the author of the Cas Russell series from Tor Books, starting with Zero Sum Game, and her short fiction has sold to Analog, Nature, and more. She is a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, with credits including “Battlestar Galactica.” Her recent work includes novella Burning Roses.

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What kinds of books did you grow up reading? What stands out in your memory as important to you?

I grew up reading anything and everything I could get my hands on, from classic literature to the back of the cereal box.

One thing that stands out most was how important the public library was for me as a kid. I would spend hours there, reading and ordering stacks and stacks of books in from other branches. It allowed me to basically never stop reading . . . I walked into a lot of lamp posts.

How did reading become writing for you?

One never became the other! I’ve been doing both for as long as I can remember.

Your “breaking in” story is a little unusual— you were initially self-published, gained some traction in short fiction markets, and then sold Zero Sum Game to Tor. Can you talk a little about how things came together for you?

It involved a lot of demon sacrifice.

More seriously, I don’t recommend trying to self-publish first if you want to eventually end up with a publisher—it is the most ass-backward way to do it, and a lot, lot harder than if you query agents from the beginning. It all sort of happened upside down for me, and none of it would have been possible without my agent, Russ Galen, who is shockingly good at making improbable things happen.

To be honest, I think my career has gone down the way it did because I never intended to be any sort of full-time author. And now I am, and it sort of happened without me meaning to, and I’m still not sure what happens after this. One thing I do know, though, is that I don’t really believe in the idea of “breaking in.” Everything’s small steps, the way I see it—some, like a novel publication, larger than others, but everything sort of accumulates, and eventually there’s something other people look at and say, hey, that’s a career-shaped thing. But it’s never felt like that from the inside, for me. I did a bunch of small, individual things, separately, and they’ve sort of lumped together over time. There’ve been a lot of setbacks, too—it’s never just smooth forward-going-only. Things lump up and fall down and then lump up some more and, if you’re lucky, you get more of the accumulation than the other thing.

There, that’s some writer wisdom right there.

You work in a variety of lengths, from short fiction to novelettes, to the Burning Roses novella, to your Cas Russell novels. Does your approach vary depending on the length of the piece? Do different lengths have different challenges?

Hmm, I never really think of it that way—I do write different lengths differently, but I always know going in how big an idea is, so it’s not like I make a choice or a plan. I’m not the type of writer who plans, anyway; I just sort of know the shape of the thing and I can tell going in how big a shape that is. Short fiction—up to novelette-ish length—I usually write all in one go, or almost all. It’s usually a one-bite-sized thing in my head already, and I drop the whole thing out onto the page. I don’t write a lot of short fiction, and when I do, it’s usually been stewing and percolating through the brain-meats for a while, and then all falls out at once.

The difference with long fiction, for me, is that I can’t hold it in my head all at once, which is highly annoying. And I can’t write it all at once, either. So it’s a lot longer process, with a lot more messiness to it, and I try to do different things so I can hold strands of it in my mind at the same time and make sure they’re working—and then fix them if they aren’t.

I know all this is way different for different writers. I’m naturally a long-form writer, in the sense that that’s the shape ideas usually come along in. Shorts aren’t natural for me, but when they do bubble up, the getting-them-down part is fast. So I write very few shorts, but I write them much quicker—in terms of wordcount speed—than I do novels. Most of the shorts I’ve written I’ve done in a day, and if I could do novel wordcount that fast I’d be drafting two books a month! Alas! Novels, sadly, take me many, many times longer and there’s a lot more rewriting and taking apart and putting back together.

In terms of craft, are there elements which you struggle with – and how do you meet or overcome those challenges?

I set my computer on fire and defenestrate it, then drink a lot of whiskey and watch nine seasons of any TV show with more explosions than sense.

I don’t recommend my approach to craft challenges. For one thing, it goes through a lot of laptops.

You worked on the Serial Box audio series The Vela, which was collaborative. Are there things about that experience that carried over into your own writing projects afterwards?

Not really, to be honest! The Serial Box workflow was well-engineered for the collaboration, but for me, not a lot of it has translated to writing alone. I kind of wish it did! I do feel like I learned a lot about collaborating, though, and that’s something I want to do more of when I can.

You recently had Burning Roses come out. Back in 2016 you wrote an essay for Lightspeed about assimilation and a reluctance to write Chinese characters. Burning Roses takes on Red Riding Hood and the Chinese archer of legend, Hou Yi. Is this book emblematic of a shift in the way you feel about assimilation and centering Chinese people in narratives? Will there be more Chinese or Chinese-American protagonists? Or is it more about writing the character which best fits the narrative?

No, there’s been no fundamental shift for me. If anything, I’ve become stronger in feeling resistance to the notion that I “should” write Chinese characters, or write Chinese characters in a certain way, or be Chinese diaspora in a certain way. I think, back when I wrote that essay, I felt a lot of guilt over my family’s assimilation process—and I want to be clear for people who haven’t read the essay that I wasn’t happy about my family’s decision to assimilate and erase; it left me confused and lacking, and with a lot of gaps and self-doubt. I haven’t shifted to thinking I should or need to write more Chinese characters and Chinese stories, though—instead I’ve become more secure that anything I write is authentically from a Chinese-American author, because I am a Chinese-American author.

Ironically, that has made me feel more free to write stories linked to my culture when I want to. Funny how that happens.

Additionally, I think the current societal moment is putting a lot of pressure on writers of color to delve into our ethnic identities and cultural pain, much more so than when I wrote that essay, and I don’t hold with that as something we have any obligation to pursue. In general, I want to write culturally-heavy stories about Chinese themes when I want to—and I also want to not do that when I don’t want to.

Burning Roses is one of the times I’ve wanted to. Like my own identity, I hope it’s a well-rounded creation: Chinese, yes, but also many other things as well.

Are there ways in which this book was uncomfortable or challenging to write?

Burning Roses features some themes of abuse, and I did have to come up for air from them every so often and take a break from writing it. One theme I wanted to grapple with is the idea that abuse is so easy to villainize from the outside, and to draw bright lines—but from the inside, abusers are often simultaneously people we deeply love. That can be an extremely complicated and painful dichotomy.

I wanted to dig into that a bit, because I think our tendency in media is to show abusers as people who appear easy to leave behind. When a man is beating his wife and children every night, that’s an instantly-categorizable villain we’ve seen a thousand times. But I think flattening the portrayals to solely that does a disservice to people trapped and trying to navigate these abusive cycles, and how difficult and tangled it can be to break away.

To be clear, the book does not try to draw sympathy for abusers—but rather, for people who struggle with how to walk away, and the complicated scars that result. I also wanted to show women with abuse in their pasts who are undeniably powerful, intelligent, three-dimensional . . . where a history and trauma that cut deeply is only one part of a complex and multifaceted character.

What is really important or special to you about Burning Roses; what do you want readers to know about it, beyond the blurbs?

It’s fun!

That might sound strange after I just talked about writing abuse into it, but this actually springboards off what I was saying with that answer—the characters might be working through pain and regret, but at the top level, this is a story of action and adventure. We’ve got Red Riding Hood as a recovering assassin and expert rifle markswoman on a quest with Hou Yi, archer of legend who literally shot suns out of the sky, and they’re bickering and making fun of each other in between going up against flaming creatures the size of a house and trying not to die.

Oh! And it’s jam-packed with fairy tales. I hope people have fun with the scavenger hunt of how many I’ve included!

I really enjoyed the relationship between Hou Yi and Rosa. I also like the way the relationship is used to move the narrative forward, and the recontextualizing of the characters for the reader as well as the two characters involved. It seems intricate and layered. Did this come naturally? Was it carefully planned? Or was it forged through revisions and rewrites?

No, it came pretty naturally. Two middle-aged women snarking at each other but also having a friendship with the force of family—that’s very much my wheelhouse.

And thank you! I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it. I love their friendship so much.

What was your vision for the relationship between the two women – what do you hope comes through for the reader?

There’s a dearth of portrayals of female friendship in fiction. There’s also a dearth of older women in fiction. I don’t know if I want readers to come away with a particular impression of this friendship—I’m very much in favor of my readers experiencing the book how they like—but I do hope the book can help be one more story in a narrative gap that desperately needs more.

Obviously, Rosa and Hou Yi aren’t meant to represent every female friendship or every older woman. We need so many more. But I hope they can be seen as a solid contribution.

For me, I saw themes of family of different kinds, of the various connections which give our lives meaning. Looking at your body of work to date, do you feel like you gravitate towards certain themes or concepts? Does it vary dramatically from story to story? Or do you feel like what is important to you in a story has changed over the years?

Yes, I definitely gravitate toward certain themes. More than a few! I’ll leave it to readers to hunt down all of them, but one repeating motif I’m quite happy to brand with is that I seem to have a penchant for writing queer women who shoot at things. That’s fine with me!

Looking at your short fiction, is there a story which stands out for you as important, which you really want people to read, and why?

My Hugo-winning story, “As the Last I May Know,” is, in my opinion, the best story I’ve ever written—and to the degree that any of my writing is important, it’s the most important one. There’s a lot in there that I’m still struggling to understand.

Although I will also give a shout out to the importance of escapism. For example, Zero Sum Game and its sequel thrillers aren’t short fiction, but people tell me those books do things like lift their mood, turn a bad day into a good one, make them smile. Those are my favorite reader letters, and I think that’s pretty important, too.

What else do you have coming up which you’d like readers to know about?

I’m thinking about getting a pet lemon tree. I figure it’s like a cat but without the allergies attached.

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Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg is a senior editor at Locus Magazine, where he’s been on staff since 2014. He joined the Lightspeed family in 2014 to work on the Queers Destroy Science Fiction! special issue, starting as a slush reader. He eventually worked his way up to associate editor at both Lightspeed and Nightmare. He also reviews books for LocusLightspeed, and Cascadia Subduction Zone and is an interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine. Arley grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado, and studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and, in non-pandemic times, usually writes in local coffee shops. He is a 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate.