S.L. Huang is the Hugo Award-nominated author of the Cas Russell series, which began with Zero Sum Game, followed by Null Set and the recently released Critical Point. She’s also an MIT graduate, a stuntwoman, a firearms expert, and (at least to her knowledge) the “first female professional armorer in Hollywood.”
Huang dropped by r/Fantasy for an AMA, where she talked swords, guns, math, fights, stunts, on-set stories, Broadway musicals, badassery, and a lot more. Here are the highlights!
On her favorite sword:
As for my favorite sword, it’s so hard to choose! I said in answer to another question that it would be a saber or a rapier of some sort. But I also just did a sword interview with Tor.com [Editor’s note: You can read it here!] where I went on about my love of classical French smallsword (which is ridiculous and fancy and completely and utterly obscure and useless). I also like katana a lot and want to train in it more. I don’t know, there are so many good ones!
On her favorite types of character to write:
I think I’d have to say my favorite characters have snark, skill, and flexible morals. I feel like that’s a recurring theme across lots of my work!
And honestly, it’s probably because it’s so fun to play with characters who are willing to do things I never would. I don’t punch people in the face to solve problems… but, you know, it’s kind of fun to fantasize someone doing it. shifty eyes
On the inspiration for her upcoming novel Burning Roses, described by the author as “a remix of Red Riding Hood and Hou Yi the archer as queer middle aged women having adventures and shooting at things.”:
I love fairy tale remixes, and this actually came from a call for short stories by The Book Smugglers. They called for fairy tale stories and I thought YES DEFINITELY and wrote one in this universe called “Hunting Monsters”. It was so popular that I ended up writing more in the same ‘verse and now Burning Roses is coming out! (You don’t need to have read the other stories in the universe to read Burning Roses though, it stands alone.)
For Burning Roses—I can’t remember why I picked Red Riding Hood—she was in a prior story I wrote in the same universe, and IIRC I think I wanted a fairy tale character I could make an expert rifle markswoman in a way that felt UNEXPECTED lol. Who better than one we usually only see as an eight-year-old?
For Burning Roses I was moving to a fantasy version of China, and I really wanted a story that I felt some personal connection to. I grew up on the story of Hou Yi and Chang’e the same as I grew up on Western fairy tales; I have vivid memories of picture books with it as a kid. And Hou Yi is an archer!! Shoots nine suns out of the sky! It felt perfect to put these two sharpshooters together, and it ended up working very well.
On whether Cas Russell would rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses:
FABULOUS question. Cas values efficiency, so I think she’d favor the single horse-sized duck. One quick strike and it’s all over. The hundred duck-sized horses, she’d have to chase them all down and make sure she got them all, plus her friends would probably start giving her grief for killing all the cute nice horses before she was done dispensing with them, and who needs that kind of aggravation. Friends who want to stop you from murderin’, what is the world coming to!
On writing Cas’ badass scenes:
Writing Cas’s badass scenes is VERY fun! However, from about the second book on, I did start running into the problem of making them creative and different and not always the same punching-people’s-faces-in using Newton’s Second Law. So it has gotten harder to write them as I go on and try to invent more fun situations to get her into and more momentary complications she has to work around. I like some of the latest ones the best though!
On her favorite thing to explore in Critical Point:
Favorite thing in Critical Point—Arthur’s secret family! I’ve been planning that since early book 1. Seconded by the explosions. There’s this one great explosion near the end that my sister gave to me—she’s a firefighter, and she said, “DO THIS ONE IT’LL BE SO DRAMATIC.” So of course I did.
On Cas’s identity as a queer person:
Yes, Cas is queer—I write her as gray asexual. I did not realize back writing book 1 when I made this decision that also writing her as the kind of socially deficient person she is, who doesn’t care to dig into the way humans relate to each other, meant it became REALLY hard to say this explicitly on the page, whooops. Some readers have picked up on it from subtext but no, you didn’t miss anything! I actually have written scenes where Checker sort of figures it out and is kind of clumsily trying to assure her that it’s fine and Cas can’t even figure out what he’s trying to say because it’s never occurred to her that it’s not fine. But I haven’t found a place to put that in yet. Maybe in a short story if I can’t fit it elsewhere, I’d like to have it more explicit! (Oh and I have another scene I wrote that makes it very clear her asexuality does not have anything to do with those aforementioned social deficiencies but is a separate and neutral thing, which I also haven’t found a place to put in and want to.)
Victoria Schwab and I were on a panel together one time when people asked about our casts and we agreed that all our characters can be assumed queer until proven otherwise.
On the book characters she’d assemble for “the best stunt team imaginable”:
Ooo book characters as a stunt team! They’d have to be good at working together, good at listening, actually careful and precise people, and not about taking risks they don’t have the skills for—which wipes out most book characters LOLOL. Also hard workers. Westley from The Princess Bride would probably be pretty good; he obviously picks up physical skills fast and if he could work under the Dread Pirate Roberts he could probably please the most exacting coordinator or director. Aveda Jupiter from Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine Complex definitely works her butt off, and she’d be great at the actual stunt parts, though she might have too much, um, personality to be the person other people always want to work with. And she might like the limelight too much. ;) Stunt people are notorious for having a pride about being behind-the-scenes!
On writing a book while working stunts and weapons full-time, and how her life impacts her stories:
I wrote Zero Sum Game while I was living in LA and doing stunts and weapons full-time. I actually finished the book on set—there’s a LOT of downtime on film sets and I was sitting waiting, and waiting, and I thought hey I’ll work on this book I’m writing, and I started writing longhand in pencil on the back of my sides. (Sides = the pages of the script for the day’s shooting, usually printed on half sheets and stapled into a packet.) I got to the end and looked up and thought, “Huh, I think I just finished my book!”
The variation I’ve had in my life absolutely impacts my stories. I often write to process things I’m experiencing or to reflect on things. “As the Last I May Know” was written after I visited the atomic bomb museums in Japan. “By Degrees and Dilatory Time” was written after I had cancer. Etc… but even if it’s not so directly taken from something that happened in my life, I’d say all my writing draws on my life experiences in a lot of small ways. So it’s true that it is really nice to have a breadth of different stripes of life experience to draw on!
On whether her armory and stunt work ends up in her books:
Oh, yes, all the armory and stunt work absolutely helps with the books! I draw on that knowledge for every fight scene or weapons scene. Especially because in movie fight scenes, one of the main things we’re worried about is STORYTELLING, just like writing—telling a story with fight, or expressing character by choosing a certain gun for a character, etc. So that mindset absolutely transfers very well to writing.
Doing movie work also let me see a lot of the underbelly of Los Angeles, hahaha. Which is where I set the books, and that absolutely helped too.
As for the explosions, I have worked with some REALLY off-the-wall pyro guys (and yeah, all guys, pyro is very male-dominated). They really know what they’re doing but wow, some of the most colorful personalities I’ve ever met have been pyro people.
As for incorporating math, well, I always thought—WOULDN’T IT BE COOL if I could use all this math knowledge as a superpower! I do try to keep it as texture so it’s enjoyable for math and non-math people alike, so I’ll spend like an afternoon doing calculations for like 3 lines in the book, heh. I did have one reader disappointed that there were no formulas though.
Spoiler alert: There are no formulas in the books.
On how one becomes a professional armorer:
People come to it with all sorts of firearms backgrounds. I learned to shoot at MIT, actually—I remember hearing that there are two gun ranges in the entire Boston area, and one is in the basement of the MIT Athletic Center. I don’t know if that’s actually true but my coach was AMAZING and I started doing massive amounts of sport pistol / target shooting in college. Once I started in stunts I began getting training in other firearms for that, but really what allowed me to get into the armorer profession is that I was lucky enough to be mentored by one of the top armorers in Hollywood. I met him at a firearms training seminar for stunt people and expressed interest in learning more, and he was impressed enough with me to take me on, even though—I found out later—he gets asked that by people ALL the time and almost always says no, LOL. But I apprenticed with him for like a year and a half and did a lot of assisting before I started keying shows myself (key = head of a department in film), and he taught me everything about doing firearms for movies. It’s very, very different from other firearms work, because we can’t use the rules of, say, a range, but safety is SO important and we have to know such a breadth of not only weaponry but what’s safe and what’s not so we can help the director plan scenes, and they’ll always throw curveballs at you with what they want and under a lot of time pressure. There’s also a lot of procedure to know for how gunfire scenes are run. So I think no matter what background people come from beforehand, they usually apprentice/train with someone individually. At least that’s pretty much all the people I know, I think! You can’t really walk off the street from another realm of firearms knowledge and know how to do it.
There aren’t that many of us—I’d estimate there were maybe a dozen or so professional armorers in the whole industry when I was working regularly, plus propmasters who crossover and have their licenses but don’t do it as their main thing. So I guess it makes sense that you sort of have to know someone and be mentored in.
On her favorite moment on set:
Favorite backstage moment: Ooo, there are a lot. One I’ll never forget was when I was working with a pretty famous actor who was very method—nicest guy, and absolutely a class act to work with, but also very method. He had to do a scene in which he vomited and he requested that he really do it.
To be clear, this is not usual. The other star of the show even said, “Man, when I had to throw up for MTV they just had me swish some applesauce around and spit it out.”
But this actor wanted to do it for real. They brought him applesauce and a bunch of whole milk to chug—and maybe something else in the mix, I don’t remember. The prepped the shot, he downed it, and… oh my god. I have never seen someone vomit so much or for so long.
It was dang impressive. (And yes, they got the shot.)
On her favorite Broadway musical:
Oooo let’s see. SO MANY. The Scarlet Pimpernel, Ragtime, Beauty and the Beast, Hamilton, Wicked, Jane Eyre, Les Mis, Phantom, Chicago, Jekyll & Hyde, Parade, West Side Story, Assassins are all among my favorites. I also have a particular soft spot for Clue: The Musical (based on the board game, but not, unfortunately, based on the movie). It is a terrible terrible musical but some of the most fun I’ve ever had.
On the one thing she can’t live without:
Tea. Oh my gosh, tea. I drink buckets of tea while writing. I’m pretty sure my veins run in tea at this point. Take my computer, I’ll write longhand, but don’t take my tea.
For more (including a detailed guide on how to get into firearms as a newbie and a truly mind-blowing on-set story involving a fictional kidnapping but extremely non-fictional cops), head on over to the AMA!