Writing in the Negative Spaces: An Interview with Author S. L. Huang

We talked to debut author S.L. Huang about her speculative fiction thriller Zero Sum Game.

Warning: This inteview contains spoilers for Zero Sum Game.

Zero Sum Game by S. L. Huang follows mercenary Cas Russell who has incredible math and combative skills. She can calculate how and where to punch someone for maximum efficacy, or she can do a sweet 360 slide into parallel parking with a stolen car. The possibilities are just about endless… Until, of course, she faces up against a terrifyingly effective psychic and a secret organization.

Read our full review of Zero Sum Game here.

Den of Geek had the chance to chat with real-life mathematician and badass S.L. Huang about crafting the world for Zero Sum Game.

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Den of Geek: I was checking out your bio and I saw that you’re basically a badass in real life. I just think it’s really amazing that you’re a weapons expert, a professional stuntwoman and you have a math degree. I think it’s safe to assume these experiences inspired the whole story and the fact that your action hero character is just really, really good at math?

S.L. Huang: I definitely could not have written the book without all of these experiences in aggregate. I sort of had the seeds for this story since I was probably in middle school or high school. I always loved math and I’ve always been a writer, was always writing stories, and I just kept having this recurring thought… I’d be out there playing softball or something and I’d be like “Oh man, why can’t I calculate how I can swing the bat and how to hit the ball so I can get a home run? I can do all the equations but I can’t actually do it!” It always fascinated me, this idea of somebody who could do the calculations and then translate that to real life. What type of superpower that would be.

I was kicking around this idea and then I went to L.A. and did stunts and guns for like ten years. L.A.’s sort of this Wild West — it’s really a crazy place to live and work. All of that together I think helped formed the texture of the other half of it and I was finally able to write the story.

Oh that’s fantastic. And I’m secretly happy that you didn’t write this in middle school because I’m sure some counselors would have been involved. I mean, you do have a fair amount of murder and mayhem, which I highly enjoy.

Good point! Some people have asked me if Cas is based on me or if I’m like Cas and I say “I certainly hope not. I hope I kill far fewer people than she has.”

Would you say your math-based anti-hero is a challenge for people who are not really into math to perhaps find some love for the subject?

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I’m such a math geek and I love math so much. I totally get that math is not for everyone. That’s totally fine. I want this book to be accessible to non-math people, for non-math people to love it too. I’ve worked very hard to make sure that’s true. I think I would say for non-math people, I don’t necessarily hope they come out of it with a love for math, it’s fine if they don’t, but that they can vicariously enjoy that adoration for numbers that I have and the unbridled fun of mathematics.

One character I have to mention is Rio — the Christian psychopath. I thought maybe it had to be intentional to have these two very diametrically opposed ways of life in this one person and it can’t just be because he can’t be mind controlled. Is there another reason you have this character in there?

I’ve always been fascinated by the character archetype that has some sort of difficulty with emotion. For example, in Star Trek we have Spock and Data, who are my absolutely favorite characters. I’ve written a lot of novels and stories where … I keep returning to this character archetype. I knew I needed somebody like that in these books. This is the first time I’ve done it in a non-sci-fi way. He’s actually a human person. He has a complete lack of empathy. He is what he is. He is fine with that. I really like where it ended up going.

It’s not meant to be like a bad commentary on religion at all. I grew up Catholic. I’m not anymore but that’s still very much a part of me. Many of the people close to me are very religious. Since that has been such a big part of my life, I wanted to explore aspects of that as well and explore how that can interact with these other elements. That was personal for me but in a way that I feel religion is personal to me, I respect religion and find value in it. [I was] sort of working that out through writing this character.

Literally everybody who’s interviewed me or read the book says, “He’s my favorite character.” (laughs) Which makes me a little concerned to be honest.

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A recurring theme in your book is a balance between right and wrong, moral quandaries and what constitutes acceptable losses on both our protagonist’s side and on Pithica’s side. What would you like readers to walk away with on this matter? I feel like you have something to say here and I don’t want to put words in your mouth.

I had one reader tell me — and I love this, this is one of my favorite things — one reader told me they disagreed with what the protagonist did at the climax and that they think she was wrong. I love that there are going to be readers who will come away with that. I hope they can understand why [the characters] made that choice but I love that they can disagree and see all sides of the situation.

There’s so much nuance in the world. There’s so many things that aren’t black and white and have these really messy, gnarly areas in between. I like to put my characters in those situations where they have to consider them. By proxy, then my readers have to look at that and be like “What would I do in this situation…what is the right choice here?”

It feels almost too easy to me when things are very black and white “Okay I’m gonna be the hero and make this choice and be completely shining and ethical and unreproachable.” I love watching those stories but it feels a little like a cheat to me. Some of it’s escapism. But our world isn’t like that. Personally I like digging into those messy areas and asking those questions. I think I would like readers to enjoy that nuance with me and dig into those uncomfortable places with me. Maybe that’s a journey we could take together.

It felt like that was a recurring theme. The protagonist is obviously our protagonist — we want to root for her — but she also does some shady stuff! And I’m like, “It’s just her job. Whatever — she knocked this guy out again, it’s fine. Oh she killed someone, it’s fine.” You find yourself making excuses.

I would definitely call her an anti-heroine. She’s definitely criminal. She’s not a great person in so many respects but for me that’s what makes her so fun and one of the reasons I really love writing her.

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It was very unsettling for the reader, reading everything coming from [the antagonist]. The logic she put forth, the reason they do what they do, it kinda made sense.

I hope it would! I just kinda wanted to live in that place between a little. Let’s ask these questions, we won’t necessarily know the answers but let’s ask those questions.

At the end, the antagonist has Cas completely under their influence and Cas has these flashback scenes. We see flashes of different characters and places, doctors, etc. It looks like a hint at Cas’s origin story — why she has the mental capacity she has. Can we expect to get more of her backstory in a further novel?

Yes. Those are all pieces of an arc that exists already in my head and on my harddrive, so there’s pieces and hints of that.

What has influenced you in your writing?

I grew up nerd as I like to say, consuming all the geek media. My first stunt job was on Battlestar Galactica which was so trippy because I walked onto the set, and this was a job I’d been following every week all through college, and there’s Edward James Olmos.

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Definitely I feel like…all of that, it influences me in a lot of ways. There’s also pushing back. Writing this violent anti-hero — but making her a woman. It’s a little pushback against say, the Doctor Who archetype, a character who has been male up until this point.

Those negative places are places I definitely wanted to fill in. I always like subverting tropes, for instance the idea of playing with people’s minds. There’s a lot of sci-fi/fantasy that treats mind control really cavalierly. Harry Potter does this. They have a spell that’s considered a very minor spell that they use against Muggles all the time that wipes their memory. To me, that’s so horrible.

I think there were a lot of things that I sort of not necessarily saw in media growing up but that I didn’t see or I saw in ways that bothered me a little. I wanted to dig into those through my own writing — through writing into those negative spaces — what I really wanted to see and wanted to read.

Would you like to do any shameless self promotions?

As you know, Zero Sum Game releases October 2. I’m very excited and also very anxious. Tor is billing it as the “geek’s Jack Reacher.” It is an action sci-fi thriller about a heroine who can do math really really fast and uses it to kill a lot of people.

I’m also involved in a production for Serial Box that’s coming out in 2019. I’m really excited about this. It’s with fellow authors Yoon Ha Lee, Rivers Solomon and Becky Chambers. So that will be in 2019. I’m so excited about what we’re doing together.

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Bridget LaMonica is a contributor at Den of GeekRead more of her work here or follow her on Twitter @BridgetLaMonica.