By S.L. Huang
Ellison Cooper, the author of CAGED, is one of those people I have a hard time believing actually exists. A Ph.D. anthropologist whose life reads like an Indiana Jones movie, she’s battled deadly snakes across Belize and investigated murders in D.C. And then she wrote a novel that grabs you by the throat from start to finish, an FBI thriller that’s faster, more fun, and more immersive than the best crime shows on TV.
I was lucky enough not only to get an early copy of CAGED but to interview Ellison Cooper herself. And though the main character of her novel, Agent Sayer Altair, is one of the coolest, most kickass women on the page, I think her creator could give her a run for her money—which is no small feat.
So your publisher’s tagline for you is “ELLISON COOPER IS A BADASS.” You’d have to be pretty badass to think up a suspense thriller like CAGED. What kind of background do you need to write such a fast-paced, hard-hitting crime novel?
It’s really hard for me to answer this, because I feel like there is a bit of everything I’ve done in CAGED.
The most obvious influence was my time as an investigator in Washington, D.C. I began investigating Class 1 Felonies in DC in the early 1990s when D.C. was considered the “murder capital” of the United States. Over 450, mostly gang related, murders were committed the year that I showed up at the ripe old age of 24 to work as the legal equivalent of a private investigator for the Public Defender’s Service. The vast bulk of what I did was tracking down and taking statements from witnesses, building a timeline of the events surrounding the murder, and requesting case files in the courthouse. Between all the mundane legwork, I did have a gun pulled on me and I was almost caught up in an ATF raid.
The other big piece of my background that influenced CAGED is my academic background. One of my areas of expertise is in cross-cultural neurophenomenology which looks at how our universally shared neurology shapes our experiences and how those experiences act as the basis for cultural systems. Some of my research focused on ancient ritual and religion around the world, and that definitely made its way into CAGED.
Last but not least, I grew up just outside Washington, D.C. and worked in politics inside the beltway for a few years. My time there definitely gave me an insider’s perspective into national politics (and it was definitely not pretty).
Wow! Can you give us some examples of how you used all this experience in CAGED?
Let’s see…one of the main things I learned while investigating in D.C. was that it is always a gut wrenching, heart breaking job. On my very first investigation, I met a little girl who witnessed her father’s murder and realized that everyone is emotionally impacted when someone is killed—from the cops and lawyers to the witnesses and victim’s family. So, I really tried to show that aspect of the investigation in CAGED.
Parts of the actual plot definitely grew from my research into neurobiology and ancient religion. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that one of the things I studied was psychopomps, which are spirit guides to the afterlife. In America, you have the concept of the grim reaper, but in other cultures there are similar spirits that meet you upon death to bring you to the underworld or across the river of the dead or whatever religious beliefs that culture has about the afterlife.
I’ll stop there because anything else I might say would be a spoiler for CAGED.
I could feel the realism of Agent Altair grappling with the case; it’s so clear that you’ve lived it. And I love that you brought in your academic experience—no wonder the world of CAGED felt so large and authentic. Now, I’ve also heard your badassness extends far beyond law enforcement and into worldwide adventure. Can you tell us a bit about that?
As an anthropologist, I’ve been really lucky to live and work around the world. I spent nine years living off in the jungles of Belize with no electricity or running water. I mastered wielding a machete while scouting and mapping lost Maya ruins. I had to kill a bunch of deadly snakes, encountered jaguars, and had to flee attack turkeys. That was definitely a life changing experience. I’ve also lived in West Africa and Micronesia as well as in London where I worked at the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research. I don’t admit this often, but it was actually the Indiana Jones movies that first got me interested in archaeology.
That’s amazing. Do you think you might use all that in a future book someday?
I don’t know how much of my own travels I’ll use. If people love the Sayer Altair series and I get to keep writing them, I would love to have her stumble on a case while visiting her father’s family in Senegal. Or maybe uncover an international antiquities ring while on vacation in Belize.
I want those books on my e-reader right now! Your life experiences are incredible—I feel like I should be watching a movie about you. And now you’re a writer; how did that happen?
I became a writer after my young son got quite ill. I was a professor at the time and we realized quickly that we couldn’t both work full time and make sure he got the care he needed. When my husband got a job offer that could support us both, I quit and ended up spending a lot of time in hospitals and therapist waiting rooms. To keep myself busy (and from worrying myself to death), I started writing a novel. I learned pretty quickly that I was terrible at writing fiction and switched to short stories just to work on things like voice and story telling. I finally finished a truly mediocre novel and queried almost a hundred agents but got no offers. When I finally came up with the concept for CAGED, writing felt like a totally different process. It was actually fun! I found an agent and a publisher fairly quickly with CAGED and now I kind of wake up every day feeling like I’m living someone else’s life.
SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author whose debut novel, Zero Sum Game, is upcoming from Tor. Her short fiction has sold to Strange Horizons, Analog, and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016. She is also an MIT graduate, stuntwoman, and firearms expert. Follow her on her website or @sl_huang.