The Big Thrill Discusses THE WATER OUTLAWS with S. L. Huang
Lin Chong is an expert arms instructor, training the Emperor’s soldiers in sword and truncheon, battle axe and spear, lance and crossbow. Unlike bolder friends who flirt with challenging the unequal hierarchies and values of Imperial society, she believes in keeping her head down and doing her job, until a powerful man with a vendetta rips that carefully-built life away. Disgraced, tattooed as a criminal, and on the run from an Imperial Marshall who will stop at nothing to see her dead, Lin Chong is recruited by the Bandits of Liangshan. Mountain outlaws on the margins of society, the Liangshan Bandits proclaim a belief in justice—for women, for the downtrodden, for progressive thinkers a corrupt Empire would imprison or destroy. They’re also murderers, thieves, smugglers, and cutthroats. Apart, they love like demons and fight like tigers. Together, they could bring down an empire.
S. L. Huang recently spent some time with The Big Thrill discussing her latest thriller, THE WATER OUTLAWS.
Was there anything new you discovered, or surprised you, as you wrote this book?
Here’s a little story of something that didn’t happen while I was writing the book, but only very recently in a publicity event.
Background: When writing THE WATER OUTLAWS, I wanted it to feel like the Chinese cinema I grew up on. I strove on the page to give myself the feeling of watching a wuxia martial arts action film. Those have always been part of my media consumption, but I surrounded myself with almost nothing but wuxia media for the whole time I was drafting this book—I wanted dwelling in that space to help me write in the vibe I wanted.
Happily, the responses from people who likewise love wuxia suggest I got it right!
I’ll admit, however, to having been a little nervous as to whether I’d captured the sense of it as well as I’d hoped…and then I was in a publicity event recently where the moderator began excitedly listing all the wuxia tropes she’d noticed in the book. And I started laughing really hard because it was all entirely unconscious.
Because I’d put so much effort into making sure I would “get it right,” it never occurred to me how much was seeping in without trying from my lifelong love of the genre. I felt like I learned something about both myself and my book, and I’m delighted!
Which took shape first: plot, character, or setting?
I’m always a character writer first.
This book, of course, was unique in being a reimagining of much older source material. So there was some plot and character and setting already built in. Believe it or not, though, I had so many decisions to make on those that nothing was a given from the beginning.
So I started with my queer genderbent bandits based on these very old Chinese Robin Hood tales, but I had to choose who in the legendary, sprawling thousand-page epic that was my source material—who would my main characters be, out of a hundred and eight possibilities? What parts of the plot was I most interested in digging into?
The characters came first, very quickly, and plot followed that. Setting might seem like the easiest—but there were all sorts of questions there too, like whether to write it as a secondary-world fantasy version of China, whether to transplant it…I briefly considered setting it in space.
Nope, I’m not kidding.
Then I decided that, this being a lot of Westerners’ first introduction to the stories I was using as inspiration, and considering that I was already messing with gender and making it super queer, I didn’t want to take steps away from the original in too many directions.
I do still kinda want a version of these stories in space, though.
What was the biggest challenge this book presented? What about the biggest opportunity?
The biggest challenge was that I wrote one of the five POV characters entirely without using pronouns for that person. Not in the character’s narration, not from anyone else’s either.
This is a very queer and genderbent book, with plenty of trans and nonbinary characters. The POV character in question didn’t feel right to “translate” with any binary English pronoun—but nor would the bandits be making up neopronouns, since they’re speaking a fantasy version of Chinese, which does not gender via pronoun at all. So in my head, the bandits are all using pronouns, but the “translation” is most appropriate with none!
Funnily enough, almost nobody seems to have noticed? Which shocks me a little bit, but also tickles me! I’m flattered that apparently I did it well enough for nobody to complain about.
I’m not sure if I’d say this same thing was the biggest opportunity—I’m not entirely sure what that would be, to be honest—but I will say that taking advantage of the linguistic differences between Chinese and English is something I greatly enjoy, and it does give me the chance to play in a way that imagining a language with gendered pronouns wouldn’t. In fact, there’s another passage in the book where I take advantage of this to have a character mistake gender in a conversation she’s overhearing, and I do a couple other “translation” nuances that don’t have to do with pronouns, and that probably only I will ever notice. But they greatly amuse me.
What can I say, I’m a language nerd!
S. L. Huang is a Hollywood stunt performer, firearms expert, Nebula Award finalist, and Hugo Award winner with a math degree from MIT and credits in productions like Battlestar Galactica and Top Shot. The author of the fantasy novella Burning Roses as well as the Cas Russell novels including Zero Sum Game, Null Set, and Critical Point, Huang’s short fiction has also appeared in Analog, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Nature, Tor.com, and more, including numerous best-of anthologies.
To learn more about the author and her work, please visit her website.
The Water Outlaws with S. L. Huang