There are many paths to becoming a writer, but SL Huang’s is definitely unique. Huang brings a background in mathematics, stunts, and firearms to her writing, and it shows. In her new sci-fi thriller Zero Sum Game, Huang tells the story of a math whiz named Cas Russell who works as a mercenary and uses her skills to get out of tricky and dangerous situations. Here, Huang shares how her own career inspired Zero Sum Game.
Like any Massachusetts Institute of Technology math major, the first thing I did once I graduated was move out to Hollywood to become a stuntwoman.
I worked in Los Angeles full-time for almost a decade, doing both stunts and weapons for movies. In my spare time, I wrote the first draft of Zero Sum Game—and when friends would ask me what my book was about, I would say cheerfully, “Math and guns!” They would always laugh and say, “Only you.”
But truthfully, I couldn’t have written Zero Sum Game without all of that life experience. The main character, my delightfully antisocial mercenary, isn’t based on me—she’s both much more badass and much more immoral than I am—but the book definitely draws on all parts of me. When I think about how my life and knowledge shaped the book, it’s not only my knowledge of “math and guns” that I drew on, but the full sensory experience of all of these professions.
Here are five ways my eclectic past helped me write this book!
Studying math at MIT
Like any specialized field, mathematicians have our own lingo, slang, and jokes. Other math people know what I mean when I lionize Apostol, moan about Rudin, or make puns about computational complexity. But more than that, I know what it’s like to love math: to breathe in the unanswered questions, even with all their frustrations, and that spark of euphoria that comes with understanding. I’ve striven to make Zero Sum Game accessible to math people and non-math people alike, but I want all my readers to be tickled by my games with numbers the same way I am—to feel that abiding love and geekery in the fabric of the tale even if they aren’t math people themselves.
Action, guns, and stunts
And if Zero Sum Game is a love letter to mathematics, it’s equally a love letter to the action genre. With larger-than-life superhero fights and nerding out about different types of firearms, working in that field and knowing how to break down both a choreographed fight and an AK-47 was just as exciting for me as it sounds.
I’ve gone all-out in including my favorite moves and beats in Zero Sum Game. Not only that, but given how full of strong opinions gun people are, it amuses me endlessly to give all my characters forceful quirks about their weapons. Like math, the firearms world has its own lingo and peculiarities!
The Wild West of Hollywood
Even more than actually working on action movies, working in film expanded my horizons more than I could have imagined. I grew up relatively sheltered with both parents in office jobs, and the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants world of the film industry gave me a look at the cross sections of society that I never could have made up.
From having to play hardball with production companies to working with production staff who didn’t want to play by any of the rules; from having to oversee literal members of the Hell’s Angels to getting licensed for assault weapons, I quickly lost my sheltered naïveté and got an immersion course in street smarts. And I couldn’t have written Zero Sum Game without it.
New colleagues: cowboys and military
I’ve worked with a lot of interesting characters in film—but specifically working in guns and stunts, there were a couple of communities I’d end up hanging with in particular. And they were pretty different from the MIT math crowd. Stunts is full of old-school cowboys—in the best way—and not only did I always have a blast with them, but I learned a lot of different norms from the way I was raised.
And because I also worked as a firearms expert, at every other shoot, I was lucky enough to work with people who were retired from the military. I would also train veterans sometimes in how to move into doing film work.
The bowels of Los Angeles
Finally, the number of different location shoots I went on gave me the gritty urban fantasy-esque feeling I used for every place in Zero Sum Game. One of the best things about working in film is that it’s different every week—never boring!—and every shoot, I was getting called out to traverse Los Angeles to a new location. From the pier at four in the morning to sagging houses in East LA, from an old haunted hospital to the middle of the empty desert, from gang neighborhoods to Malibu mansions—I got to know Los Angeles inside and out. And I wrote so much of that into the books.
Take all of this, put it in a blender, and apparently you get an action thriller starring a math-superpowered antiheroine who definitely, definitely has a favorite gun!
SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. Her debut novel, Zero Sum Game, is upcoming from Tor, and her short fiction has sold to Analog, Nature, and The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016. She is also a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, with credits including “Battlestar Galactica” and “Top Shot.” Follow her online at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.