In their high-octane and highly entertaining update of Water Margin, a classic Chinese novel about a band of noble bandits facing off against an oppressive government, S.L. Huang evokes the joyous spirit of classic martial arts films.
The characters of Lin Chong, a combat instructor who eventually joins the bandits, and Lu Junyi, one of Lin Chong’s aristocratic students, feel like they are in conversation: One strives for big change and the other strives to be a model minority. Did you conceive of them as two sides of the same coin from the start?
It’s somewhat unusual for me to plan a character arc to this extent, but yes, that was 100% planned. In the real world, I’m frequently frustrated by a sort of “flattening” of people who are in marginalized spaces; we’re frequently perceived as a monolith who must all have the same views and make the same choices. In reality, there are plenty of difficult intracommunity conversations.
I wanted to portray real-feeling people who cannot be easily “purity tested.” Lin Chong has had to fight and claw to achieve an unusual job and status for a woman, but is determined to keep her head down so as not to lose what she’s wrought for herself. Lu Junyi has more high-flying ideals, but she can also afford to: She’s wealthy and insulated, and her social progressivism is more of an academic than a lived variety. Both are good people on the whole, and both are somewhat frustrated by the other’s politics.
Without giving too much away, I wanted their arcs to, in a way, reflect and cross—and for both of them to fall toward a messier gray area where they have to acknowledge hard truths about themselves and their society.
What do you think Lu Junyi would have been if she could have chosen for herself?
Hm, I think it depends on what life experiences she’s faced with. If you plopped her in modern times, she’d probably start off as the type of annoying college student who thinks she knows exactly what all the correct and moral answers are, and is a little bit judgy of people with other opinions. (Lots of us were like that in college!)
On the other hand, she’s open-minded enough that more and more exposure to people different from her would start to expand and complicate her worldview, just as it happens in the book. Although, hopefully less painfully for her.
Eventually, if she were born in modern-day America, I think she’d probably end up doing some pretty amazing media work for a nonprofit she’s passionate about! Elsewhere in the world, she’d probably be doing something similar, though perhaps with slightly more danger to herself . . .
Historically, there’s been a dearth of middle-aged protagonists—especially middle-aged women—in science fiction and fantasy, but that has begun to change in recent years. Why did you decide to center this story around older characters?
Partly because there HAS been such a dearth of such characters—I’m always drawn toward writing what I don’t see.
But also, for the story I wanted to tell, I needed characters who had some amount of life experience. I didn’t want this to be a story of only young prodigies; I wanted this to be a story that included people who’d had time to build extensive pasts, histories and baggage.
Many scenes—and characters!—are equal parts humorous and deadly. How did you strike that balance, and why was it important to you to bring it to the forefront?
The light but true answer is that I grew up on action-comedy movies! I love action, and I love it even more when it’s lightened by humor.
As much as I tried to treat the themes of The Water Outlaws deeply and seriously, I also wanted it to be escapist and fun.
In addition to your work as an author, you’re also a Hollywood stunt performer and professional armorer. Your love of choreography definitely shines in The Water Outlaws, as does your love of wuxia, the Chinese historical fantasy genre that focuses on martial artists. What originally drew you to those worlds?
Honestly, I think the same thing that draws a lot of us to sci-fi & fantasy—a hunger for adventure and a love of imagination.
I’ve said before that I think I ended up doing stunts because it’s basically extreme LARPing, ha. I guess I never grew out of yearning for that immersive experience of living the stories I grew up with. And my favorites were always the ones with swords!
How did you approach translating the fantastical brutality of wuxia onto the page?
I tend to write my action in what I like to describe as a “cinematic” way, in that I want it to feel both real and also slightly larger than life. This fits very well with wuxia, which tends to have a similar feel—think, for instance, of martial arts movies that engage in fantastical wire work without any acknowledgment of special powers.
It’s always important to me to engage with the harm and consequences of physical violence—but equally important to me to write glorious, imagination-spanning sword fights!
We don’t see a lot of magic in the early parts of the book, but it’s always hovering on the edges of your world. What was interesting to you about taking this understated approach to magic?
This was very much informed by my love of wuxia! Supernatural elements are often extremely understated, or an accepted part of the world that only comes up when it comes up. It’s not an approach I see a lot in European-derived fantasy—where the magical world building is often a central focus—and I was very interested in writing in that paradigm.
Classical Chinese literature also tends toward this approach to the supernatural, that it’s an expected part of the world and not the focus of the narrative. This includes Water Margin, which was the direct inspiration that I was reimagining in this book!
You have a beautiful, poetic way of describing gender and bringing the nuances of gender fluidity to life. Why was it important for you to explore this territory in The Water Outlaws?
Well, it’s personal to me and to many of my friends. My day-to-day life intersects with a lot of queer spaces, so the gender diversity of the bandits is simply a reflection of my reality!
(Although I adjusted the terminology and dialogue about it for my fantasy world, as I didn’t want it to feel exactly one-to-one with how any modern culture talks about it today.)
Was there anything in Water Margin that you wanted to put in The Water Outlaws that just didn’t fit? And was there anything you were happy to leave behind in your own retelling?
There was so much that didn’t fit! In particular, three of my favorite characters—Hua Rong, Dai Zong and Wu Song—don’t appear in the main narrative. Hua Rong I managed to add into the epilogue as a master archer, but Dai Zong’s main ability, Taoist powers of traveling magically fast, was slightly too story-breaking to introduce. And Wu Song’s tale, which is full of tiger-fighting, adultery and revenge, was just far too large and expansive to do justice along with all the other pieces I was already focusing on.
Hopefully I can add some of them if there are sequels!
In terms of what I was happy to leave behind, there was plenty of that, too. I love Water Margin to death, but part of the reason I wanted to do a genderswapped version in the first place was that the original is such a highly male-centric and misogynistic tale. So that was first on my list to turn on its head in my retelling.
In particular, one of the bits I was pettily excited to cut was the marital fate of Hu Sanniang, one of only female bandits out of the 108. Despite its misogyny, the original rarely has our ultra-violent heroes engage in sexual violence or coercion, thankfully. But unfortunately, the reason for this feels a lot less like a knowledge that it’s wrong, and much more like a scorn of anything having to do with carnal desires. The bandits have a single member who shows strong desire for women, which is somehow equated with him carrying off women by force—and the leader stops him by “finding him a wife,” i.e., marrying him to one of the only three female bandits.
That female bandit is Hu Sanniang, an amazing fighter who is capable of beating most of the men, and one of the best characters in the original novel. I strongly object to how done wrong she was by this piece of the original book, and I took great delight in giving my Hu Sanniang a backstory of escaping an undesired marriage and cutting her would-be forced husband entirely.
Photo of S.L. Huang by Chris Massa.