In need of a new historical fantasy read? Look no further than The Water Outlaws, an “eat-the-rich” (Publishers Weekly) story inspired by classic martial arts literature with a feminist twist and plenty of queer rep. Author SL Huang shares how she requested Emily Woo Zeller’s narration talent for her book and her process for writing; Zeller shares how she prepared to record for such a large cast of characters and who out of the cast was her favorite to voice.

Did you have a narrator in mind once you knew the audiobook edition was being made?

(SL Huang) Yes! I straight-up begged my editor to see if we could get Emily!

I’ve always been delighted to have audio editions of my work, because I so love adaptations and performance and what other creatives can bring. However, despite having had some absolutely marvelous narrators, I confess it’s always been hard for me to listen to audio adaptations of my own writing. I guess I tend to have a specific cadence grooved into my brain that makes it hard to hear anyone else read them?

Until this year, when my short story “Murder By Pixel” was nominated for the Nebula Award. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Association does a livestreamed announcement in which they hire professional voice actors to read the first 150 words of each nominated work—and I don’t know if she remembers this, but by luck of the draw Emily read mine.

Her reading was incredible. It was nothing like the cadence in my head, but I was instantly transported and desperately wanted to hear more, after just 150 words.

I ran straight to look up her resume, since The Water Outlaws needs such specific language skills. And that’s when I realized—I’ve only just started getting into audiobooks recently, and one narration that utterly blew me away…was Emily’s! (Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.)

The more I read about her and listened to her, the more I was convinced she would be the perfect narrator for The Water Outlaws. I sent my editor a lengthy special request raving about how great she was, and my editor promised to pass it on. At that point I could only cross my fingers—Emily’s a very popular and award-winning voice actor, and I wasn’t sure if she’d be available. When my editor gave me the news I think I may have squealed in her ear.

As you’d expect from a wuxia novel, there’s plenty of action-packed scenes. How do you think working in the stunt industry in Hollywood (and being a weapons expert yourself) benefited you with writing the action sequences?

(SL Huang) The biggest thing we talk about in film is how much story matters in a fight scene, much more than the point-by-point choreography. I think everyone who does fighting for film is very aware of this. We want to use the fight as a vehicle to build emotional stakes and character intensity, not just function as a list of moves.

I absolutely take that into my writing. I love cool techniques or weapons, sure, but I always try to design my fights with those story and character stakes in mind. Because to me, that’s what makes a fight gripping.

You’ve stated before that you are more of a “pantser”— rather than outlining a novel you discover the book as you go. Do you ever find yourself surprised about where the story is heading? Or does it ever turn in a direction that you originally didn’t plan for it to?

(SL Huang) Sometimes! Those are sometimes the most fun parts, to be honest—those nuggets of discovery. In fact, I like seeding in interesting backstory or characterization that might grow into something more.

An example in this book is Chao Gai’s ghost hunting. In the classic story I was using as source material, Chao Gai indeed does have a backstory of saving a village from ghosts—but it’s not a very large part of the character. I decided to lean into the ghost-hunting as a part of my Chao Gai’s backstory and identity.

I didn’t plan at that point to use Chao Gai’s ghost-hunting on the page. But sometimes these things develop naturally… (and I won’t spoil anything by saying more!)

What was your preparation and recording process like? Is there a marked difference between your preparation for a fantasy novel like The Water Outlaws versus narrating a book from another genre?

(Emily Woo Zeller) There are some slight differences in preparation, yes. I am very fortunate to have a great deal of experience with narrating across the entire spectrum of literature genres. For example, in nonfiction, I am going to be researching who people and entities mentioned in the book are in real life, and that doesn’t apply for fiction. For fiction, I’m going to be thinking about characters and their personalities and voices with much more color than I would typically add for a nonfiction title. What is a through line for all the books I’ve had the pleasure of narrating is that I meet the book and the words as they are. Context certainly matters, but it doesn’t always dictate the performance and can sometimes get in the way of understanding and honoring what the author has written here, right now, in THIS version of a story. That, to me, is the most important thing and it applies to any book: to answer the question, what is the author saying here?

While Lin Chong is undoubtedly our main character, we also follow numerous other POVs. The Bandits of Liangshan are full of murderers, cannibals, outcasts, and everything in-between. These mountain outlaws proclaim a belief in justice – a belief that leads them on a mission to bring down an empire. How were you able to turn this rough-around-the-edges cast of characters into “unlikely heroes”?

(SL Huang) One theme I was interested in exploring in the book is how many opposing ways people might react to oppression, all of which I wanted to keep understandable. I set out not with a mindset of trying to make the reader agree with every decision every one of the bandits makes (I certainly don’t!), but to give the characters what feels like a real breadth of different choices people could make in those circumstances. And, as far as possible, to write those choices sympathetically.

This is something I’ve always tended to grapple with among my characters—people who do good things for bad reasons, or bad things for good reasons consequences and redemption…striving to be better and, sometimes, failing.

I think “unlikely heroes” in an excellent description for them, and I love them all.

How were you able to juggle the narrative voices of such a large cast of characters? How did you create that chosen “voice” for each character?

(Emily Woo Zeller) Thankfully, a well written book provides a lot of information about its characters, and that gives me a strong blueprint to work with. I try not to add details that don’t make sense in the context of the story, or that take a listener out of the story. My background in music, singing, and animation probably helps quite a bit in being able to bring technical variation between characters. The acting work of understanding the characters and bringing them to life feels very organic, based on my experiences and training as well as the clues the author has provided within the story.

The Water Outlaws is a book that delves into some heavy themes. How did you handle the seriousness and darkness of the novel while balancing some of the more humorous parts?

(SL Huang) I think that’s how I tend to approach real life, to be honest. Our world has so much darkness in it, and for me it’s an important choice to still find and celebrate the joy and humor. This feels especially true to me as a member of several underrepresented minorities—I think sometimes those of us in underrepresented populations are expected to be all angst all the time, because people think, how could we not?

But I don’t hold with that, and frankly I find it unfair. I want to live my life in a way that both reckons with serious and heavy issues but also permits and embraces fun. After all, we deserve that just as much as anyone else!

Are there ways in which this book was uncomfortable or challenging to write?

(SL Huang) Yes. The spectrum of morality I was trying to show among the bandits definitely felt difficult to navigate at times. But the hardest scene was an attempted sexual assault I include near the beginning.

I have complicated feelings about how sexual violence is often portrayed in fiction—too “easily”, or often with wink at titillation. It was important to me to make that scene as difficult to read as it was to write, and not “sexy” at all.

It’s not even something I usually include in my own fiction. But I found myself very much wanting to explore something the fantasy genre usually doesn’t, something all too reflective of our own world: namely, the professional crossroads and consequences people face when choosing whether to fight back or report.

It’s a theme I hope I’ve done justice.

You brought so much depth and emotion to the narration bringing those moments of joy, sadness and torment within your voice. What did you love most about bringing your voice to these characters and emotions?

(Emily Woo Zeller) It is incredibly cathartic to narrate a story, and it requires a great deal of emotional availability at the same time. Sometimes that empathy is more difficult to manage than others, depending on the material and the day. I love the opportunity I’ve been given to bring some measure of truth and fullness to these characters, who might have historically been read/heard as caricatures by someone less familiar with the culture that they represent, the world in which these characters live. When we, as humans, are able to “see” more fleshed out characters, in this case, with vocal flesh!, we are better able to empathize and gain something even greater from the stories we absorb; we experience a connection that helps bring us closer together with others and makes us feel less alone.

Who was your favorite character to write/voice and why?

(SL Huang) I like to call Wu Yong my brilliant little sociopath (but always all for the good of the people, of course). There’s something both challenging and deeply satisfying about writing a character who’s supposed to be almost always clever enough to outwit the enemy. Wu Yong’s hubris and tactical genius have to race each other constantly, because all small goals are attainable.

Fortunately for the story, Wu Yong’s ambitions that are the opposite of small. Which means the stakes stay very, very high…

It can also be tremendously fun to write a character with such a different moral stripe from me. I get to run in a direction I never would in real life, with sharp objects in hand…

(Emily Woo Zeller) Ha! I also loved Wu Yong. I imagined a very slippery, shadowy, almost otherworldly being. And I loved how S.L. made her fallible… but only just! That said, in somewhat complete contrast, I loved Lu Da the Flower Monk. She’s just so earnest and doesn’t think beyond right this second. She’s huge and well-intentioned and so open-hearted. We don’t often see female characters like her and it felt so good to fly with her and be her voice for a little while.

If the Bandits of Liangshan were to go up against any pop culture supervillain (or superhero), who do you think they would go up against and why?

(SL Huang) Let’s see…I think they should go up against a neglectful monarch…one who only got the throne because of a patriarchal and sexist society that unjustly banished a more qualified woman. In other words, they should rise up against Thor and restore Hela to her rightful place as ruler of Asgard! (Preferably played by Cate Blanchett.) JUSTICE FOR HELA!

(Emily Woo Zeller) Does going up against our entire current late-capitalist political jumble of a system count? I just love the world of these women so much.

The Water Outlaws audiobook by SL Huang, narrated by Emily Woo Zeller

Looking to get your own copy of The Water Outlaws? Find it everywhere audiobooks are sold, like Audible, Apple, Google Play, and Libro.fm. Also available through your local library on apps like hoopla and Libby!


About the Author

SL Huang is a Hugo-winning and Amazon-bestselling author who justifies an MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. The author of the Cas Russell novels from Tor Books as well as the fantasies Burning Roses and The Water Outlaws, Huang is also a short fiction writer, with stories in AnalogF&SF, Nature, and numerous best-of anthologies. When not writing, Huang is a Hollywood stunt performer and firearms expert. Follow SL Huang online at www.slhuang.com or @sl_huang.

About the Narrator

Golden Voice, Audie and SOVAS award-winning narrator Emily Woo Zeller has narrated over 600 titles. Her work also includes years of character and commercial voiceover work, including PANAM in Cyberpunk 2077. As a dancer, singer, and stage actor, Emily won a Tristan award for her work as Sally Bowles in CABARET and a Roselyn E. Scheider prize for Creative Achievement. Some acclaimed titles include DR. APHRA Star Wars audio drama, FIRE ROAD by Kim Phuc-Phan Thi, THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP by Marie Kondo, THE POPPY WAR series by R. F. Kuang, and GULP by Mary Roach.