By Collin Mitchell
Steph Cha is the author of four novels including the Juniper Song mystery series (Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, Dead Soon Enough) and most recently, Your House Will Pay, a highly-anticipated and well-reviewed book about the aftermath of the 1992 L.A. riots and the relationship between the Korean and African-American communities. Steph Cha spoke about the narrative possibilities of crime fiction at the UC Riverside Low-Res MFA December residency. I sat down with her afterward to talk about Los Angeles, Palmdale, writing different races, and a little about food.
The Coachella Review: One of the things I like about your books is your appreciation for Koreatown in Los Angeles. You’re from the Valley. What was your relationship to Koreatown like growing up?
Steph Cha: Koreatown was probably what I thought of as L.A. because we lived in the suburbs and we would go into L.A. for dinner or go to the market because a lot of the stuff was there. My grandma lived in Koreatown, so when we went into Central Los Angeles it was to go to K-Town. It was always a major part of my map of Los Angeles, but I didn’t necessarily know the surrounding areas.
TCR: It has an authenticity to it. Little Tokyo is great. Chinatown is great. But Koreatown is like a functioning city. There are ad agencies, everything…
SC: It’s an ethnic enclave that has become enormous. It must be one of the largest ethnic neighborhoods that are defined that way in the country. It’s huge and it’s sprawling and there are just so many people in it. I guess the San Gabriel Valley has tons of Chinese people now, but nobody is calling that Chinatown. Chinatown is a dinky little area near downtown. But Koreatown kind of has that feel, where the Korean businesses that have popped up were for Korean immigrants, but still cater largely to a Korean population.
TCR: As an Angeleno was there a discovery process when you were writing the Juniper Song series and Your House Will Pay—an opening up of the city that you hadn’t noticed before?
SC: Oh yeah, absolutely. I also feel like I’ve gotten to know the city better since I moved back in 2010 than I did before. I left for college in 2003 and I spent seven years where I would come home for summers and stuff like that. But I wasn’t really living in L.A. in the same way, and I’ve been back for almost ten years now, and getting to know the city as an adult has been entirely different and has coincided completely with my career as a writer. Because I started writing Follow Her Home when I was still at law school [at Yale]and I wasn’t in L.A. for most of that time. By the time I was living here, I was working on selling that novel, and when I was writing my second, third, and fourth novels, I was in L.A. the whole time.
TCR: What was your process with writing Palmdale for Your House Will Pay? You write with a similar admiration for that city as well.
SC: It’s not pretty but I also have a lot of respect for it. I picked Palmdale because I realized, as I was researching and writing this book, that South Central L.A. does not look like it did in the early ‘90s. It’s no longer this place that is majority black and dominated by Korean businesses. That was a very specific dynamic, and in the last twenty-eight years there’s been a massive exodus of black Angelenos to the exurbs. This is something that I have not read a ton about, but it’s very evident to anybody who’s been in L.A. for a long time. I think cost has a lot to do with it. I think also the high crime in those neighborhoods in the early ‘90s. I wasn’t interested in setting Shawn’s family in the neighborhood where they grew up. And since I also had the Korean family situated in the Valley, I wanted to write a story where the root of it was in this very central part of Los Angeles and then these families kind of bounced out to farther away and are drawn back into the center by the end of the book. When I was thinking about neighborhoods for the Matthews family, Palmdale/Lancaster popped up — my husband actually suggested it. We drove into the Antelope Valley and hung out at the mall for a little bit and just observed for a while. It was obvious that there were more black people at this mall than I almost ever see in Los Angeles. The areas that have stayed predominantly black in L.A., even these areas are changing, like View Park, Ladera Heights, Baldwin Hills—areas that are nicer and have a larger percentage of homeowners. But in areas where people are renting, it’s just been this big bye-bye. Another thing that interested me about Palmdale is that it’s a place where people commute to L.A. It’s pretty working class, and a lot of people who live there, their jobs are in L.A., and they’ll commute seventy miles for jobs that don’t pay that much. I thought there was some obvious injustice in that and some concern about income inequality and access to housing.
TCR: You get that with Shawn’s character a little bit—the stress of getting up early, driving a moving truck and having to go all over the place.
SC: I thought there’s a dignity to that drive and the commitment to work and family that has to come with that. One of the reasons people live there is because you can live in a big house that fits all your family members. So the parents, the adults, are taking jobs and doing all this work so they can provide a roof over the heads of children who go to school far away from L.A. I think it’s interesting and it lined up with who I wanted Shawn to be. He’s not a glamorous guy but he’s very dignified and he just keeps his head down and tries to maintain stability.
TCR: Your books are so much about family.
SC: That’s what I find interesting about crime, is that crime is about people, and what people do to each other, and all of that is about family dynamics, who cares about who. I think crime fiction without family feels a little empty to me.
TCR: You talked yesterday about having a conversation with Raymond Chandler. Was Juniper Song a response to that or was she a character you already had kicking around and you finally found a voice for her?
SC: She was a direct response to that. She came out of this idea that I had that I would like to read a book like the ones I ended up writing. I didn’t think I would end up writing books because I didn’t know anyone who wrote books. I just had this strong idea that I would really love to read a book that is like a Raymond Chandler novel but is from the point of view of a Korean American woman and that reflects the L.A. I know.
TCR: Were you writing from a point of frustration over being Asian and female and not seeing that correctly represented or were you also trying to see if you could write something as magical as Chandler in terms of creating a story?
SC: It was definitely both. I don’t think I was that overtly frustrated. Chandler was a product of his time in a very real way. I don’t think he was thoughtless and I don’t think he was unengaged. But he wrote about women in the way that he did. And he wrote about minorities in the way that he did. And I just wanted to update that. It was more of a positive drive than a reactive one. I thought he had such a unique point of view and I wanted to replicate the way he used crime and the PI figure to convey this sense of his city. And that’s kind of what I put into Juniper Song. I wanted her to be somebody with this kind of fun voice who has this mobility that Marlowe had. I couldn’t make her quite as cynical as Marlowe or as detached. The first draft had her much more Marlowe-like, where you don’t know much about her backstory. That was the note I got from agents. Why is she doing any of what she does? I realized that I couldn’t really get away with someone who you know so little about.
TCR: On that first draft had you developed the backstory with Juniper and her sister?
SC: No, that was one of the last things I did and then I wove it in. But the first go of it, none of that was in there.
TCR: All your books address race and have a multi-ethnic cast.
SC: It’s a necessity when you’re an Asian-American writer. Even if you grow up in a community that’s heavily Korean American or Asian American you go outside. I don’t have days where I don’t see anybody who’s non-Asian. So just by having friends and going to school and living in a city that is not homogeneous, I’m part of a minority. That’s just something that came naturally to me because it wouldn’t make sense to write a book that doesn’t have characters of different races and backgrounds.
TCR: Was it a challenge to write Shawn’s family, to write an African American family and get in-depth with that?
SC: Yeah, it was a huge challenge. It was a challenge in a way that it was not a challenge to write Daphne in Beware Beware or to write Lusig and her family in Dead Soon Enough. Part of that is because in those books you were in Song’s point of view the whole time and so I never had to get into someone’s head who’s from a different background. This was the first time that I entered the point of view of a character who is not Korean American. With Shawn’s family I had to do a lot more research, and because I was not as comfortable at writing a black family in Palmdale having dinner, there was an initial first step where I did a whole lot of research and wrote a draft that was probably heavy on the sociology and less heavy on the family dynamics. And if you read what I actually ended up writing, it’s all family dynamics. I think the challenge of writing people who you are less familiar with is just making them feel familiar.
TCR: What did you do for research?
SC: I read books about the history of black L.A. I read books about the Latasha Harlins case and the ‘92 uprising. I read a lot of articles and I talked to people who grew up in L.A. Very early on, a friend of mine who’s a black dude in his forties, who went to Latasha Harlins’ high school, stepped up after he saw me do a reading and asked if I wanted to quiz him. So that was super fun and useful. And then after that, just thinking about what feels like family, what feels like the shit that drives people crazy about the people that they live with. Where do I pull in the resentments, where are the differences, where is the love? That’s just stuff I did with the Park family from the beginning. There was a comfort level I didn’t have at first with Shawn, and I think I developed that by feeling more informed. After that it was just about chiseling and making it work.
TCR: The historical stuff somehow puts you in tune with what it would be like.
SC: It’s all there but it’s much farther in the background in this final iteration. But that took a lot of drafts. For the first 30,000 words at least.
TCR: When you’re writing are you thinking about educating people about Korean American culture?
SC: Yes and no. I’m very conscious of the fact that I want to write about Korean American Los Angeles. It’s not a community that’s been written about a lot in fiction. I would say that my primary goal is to convey that experience. The educational value of it is secondary, I guess, but I think that if people read my books they’ll have insight into a world that maybe they wouldn’t have known about otherwise. It’s an interesting balance because I do think of my books as books that carry meaning and message and they have a heavy social justice component. I wouldn’t say that they’re purely for entertainment. Although I think the reason that I’m able to sneak so much message in there is because they are entertaining.
TCR: In Your House Will Pay, Grace feels like the reader’s bridge to Korean culture, but also to our own natural sense of apathy, that maybe most people have.
SC: I don’t think she’s a bad person. She’s busy with her own shit. I don’t think she would consider herself a self-absorbed person. She’s not narcissistic, but she is somebody who has her own world in her own small circle and she’s very comfortable there and she’s comfortable not thinking about all this stuff.
TCR: Grace’s sister, Miriam is more self-involved in the traditional sense. In a weird way it manifests itself in this profound global world view. I love some of the lines you had about her mom, something about burying people.
SC: Oh, like burying their heads in the sand. She says, ‘if someone you love does something evil then you become a little evil.’ Miriam is somebody who I think a lot of people find annoying, and she’s supposed to be kind of annoying because you see her through the point of view of the sister who finds her kind of obnoxious. I feel like she’s the person I’m most like in the book. I think there is something a little bit ridiculous about being somebody who’s in a comfortable position in life and getting really involved in social justice and anti-blackness. But I think that’s okay. I think it’s okay to be earnest and a little bit ridiculous. Miriam is self-absorbed and she does take this hardline with her mother but I have a lot of sympathy for her too. I think she’s somebody who means well in a different way from Grace.
TCR: Juniper is a kind of response to the way an Asian female is traditionally depicted. Were you trying to do anything different with Grace?
SC: Writing two Korean American women who are the same age and making them so different was kind of pleasurable for me. I wanted Grace to be typical in the sense that she’s somebody like many people I know who grew up going to Korean church, had kind of this quiet life, sheltered largely by immigrant parents, who didn’t engage with them on a political level. She’s not a bad person, she’s just in her own bubble. I think it’s a path, that if you’re from a certain kind of immigrant family, that’s the path of least resistance. You go to school nearby, you live at home. Maybe you work for the family business. And I can see how if that’s your life story it makes your worldview very narrow.
TCR: Your House Will Pay did such a great job of showing how Grace’s worldview came to be by showing the family pharmacy and the way her dad reacted to the past and everything.
SC: Yeah, you can tell these people had a very strong investment in keeping her in the dark.
TCR: No one’s excused in Your House Will Pay. White people—you have the journalist character, a writer, he thinks in abstractions. Blacks are depicted as thugs with Ray, but also good dads. And you criticize Korean culture and Confucian culture as well. Did you try to do that with this book and be fair and get some catharsis out of it? Kind of reveal these things to show us how we’re all the same?
SC: This is something I’ve dealt with in my other books too. If you show people behaving badly and they’re not the representative of their race or their ethnic background or their class background, you can get away with a lot. In my first book, I had five or six Korean American women, and if one or two of them are a piece of shit then it’s okay, because you’re showing a broad range of personalities and human experience. Where you run into trouble is when there’s one Asian person in your book and they’re the Dragon Lady or there’s one black person in your book and they’re out there criming. I think having Your House Will Pay anchored in two characters in such a close way gave me a lot of latitude to do whatever I wanted with the side characters. Grace and Shawn are not perfect either, and I wanted to make sure that they were human and understandable and the people who surround them represent a wide range of what people do. I also wanted to explore this idea that getting involved in the political conversation is not always a choice for everybody. These are people whose personal lives become politicized.
TCR: Was that a goal when you started writing the book in terms of a call to action? At the end of the book it’s basically like, ‘get involved or figure out a way you can get involved.’ Or did that come out as you as you wrote it?
SC: I feel like now when I think about this book it is what I want people to take away. This idea that you don’t get to choose, because I think people think that being involved in politics is a choice rather than that the way you live your life is political. I don’t know at what point I started thinking about Your House Will Pay in those terms. It might have been early, but I also feel like this is the kind of thing that I might have realized when I was halfway through. I knew that I wanted Shawn to be somebody who was exhausted by politics and I wanted Grace to be somebody who was ignorant and that was kind of their starting positions.
TCR: Food is such a big part of all your novels, and with family and eating I felt like that was a large part of Your House Will Pay. Is that something you think about when you’re writing scenes?
SC: It’s funny. It’s not, but I’m so food obsessed and I think so much about what to eat and I think it’s a natural result of spending time of families. They congregate around the dinner table and I think that is one of the commonalities of Shawn’s family and Grace’s family is that they have dinner together and a lot of shit comes up over dinner. I wanted to kind of center this big story in domestic life.
TCR: It was a commonality. You could look at all the differences of the characters and the families but they all made a point to make a thing about food. It was a connecting point.
SC: Yeah, you got to eat.
Collin Mitchell is a student in the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi. He lives in Palm Desert with his wife and son.