When I visited Steph Cha at her home just outside Koreatown immediately after the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books in late April—the first time we’d seen each other since February 2020—we had a great deal to catch up on. Over the next hour and a half, interrupted by the train-focused exclamations of her two-year-old son, Leo (whose younger sibling is due this fall), we updated each other on our lives, enduring the pandemic, mutual writer friends. Too quickly it was time for me to get to my next meeting, and my questions about Your House Will Pay, the June selection of the California Book Club, had to wait for a phone call with Cha the following week.
I’ve been observing Cha’s formidable rise from the start. Posting the original Publishers Marketplace deal memo for her 2013 debut, Follow Her Home, on my old crime fiction blog turned out to be her first formal recognition as a writer. Since then, we’ve become firm friends, a relationship cemented at crime fiction conventions, book festivals, cross-country meetups, and multiple interviews of each other.
Twelve years ago, Cha was a recently minted Yale Law School grad with a newly finished draft of a crime novel. Literary communities were a vague concept; she didn’t know any writers in real life, only in the pages of books. But she’d written Follow Her Home in dialogue with those books, specifically detective fiction by Raymond Chandler and Walter Mosley. Cha wanted to explore the underbelly of Los Angeles through her own avatar, a Korean American woman named Juniper Song, even though, as she told me recently by phone, “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
All these years later, Cha is transformed and firmly ensconced in L.A.’s literary scene. The credentials: three novels featuring Song; series editor of Best American Mystery and Suspense (and former noir editor of LARB); reviews for USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times; steady television writing work; and, of course, Your House Will Pay. This last is a standout crime epic that meditates on the effects of the 1992 riots and the murder the year before of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins on Korean American and Black communities. It considers, too, the continuing reverberations of the scores of Black men and women killed by police each year.
The book represented a marked change from the Song novels, though the last, Dead Soon Enough (2015), with its parallel explorations of parental surrogacy and the Armenian genocide, stretched Cha in ways she’d intended to be stretched, but which nonetheless surprised her. “There were things I wanted to say through the plot conventions of the PI genre, but I had done that before,” she explained, referring to the earlier two books in the series. “But these two themes seemed to fit together to me—of experiencing emotions as a minority group.”
Around the time Dead Soon Enough was published, Cha learned of Harlins’s murder by convenience store owner Soon Ja Du. No one had written about the aftermath of the riots from a Korean American, Los Angeles–centric perspective. “It seemed strange to me,” she said, “and I felt the same way about Follow Her Home—that there was no book about this subject, that I wanted to read it, and I felt I could write it.” What she wanted to write, specifically, was a book dealing with “Korean Americans in the early 1990s—our place in the city—and the Black community of L.A.”
It took roughly four years to write, but the idea for Your House Will Pay came in a “burst, like a lightning strike.” There was Grace Park, the young woman about to learn a corrosive secret about her mother. And there was Shawn Matthews, still grappling with the long-ago death of his sister, looking to alleviate his pain, even if doing so entailed violence. The climactic scenes, echoing protests past and present, felt as inevitable and urgent as they were for Cha to write.
Nearly three years after publishing Your House Will Pay, after the rapturous reviews and the multiple prizes (including the L.A. Times Book Prize for Best Mystery/Thriller), Cha continues to find new readers. She’s also becoming something of a go-to figure to speak about the riots, as she did in a recent segment for NPR’s Code Switch that marked the 30th anniversary. “I’m really proud of that book. People are still reading it, which is great, and amazing to me…. If I’d had this experience as a debut, my career would look very different. But because I spent several years in the trenches, and enjoyed the trenches, I’m still grateful people are still reading the book.”
Cha knows what her next book idea is—“a focused family drama that’s about crime, family resentment, maybe Korean gangs and churches”—but she may not have the bandwidth to give it proper attention until after her second child is born. “Writing a book is daunting, and the longer I go without writing, the more intimidated I get,” she told me.
When she’s ready, Cha knows she will continue to write L.A. stories that “occupy the in-between space” between crime and literary fiction, the books she gravitates toward most—and that they will center Korean Americans, the community that will always be, as she phrased it, “my pivot point and constant.”•
Join us June 16 at 5 p.m., when Cha will appear in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and special guest Tod Goldberg to discuss Your House Will Pay. Be sure to visit the Alta Clubhouse to let us and your fellow California Book Club members know what you think of the book. Register here.