Talking with Steph Cha

The author of the Juniper Song Mysteries and last year’s Los Angeles Times Book Prize winner Your House Will Pay says we’re facing “noir days ahead.”

steph cha, your house will pay

Steph Cha believes in the capaciousness of crime fiction, in its potential to encompass all the ways we live right now. Since her first novel, Follow Her Home, appeared in 2013, she has made art out of the juxtapositions between how we imagine ourselves and who we really are. Follow Her Home’s detective, a young Angeleno named Juniper Song, idolizes Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. But as she moves through this novel and its two follow-ups, Beware Beware and Dead Soon Enough, she and we both learn that imagination is not enough. Instead, Cha is interested in complicity, in the places where we confront ourselves.

This fascination also drives her most recent novel, 2019’s Your House Will Pay, which traces the aftermath of Los Angeles’s 1992 Rodney King uprising through the lens of two families, one Black and one Korean American. What Cha is saying is that history matters; it lingers and it takes its toll. Her work is crime fiction as social narrative, operating in the tradition of Walter Mosley: a walk on the wild side in which ordinary individuals must reckon with, or reconcile, extraordinary circumstances. A similar sensibility marks her astonishing new short story “The Plagues,” which appears in Alta’s Noir Issue this fall. “The Plagues” won’t be available online until September 29, but in the meantime, here’s a little taste.


The news coverage had shifted away from the protest to show a line of parked police cars, all of them demolished—windows broken, burned out, spray-painted with slogans and obscenities. Yuna was trying to figure out where the cars were when they were replaced by another set of images: a column of smoke, a row of storefronts, a horde of masked men streaming in and out of one in the middle, its glass window glittering waste on the sidewalk.
She knew this place. “Angela’s,” she murmured.
“That’s where I get my nails done.”

Cha discussed her work, and her novel Your House Will Pay, with Alta recently via email.

What do you want your writing to do?
Ideally, I want it to move people—to awaken their empathy, make them see the world from new angles and find the effort worthwhile. That’s what I look for in fiction, so it’s what I hope to deliver.

You’ve just been named series editor of The Best American Mystery Stories series. What might we expect?
There have been some excellent short stories published this year, and while I’m not sure which will make the cut (that’s ultimately a decision for our guest editor), I can promise some top-notch fiction that explores the human experience through the prism of crime. I’m hoping to get a good amount of variety in there, and ideally, at least some of the stories will feel relevant to the way we live today, with and without the pandemic.

Do you write in the mornings or the evenings? Do you work on more than one project at once?
I do most of my writing between the late morning and early evening, basically after I get done bullshitting and through the end of a normal workday. I haven’t been writing much these days, though, since I had a baby in April and haven’t felt comfortable hiring childcare. When I am writing, it’s usually one project at a time with some freelance work to break it up, mostly book reviews.

Let’s talk about Your House Will Pay. It’s a turn from the Juniper Song novels. How did the idea take shape?
My third Song novel dealt with questions of guilt and legacy (it was a P.I. [private investigator] novel built around pregnancy surrogacy and the Armenian genocide), so I was already thinking about some of the themes of Your House Will Pay when I heard an interview with Brenda Stevenson, the author of The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins. I grew up in Los Angeles and had a general sense of the history of the early 1990s, but I hadn’t heard the particulars of the Latasha Harlins murder, and they hit me in the gut. I had this feeling of guilt by association because she was killed by a Korean woman, and I wanted to explore that reaction as well as the complex social implications of the murder of a Black teenager by a Korean immigrant in South Central Los Angeles just weeks after the Rodney King beating. I knew it would be a crime story, but I also knew right away that it wouldn’t make sense as a P.I. novel. I wanted to tell it as a family story that tied ordinary people to the fate of their city.

What kind of crime writing do you see coming out of this moment?
I suspect there will be plenty of domestic thrillers, as we’re years into that craze and coronavirus lockdown could create an interesting new strain. I also think there will be more social crime novels dealing with the heated politics of 2020, and looking forward a few years, we might see some crime fiction that deals with the upcoming fallout of these last several months. If we see a wave of mass evictions, for example, that will change the character of our country, and there’d be plenty of crime and crime fiction to go along with that. Noir days ahead.

What’s on your to-be-read list?
About 1,700 books, according to my Goodreads [page], but most immediately a lot of crime short fiction and a few books I’m supposed to review. Otherwise, I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks of titles I already own in print that I borrow from the library so I can get through them while holding a baby. I might read The Cider House Rules next because it’s long and has been sitting on my shelves forever. I’m also looking forward to From Scratch by Tembi Locke and In the Country of Women by Susan Straight.

Give us the elevator pitch for your next book.
If only I had enough [written] to have an elevator pitch ready! I was planning to write a novel around a murder in Koreatown, touching on gentrification and property ownership, and I still think that’s what I want to write—but I wonder what Koreatown will even look like on the other side of all this.•

David L Ulin is Alta Journal’s books editor.
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