A CALM SIDEWALK café in Los Feliz during a pleasantly mild morning was the setting for a chat with Steph Cha, the sole Korean American feminist writing noir today. Creator of the mold-breaking Juniper Song, her novel Dead Soon Enough, third in the series, drops August, months before Cha’s 30th birthday.
Once she settled in her beloved basset hound Duke, we discussed the many aspects and multiple layers of her stunningly productive reading and writing career.
DÉSIRÉE ZAMORANO: Why mysteries in general, why noir in particular?
STEPH CHA: When I read Raymond Chandler in college I thought somebody should write a contemporary Korean American novel set in Los Angeles in response. As much as I enjoyed reading him and finding the things that were representative of Los Angeles, it’s now changed so much topographically and demographically. Not that there weren’t people of color in Raymond Chandler’s time, but they were more invisible.
I wanted to write about the Korean American community because it hasn’t been done very much. It’s a community I’m very familiar with, that isn’t fringe or anything but hasn’t been written about extensively in fiction. For whatever reason the prominent Korean-American novelists are not Los Angeles novelists. When I decided to write I gravitated toward the idea I had had for the novel that I thought should exist in the world.
There are things that I want to say with my fiction. Noir in particular is a great tool for discussing social justice issues or anything really deeply atmospheric. Anything in the groundwater comes out in noir because, when you have murders, you have extremes of human behavior. The things that inform those deeds are never particularly isolated.
If someone were to write a novel about the First AME shootings, for example, it would be a really shitty novel if it didn’t deal pretty deeply with the white supremacy and that particular cultural and social and learned motivations behind these killings. None of these deeds live in a vacuum. Murder is revelatory.
I think noir can be a very sharp instrument for delving into these sorts of issues.
What do you enjoy about your protagonist, Juniper Song?
She is a tough person. She’s not fearless — she has a lot of vulnerabilities — but she kind of does what’s needed of her, which is not always what’s asked of her. She has her own code, and sometimes that means doing things that are morally not great, but she does them for the right reasons.
She’s a decisive person, which I like. She has strong loyalties, she knows herself, and she’s conscious of what’s going on around her. I have a lot of affection for my main character.
In what ways are you trying to stretch this genre?
I have a lot of respect for the genre, and it came to us as an expansive genre. You can’t really stretch out the form when the masters of it are Chandler and Hammett and Macdonald. I think I’m doing stuff with it that they didn’t do, but a lot of that is just because of the time I live in. The issues I deal with are more contemporary; I deal a lot more with women than any of them did.
During a panel I once heard you mention how, when your first novel came out, you listened to criticism. How did you incorporate that?
When Follow Her Home came out, I read all the Goodreads, all the Amazon, all the stuff that you’re not supposed to read. The stuff that everyone tells you not to read I actually read. A lot of it was really dumb: I had one Goodreads reviewer accuse me of intentionally or unintentionally using broken English [we scowl knowingly across the table at each other] which made me just angry for days. I thought, “Wanna bet I’m more literate than you?”
I did notice that there were a lot of objections to my liberties with that Philip Marlowe-inflected style. Which I think I still use; I think I’ve pared it down a little bit. But I also feel like that part of the criticism of my first book might have been because it was more of a direct homage [to Raymond Chandler] than my second and third. People get really defensive when you try to incorporate the voice of the greats. I do believe in the wisdom of the crowd, so when I saw that one criticism enough times, I thought about making the language sparer in places. I am older now than I was when I was writing that first book, and I think my writing is getting tighter in general.
How do you know when you have a nugget of a novel?
I think about broad themes that I want to explore.
Usually the theme comes first. Just a little idea that seems like it’s going to have some meat to it. The nugget for Dead Soon Enough was: I heard about somebody who had children through a surrogate who lived in another state. And I thought that was really interesting, because what if you don’t know the surrogate? What if the surrogate is going nuts? I think about how careful pregnant women are with their alcohol intake, with what they eat, with all their lifestyle stuff. They monitor it very closely. What if you’re the parent and the surrogate lives far away? You have no eyes on her. So I came up with the idea of a private investigator hired to tail a surrogate. That was the first seed. Then the second seed came from when I had a conversation with two of my good friends, who are Armenian Americans, about the genocide and continued genocide denial. I found this really fascinating. I decided to link these two themes, because they both deal with legacy, with birth, and with death. And I thought that they could tie together in a way that was both interesting and original.
What is ahead for Juniper Song?
While I’m not abandoning her, I don’t have a fourth book planned for the series at the moment. That can change. I feel like I’ve said a lot of what I want to say with her. I like the PI form because it’s very contained, but I haven’t had to struggle with structure, and I want to try that. By going outside of the noir structure I’m opening myself up, and if I do that I think I’ll be a much stronger writer at the other end.
So then what are you working on?
I’m working on another novel. It’s kind of about Blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles, and it centers on a fictionalized version of the shooting of Latasha Harlins. That is often quoted as one of the causes of the [LA] riots. Set in the present, it’s going to be dealing with a lot of issues of legacy and guilt and how these things play out in minority groups, particularly the way in which deeds color communities rather than individuals when you’re talking about a group like Korean immigrants or Blacks in South Central. It’s either going to be a literary novel with a crime bent or a crime novel with a literary bent.
How do you balance reviewing books with writing your own?
I’ve always read a lot, and I’ve never been one of the writers that stops reading in order to write. I’m able to sort out the noise: I know when my writing gets tinged by something I’m reading, and I get rid of it pretty quickly. Reading is a lot of fun for me, and I only pitch books to review that I want to read. I read a lot; in general I read a couple of books a week.
I spend about a day writing each book review because my writing days are precious. I write Monday to Friday.
Is there a mystery writer out there who needs more exposure?
Which writer currently knocks your socks off?
I just read Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone. I met him at Bouchercon — that book was good. Elena Ferrante, I read one of her early ones for book club — that was really good. Paul Tremblay has a book out, A Head Full of Ghosts. That was amazing. I wrote a review of it for The Life Sentence.
Tell me about your Yelp Addiction.
I Yelp everything! I have close to 2,500 Yelp reviews. It is something that I do almost every day … I’ve been writing these reviews since the end of 2008. It is by far my largest body of work; it’s hundreds of thousands of words, and it might be close to a million words at this point. It’s kind of my natural voice, and it’s almost like a quick writing exercise.
Actually I got both my Los Angeles Times gigs [Food and Book Reviews] through my Yelp reviews, separately. Joy Press, the books and culture editor at the LA Times, knew of me. We met once, but when she saw one of my Yelp reviews she reached out to me almost immediately. She really liked my reviewing voice and asked if I wanted to write book reviews. Now it’s a regular thing. And I do the food stuff too, and that’s obviously a more direct connection.
What do you want to tell us about basset hounds in general and Duke specifically?
My husband has wanted a basset hound since he was a child … I wasn’t even much of a dog person … When it came time to adopt a dog we found our rescue, the Basset Hound Rescue of Southern California.
They have really good temperaments: they’re kind of funny, they’re sweet and stubborn and kind of dumb. Total couch potatoes. He’s very cuddly, food motivated.
They’re just goofy, dorky dogs, and I love them. I just love the way they look. They’re so floppy, and their ears are great. And Duke has a lot of those qualities; he is just the sweetest guy.
Last question: Is there any secret vice you’d like to share?
I beat a thousand levels so I quit Candy Crush.