Interviews

Race and Violence in Early-90s Los Angeles

An interview with Steph Cha about her crime novel, "Your House Will Pay."

Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. From Publisher’s Weekly. From Booklist. From Library Journal. In publishing circles, a star from all four major trade reviewers is a coup. It’s a reason to sit up and take notice, so maybe you already have. But if you haven’t—now is as good a time as any to read a novel that grapples with our times through a story set in 1991. It also grapples with race, hate crimes, and justice in all its forms. Crime novels are well situated to take on these themes, and Cha, relatively young for a seasoned crime writer and tastemaker, is perfectly situated to craft them.

I asked Cha by email about the troubling, real-life inspirations for Your House Will Pay, her literary influences, and, to complete the Venn diagram of Cha’s interests, basset hounds.

Lori Rader-Day

Where did Your House Will Pay start for you? An image, something in the news, etc?

Steph Cha

I guess you could say it was something in the news, but the story was from 1991, the murder of a 15-year-old black girl by a Korean shopkeeper in South Central Los Angeles. I learned about this incident as an adult, and I knew pretty immediately that I wanted to write about it. There was a lot to unpack — socially, politically, emotionally — and I wanted to do it in present day, looking back at that history and thinking about the straight lines connecting then and now.

Lori Rader-Day

One of the things I liked best about this book is how your point of view characters contradict each other, so that the reader ping-pongs between seeing both sides of a story. Can you talk a little about that creative decision?

Steph Cha

The book only started to come together for me when I settled on Shawn and Grace as the two protagonists, and when I got to know their voices and philosophies and the nitty gritty of their lives. I wanted to spend the whole book deeply entrenched in their points of view, and that meant seeing things as they saw things. Because of where they’re coming from—their relationships with their respective families, but even just the fact that Shawn has lived with his history while Grace is just learning about hers—they see things pretty differently, and if that didn’t come across in the writing, then I wouldn’t have done my job.

Lori Rader-Day

You were writing about violence against people of color in a fraught time. Did you use stories from the news as fuel or did you need to shut them out?

Steph Cha

Violence against people of color is an American constant—and I will note here that violence against black Americans and violence against Asian Americans doesn’t happen on the same scale. I started writing this book in 2014, after the murder of Michael Brown, when there was uproar both in Ferguson and across the country. The Black Lives Matter movement came to national prominence around this time, bringing media attention to the violence, but black people never stopped being murdered, not between Latasha Harlins and Mike Brown, and certainly, things were not better before 1991. I spent four and a half years working on this book, and I can’t even count the number of names I had to learn in that period. I didn’t shut them out, and I still don’t, and I guess you could say I used these stories as fuel—for my anger, for my sense of urgency. I noticed at one point that I had started the book thinking about Mike Brown, and towards the end of my drafting process, I was thinking about Stephon Clark.

Lori Rader-Day

Your House Will Pay has a lot of ideas about what justice is and isn’t. Why did you want to explore these issues? Why do you think crime novels have a role in this discussion?

Steph Cha

I spend a lot of time thinking about the justice system and its many flaws and failures, so it makes sense to me that that makes its way into my fiction. My Juniper Song novels deal with this theme, too, though in less direct ways. I think crime novels absolutely have a role in this discussion—in fact, I think crime fiction is better positioned to deal with the human cost of political problems than any other genre. Large-scale preventable death is inherently political, and a lot of homicide falls into this category. When one group of people is victimized over and over in a recognizable pattern, that’s a systemic problem, one that can be explored by looking at any one of those deaths. And what does crime fiction even do if not give texture and individuality to crime and its consequences?

Lori Rader-Day

At one point, Your House Will Pay’s story gets rather Shakespearean. What are your literary influences for this novel?

Steph Cha

The glib answer is early ’90s L.A. hip hop, Shakespeare, and the Bible—those are the vibes I wanted to get across, in any case, so thank you for bringing up Shakespeare. But I read a lot of crime and literary fiction and particularly love the books that fall in that in-between zone. Authors like Nina Revoyr and Ivy Pochoda and Richard Price and Attica Locke come to mind. Also just books about Los Angeles—like I read The White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty when I was just starting my novel, and that was a brilliant viewpoint on the city. I’m a big fan of ear-to-the-ground local writers like Mike Sonksen and Lynelle George and Frank Shyong, and of course Jonathan Gold, who I miss dearly.

Lori Rader-Day

What are you reading lately that you want everyone else to read? Besides your Yelp reviews.

Steph Cha

I just interviewed Michael Connelly (it was so great, he is the absolute best), so I just read the two Ballard and Bosch books back to back (I’d read The Late Show, the first Ballard book,when it came out a couple years ago). I love this series, but I guess people don’t need me to tell them to read Connelly, so I’ll recommend a few books by L.A. writers I’ve absolutely loved recently: The Wanderers by Meg Howrey, Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke, Black Card by Chris L. Terry, and The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal. I also think everyone should read the Claire DeWitt series by Sara Gran. None of these books are about Los Angeles, but we’ve got some big talents in this town.

Lori Rader-Day

I will give you three sentences to tell everyone why basset hounds are the best dogs. Go.

Steph Cha

Oh my gosh, they are sweet, loyal, silly, goofy, stubborn, and ridiculous. They have those long ears and huge paws and droopy, oversized coats—they look noble and stupid at the same time, and that contrast is reflected in their personalities. They’re perfect for snuggling and they sleep a lot, so they don’t require much exercise, but about once a day, my guys will rampage around the house for about five minutes, and if that ever gets old, it hasn’t happened yet.

FICTION
Your House Will Pay
By Steph Cha
Harper Collins
Published October 15, 2019

Steph Cha is the author of Your House Will Pay and the Juniper Song crime trilogy. She’s an editor and critic whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. A native of the San Fernando Valley, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two basset hounds.

Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar® Award-nominated author of Under a Dark Sky, The Day I Died, Little Pretty Things, and The Black Hour. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the mystery readers' conference Murder and Mayhem in Chicago. Her next novel, The Lucky One, is out from Harper Collins in February.

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