Interviews

Trouble Is Her Business: A Tour of Steph Cha’s Los Angeles

We return to the scene of the crime in early May. In daylight, the MTA bus bench looks innocuous, but it has been the backdrop to violence. A young Korean-American woman named Juniper Song was knocked unconscious here, attacked by an unseen assailant. She had been trailing Lori Lim, a naive femme fatale. The whole event, Song testifies, feels less like real life and more like a scene from her favorite book, Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, whose rakish hero Philip Marlowe she idolizes. “For all my fascination with the violence of noir,” she says, “I had never fantasized its intrusion into my own life.” The crime occurs at the end of the second chapter of Steph Cha’s debut mystery novel, Follow Her Home, and Cha is giving me a tour of the various real-life locations from her book.

LA has a wonderful tradition—or maybe, just a habit—of confusing innocence with depravity that goes all the way back to Chandler, and that Cha cleverly carries on. Even the sunshine’s suspect in LA noir, a close cousin of the city’s talent for making every street seem like a potential movie location, special only because of its blankness. As we drive down Larchmont during our interview, Cha points out a Chipotle: “That used to be a Koo Koo Roo.”

It’s hard not to read Juniper Song as Cha’s own fictional counterpart. The novel, with its story of a twentysomething dealing with the darker parts of adolescence, has the faint whiff of roman a clef. It’s hard not to look for parallels between Song and Cha’s lives, however misleading we know these sort of clues are (both grew up in Los Angeles, Korean-American, and went away to prestigious colleges before returning to their hometown in their twenties).

The book is filled with personal landmarks from Cha’s life in LA. Two blocks west of the bus bench is a one-story house that Cha’s best friend grew up in. In Follow Her Home, that exact address is occupied by two of the novel’s main characters. Two minutes north is the apartment complex, now called The Windsor, where the novel’s story begins. Although Cha has no personal connection to the building, she has a literary one: The building, before being bought and renovated a few years back, was called The Marlowe.

We spend the rest of the afternoon driving around Los Angeles. Cha’s dog Duke barks mournfully throughout the interview. Appropriately, it sounds like someone being murdered.

SAM FREILICH: When you started writing the book did you know it was going to take place in LA?

STEPH CHA: Yes, always. And I knew that it was going to feature a Korean-American woman. I started writing the book the summer between my first and second year of law school. I probably only wrote a chapter, though. I was working at a firm I hated, which is loosely the basis of the one in the book. All of my best friends from high school were back home and that summer we would go out Korean clubbing once or twice a week.

Korean clubbing is this really weird culture. I had originally written a part about booking clubs into the novel, and I’m kind of sad I took it out. At these Korean clubs, women don’t have to pay, and they get to sit at these little promo tables and waiters come and matchmake them with men. We used to do that all the time. I’m a pretty determined feminist, but these clubs are about as antithetical as you can get.

SF: It seems, though, like that experience of going to the clubs that summer became a big part of the book. What prompted the decision to begin writing in the first place?

SC: I read a lot, and I always knew writing was something I wanted to give a shot. I was interested in writing, because I think anyone who reads a ton will inevitably want to write. There’s no barriers to wanting to be a writer.

Eventually, I read Chandler in a college class as a freshman and thought it would be fun to have a Korean-American version of Marlowe, just because I know K-Town and the Korean part of LA so well. I wanted to talk about yellow fever and why that subject’s interesting to me, and I saw noir as being a good tool to explore that interest.

I also saw that LA today is vastly different from Chandler’s LA, and I thought it would be interesting to show that. Once I recognized a potential niche, I had the idea in my head to write the novel. But I didn’t end up starting until once I was in law school and realized that I didn’t want to be a lawyer.

SF: How is your LA different from Chandler’s?

SC: Well, first off, one of the things I like most about noir is its versatility, how it’s this neat tool you can use to explore basically anything you want. And the thing that really struck me about the detective genre, and one of its appealing aspects, is how the private eye can go anywhere in a city. Marlowe is able to go everywhere, but everyone he meets is inevitably white. Only occasionally will he meet someone of a different color, and then he immediately feels compelled to call attention to that person’s difference. This disparity always jumped out at me. In many ways Chandler translates well to today, except there are also these jarring moments where it’s obvious that the guy was writing in the 1940s.

So that’s part of the difference. LA is simply more diverse now than it was then. And it was very important to me that my book had a diverse cast to reflect that. I knew that I wanted to have an Asian-American lead character, rather than the Asian-American sidekick. I knew that I wanted it to be at least partly about the exoticization of Asian-American women—the other side of that coin usually involves a white man with power and money, and so it was important, too, that the story reflect that. And I definitely knew that I wanted to have a main Latino character, because it’s LA and it would be weird to have an LA novel without any kind of Latino character in the main cast.

SF: When you started writing about Los Angeles, did you know how you were going to portray the city? I mean, that it was going to be realistically or more expressively?

SC: I knew I wanted it to be pretty geographically concrete. Actually, my fiancé read an early draft and said that was something I needed to work on. Chandler’s able to create this remarkably good sense of LA. It’s incredibly concrete, without having to resort to sentences like, “and then he turns left on Sunset.”

SF: Yeah, that sort of writing always reminds me of that SNL skit “The Californians.”

SC: Exactly, so then I toned that down and tried to make the city more part of the background. I really wanted every scene to be easy to visualize and recognizable to anyone who lives here.

SF: Are there any non-noir LA writers or novels who, if they don’t necessarily influence your writing, you respond to strongly?

SC: It’s funny, I saw a list recently of seminal LA novels and about half of them were noir.

SF: Why do you think that is?

SC: I think it’s because Chandler was so definitive. I mean, who else back then painted the literary landscape of the city? Nobody did it in the same way. He perfected LA as atmosphere, as character.

Until I had finished writing the book, I had only read Hammett, Chandler, Ellroy, Moseley. The big names. I hadn’t really gone beyond that to anything contemporary, which is part of what I had initially assumed my idea for Follow Her Home was so original, like no one had ever thought to update Marlowe before. Since then, though, I’ve read a bunch of contemporary writers in noir, especially female, and there’s a lot of really great stuff going on.

Actually, when I sold the book in 2011 I was told by at least a few editors that noir was not doing very well. And when the book was being packaged, they tried to downplay the noir element.

SF: So what did they try to play up instead?

SC: Just general mystery, but with a strong female lead. That’s how they wanted to market it, as a female-driven mystery. Now I feel that they’re more into the noir aspect of the book, and that’s been emphasized more. And I think that that’s because in 2012 Gillian Flynn happened, which is great. Megan Abbott is also doing really well. So between the time I sold my book and about a month ago, there’s been this resurgence in noir. Denis Mina, who lives in Glasgow, is also really amazing—she writes “tartan” noir that very funny and explicitly feminist. She’s so funny and charismatic.

I’ve been reading a lot of Asian-American writers. I recently read Southland by Nina Revoyr. It’s mystery, but also a history of LA. It tells the story of this one neighborhood in the Crenshaw district, which during the mid-twentieth century was a mixed African-American and Japanese neighborhood. It spans from Japanese internment to the Northridge earthquake. Also Elsewhere, California by Dana Johnson. She’s a creative writing professor at USC and also has a short story collection called Break Any Woman Down. She writes these amazing coming-of-age-slash-relationship stories about African-American women. She does really great things with voice. Her stories are so good—I mean, remarkably good.

SF: So what’s your plan next?

SC: I want to do one or two more Song books, and then I’m not sure if I want to continue writing crime fiction. I mean, I’d like to be able to toggle back and forth. I like crime fiction, but most of what I read is not crime fiction.

SF: But Follow Her Home bends genre conventions as much as it adheres to them. 

SC: Yeah, but I think, if you start out writing a mystery, then it’s going to be a mystery. Whereas if you’re Michael Chabon and you’ve already written literary novels, then something like The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is going to be labelled literature even if it has mystery elements. Eventually I’m going to try my hand writing straight literary fiction, but probably not for awhile, in three or four years.

SF: That’s a pretty clear plan.

SC: Apparently if you write mysteries, the publisher wants you to do one book every year. If I keep that pace—and I’d like to be able to—then I’ll do that for the next couple years.

SF: Were you hanging around any other writers while you were writing Follow Her Home?

SC: Not at all. It made me really sad, because writing is such a solitary endeavor. I didn’t do the MFA circuit and, even though there were a few writers in law school, none of them ended up in LA either.

But I have friends who I talk about books with. One of my best friends reads a ton. I actually think he should write a novel. He works for Apple as an engineer. I told him he should write a Foxconn murder mystery. I have all these ideas for noirs that I want other people to write, because I don’t know enough about them. For example, I don’t know why we haven’t seen a Middle-Eastern American noir.

SF: What other ideas?

SC: Post-Katrina noir. There’s a little bit of it, like James Lee Burke, but I feel that there should be an African-American writer who really takes that on. I think noir happens anytime and anywhere there is a dark part of the world. I mean, because that’s where noir originally sprang from, right? That post-World War II depression and anger. Anytime I hear of an environment like that I feel that someone should write about it. For example, there’s this mining town in North Dakota that has been in the news recently because they have too many men. It’s terrible to be a woman there because the ratio of men to women is so skewed. And I was listening about it on NPR the other day and I thought, man, I wanna read that book.

SF: When you do write your non-noir novel, will it still be set in LA?

SC: Definitely. I think I’ll probably spend my whole life writing about Asian-Americans in this city, especially because it’s not like there’s this huge surfeit of that. And plus, it’s what I know best.

Sam Freilich lives in L.A.