In this interview, we talk about all three of Steph’s novels, Follow Her Home, Beware Beware and Dead Soon Enough. She also gives a shout-out to the Los Angles Review of Books as well as two authors she loves. You can check them out on their websites: Megan Abbott and Denise Mina. And you can find Steph on her website.
In case you missed it, I am giving away a big bundle o’ books by three mystery writers (Steph Cha’s Dead Soon Enough, Lisa Klink’s All In (signed by the author), and Krista Davis’ The Diva Steals a Chocolate Kiss), plus a $10 Amazon gift card. If you’d like a chance to win the book bundle, all you have to do is sign up for my newsletter before April 30th. Everyone on the list at midnight Pacific Time, April 30th, will be automatically entered to win.
If you’d rather read the interview than listen, here’s the transcript!
Episode 2: Steph Cha Transcript
Welcome to Destination Mystery, a podcast for readers who love a good mystery. I’m Laura Brennan.
My guest today is Steph Cha. She is the author of Follow Her Home, Beware Beware and Dead Soon Enough, the third book in the Juniper Song Mystery Series. Her writing has appeared in the LA Times and she is currently the Noir Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, she lives in her native city of Los Angeles, California, and I am thrilled to have her here today.
Laura Brennan: Welcome! How are you doing?
Steph Cha: I’m doing well. Thank you for having me on.
LB: Absolutely! I really love your work, it’s just so rich and so full of the characters and the relationships — it’s just so good. But let’s start by talking about Juniper Song. She’s your series protagonist, and really, what was her genesis?
SC: Well, I wanted to write an LA novel. I guess even before I started writing, I had the idea — I’d read Raymond Chandler in college — and I just had the idea that it would be cool if a book like Follow Her Home existed, in that I wanted to — I really love the way that Chandler represented Los Angeles, but it did seem very much a representation from another era, where it’s a very starkly white man’s vision of the city. And it just did not really jibe with my experience growing up in LA. You know, I’m Korean-American and what I really wanted to represent was the kind of upbringing that I had, the kind of 1.5 generation experience. I have a lot of Korean-American friends who were born and raised in LA and we have the largest Korean population outside of Korea, in Los Angeles. But it had not been, that experience had not been represented in fiction, like anywhere, or very scantly. So I just decided that I wanted to write a Korean-American Los Angeles novel and since Chandler is the biggest Los Angeles writer, it made sense to me to have a conversation with him.
LB: Oh, that is such a great way of putting it, because I can absolutely see how all three books are a conversation with that and with his — his vision of LA. It was so interesting, you were talking about — well, I was reading it and I was thinking about Chandler and the whole lone hero thing. And then about 10 pages later you actually took that head on, in that your third book, and the thing that I was interested in was sort of the gendered issue of it. Song is very much a lone wolf private investigator, but at the same time it seems like she’s longing for family
SC: Actually, I really liked the fact that Philip Marlowe is this ‘man without a past’ character. I found it kind of fascinating. You know, you dive into those books and you know very little about him, except his age, his height, that he is a private investigator… But I wanted to write an amateur detective novel, and in my first draft, I had no backstory for Song. And it didn’t really make sense. She needed to have some kind of emotional involvement, just because she’s an amateur detective. But even without the backstory, though, I always knew that I wanted to have her be a little more tied down to her world and the people around her than Marlowe is, just because that seemed realistic to me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman — it could be. I know that my social networks are extremely important to me. But I wanted to… I guess, writing an amateur detective novel, one of things I wanted to do was to make her behave in ways that were not completely disconnected from how I might behave if I were caught in a similar situation.
SC: And so for me it just seemed like it would’ve been strange to have her not long for a family, not long for a connection. And for all of Marlowe’s lone wolfness, he does occasionally long for those connections. And I think it’s only human. He just gets disappointed in those relationships.
LB: Right. Well, The Long Goodbye — Follow Her Home reminded me very much of The Long Goodbye, the themes of friendship and betrayal and what you would do, how far you would go for a friend.
LB: Was that deliberate?
SC: Yes and no. I wasn’t specifically thinking about The Long Goodbye. Actually, I was for Beware Beware, but The Long Goodbye is an extremely large book in my imagination, so, and more so than The Big Sleep, I would say. Which is more the book I was thinking about in Follow Her Home.
LB: The other thing that’s sort of Chandleresque, and then I want to move away from Chandler because I do think that your books are special and unique on their own. But sort of the Noir aspect of it. You know, in Chandler’s world Noir is very, actually, black-and-white; there are good guys and there are bad guys and very rarely do we not know, ultimately, which side someone’s on. But I think in your books, there’s a much more nuanced view of humanity and people make bad decisions and yet you keep finding the humanity in those characters.
SC: I think, for me, it just makes sense to have characters who are a bit more complicated. And there are characters in Chandler’s books or in a lot of, like, the Noirs, the old Noirs that I really appreciate, who kind of straddle the line a bit. Who are not saintly but who are understandable. And I think that’s just what appeals to me in fiction in general, are characters who appear human and who are, so you can kind of empathize with, without fully being on board with. And that’s always kind of fascinating to me. You know, obviously, one of the biggest components of fiction writing is finding that certain level of empathy with your characters, and it’s more fun to do that when your characters resist you a little bit. Yeah, I kind of like the idea of having characters who are put in situations that normally we don’t have to reckon with.
SC: I like seeing characters in crises where they really reveal themselves and I don’t think that every good person in a bad situation behaves like a good person would or is supposed to on paper. I think you get to a point where you have to make choices and that moral ambiguity just kind of creeps in.
LB: Other than Chandler, who are some authors who’ve influenced you?
SC: I actually did not read a lot of crime fiction until I started writing it. I had only read the big ones. So I’d read some Chandler, I’d read some Hammett, some Mosley, some Ellroy, all dudes, pretty much. But now I read a lot more widely. I read a lot of, I actually think some of the most exciting crime novelists working now are women. You know, like Megan Abbott is one of my favorites; I read her before my first book came out and I just admire her so deeply. And Denise Mina who is such a rock star. But I’ve always been a pretty big reader, in general, so you know, obviously Chandler’s a huge influence, but I think just part of being a writer is to absorb the kind of hidden influences from having a good diet of reading fiction and I’ve always had that. I read constantly. I would hope that at some point or another it has paid off to read anyone that I’ve read.
LB: I loved all three of your novels but I really loved Dead Soon Enough. Do you feel like you’re really hitting your stride?
SC: Yeah, you know, Dead Soon Enough — It’s funny, each of my books has been better received than the last. Which is great for me, I am very happy with this. And I do think that I’m getting better as a writer, and you know, part of it is just practice at this point. I’ve written three novels. I mean, I should be better, because I’ve spent so much more time doing it. Also, when I started writing Follow Her Home, I was 22 years old, so I just feel like part of it is growing up.
LB: Publishers Weekly gave Dead Soon Enough a starred review, calling the third Juniper Song book “outstanding.” The books really form a trilogy and if you don’t want spoilers, ought to be read in order.
SC: With Dead Soon Enough, I really liked the concept, when I came up with it, and the characters really came together for me. I really liked my side characters and I was thinking a lot about what it means to be an adult woman, who is single… I guess I came up with these two pillars for the novel. I originally wanted to write about a surrogate mother, that was the original concept for it, that I wanted to write about a — I found the concept of surrogacy pretty interesting because people are so on the ball about pregnancy. It’s something where you monitor your diet, you change everything about your lifestyle. You know, the minutest things are treated with utmost importance. And I thought, how strange it must be to outsource all of that, you know. This thing that you want to control so closely and someone else is just doing it. And my original idea was for somebody who, I wanted somebody who was having a child through surrogacy to have Song spy on her surrogate and just kind of increasingly ratchet up the level of surveillance that she wanted because I thought it was an interesting premise in that, that would be one situation where it would be really hard to say how much was too much. Because at some point, if the surrogate is out drinking, that is something that you should be able to stop, if they’re carrying your child or whatever. So that was the original idea I had for it, but it didn’t, there was something missing. I wanted another thread. And then I got into this long conversation with two Armenian-American friends of mine about the genocide, which I knew almost nothing about, and about genocide denial. And it kind of clicked that those were the two things that I wanted to work with because they weirdly complemented each other. You know, I think all along I’ve been interested, and I’m still very interested — this is one of the themes that I’m always going to be concerned with in my career — I’m very interested in legacy and heritage, and what it means to be part of a minority group and how that affects the way you view yourself, the way you view things like guilt and pride. And just like the kinds of things that are passed on intergenerationally. And so here I had decided that I wanted to deal with heritage on both the ethnic level and on the family level, and so it kind of made sense to have this book then that dealt with life and death from both ends.
LB: Culture plays such a huge role in all of your books. Every little area, every neighborhood is its own pocket of culture and there’s very, there’s a lot of identity based on that, even on where one lives. So I guess I have two things about this: one is, how important is it, how much of our identity but also how much for the reader does it matter to have something that’s not sort of the default white male; and the second is, Los Angeles, you much love the place because it’s a character in and of itself.
SC: Yeah, I think, I don’t know, I guess I wanted to, when I set out to write Los Angeles, I wanted to make sure that I represented Los Angeles. And part of Los Angeles, part of the identity of Los Angeles is that it has so many identities. And so I guess I’m going to answer both of these questions in one go, because they’re really related to one another in that, a lot of people come to LA and hate it because they come for two days and they stay in the wrong neighborhood and they just try to go to like Rodeo and Disneyland and it’s just a disaster because — because that’s like just a tiny… Or they think that LA is all Hollywood. There are so many misconceptions while the truth is LA is gigantic and just a patchwork where you can find any pocket you want. I almost feel like if you come to Los Angeles and you hate it because all of the people that you see, because you hate all the people you see, you know, you hate all the places near you. I almost feel like that’s your fault. Because you can make out of Los Angeles what you will. Every neighborhood has a completely different feel. And I think, yeah, I did set out to write books that dealt with different cultures but once I was writing a Los Angeles novel, that was not really — I didn’t really have to try to do that. It came pretty naturally, because if you have a private eye going around town, you pick a neighborhood, or you pick a couple of neighborhoods for things to happen and the individual locales will kind of dictate themselves. I think I’m able to capture the feel of neighborhoods that I know, and that doesn’t involve much finagling. I have very racially diverse casts in all of my books and that’s another thing that, it comes very naturally because my friend groups tend to be pretty diverse and I think that part of it is being a person of color. But I don’t have to force anything, that’s kind of how I end up seeing the world. I think accurately, is how I see the world.
LB: Well, I agree and I love it and actually, I just want to make sure that, people who haven’t read you yet, we’ve been talking about influences and themes, but your books are rollicking good fun. There’s that element to it as well. They pace like mad. And your supporting cast is phenomenal. I love her fellow PIs, I love Lori, you really have built these recurring characters who have such distinct personalities and bring to the table, really, just a richness to the story. But the story, also, they’re good mysteries. What’s most fun part about writing it?
SC: The most about writing them — that’s a good question. I have this relationship with writing where I don’t really have fun until I feel like I’m doing a great job. So the most fun part about writing them, I think, is the moment after I figure the story out, and I can just kind of, every day, I write, I sit down and it comes kind of naturally, I know where I’m going. So I wouldn’t say it’s like one component, it’s more like when I get the feel of one of the books totally right then it becomes pretty fun to do. And that point varies with, depending on the novel. I don’t always figured out at the same time. Actually, Dead Soon Enough, I was very worried that it was not going to come together for a while.
SC: And then I figured it out! And I kind of always have had that moment where I don’t know what I’m going to do, I feel like I’ve made a mess of things and then I’m, like, in the shower or something — it’s usually in the shower — and I just figure out what I’m going to do that will make it all makes sense.
LB: Well, one last question then: so what’s next for Song?
SC: So I’m actually not working on a Song novel right now. I’m working on of this very ambitious, behemoth of an LA novel that I’m very worried about and that I’ve been working on for almost a year now without getting too far. But I have high hopes for it. It’s a novel about Blacks and Koreans in LA, kind of stemming from some of the wounds of the early ’90s and the LA riots and some things leading up to that. It’s not a PI. If I were to write another PI novel, which I very well might in the future, it would probably be a Song novel, but this is more like, I guess, literary crime.
LB: Oh, neat! That’s good, that’s a terrific genre. Well, you know, the Song novels are Noir, but not unliterary.
SC: I would agree, but — thank you — I would agree. I think, it’s funny, this is a conversation that’s always going on in the genre world. I’m sure you’re very familiar with it, this distinction between Noir and literary. And one thing I’ve found is that there are so many novelists who write crime and write it beautifully. But I think that there’s just something about the PI format or the police procedural format that is just not really given credit for being literary. And part of it, I think, is because a lot of the readers of mystery novels where it matters a lot what the solution is, are not necessarily reading for things like prose, which is fine, but I think that ends up being why. You know, I don’t really sweat whether people consider my novels literary because just on a pure label level, they’re definitely mystery. But yeah, I do take pride in my sentences and stuff like that.
LB: Thank you to my guest Steph Cha. Show notes and transcripts are available at destinationmystery.com.