August 12, 2015

The Crime Lady #034: Talking With Steph Cha, and More

I've been a fan of Steph Cha's writing almost from the first -- or at least, if the first was her first novel, Follow Her Home, which introduced Juniper Song to the annals of private eye fiction. Song, as she prefers to be called, is unabashed in her love of all things Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe, and when she is mixed up in murder and tragedy, she figures the lessons of the master will help her in cracking the case. They do, in part - but not before she comes close to cracking herself. It was an impressive slow-burn debut followed up by the even-better Beware Beware and now, this week, the third (and easily the best) installment, Dead Soon Enough.

Cha (seen above with her basset hound, Duke) is also an incredibly perceptive and astute critic, getting at the heart, in pieces for the LA Times, LA Review of Books, and other outlets, of what makes literary and crime fiction work - or not. These reasons are why she'll be taking part in my event at Vroman's on October 12 for Women Crime Writers, and also why I wanted to discuss a wide variety of topics in our Q&A -- lightly edited and condensed for clarity -- that takes up the bulk of this week's newsletter.


The Crime Lady: What I love about the Juniper Song books is how much she changes over the course of each book. We meet her, in Follow Her Home, as a post-collegiate who more or less stumbles across a murder and sleuths it out. Then in Beware Beware she's a detective trainee, and now, in Dead Soon Enough, she is a junior detective, a part of a team. How important was it to show Song's professional growth and, to some degree, maturity over time, and when does she start running the agency?

Steph Cha: I actually wrote Follow Her Home as a standalone novel, and only decided to write Beware Beware when I had a strong idea for a sequel. Same deal with Dead Soon Enough. But once I figured out that I was writing a series, I knew I had to make sure that the sequence mattered, and that Song’s experiences in each book changed her outlook and her position in the world in essential—if not always major or obvious—ways. I think of Song as a real person, who’s grown with me, and I wanted to chart all the shifts in her character, in the things and people she cares about, in a way that felt organic. And, since she’s moving through her twenties, it made sense to give her some kind of a career path, which is something she lacked in the first book. Follow Her Home was all about Song dealing with her past and finding a purpose for her sluggish millennial life, so I’m glad that she’s stuck with investigation and carved out a path for herself. I don’t think she’s planning to make a move on her superiors/mentors anytime soon, but she’s good at what she does and takes pride in it.

TCL: 2015 is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, which figures prominently in Dead Soon Enough. I wondered why you zeroed in on this as a key plot development. Was this a period of (unjustly neglected) history you were aware of before, or did you become more cognizant while writing the book?

SC: Around the time I was wrapping up Beware Beware, I took a weekend trip with some friends to a house in Lake Arrowhead, where we spent most of our time drinking and talking, with like one jigsaw puzzle thrown in. Two of those friends are Armenian-American, and we got into a long conversation about the genocide and its continued denial. I’m Korean-American, and their anger and frustration about the topic totally resonated with me—though I’ve never even lived in Korea, I get pretty upset whenever I hear about Japanese efforts to downplay its war crimes. About a month after this conversation, a brand-spanking-new nonprofit sued the City of Glendale—which has large Korean as well as Armenian populations—for the removal of a statue commemorating Korean comfort women, who were essentially sex slaves for Japanese soldiers in World War II. Mayer Brown, a super white-shoe law firm, represented them (and ended up dropping the suit when it got too hot). As you can probably tell, I used this suit as a jumping-off point for the novel, with an Armenian Genocide memorial at its center. I ended up doing a lot of research on the genocide, which, to be honest, I knew very little about before talking to my friends.

The other reason the genocide made sense to me as a key piece to the novel is that I was already planning to write about pregnancy surrogacy (the original seed of the book was the idea of a woman hiring Song to run surveillance on her surrogate). The genocide just struck me as the perfect thematic counterpart, allowing me to talk about life and death and legacy and responsibility in contemplative but concrete ways.

TCL: That's interesting you thought the Armenian Genocide would be a strong thematic counterpart to the surrogacy storyline, which, as you wrote it in Dead Soon Enough, was also a way of exploring female terrors -- pregnancy and fertility, of course, but also friendship and power. Can you talk a little more about how the two storylines interacted together for you? Was it a micro/macro way of looking at the same subjects? Or something a little less concrete that became more apparent as you put the book together?

SC: I was thinking about fertility issues, and the incredible drive so many people have to reproduce and pass down their genes--the biological imperative or whatever, played out on a very human stage by people who have to take difficult, decisive measures to have children. When I started thinking about the Armenian genocide, I realized that the stakes must be higher for a group that faced ethnic cleansing, then ended up in a place like Los Angeles, as a small immigrant community in a giant city. For the family at the center of my book, the genocide and the surrogate pregnancy are two salient points on the same line.

There's continuity of life, of course, and with that, the enduring importance of legacy. No one is born into a clean universe; we are all marked and burdened by history and passed-down identity, whether we want to admit it or not. And legacy doesn't just come from our ancestors--it comes, in its most impactful form, from our parents. This inheritance can be molded, too, as it consists of stories, and it always matters how stories are told. Both governments and families keep secrets, tell lies, and by doing so, shape how people see themselves. So I guess in my book, all the stuff that Song and her clients deal with, whether it be genocide denial or family conflict--this poor unborn child will inherit it all, in one way or another.

TCL: Song, from the getgo, wears her Chandler/Marlowe admiration/fandom on her proverbial sleeve. And while I'm more inclined towards Hammett myself, I do understand the devotion Chandler inspires in young writers. Now that you've written and published three detective novels, and have reviewed crime fiction more extensively, how has your own relationship to Chandler's work changed? Does he mean something different to you now?

SC: I started writing Follow Her Home as a twenty-two-year-old with a total Chandler fixation. For a while there, one of my life plans was to have a child and name her Marlo. But even when I first fell in love with his books, I knew that Los Angeles no longer belonged to Raymond Chandler. I wanted to answer him in his own city, in his own genre, with plenty of nods to his writing. Follow Her Home was the most overt attempt at this, and I will admit that at the time I thought it was really fresh and original to try and run my own take on Chandler. I’m still writing on a literary landscape he more or less defined, but after the first book, I feel like I’ve been able to write my own books without thinking about him every paragraph. Chandler’s a hero I’ll always have and be grateful for, but I guess I don’t need him holding my hand anymore.

TCL: You contributed a story to the recently published anthology Asian Pulp, which is a good segue into a diversity discussion. I think a lot -- maybe too much? -- how white/middle-aged/male the crime genre, and especially detective fiction, skews, and in 2015 it seems weird and dated to see this stubborn adherence. How do you think about this topic? And aside from entertaining with great stories, what do you hope this anthology accomplishes?

SC: I think about this all the time. It’s hard not to as a woman of color—part of that experience is a constant barrage of reminders that I am different from the white male norm. I’ve been in a lot of rooms full of white dudes—I mean you’ve been in some of them with me. But frankly, I enjoy writing against this background. It gives me a lot to talk about. Some of the richest crime fiction in recent years has come from female crime writers (and I know, largely from you, that women have been chipping away at the white male crime monolith for ages, but it does seem like the last decade has been a great age for women in crime), and crime writers of color, I think because darkness really flourishes in pockets of marginalized experience.

Asian Pulp is such a great project because Asian-American characters are so often flattened into dragon ladies and kung fu fighters, maybe particularly in pulp fiction. I like that this anthology allows readers to spend time in a space filled with Asian leads—not just one or two, but an insistent seventeen

TCL: What I've seen happen with a number of crime writers is that they only started reading the genre more seriously after they are published. Have you found your own genre reading becoming more varied since you've published novels? Or were you always reading crime fiction as heavily as you did literary fiction?

SC: Until I sold Follow Her Home, I’d only read the big, canonical crime writers—Chandler, Hammett, Highsmith, Macdonald, Mosley, Ellroy. I just didn’t know very much about the genre. But for the last few years, I’ve been reading it pretty seriously, and have found some wonderful, wonderful books I might not have come across in my pre-published life. I still read mostly literary fiction, but I’d say I read at least a couple crime novels a month.
TCL: As someone who writes crime fiction criticism I find that, in some ways, it's a lot harder to do than write about litfic or nonfiction. You review in all those areas (or maybe not nonfiction as much?) and I wonder if you find any subtle, or not-so-subtle, differences in how you approach books of different genres.

SC: I evaluate crime fiction in the same way I evaluate literary fiction, at least when I’m reading. If the writing is sloppy, if the themes and characters are insubstantial, I don’t really give any passes. When I’m reviewing, though, I try to keep in mind that there are things unique to the genre that have to be credited, even if I don’t particularly care about them. I wrote a pretty unenthusiastic review of Jo Nesbo’s The Son last year, for example, but I made sure to acknowledge that it did what it was supposed to do, which was provide lots of thrill and manly violence.

SW: Chandler is so pervasive in the culture it's easy to forget he didn't write that many books featuring Marlowe. Do you think Juniper Song's arc is a short one, or more indefinite? And are standalone works, or non-crime novels, in your immediate future?

SC: I'm taking a break from Song for now. I don’t know that I’m done with her, but there are other projects I want to pursue, and I can always come back if I have an idea for a story that’s best told through her eyes. I’m pretty deep into my next novel, which actually came out of my Asian Pulp story. It’s either a literary novel with a crime angle or a crime novel with a literary scope, about blacks and Koreans in Los Angeles, in particular the fallout of a fictionalized version of the 1991 Latasha Harlins murder that preceded and flavored the riots. It’s a story I really want to tell, and it’s absolutely riddled with crime—but that’s just how a lot of Americans experience their lives.


You can also read interviews with Cha at the LA Times and the LA Review of Books. She is also a prolific Yelper.

This newsletter's plenty long so saving the book recs for next week and leaving with a few more links:

William Kennedy pays tribute to his longtime friend and onetime book editor E.L. Doctorow.

Jennifer Weiner and her partner, Bill Syken, both of them authors with new books just or about to be published, discuss their wildly different approaches to spending money at Refinery29.

It won't change his series, but it is interesting that the Peak District National Park, where Stephen Booth's Cooper & Fry operate out of, no longer has a working police force

Revisiting Marjorie Morningstar, 60 years later.

Anna March on the sisters Lyon and the girl named "Darlene" who saw their probable killer and was dismissed out of hand.

Love for NYRB Classics in the NYT, so of course I approve.

Finally, read this Peter Maass story on Socrates, the NSA's "philosopher of intelligence" who turns out to be a failed writer and prolific blogger. It is bonkers. It is a must-read.