Steph Cha talks to NB Magazine about her stunning new crime novel Your House Will Pay:
Steph Cha is a Korean-American novelist and journalist, she is the author of an LA P.I. series featuring Juniper Song, reluctant detective. Her latest stand alone novel, Your House Will Pay, was published by Faber and Faber in January this year and critics are running out of superlatives to describe it’s brilliance. A link to my review is attached to this piece but for now here’s what you need to know about the book before reading the interview: Grace Park and Shawn Mathews share a city, but seemingly little else. Coming from different
generations and very different communities, their paths wouldn’t normally cross at all. As Grace battles confusion over her elder sisters estrangement from their Korean immigrant parents, Shawn tries to help his cousin Ray readjust to life on the outside after years spent in prison.
But something in their past links these two families. As the city around them threatens to spark into violence, echoing events from their past, the lives of Grace and Shawn are set to collide in ways which will change them all forever.
Paul Burke: The title of your new novel, Your House Will Pay, is suggestive of Shakespeare, the tale is a modern tragedy. Is this the way you see it?
Steph Cha: Thank you! I wanted a title that felt biblical or Shakespearean, so I’m glad you hear it that way. I do think of my book as a tragedy, a story of violence and reckoning that feels a bit inevitable and preordained. I wanted it to have that sort of shape to it—arcs that go where they have to because of history and structural injustice, even as the characters struggle to assert their own agency.
PB: This is a crime story, as Thérèse Raquin is, a novel with murder in it, very unlike the hero led LA detective story, hero, investigation etc., (your own Juniper Song series). Is this more about the impact of crime on individuals and society?
SC: I think of my Juniper Song novels as mysteries in the more traditional sense, while Your House Will Pay is a crime novel under a looser definition. There are characters in this book that would be the heroes of a mystery novel—namely the journalist and the detective—while the protagonists, Shawn and Grace, would be side characters the heroes speak to along the way. I wanted to invert the structure of the mystery novel by spending time with these other characters, the ones who are affected by violence long after the mysteries have been solved. I also try to get at the impact of crime on society, for sure, but only through these individuals and their families.
PB: Your House Will Pay demonstrates that crime fiction can be as profound an exploration of the human condition as any contemporary literature, dealing in big themes: Racism, criminal justice (injustice), community interactions, perspectives. Do you see it that way?
SC: Oh, absolutely. Many of the issues I address in this book would be pretty impossible to talk about without involving crime. You’d have to go out of your way, all just to circumvent
writing a crime novel.
PB: Your House Will Pay is a reflection on the 1991 riots and the murder of Latasha Harlins, something you’re too young to remember but I wonder how you feel those events reverberate today? Did you feel the weight of real events, real lives, when writing your novel? (Black Lives Matter for instance).
SC: I wanted to write about early ‘90s L.A. in large part because it feels so directly relevant to the problems facing contemporary America. The ’92 Uprising happened in response to an act of police brutality—the beating of Rodney King—and I started writing this book in 2014, after Michael Brown’s murder and the subsequent rioting in Ferguson. I watched the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, I mourned more young black victims of police violence, and the line between the 1990s and the 2010s could not have been straighter.
PB: The events of 1991 scarred the community and community relations. You explore the issues of inherited guilt and anger and the profound effects of grief in your fictional parallel story, is this the legacy?
SC: Yes, and I think it’s a legacy that is both particular to black and Korean Americans in Los Angeles and shared, in a broad sense, by every American. This country was built on genocide and slavery, and those crimes are part of our inheritance, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. Grace’s struggle with her legacy is one that I think many Americans go through when they decide to face down their histories, the system that determines their positions in their country.
PB: Were you aware of writing Your House Will Pay for two audiences, in the sense that some people will remember these events, others will be coming to them fresh, did that affect the way you told the story?
SC: I was. I figured some people would come into this book knowing about Latasha Harlins and the history of early ‘90s Los Angeles, so I tried not to hinge the reading experience on
the twists and turns that are crucial to many genre novels. I guess this has been my approach to plotting all of my novels, though. I don’t put too much stock in shocking my readers. I like when stories unfold in interesting, organic ways that aren’t necessarily the most surprising.
PB: One of the things the novel brings to the reader is an insight into different perspectives on events, something that often escapes people. A single perspective is often self- perpetuating, blinkered, (restricted), are we becoming more polarised as a society?
SC: American society, at least, feels pretty polarised these days, but I don’t know that it’s more polarised than it has been in the past. We’ve been through some pretty terrible, divided times before. In fact, I can’t think of an era when things have been hunky dory across the board.
PB: Do you think that that polarisation is exacerbated by demagoguery, for instance, does the attitude of Trump give a license to extremism?
SC: I do think people like Trump inflame some of the worst impulses of our population.
PB: identifying in a group, a community, may be a good thing, a necessary thing, natural even but the corollary is that it can lead to a kind of ‘othering’ of people not in your ‘group’, not from your background. We don’t seem to be alive to the idea that more unites us than separates us as people.
SC: People are complex, and I certainly like to think most of us are smart enough to hold many things in our heads at once. It is entirely possible to identify strongly with a particular community while understanding both in-group out-group difference and the broader notions that unite humanity.
PB: Perspectives on events seem to be shoved at us all the time, peer groups, press, social media, (often exaggeration and half baked theories). It’s very difficult to see where the truth lies but do people often just prefer to have their prejudice confirmed?
SC: Yes, this is very human, and as far as I can tell, mostly unavoidable. No one is impartial, and even the coldest among us is incapable of separating our biases from the processing of even the plainest of facts. That said, there are plenty of provable, immovable truths that can be tested and evaluated. Of course many reject them anyway.
PB: Does the way the judicial system deals so leniently with the murderer of Ava in the novel say something about bias within the American legal system, (it’s a reflection of the Latasha Harlins case)?
SC: Definitely. Latasha Harlins, like many black victims of violence, was vilified in her own murder trial in a way that never would have happened for a young murdered white or even Korean girl. American law is imperfect, and its many imperfections have left plentiful room for the anti-blackness prevalent in our society to taint the outcomes of American justice.
PB: One thing that comes across with Grace and Shawn, (in fact, most of the people in the book actually), is that they are ordinary people, momentous tragic events shape their lives. The slow release of the background story enables the reader to get a sense of the hurt and anger before fully realising where it comes from, we constantly have to re-assess what we know about Grace and Shawn. This engenders an understanding of and an empathy for them.
SC: I wanted them to be ordinary people who do not choose to participate in this terrible story. They’d much rather just spend time with their families, far away from public scrutiny, and from the mess of American racial politics. I happen to believe, though, that the personal is always political and the political is always personal, and that the division is an illusion that can evaporate in an instant.
PB: Your House Will Pay explores divisions between different communities but it seems to me your novel also highlights that American cultural norms complicates the picture. For example there’s a generational cultural rift too. Grace and Miriam are very different women with very different relationships with their parents, (part based on the knowledge Miriam possesses), but they are both separated in their thinking from their parents by their American education, cultural mixing, work environments, immersion etc.
SC: Most of the Korean Americans I know are second generation, and I wanted to explore that dynamic between immigrants and their children, who owe so much to their parents, and whose education and Americanness allow them to judge their parents from a position of greater knowledge and privilege. And of course the experience of second-generation Americans is itself broadly varied, even within the same families. Miriam and Grace are very different people, in part because Miriam has wandered farther away from her home and hometown, while Grace has never really left Greater Los Angeles and still lives with her parents.
PB: Any comment on Miriam’s assertion to her sister: “Grace, I think everyone’s a racist.”?
SC: Miriam says this to Grace when Grace asks her, in a moment of misery, if Miriam thinks Grace is racist. The response could be read as flip, but it’s also true. No one is immune from bias, and we are all influenced by the many racist ideas that float around our culture and society. It takes active effort to counteract these influences.
PB: what does 2020 hold for you, what are working on?
SC: Right now, I’m gestating a very active fetus, and I expect some of my year will be lost to the feeding and care of said fetus when he is born this spring. I am planning to start a new novel before then, though, and hopefully get a good chunk of it done throughout the year. Congratulations from us all at NB Magazine and thank you Steph.
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha is published by Faber & Faber on 16 January