Steph Cha talks about the L.A. immigrant noir of ‘Dead Soon Enough’
Steph Cha might be the world’s only author of Korean American feminist noir. That might sound overly niche, but it isn’t. Her Juniper Song detective series featuring, you guessed it, a female Korean PI, plays by most of the conventions of the noir genre and does so with much finesse.
Juniper might idolize Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s great hard-boiled detective, but she more closely resembles another Los Angeles PI -- Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins. Like Mosley, Cha weaves her mysteries around Los Angeles’ immigrant and outsider communities, creating a richer and more ethnically diverse (and more accurate) portrait of the city than the average detective novel.
The third book in the series, “Dead Soon Enough” (Minotaur: 304 pp., $26.99), is a gritty, politically charged mystery that takes Juniper into the Armenian American community in Glendale. Cha spoke by phone about developing her heroine and writing fast. She will be reading from her latest novel at Skylight Books on Aug. 12.
So “Dead Soon Enough” is the third installment in your Juniper Song series. How has Song developed, grown or changed in the course of her adventures?
Song started out as this directionless millennial with an unresolved family tragedy and zero passion in her life, and then I put her through the ringer and ruined things for her even further. She’s taken it all pretty well, actually. Made a few new friends, got a job. She’s working as a private investigator now, and she’s good at it, so there’s that. She’s had a lot of illusions shattered for her, and she knows people can be pretty crummy, but she still can’t help trusting the ones she likes and hoping for the best.
You were pretty young when your first novel “Follow Her Home” came out. How do you feel you’ve changed as a writer since then?
I was 27 when it was published, but “Follow Her Home” is the novel I started writing when I was 22 years old, so, yeah, I’ve changed a lot. Almost everything I’ve learned about writing has happened on the job, some while I was writing the first book, and definitely some after. I like to think I’ve gotten better. I’m more comfortable with my sentences; my ear has improved. I have a good sense of how to structure a novel -- a detective novel, at least.
I’ve also had to work on speed and discipline, since the expectation in the mystery world is a book a year, which is pretty crazy. My first book took me over a year and a half for a lean, flawed first draft, with another two years or so for editing. It took some adjustment to get to a place where I could bang out a manuscript in a year, but I am there, more or less. I’ve had to arrange everything else in my life to accommodate my writing life, but it’s worth it.
What drew you to write about the Armenian immigrant experience and Armenian genocide?
Two of my good friends are Armenian Americans, and my husband and I ended up getting into a long conversation with them about the genocide during a weekend trip to Lake Arrowhead. The genocide happened a hundred years ago, but it has yet to be recognized by the Turkish government or, for political reasons that have nothing to do with truth or justice, by the United States. I’m Korean American, and despite being born well after World War II and having never lived in Korea, every now and then, I get extremely angry about Japan’s denial of its war crimes. I know the feeling of rage in the blood, and I guess this conversation just called something out of me.
Later, when I interviewed them about their experiences growing up in Armenian immigrant households, I was struck by the parallels in our upbringings. The emphasis on education and family, the obsession with food, our truly exemplary mothers.
You graduated from Yale Law School and are married to a lawyer, yet the lawyers in your books don’t get the best rap.
I’m technically a lawyer too, actually, just not really practicing these days. I have a lot of respect for the profession and think it’s really important and powerful, and maybe that’s why I’ve had a few lawyer villains in my books. One of the storylines in “Dead Soon Enough” was inspired by a case in which the law firm Mayer Brown represented a group trying to force the city of Glendale to remove a statue honoring Korean comfort women.
For some reason, people are always up in arms about who is the quintessential Los Angeles novelist. I guess this is because our city is somehow still unknowable and inscrutable. If you could have drinks with any three L.A. writers, who would they be and where would you go?
Honestly, I’d just take a one-on-one with Raymond Chandler. We’d go to a Koreatown nightclub so I could watch his head spin.
Finally, I know you are an avid Yelper with about 2,400 reviews to date. How did this obsession come about and what are the last three reviews you have written?
I stumbled on the Kogi Truck during its first weekend of operation and had drunk tacos that blew my mind. I wrote an enthusiastic Yelp review because I wanted to tell people about it, then wrote like a hundred more reviews in the next month. This was in late 2008, and I’ve written up just about every business I’ve walked into since then. It’s kind of sick, but I can’t stop now. As of this interview, the last three spots I yelped are Hotel Figueroa, Vegan House and Tumanyan Khinkali Factory. That last one is an Armenian restaurant that specializes in a kind of Georgian soup dumpling that probably originated in East Asia.
Pochoda is the author, most recently, of “Visitation Street.”
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