In her new novel, YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY, Steph Cha brings her formidable crime-writing prowess to the aftermath of racially charged 90s’ Los Angeles. The result is a page-turning thriller driven by honesty, tension and an unyielding willingness to speak the emotional experience of its characters. An excerpt is followed by a Q&A between Cha and AFLW Fiction Editor Pete Hsu.
He cleared his throat. Spat on the ground. “Frank. You think he’s in there?”
“Don’t look like it,” said Ray. “Why?”
Shawn walked up and tried the door, Ray following behind. It was locked.
The door was glass, and he peered inside. Their old corner store, familiar even shrouded in darkness. His eyes adjusting, he made out rows of snack food and toiletries, a wall of refrigerated drinks.
“It’s empty,” Ray said. He pulled at the door, rattling it, making a little bell chime at the top. It didn’t budge for him any more than it had for Shawn. “Damn,” he said. “I was gonna clean him out of magazines.”
Shawn looked back toward Figueroa Liquor and found the fire. It wasn’t the only one. The air was hazy, the sky getting dark. Night falling, smoke rising. The streets were filling with people. He could see them roaming, hear them shouting from blocks away. It was on now. The streets zapped with energy. He could feel it, and he knew it was something big, surging through the neighborhood, the city. Shawn and Ray buzzing on the same frequency as Aunt Sheila and Uncle Richard at home, as all the people in the world who’d been forced to tune in. Everyone is a part of this. The sweat on his skin sang out.
Frank must’ve heard the trouble coming, closed up shop, and gone home. As if this weren’t his problem. As if it were as simple as leaving, waiting out the storm from a different island. He was wrong. He was in this. And he had shit to answer for.
For a moment, he thought about punching through the door—it seemed like it should be that easy. Then he collected his thoughts Shawn was getting in. What was a locked door anyway? Just a plea for obedience, asking people like Shawn to be civil and turn around, as if that had ever helped them. As if they didn’t know what to do with a little bit of glass. and looked around, scanning for something he could use instead of his fists. There were no baseball bats or hammers; no fallen branches either. But there was a broken curb at the edge of the parking lot, a loose piece of concrete sitting right there like a key to a castle in a video game. He walked over, picked it up, Ray watching him with his mouth open.
“Oh, shit,” Ray said. “Do you know—”
Shawn threw the concrete block and it broke through the door, leaving a jagged hole big enough for his arm to reach the lock.
He opened the door and entered, Ray behind him, stepping care- fully.
“This is some shit.” Ray laughed. “Don’t move!”
They snapped their heads toward the voice. It belonged to a Korean man, positioned behind the register like a soldier in the trenches, head and gun rising over the counter. Frank.
He looked older and skinnier than Shawn remembered, his face gaunt in a way that made Shawn think he could be sick. But what did that matter? He had a gun, and he was pointing it right at Ray.
Shawn’s mouth flooded with fear and anger. “Or what?” he said, the hardness in his voice surprising him. “You’ll shoot us?”
The gun didn’t move, but Frank’s eyes shifted to Shawn, appraising him. Shawn tried to see himself as this man saw him. He was fourteen now, not as tall as Ray, but much bigger than he’d been a year ago, more a man than a child. He’d been growing by the week—one day, he’d realized he was the same height Ava was, and one day soon he’d be the same age. His face, too, was older, the baby fat fallen away, the happy glow of the old days gone with it. He hardly smiled anymore.
He was a thief. A threat. A thug. Dark skin and danger.
They held still and silent, standing off, until Frank lowered the gun. “You’re the brother,” he said, staring at Shawn.
Excerpted from YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY by Steph Cha with permission from the author
Inside YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY
Pete Hsu: YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY is based on the real-life events surrounding the murder of Latasha Harlens in 1991. How did this event become the impetus of the novel?
Steph Cha: I could spend hours answering this question, but here’s the short version: I grew up in L.A., but I was 5 years old in 1991, and I didn’t know about Latasha Harlins’ murder until 2013 or 2014, when I heard a KPCC interview with Brenda Stevenson, who’d written a book on the murder, the subsequent trial and the impact of the case on the city. As a second-generation Korean-American born and raised in L.A., I was definitely aware of and interested in the turmoil of the early ‘90s, but I hadn’t done a deep dive on it—probably in large part because I mostly read fiction, and there aren’t a ton of novels dealing with that time period. I had a really strong reaction to hearing the story for the first time. Anger and bewilderment, but also shame—because it was a Korean person who did this unspeakable thing. I probably should’ve journaled about it, but I don’t journal, so instead I thought about it and thought about it, and I thought my thoughts could fill a book.
PH: Can you tell us about how the novel reckons with the cyclical nature of trauma and violence in the lives of its characters and their communities?
SC: I started writing this book in 2014, shortly after Michael Brown’s murder and in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement. Reading about Michael Brown and Darren Wilson and Ferguson at the same time I was immersing myself in early ‘90s Los Angeles, it was hard not to get cynical and think nothing had changed, that we were endlessly rehashing the same disgusting bullshit. I’d been on a book a year pace for my first three books, and while I knew this novel would take longer than the others, I was optimistic and thought maybe it would publish in 2017, 25 years after the 1992 Rodney King Uprising. Instead, it came out in 2019, 27 years later, and I realized at some point that the Watts Rebellion happened in 1965, 27 years before 1992. One of my main characters is a clueless 27-year-old woman, born in ’92, and she’s experiencing all of the violence and historical trauma for the first time. This makes her sympathetic in a way but also unanchored and deeply frustrating. The older characters have been through it all before, and they’d rather not do it all over again.
PH: I think it’s accurate to describe the book as a literary crime thriller. What do you think of the trend towards blurring the line between literary and genre fiction?
SC: I’m all about it. Crime fiction (or at least the kind I tend to write and tend to read) is so deeply rooted in the real world that it feels artificial to segregate it from literary fiction. Like when does a crime novel become a crime novel? Is it when there’s one crime? Two crimes? (Red crimes? Blue crimes?) A mystery? A solution? My first three books were P.I. novels, firmly in the noir/mystery world, but I still call this book a crime novel because it’s driven by crime. That said, I do understand that there are readers who will pick up YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY who wouldn’t go near my mystery series, even though I’m certain they would enjoy those books. Subject matter and literary merit are independent variables—it takes a good writer to write a good crime novel, just as it takes a good writer to write a good literary novel. (I guess it’s probably true that shitty novels are more likely to get published with propulsive plots, but hey—fair enough. If you’re a shitty writer, no one wants to read your book where nothing happens.)
PH: (True!) Speaking of crime fiction, I’ve heard you say that the best way to understand a city or a community is to take a look at the crime that occurs there. Can you tell us more about that idea?
SC: I think most people understand this intuitively when you think of the real world. When you read the news, you read a lot of crime stories. They’re newsworthy and revelatory because, as it turns out, human behavior tells on society. When people break the law and hurt each other, they don’t do that in a vacuum. They bring their prejudices and their histories; even their personal motives are tinged by the places they live in, the people who surround them. And on the other side, we learn a lot about a place by the way crimes are punished. Who goes to prison for weed possession? Who gets to skate on murder?
PH: YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY is powerfully situated in a time and place: contemporary Los Angeles against the backdrop of the early 90s. Your depiction of the city is complicated and gritty, in the great tradition of L.A. noir. Can you tell us about your relationship to Los Angeles and also your thoughts on what it means symbolically in the American imagination?
SC: I’m from L.A. and have lived here most of my life, but I feel like I’ll never stop getting to know it. I love this place—it’s diverse in every sense of the word, with endless pockets and vibrant communities that are constantly evolving. Of course it has tons of problems—and as a writer who started in noir, I do write a lot about its problems—but there’s no place I’d rather live or write about.
There’s a famous chapter in Mike Davis’ City of Quartz called “Sunshine and Noir” that argues Los Angeles understands its history through the tradition of noir and the contrast between these dark, seedy stories and the more boostery image of hope and Hollywood and sunny skies. L.A. is supposed to be a dreamland, and when dreams die, they die hard and nasty. Since the 2016 election, I’ve counted myself lucky for living in this big progressive city in this big progressive state, but L.A. disappoints, too. People are poor and homeless, ICE is a menace. I’m not a pessimist, but I do try to keep my eyes open to both the sunshine and the noir.
PH: Although this book is not a novel about food, you seamlessly use descriptions of food throughout to give us a sense of context (no surprise as Steph Cha the novelist also happens to be Steph Cha the Elite Yelper). What are your thoughts about food as a literary device, a cultural signifier, and more?
SC: I write about food because I obviously like to eat, but also because it’s a huge component of culture and family life. It would’ve felt unnatural for me to write this book without mentioning food, as these characters are constantly interacting with other people in various domestic/social contexts. Maybe this is just me, but I hardly know what to do with people if we’re not eating and drinking.
PH: What’s the best thing you’ve read so far in 2019?
SC: That’s a tough question! I’ve read a lot of great books, most recently What Red Was by Rosie Price and Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke. But I’ll plug one that I don’t think has gotten enough attention: Brian Evenson wrote a slim book on Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love called Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and it’s a remarkable piece of writing, part memoir and part criticism, with a pretty wild narrative at its core. (Our mutual friend Ben Loory turned me onto this book, by the way.)
PH: What’s next on the horizon for Steph Cha?
SC: I haven’t really planned past my book launch, to be honest. I’m going to be traveling a fair amount for the month and a half after publication (I also have two weddings in there), and then who knows? This is the first time in more than a decade that I haven’t had a novel brewing, and it’s kind of nice, actually, after spending so long on this one grueling book. It’s also been so long since I last started a novel that I’m not at all sure how to do it anymore. I guess I’ll have to figure it out!
Steph Cha is the author of YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY and the JUNIPER SONG crime trilogy. She’s an editor and critic whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and Los Angeles Review of Books. She also has served as a mentor for the PEN America Emerging Voices fellowship program. A native of the San Fernando Valley, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two basset hounds.