The Rumpus Interview with Steph Cha

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Steph Cha’s second novel Beware Beware, a sequel to her impressive debut, Follow Her Home, is a noir mystery about a Korean-American detective, Juniper Song, who is hired from her P.I. firm to trail a New York artist’s screenwriter boyfriend in LA. The tale snakes deep into the dark corners of Hollywood as it paints a vivid picture of the sunshine-filled skies, notoriously palm lined streets, trendy restaurants, and afternoon chardonnay. Beware Beware gives us blackmail, stakeouts, fast cars, sexy parties—and a dead movie star in a bathtub?! No one’s safe from judgment as mysterious identities are chased, police are foiled in blunder, and gangsters emerge as the ominous events unfold and the lives of innocent people beg to be preserved. Philip Marlowe, eat your heart out!

I first heard of Steph by way of our LA-based editor who curates an online literary magazine called Trop. We were both writing fake Yelp reviews for a series called Honest and Unbiased, owning that corner of the magazine with our zany spins on the serious world of self-publishable (mostly food) criticism. Little did I know at the time that Steph was also one of those very serious Yelpers, having written over 2,100 reviews since 2009. She’s held the Elite title six years in a row. And now as the protégée to LA’s top food critic Jonathan Gold, Steph writes about her culinary exploits for the Los Angeles Times. She is also a regular contributor of criticism to the publication’s book section.

I spoke to Steph about books, burritos, and computer games.

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The Rumpus: The last time we spoke you were reading what seemed to be a book a day outside of transcribing documents from Japanese to English at your day job. Have you always been an enthusiastically swift reader?

Steph Cha: Ha! I’m actually a pretty slow reader as things go. I envy people who can get through an 80,000-word book in a day. I’m always ravenous for fiction, though—I haven’t gone more than a day or two without reading fiction for many years. I like stories, and pretty prose, and most of my fiction reading is purely for pleasure.

Rumpus: What have been your favorites so far?

Cha: Of the classics, I obviously love Chandler and Hammett, the dead white men who define my genre. My other favorites are Faulkner, Nabokov, James, Wharton, Joyce, Austen—but honestly I tend to like most Great Works of Literature that have stood the test of time. For contemporary crime, I like this wave of awesome dark-hearted lady writers, like Megan Abbott and Denise Mina. Nina Revoyr wrote a fantastic novel LA mystery called Southland that I find myself thinking about pretty often. And like everyone else, I love The Secret History. Other contemporary authors—I worship Joan Didion, Chang-rae Lee, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Marilynne Robinson. I like Pynchon, McCarthy, and Coetzee most of the time. I thought Orphan Master’s Son kicked some crazy ass, and I just finished the second book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. Some good stuff. I also end up recommending Dana Johnson, Lauren Beukes, and Ben Loory about everywhere I go.

Rumpus: What do you enjoy the most about fiction? Narrative? Style? Intrepitude? I might’ve made up a word there.

Cha: I read for some combination of style and story. Good writing is my top priority—I won’t read anything if the prose is garbage. It takes two hours to watch a movie with good plot and nothing else to offer, and I’ll get stuck in a poorly written book for a week. Some writers can coast on top-notch writing without plot (Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine comes to mind, as does Teju Cole’s Open City, though I thought that was less successful), but I do think a good story is generally necessary to my enjoyment of a novel. Certainly never hurts. Oh, and I also gravitate toward novels that make me feel sad and terrible.

Rumpus: How often will you abandon a book?

Cha: I never abandon books! I’m a total sicko and just won’t stop reading something until it’s done even if it’s excruciating. I think Goodreads is partly to blame. I kind of treat it like a video game, and an abandoned book is like an unfinished level—I just can’t stand the idea of it. This is why I spent two months reading Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan on my phone this year. Never read that book. You get everything you need in that one paragraph in your high school history textbook. There are about 500 pages dedicated to a very detailed argument for why the king has sovereignty over the pope.

Rumpus: Did you go through an explicit mystery phase for research or have you always been a mystery/noir type reader?

Cha: Before I finished my first book, I’d only read the classics of the mystery genre, basically all the white dudes, a little Mosley, a little Highsmith. I read mostly literary fiction, and I had a quiet anti-genre bias in my early twenties that, in retrospect, I’m kind of embarrassed about. It was also pretty inconsistent with what I set out to do, which was to write a literary crime novel. I guess as a gross narcissistic 22-year-old fledgling writer I thought I was having, like, a direct conversation with Raymond Chandler that no one else had explored. I’ve since read a ton of contemporary crime, and while not everything is amazing, there is some great stuff out there. Vivid writing plus extremes of human behavior equals dark compelling shit.

Rumpus: Speaking of research and extremes, the protagonist in Beware Beware is a Korean-American who drifted from Yale to become a private detective in LA. Some of the tail scenes are sketched pretty vividly with detailed hideaways, etc. I have to ask, did you ever stalk anyone for research purposes?

Cha: Ha! This is a great question. I did not stalk anyone for research purposes, though now that you mention it, that’s a great idea. I think I’d be really bad at it though. It sounds easy in theory, but I’m just not a very smooth driver. I guess I have done my fair share of Internet stalking. I have a normal-to-creepy level of competence in that field.

Rumpus: How do you plan this story? Was it based on a specific character or incident, or did it sort of develop more organically from another source of inspiration?

Cha: Actually, one of my best friends is engaged to a great guy who went through a rough patch a number of years back, during which he was doing lots of drugs and disappearing for days at a time. He was in LA for a little while, staying at the Roosevelt, and I was supposed to have lunch with him—we’re friends, too, but I was also sort of checking on him. I went to pick him up at the hotel and when I got there, I couldn’t get in touch with him. Everything ended up fine, but that became the seed of this novel. The other stuff came later. I had themes I wanted to explore, and once I came up with Daphne and her story, everything else fell into place.

Rumpus: Were your characters based on anyone in particular?

Cha: Jamie was inspired by this friend of mine, but once I got the idea for him, I deviated his character from my friend’s. Daphne has a more indirect lineage. Her name comes from Daphne Monet in Devil in a Blue Dress, and she shares some traits with that character. Her character history is entirely made up, but I guess I became interested in writing a complex black female character because of the complex black female friends in my life, as stupid as that sounds. Black women get totally flattened in fiction and film written by non-black writers—there are some key stereotypes that show up over and over again at the expense of nuance and depth. I think the same thing happens to Asians (there are too few Koreans in pop culture to get that specific), so I wrote a book with a Korean woman and a black woman in the lead, being human beings behaving humanly. Song, I should say, isn’t based on one person, but there are pieces of me in there, as well as of my second generation Korean-American friends. She’s kind of a jaded millennial child of immigrants, but instead of tweeting and temping, she solves crimes and drinks alone.

Rumpus: Korean culture is well represented in Beware Beware without being too heavy-handed. Was balance an issue when it came to avoiding stereotypical characterizations—e.g., Korean males are chauvinistic or Korean parents are strict? Did you feel like a gatekeeper into a somewhat exclusive yet prolific community?

Cha: Yes! Oh man. This is a good question. I have nothing against identity novels (and am likely to write one some day), but I really wanted to write a book that was essentially Korean-American while being about something else. I wanted all the Korean stuff in the background, but I knew I had to get it pretty right since I wasn’t going to devote tons of space to contemplation on the culture, the stereotypes, etc. Some of my Korean characters do fit certain stereotypes (Lori is a bad driver; both Song’s and Lori’s mothers are strict in their own ways), but I feel like I have so many of them that I feel comfortable with that. I think that’s an easy way to avoid flat or lazy representations—to show a wide range of human traits and behaviors. And yes, I do feel a little like a gatekeeper, or at least like I have some responsibility to do things correctly. Korean-American Los Angeles doesn’t get much play in fiction.

Rumpus: You’re a graduate of Stanford and Yale Law School, is that right? What made you decide you wanted to flip off your Ivy League education in law to become a writer of crime fiction? Was it tough to make that shift overall?

Cha: Yes, I did go to those schools. I’ve always been decently book smart, as things go, but as I’ve grown older I’ve learned that I have this tendency to slack like crazy when I don’t give a shit. I’m aware that this is a childish thing, a real shortcoming—it isn’t conducive to success or happiness in an adult job. When I was younger, I studied a lot because my mom was on me, and I liked the, uh, rush, I guess, of a good report card. (I was a very straight-edged kid.) Then in college, I studied English, and I loved that, so I did well. It was only when I got to law school that I realized how bad I was at things I didn’t care about. I lost interest in law school early. I think what finally did it was this summer job I had at a terrible law firm where the work was uninteresting and the male lawyers were disgustingly handsy. I thought, huh, I may not want to be a lawyer, so what else have I got? I started writing that July. I kept at it when I went back to school, and by the time I graduated, I had a full-length novel. I moved back in with my parents after graduation until I figured out my day job situation (a pretty sweet deal of mindless legal temp work for about half of each year), and concentrated on selling the book.

Rumpus: Were your parents pissed?

Cha: My parents were super supportive, but to be honest, they were never that concerned with my career. Like they knew I should go to good schools but we never really talked about anything as practical as jobs. (Koreans and prestige, you guys. Every Korean grandma knows Harvard, but none of them have ever heard of, oh, whatever, Bain?) They actually put me through law school, for which I am forever grateful. It would have taken a lot longer to transition to writing if I’d had crazy loans.

Rumpus: You’ve written over 2,000 reviews on Yelp. You’ve held the Elite title for six years, which led to you becoming a food scout for Jonathan Gold at the LA Times. How did this start? It obviously became, or is, an obsession, right?

Cha: The Yelp thing is indeed an obsession. I opened a Yelp account in July 2008, for the sole purpose of yelping this one ridiculous Korean nightclub my friends and I went to every weekend. I wrote that review, and a review of this ramen place, and then let the account lie until one night, when I was drunk outside this same nightclub, I started to covet a stranger’s burrito. We were both waiting for cabs, and I got a big whiff of this thing, and was drunk and covetous enough to ask him for a bite. It was a life-changing moment in a way. The burrito (it turned out) came from a food truck parked in an empty Sizzler lot across the street: the now famous Kogi, in its first weekend on the road. I took a flyer and went home and Yelped it, and then something clicked and I reviewed a hundred restaurants in about a month. Since then I’ve written an average of maybe five reviews a week, with almost no breaks. I put them all in a Word document once just to see how much free content I was generating, and it was something like 400,000 words in early 2012. By far my biggest body of work. On the bright side (because everything else is so clearly a dark side), it has gotten me this Jonathan Gold scouting gig, and, through an entirely different path, my book reviewing gig, also for the LA Times.

Rumpus: When you’re sampling a place’s menu to write about the food, do you order everything and just take a bit or two of each dish or do you have one of those incredibly stretchy stomachs with like a triple steam engine metabolism?

Cha: I love sharing and trying as many different things as possible, though often this means me and my one gluttonous friend order like five dishes at a Thai restaurant and treat it as a challenge. I tend to eat a lot when I’m at a restaurant. I’m greedy and I never get so full I can’t have another bite. I’ve given myself indigestion while traveling on a couple occasions, and ended up barfing in the hotel room because I got too ambitious. When I’m home, though, I’m pretty good. Trader Joe’s chicken tikka masala, instant ramen, and leftovers. Can’t do too much damage that way.

Rumpus: Are there any restaurants left that you haven’t tried in LA? Or do you have go-to places to eat where you’ve been there so many times that your brain can’t analyze the menu and you just eat?

Cha: Even now, though, there are tons of restaurants I haven’t been to in LA, many of them super buzzy or iconic. The food scene’s exciting here. I can’t keep up. I also have go-to places I’ve been to a bunch of times, and honestly, it is nice to sit down to a comfortable, surefire meal, and not worry about having to write it up later. I still enjoy Yelping, but it is also a bit of a chore.

Rumpus: I know you were pretty big into Candy Crush for a while. How’d that go?

Cha: You’re doing a great job tapping into my insanities. I was actually up until past four last night finishing up the latest set of levels. It was the fourth or fifth of these nights, thanks to level 677, which was painfully difficult and not fun at all. I don’t use boosters, and I refuse to spend money, so I probably sank at least 20 hours into beating this one level. Most of the time, though, I’m not playing Candy Crush anymore. I’ve maxed out the levels, so I only play when new episodes are introduced, which happens every few weeks. I can generally get through an episode with a day of moderate play, and then I’m free until the next update.

Rumpus: What are you playing these days?

Cha: I was super into Hearthstone and Tetris Battle for a while. Had to delete Hearthstone and exhaust myself on Tetris before I quit. And did you know that I was once internationally ranked in Minesweeper? If I had a desktop and a mouse, I’d probably do nothing else.

Rumpus: You’re into a hell of a lot of extracurricular activities. How do you balance your writing with your Yelp and gaming addictions?

Cha: Well, in one word? Terribly. I have really bad self control and things like Candy Crush Soda Saga get especially tempting when I have deadlines. (This last example comes from this past week—I just turned in a manuscript yesterday.) I also read a lot and enjoy doing things like going for drinks in the middle of the day, so I’m very good at filling time without working. But there are things that help. I try to keep myself writing 1,000 words a day (fiction, though I will take days to write book reviews and the like), and I feel like shit if I don’t make that quota because it’s really only 3 to 4 solid hours of work. I use Freedom (which blocks Internet) for three-hour blocks in the afternoon, and that’s pretty helpful. I also try to remember that every day I write is a day I don’t go to work, and unfortunately, I make a lot more money at my day job, which pays by the hour. I’m always most productive right after I end a temp gig. Deadlines are also helpful. I respect them, because if I don’t, I get nothing done.

Rumpus: What’s next for you?

Cha: I just turned in my third novel, another Juniper Song mystery, called Dead Soon Enough, which is set for release in August. It’s not quite done, but my editor just told me it goes to galleys in less than a month, so I guess I’ll be wrapping that up in the immediate future. After that, I’m planning on starting work on a fourth book, though am still deciding what that will be about. I also have a few more book reviews on the horizon, and a write-up on the best French fries in Los Angeles. This means I will be eating lots of French fries very soon.


Sabra Embury writes for Brooklyn Magazine, the Believer, LA Review of Books, Fanzine and other places. Follow her antics on Twitter @yrubmEarbaS. More from this author →