An Interview with Steph Cha, Author of Your House Will Pay

Steph Cha’s latest, Your House Will Pay, is explosive and brilliant. The novel’s core is set in LA in the wake of Rodney King and is a fictionalized rendering of the 1991 Latasha Harlins murder. Teenage Latasha, or Ava in the book, was shot and killed by a Korean born woman who thought she was defending her store. In court, she argued she thought Ava had a gun but in reality all Ava had was milk money—and she was shot in the back of the head. Fast forward to 2019 and Cha introduces Ava’s brother and the shooter’s daughter, Grace. Grace never knew her mother killed anyone until her mother is gunned down outside their pharmacy. The realizations that flood in the aftermath of this violence suck Grace’s and Ava’s families back into the nightmare they thought they’d left behind.

This novel has already been hailed for taking “A dark moment in LA’s violent history and cracking it wide open,” and I couldn’t agree more. To call it brave is an understatement. Cha’s skill lies not only in the way she uncovers unexpected emotions but also in her ability to bind these two families such that there’s more than hate between them. By twisting together diverse cultures, she reveals a connection that is fierce, heartbreaking and terrifying—and it left me reeling. I was thrilled when Steph agreed to this interview, so let’s get to the good stuff.

RACHEL BARENBAUM: Steph. Your House Will Pay sheds light on the conflict and violence between African-Americans and Koreans in LA. Can you tell us why you focused on this conflict, what you want your readers to take away? 

STEPH CHA: Growing up in L.A., I was always vaguely aware of the tensions between the black and Korean communities, without ever seeing them play out in real life—I lived in the suburbs, and was also only a child during the early ‘90s. I only learned about the history as an adult, and once I did, I became pretty fascinated by that time period. Asian Americans are rarely front and center of any national conversations around racial justice or politics, which generally code black and white. But in the ‘90s, in Los Angeles, Korean Americans were a huge part of the story. I wanted to write about this massive conflict that wasn’t really about white people, and which I think has been underexplored in pop culture as a result. I learned so much about my city and the people in it while writing this book, and I guess that’s part of what I want my readers to take away—a greater understanding of a drama involving two large communities of color, a story that is ugly and complicated and gives very little comfort.

When you were older, when you started learning about the history and then writing this book, did your parents of family tell you more about what it was like to live through this time in LA? Did you ever say to them, “Why didn’t you ever tell me this?” 

Not really. My parents don’t talk much about politics and I was really young when this all happened so it made sense that we never talked about it. But my dad carried a gun. And that was very common then.

One of my favorite passages came early in the book when you talk about the importance of language as a barrier. You wrote, “Grace wondered if the three of them were even equipped to have this conversation. She and her parents spoke to each other in a hybrid of English and Korean, slipping back and forth between languages, sometimes several times in a single sentence, but none of them was perfectly bilingual. . .They had enough words to communicate what was important, Grace thought—needs, fears, comfort, love. But she didn’t know how to say “indict” in Korean, which meant her parents weren’t likely to understand.” Why did you make a point of talking about this language gap? 

I wouldn’t say I made a point of talking about this language gap so much as that I needed to clarify that it existed for the novel to read the way I wanted. My parents actually speak perfect English, but in a lot of Korean families I know, the parents speak mostly in Korean while the kids speak mostly in English, and the languages kind of weave into each other in a way that would be distracting on the page. I wanted to make sure I laid out the rules straightaway so that it’s understood that what you read isn’t necessarily what’s being said aloud. It’s kind of like when actors speak English in movies you understand to take place in France or Sweden or wherever.

But is there a larger metaphor at play? 

I guess on a story level, the language gap is symbolic of other gaps in understanding, but that’s just the reality of the immigrant family experience playing out in my favor.

Yes. And I love it because I think there are a lot of Americans who don’t grow up in dual language households and by focusing on it, even if it’s just to set the scene, you’re pointing something out that’s important. Can you say more? 

Yes, sure. I have a similar kind of thing in my first novel, where there’s a two-way street between two characters, where each speaks a different language. And this is just very common. My household was not a typical immigrant household. My parents came to America when they were still young so both spoke fluent English. I spoke Korean at home only because my grandma lived with us until I was 7. I grew up speaking Korean but my brothers didn’t. And many of my close friends spoke a mix and I don’t think they thought  about it.

That was just the dynamic that was real to me. I wanted the mom  to be somebody who wasn’t totally comfortable in an English speaking environment, someone who never fully assimilated. It was important to me that Yvonne never really learned English. That’s just how I knew she and her kids would speak to each other

You are a master at using physical details to show emotion and transmit meaning beyond words. One of my favorite examples was your description of the cemetery where Ava was buried. You wrote, “Ava was buried in the Paradise Memorial Park in Santa Fe Springs, though where exactly, no one was sure anymore. Four years after her funeral, the cemetery closed shop when its owners got caught reselling burial plots, stacking multiple bodies into single graves, most of the dead poor and black, with poor black families who were easy to ignore.” Can you talk about this detail? Why include it?

Thank you! In this case, I included the detail because it was true. (It’s actually the one detail in the book that my agent flagged with an “Is this true? Because if not, it’s a bit much.”) Just a few years after Latasha Harlins’ death, the cemetery she was buried in—which catered to poor black families—was shut down because of this scandal. This was in 1995, so I hope that her remains were found and reburied, but I haven’t been able to track down more recent information. I visited the cemetery in Santa Fe Springs, which is still there but out of business and looks to be unattended, and paid my respects at the large headstone that commemorates the missing dead.

One of the brutal struggles in the book belongs to Grace. She wants to protect her mother but at the same time she can’t stand behind what she did to Ava. You illustrate this so well in one exchange between Grace and her sister, Miriam. Miriam says, “It was racist as hell. It doesn’t matter that Ava Matthews was taller than Mom. She was a kid. Mom shot a kid in the back of the head. You don’t want to think Mom’s a bad person, but to think otherwise, you have to contort yourself to justify a murder—and if you bend too much that way, you’ll become a different person. A worse person.”

Grace responds, “And what, you’re so great? Because you turned on the woman who raised you? Who sacrificed everything to come to a foreign country so her kids could have a better life? Why do you think you’re so goddamned enlightened in the first place?” 

This exchange is written but I can’t help thinking Grace is hearing both parts in her head, too— that she’s arguing with herself as much as her sister. Can you talk about this?

This conversation gets to the heart of Grace’s story. She knows her mother did this terrible thing, but she also knows that she loves her mother, and it’s important to her to think of her mother as a fundamentally decent person who has been nothing but a good mother to her and her sister. The thing is—and I don’t really argue otherwise in the book—her mother is an awful person who happens to be a good mother. I wanted to make sure both of these things were true in my book—I feel like too many racist characters are irredeemable in every possible way, allowing readers to distance themselves from the racists in ways that are kind of facile and dishonest. I also think this gap between immigrant parents and the second-generation American kids they raise is interesting and tragic. A lot of immigrants come to this country and make incredible sacrifices so their children can live better lives, only to raise kids who judge them from positions of greater education and comfort. I don’t think their kids are wrong for judging them—like definitely correct your parents on their terrible politics all day—but I am not without sympathy for them either.

Was it hard to write, to portray the two sides of Grace’s mother?

No. That was one of the pieces I knew was going to be there from the outset. It’s almost just an extreme version of the immigrant parents people have. A devoted immigrant mother makes you food, takes better care of you than you will of your own children. She’s a dedicated stay at home mother. My mom was like that. She stayed at home. She was very focused on being a present mom. And seeing that racism that’s in Yvonne is a common part of being a second-generation kid. You have these great parents who are so wonderful to you, but their political views are garbage (I should probably clarify that my parents have reasonable politics). And what are you going to do? Educate your parents who don’t really even speak much English? I see how these things can coexist because I see it all the time.

This isn’t limited to immigrant parents either. I’m sure in Trump country we see the same thing. People who are kind to their kids, but don’t turn that kindness outwards. It’s very easy to pretend someone who is racist is just rotten but that is a pretense that lets someone off the hook. Very racist, vitriolic people can be kind and loving to their family members. There are billions of people like this, who have unforgivable prejudices and yet who are loving and kind to people important to them. So one thing I did try to do was separate the two things in the book.

I don’t think Yvonne is a redeemable character. I didn’t want to fall into the temptation to redeem her. She’s unrepentant and 30 years later, she feels victimized by it and that’s not inconsistent with her wanting to maintain a good relationship with her daughters. To get there, well, I don’t have Yvonne in many scenes. She doesn’t have a lot of lines. I didn’t want to inhabit her point of view. I didn’t want to take any actions that start to forgive the character.

That is such a great message and lesson for other writers—the example of creating characters that cannot be redeemed. 

Why was Grace the only one in the book who didn’t know about her mother’s role in Ava’s murder?

Grace’s parents would’ve loved to keep Yvonne’s secret from both of their daughters, but Miriam found out on her own, and it was probably inevitable that Grace would find out eventually, too. I sort of liked the idea of a family secret kept from one family member, even when multiple friends of the family knew about it. I feel like this sort of thing happens all the time, where even fairly open secrets are kept from the people they would impact most.

Let’s take a step back and talk about race more broadly in Your House Will Pay. You were very brave to confront this head on. Grace and her family live a fairly narrow existence—between their home and pharmacy. Shawn and Ray and their family also live in a fairly narrow silo. Why? Did they ever have a way out? 

I don’t think they were ever looking for a way out—both Grace and Shawn would’ve been happy to live their lives the way they were going, but that choice was taken away from them. Grace and her family lived a narrow existence by design, working a family business with a mostly Korean clientele. When the novel starts, Grace is very sheltered and content to live that way, busy with work and only the tiniest bit aware of the larger world around her. Shawn knows all about the larger world but has had enough of it for one lifetime. He just wants to make the best of the second half of his life, which he’d like to live drama-free with his loved ones. I wanted to take these two people and put them in a situation where their personal lives become deeply political, and they have no say in the matter. Not everyone gets the choice to live free of politics. In fact, most people don’t, and only the most clueless, privileged people get to pretend otherwise.

I would certainly agree with that. 

OK, switching gears, I’d love to hear about the craft of writing this ambitious novel. Steph, how did Your House Will Pay come together? Did you work with an outline?

My previous books were all private investigator novels, narrated in the first person with fairly straightforward structures. When I started Your House Will Pay, I honestly had no idea how to write it. It was a mess for a long time, with too many ideas and jelly for bones. I went through a lot of drafts of the first third, figuring out the points of view and other narrative rules (it was in present tense for a long time, for example), and more importantly, drawing out Shawn and making his life feel as real and fleshed out as Grace’s (the 27-year-old Korean-American woman was easier for me to write, go figure). This process took about two and a half years. Once I had the characters and structure down, I was able to write more easily, and at a less tortured pace. At some point, I realized I had to outline—something I’d resisted as much as possible in my previous books—and it was absolutely the right move. I think with the mystery novels, the built-in structure let me play things pretty loose and on the go. It was much harder to plan out this one.

Did anyone ever tell you the subject matter was too explosive? 

I can’t say I’ve ever gotten that, but maybe that just means I wasn’t properly warned.

Ha! I’m thrilled to hear that. I’ve spoken to other authors who have been warned, thwarted for choosing explosive subjects—so really, I’m thrilled to hear it. Finally, let’s get personal. What are you reading now? What books do you recommend?

Right now, I’m reading The Wanderers by Meg Howrey, which is pretty phenomenal so far, and making my way in pieces through two wonderful books about L.A.—Letters to My City by Mike Sonksen and After/Image by Lynell George. I can recommend books all day, but a few recent standouts are What Red Was by Rosie Price, Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke, The Better Sister by Alafair Burke, The Warehouse by Rob Hart, The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal, and Beijing Payback by Daniel Nieh. I’m also obsessed with Sara Gran’s Claire DeWitt novels and Catherine Chung’s exquisite The Tenth Muse and Forgotten Country. I’ll also mention two books I’ve loved that have somehow flown under the radar—The Which Way Tree by Elizabeth Crook and Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a work of memoir and literary criticism by Brian Evenson.

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 the Los Angeles Review of Books. A native of the San Fernando Valley, she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two basset hounds.

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