WRITERS TELL ALL
Steph Cha on YOUR HOUSE WILL PAY
Matthew Turbeville: I know you’re perhaps the most raved about debut standalone of the year, and so I want to keep this brief. Can you tell me when you decided to write this story? It takes a lot for a story, a character, a plot, anything to push a writer through a whole novel. When did it occur to you Your House Will Pay had to be written, and why did you push so hard to write it? I know it took longer than your average book.
Steph Cha: I decided to write it in 2014, though my first foray into the material was through a short story, written for an anthology of Asian pulp. The story was about a young woman finding out her mother murdered a child during the L.A. Uprising in 1992. When I finished it, I knew there was a lot more in there that I wanted to explore, and once I decided to follow the brother of the victim as well as the daughter of the shooter, I felt like I had a novel to write. It was enough to consume my working life for the next four and a half years.
MT: Very few authors have the ability to stand on all sides of a very political, very divisive issue and look at things objectively, but you do things so well. Other authors I can think of include Attica Locke and Laura Lippman, who do a really great job at listening and not just telling. What do you think is so important for everyone who wants to write about someone who’s not themselves, and what do you think you had to keep telling yourself to do when you were writing Your House Will Pay?
SC: Alexander Chee has some great advice on this subject (https://www.vulture.com/2019/10/author-alexander-chee-on-his-advice-to-writers.html). I think it’s important to question your own motives on the front end, to interrogate and edit yourself as you write, and to be open to critique when you think you’re done. You have to be willing to put in the work and accept the responsibility that comes with writing someone else’s experience. It took a long time for me to flesh out Shawn and his family in Your House Will Pay, and I’ll admit it was much harder than writing Grace and the Parks. I did a lot of research, and I did a lot of work, and whether or not I did Shawn justice, I can at least say I poured everything I could into his character. I know him viscerally well.
MT: Who are the most underrated novelists today? Especially crime novelists, too? What books do you think should be read, and possibly celebrated or studied, but don’t receive the recognition they need? Who are the authors really breaking through and necessary to our country and world today?
SC: In the crime world, I’d say Nina Revoyr, Sara Gran, Elizabeth Hand, Lisa Brackmann, and Rachel Howzell Hall—all have some devoted fans but are not as widely read or celebrated as I personally think they should be.
MT: You’re a seasoned writer. You’re an expert writer. You’re young. What is your advice to fellow young writers, why do you feel you’ve succeeded so young, and what do you think the best advice you’ve ever received is, even if it took you forever to take the advice?
SC: I mean to be honest I got to start young because my parents are rich and I got to start a risky career with no debt and the knowledge that I had a safety net should I fail. This isn’t true of every young writer, of course, but it’s often a factor, and it makes me wary of dishing out sage advice. I guess one piece I will mention is that I always thought of fiction writing as a magical pursuit when it’s really just a lot of work—you don’t have to be some special writerly person to do it. It’s entirely possible to write a novel if you have the time, inclination, and follow-through. Also, definitely read as much as possible.
MT: This book took you a while to write. I can understand a lot of what must have taken a while to struggle with, but what might readers be surprised to learn you struggled with, and what was the hardest thing about writing a novel like Your House Will Pay?
SC: Coming from a mystery background, I always thought of myself as a natural plotter, but it turns out the genre conventions are an enormous help, and I had a much harder time plotting once I could no longer rely on them for the structure of my novel. I did much better when I gave in and outlined, something I hadn’t felt much need to do for my earlier books.
MT: Do you have a work in progress or finished book ready to publish, coming soon maybe? You know all of your super fans (aka me) are really ready for this. We love your writing and wonder if we’ve said goodbye to Juniper Song as well.
SC: I wish I did, but I haven’t even started my next novel yet. I keep putting it off, and now we’re in a global pandemic and I’m having a baby. It’ll happen, but will probably be a while until I have a new book out again. I do know it won’t be a Song novel, though I can see myself circling back to her one day, many books down the line.
MT: Years from now, alive or dead, when there’s a great American book list of the 21stcentury and one of your books (probably more) is featured on the list, what’s the one word you hope will be used to describe you and your work? Do you think crime novels will be featured more heavily this century? Thank you for having me, Steph. You know what your writing means to me personally, and I speak for myself and not the crying fangirls who make up the rest of Writers Tell All. All my best--
SC: Shoot, let’s go top shelf—how about ingenious? Really, I hope people read my work and find it thoughtful and illuminating and hopefully entertaining, even though it’s kind of grim. I think that’s how I think of my favorite crime fiction, so that’s what I aspire to write. I hope crime fiction continues to flourish this century and I see no reason it shouldn’t. Crime and injustice are not going away.