Stephanie Cha’s debut novel, FOLLOW HER HOME, is released this month from St. Martin’s Minotaur. Stephanie is a graduate of Yale Law and a practicing attorney in Los Angeles. PUBLISHERS WEEKLY said of her book “Intriguing…it’s clear that Song, a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, and nourish young woman with a Raymond Chandler fixation is well on her way to being a first-rate investigator.”
She recently took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions for the BigThrill:
FOLLOW HER HOME has garnered some impressive reviews. As a debut author, that must make you excited. Has it overwhelmed you?
Yes! I’m thrilled with my early reviews, and yes, the actual process of seeing my book in the world is a bit overwhelming. I sold it almost two years ago, so I spent a long time accustomed to the idea that the release was in the distant future.
Philip Marlowe is mentioned in the book’s synopsis and a few of its reviews; are you a big reader of Marlowe and other noir books?
I first read THE BIG SLEEP for a class on American Detective Fiction my freshman year of college. I loved its darkness and style, the ambiance-driven exploration of Los Angeles. I read all of Chandler’s novels over the next few years, along with a lot of Hammett and Mosley and Ellroy. Since selling the book, I’ve gotten more into contemporary noir. I love what women like Gillian Flynn and Denise Mina are doing with the genre.
What made you decide on noir or did it just fall into place?
Well, I like what noir can do. Noir – good noir, anyway – will tell you all you need to know about a place and time. It’s a great way to explore social issues, and to show, in general, the kinds of consequences that can spring from any given action. I love the genre, and I wanted to write something dark and atmospheric, with some stylistic flourish. With dead bodies too, of course.
What writers have influenced you?
Chandler is the obvious one, and as mentioned above, Hammett, Mosley, and Ellroy too. I read a lot and would like to think that all of my reading informs my writing, but I guess my writing has little in common with, say, Austen or Pynchon. I’ve learned a lot from writers like Joan Didion, Michael Chabon, and David Mitchell, who write beautiful things that aren’t hard to access.
You wrote the first draft of FOLLOW HER HOME while at Yale, when did you find time to study law and rest? It had to be a tedious schedule. Do you have a secret time-management trick?
The honest answer is that I blew off law school. I studied just enough to pass exams and escape with my degree. Sometimes this meant going to class, but sometimes it didn’t. I’m actually quite bad at managing my time – it’s something I’ve had to work on since getting more serious about my writing.
When did you finish the book and how many rewrites before you sold it?
I finished the first draft in December 2009, and I did two comprehensive rewrites before I secured my agent in January 2011, on my 25th birthday. After that, we did another rewrite, followed by a round of smaller edits, and we were ready to submit in May 2011. Once my agent started submitting, we heard back from St. Martin’s within two weeks. I talked to my acquiring editor on the phone, and she had me draft an edit letter to respond to her notes. We sold the book based on the manuscript and the edit letter, I think in June 2011.
How did you come up with the theme of the book?
I wouldn’t say there’s a single theme, but there are a few central ones that I can talk about. First and foremost, I wanted to write a feminist L.A. noir. I love Chandler, but not for his depictions of women. Hardboiled detective fiction is a traditionally male, and even misogynist genre, and I wanted to do what I could to subvert that. A related theme is the exploitation and eroticization of Asian women, particularly by white men. “Yellow fever,” to put it inexactly. This is a topic I’ve been interested in for quite some time, since I’ve grown up as an Asian woman in California. We’re objectified in a particular way, one that assumes a certain pliancy and sexual submissiveness. I wanted to show this brand of objectification, and to present it through the eyes of an Asian woman who refuses to fit the assumed stereotypes. The last theme I’ll touch on is that of family, the things we will do to and for our kin. I don’t think I have to explain how I came up with that one.
Do you see your character, Juniper Song, as being as series character or is FOLLOW HER HOME a standalone?
I have more adventures in mind for Song, though maybe not a whole series of them. She goes through a lot in this novel, and it’s all very personal. It would be hard to have more than a couple more books that carried comparable emotional weight.
You grew up in LA, the books set in LA with a character from LA, did the city influence your story or did LA noir?
Both. I wanted to write about the Korean-American L.A. experience, but not in an identity novel. I have a close relationship with my hometown, and it’s sometimes informed by Korean-Americanness, and sometimes not at all. I also wanted to represent the sprawl of Los Angeles by exploring different neighborhoods, and including characters who come from different parts of L.A., and different parts of the world. Even if I hadn’t found noir, I would have found a way to write an L.A. novel. That said, I am very much indebted to the tradition of L.A. noir. The masters have a way of using noir to explore the city that I tried hard to emulate.
Do you think being a practicing lawyer will be an advantage or disadvantage to you as a writer of thrillers and why?
It will be an advantage purely in the practical sense. I need a day job after all! As for the substance of the work – I do doc review, which is low-level temp work, and it’s not very rich with material. I know other lawyers have parlayed their experience into cool thrillers with legal themes, but I was too impatient to write to build a career first.
You’re engaged and getting married this year, does your fiancé have any idea of what it’s like to live with a noir, thriller writer?
We’ve been living together for a year now, so he should be well prepared. For now, he’s grateful that I take care of the dog during the day, since I don’t leave the house much when I’m writing.
Let’s see, a law career, upcoming wedding, has that left you any time to begin a new book and if so, can you tell us a little about it?
I’m working on a sequel in which Song takes on a Hollywood murder scandal. It should be depressing and kind of fun. It isn’t too close to done, so we’ll see how it turns out.
Steph Cha grew up in Los Angeles, and for most of her life, she’s been in school. She graduated from Stanford in ’07 and Yale Law, where she wrote the first draft of this novel, in 2010. She’s a practicing lawyer, but divides her time evenly between law and writing. Steph is the mother to a basset hound, and is getting married this year.
To learn more about Steph, please visit her website.