By Daniel Friedman
Steph Cha’s feminist neo-noir novel FOLLOW HER HOME introduced Juniper Song, a Korean-American private investigator with an Ivy League degree, a troubled past, and a bottle within reach at all times.
In Cha’s second novel, BEWARE BEWARE, Song takes what seems like a simple surveillance job tailing the cokehead long-distance boyfriend of a worried New York artist. But the boyfriend gets tangled up in the murder of a movie star, and Song’s job gets more complicated as she delves into twisted celebrity affairs in order to try to exonerate her client.
Meanwhile, Song’s roommate Lori Lim is pursued by an amorous gangster who won’t take “no” for an answer.
Reviewing BEWARE BEWARE in the Los Angeles Times, novelist Paula Woods wrote that Cha conjures up “more diversely mean streets than the masters of noir could have imagined” and that “Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler would be proud.”
Cha agreed to answer some questions about Juniper Song and her new book.
James Ellroy said in the Paris Review that “Chandler wrote the kind of guy that he wanted to be, Hammett wrote the kind of guy that he was afraid he was.” Song idolizes Chandler’s detective, Philip Marlowe, but in this book, she makes some decisions that Marlowe, in a similar situation, probably wouldn’t. What kind of person is Song, to you?
I started writing Song as an amateur detective, and it was important to me that she retain some measure of authenticity as a person in the world who reacts to events in realistic, relatable ways. Obviously, there’s a wide spectrum of ordinary human behavior, but I didn’t want to write her into an action hero, or an incorruptible savior. I like Song. She’s far from perfect, but she’s smart and competent, with a good, loyal heart. She’s tough but not untouchable, and things wear down on her. Marlowe lived by a code, and I fell in love with that character because of his core integrity and bruised idealism. Song also admires Marlowe, but she is not above things like fear and compromise. She’s unsympathetic at times, but probably someone I’d want to be friends with in the end.
Is the character Theodore “Thor Tilla” Tilley based on Chet Haze, YouTube rapper and son of Tom Hanks? What is it about this character you found resonant?
Haha yes! Definitely. Anyone who knows who Chet Haze will recognize this immediately. Honestly, I wanted to write a son of Hollywood who was both out of touch and kind of endearing. Chet Haze seemed like a good place to start on both fronts. I definitely use Thor Tilla for comic effect, but he’s also a bit of a wounded creature, in awe of a famous father who’s neglected him for years.
A lot of noir detectives are drunks, but most of them are very competent investigators, even as they wreck all the other aspects of their lives. In this book, Song’s drinking prevents her from protecting people she wants to protect and causes her to let her guard down around people who she ought to deal with more carefully. Is Song an alcoholic?
I don’t think Song is an alcoholic in the usual sense. The alcohol is more of a crutch than a physical addiction. She’s depressed and lonely, and booze helps her pass the time and deal with her problems. She also just likes to drink, and not always responsibly. When she gets really smashed, it tends to be with other people, usually people she trusts, whether or not they deserve that.
In FOLLOW HER HOME Song was pulled into the mystery as sort of an amateur snoop, due to her personal connection to some of the players. In BEWARE BEWARE, Song gets involved because she is working as a private investigator. Both cases exact a high personal cost from her. Can she keep up this line of work?
Oh boy, I wonder about this all the time. Part of me thinks, well, how long can I possibly keep beating up on this poor woman? But you know—it’s noir, it’s mystery, we write series, it’s part of the game. When I feel like she’s done, I’ll stop writing her, but she’s a resilient girl.
The entire story might have turned out differently for Song if her roommate Lori’s uncle hadn’t gotten into trouble with the wrong people. And a lot of people seem to suffer on Lori’s behalf. I think a lot of noir detectives would view Lori more cynically than Song does. How does her relationship with Lori define Song?
I conceived of Lori as an antidote to the femme fatale—a young, beautiful girl who attracts men who do terrible things to her, around her, because of her, but through no fault of her own. This is the reality of the world, anyway. Men do bad things because of women every day (often to the detriment of women), and the women are not always driving those actions. Lori isn’t an angel or anything, but she’s a fundamentally decent girl who becomes very important to Song, a sort of surrogate sister. Song has lost a lot of people she loves, some of them through her own mistakes, and she’s determined to be a good friend and protector to Lori. She also needs Lori, in some ways more than Lori needs her. Song doesn’t connect with people with Lori’s ease, and she relies on Lori to prevent her from dying of loneliness.
What are you working on next?
I’m in the thick of the third Song book, which revolves around a missing Armenian-American activist. The broad topics are pregnancy surrogacy and the Armenian genocide. Themes of life, death, redemption, legacy…should be fun.
What have you been reading lately?
Let’s see, I spent half of this month reading BLONDE by Joyce Carol Oates, which is a fictionalized biography of Marilyn Monroe. I just finished ACCEPTANCE, the final installment of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. Both of these books were magnificent, though in very different ways. This morning I cracked open HOW TO GET INTO THE TWIN PALMS by Karolina Waclawiak. It’s a Two Dollar Radio book about a Polish immigrant woman in L.A. and it’s looking great so far. After that, I might read my first Michael Connelly novel…I know it’s about time.
Steph Cha is the author of FOLLOW HER HOME. Her writing has appeared in The L.A. Times, The L.A. Review of Books, and Trop Magazine. A graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, she lives in her native city of Los Angeles, California. BEWARE BEWARE is her second novel.
To learn more about Steph, please visit her website.
Daniel Friedman is a graduate of the University of Maryland and NYU School of Law. He lives in New York City. His first novel, DON’T EVER GET OLD was nominated for the Edgar Award, the Thriller Award and the Anthony Award and won the Macavity Award. His latest book, DON’T EVER LOOK BACK, is available now.