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“Exploring Innocence in its Many Forms” — A Conversation with Steph Cha

by Brendan Dowling on May 19, 2020

In Steph Cha’s compassionate and devastating Your House Will Pay, a shocking crime uproots the lives of two very different Californians. Grace Park exists in a world of ordered routine, living with her parents in the Valley and working in their family-owned pharmacy. In nearby Palmdale, Shawn Matthews’ quiet life of family contentment is forever shadowed by the horrific loss of his sister, who was murdered twenty years previously. Yet a sudden act of violence rips apart their lives and forces each character to reckon with the troubled events of their family’s past. The resulting book is a humane exploration of the aftershocks of violence, as Cha deftly navigates the complex lives of both characters while also serving up an incredibly suspenseful finale. Since its publication last fall, Your House Will Pay has been showered with praise by critics, winning The Los Angeles Times Book Prize and being named a Best Book of the Year by The Wall Street Journal and The Chicago Tribune. Cha spoke with Brendan Dowling via telephone on May 4th, 2020.

Grace is such a fascinating character to serve as the detective in the novel, especially since she seems to recede in the background of her everyday life. What intrigued you about telling this story through the eyes of Grace?

I wanted to portray somebody who was naïve to the point where it was harmful. I had this idea of exploring innocence in its many forms, and Grace is somebody who thinks she can live in her own little bubble. Her world is small; it feels to her in some ways disconnected from the real world. It’s only when she finds out her family history and realizes that she’s part of this larger story that she’s forced to reckon with some of the responsibility that she bears as part of this family, as an American, and somebody who should be paying attention. She was my entry point into that because she’s also a version of me, of my old apolitical self and various people I know who grew up in LA and in the Korean American community, whose world is kind of contained.

Her juxtaposition with her sister Miriam is fascinating, since Miriam often seems to be overcompensating through her activism with her participation in the world.

I don’t think there’s a perfect way to deal with what they’re dealing with. I don’t think that people who are in privilege or in power have a graceful or correct way to wield that power. Grace and Miriam present two different models of that and neither are perfect. Both have many problems, but that’s not to say there’s this right way that you can be in that position either.

It made me as a reader have to reckon with how complicated their situation is.

It’s like, what’s the alternative to being twitter woke? It’s being apathetic, or putting your money where your mouth is and going out there. Miriam does that to an extent, but there is a way in which when you are somebody who is not a directly affected party, you’re just a little bit ridiculous when you put yourself out there too. That’s okay, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think that’s the cost of being somebody with a lot of privilege who cares and wants to act on that.

We get to see Shawn as a teenager in 1991 and then as a 41 year-old holding a family together in 2019. What was it like visiting a character at two wildly different times in their life?

I always knew that I was going to do that with Shawn. I thought it was important to show who he is now and who he has been. Even in the 1990s chapters, he’s a different person in the first chapter than he is in the third. I wanted to show him in his innocence at the beginning of the book. I wanted to show his childhood, because he has a very short childhood—it ends when his sister’s murdered in front of him. I wanted to write about this kid who’s a good kid, a normal kid, and whose life is derailed by this event that’s not his fault, but he has to deal with the consequences anyway. Meanwhile the killer of his sister does not have to spend a day in prison.

Grace is somebody who’s ignorant because she tries to stay out of the fray. It’s not even that intentional, it’s just out of ignorance, whereas Shawn wants to stay out of the fray because he’s just exhausted. To get at that exhaustion, to show why he is the way he is and why he believes what he does and why he clashes with Aunt Sheila about activism and about his sister’s memory, there are reasons for all these things and I wanted to show that in his past.

Palmdale and the Antelope Valley are parts of California that don’t seem to get covered a lot in literature. What attracted you about setting your book there and exploring that world?

I knew that I wanted to set Shawn’s family, their part of the book, in the exurbs of LA because one of the things that has changed between the early nineties and now is that a huge percentage of LA’s Black population has migrated out to these exurbs. I was interested in that shift.

South Central LA is no longer predominantly Black, and the few neighborhoods in LA proper that have stayed Black or majority Black are the wealthier neighborhoods—View Park, Lemiert Park, Baldwin Hills—probably because of home ownership. A lot of Black Angelenos got priced out of LA and moved out to these exurbs. I hadn’t really seen that written about in fiction before. I settled on Palmdale because it’s one of these cities that’s very far from LA but is still a commuter city. The level of income is really compressed. Most people who live in Palmdale make a similar amount of money. It’s not a lot, these are not wealthy people, but there are a lot of families who get more space, more bang for their buck real estate wise. They drive seventy miles each way every day for jobs that are not necessarily very high paying. I think there’s something wrong with that. There’s also a certain amount of dignity in that that I wanted to look at through Shawn’s family. I also wanted it to be a place that fits Shawn. He’s in this phase of his life where he just wants to be settled down and live a quiet life. It’s not the most exciting city, but I think that suits Shawn.

The book deals with these big weighty themes of atonement and reconciliation, without ever veering into sentimentality. How did you strike that balance?

It felt like a natural thing to incorporate, these are some of the things the characters are thinking about. Keeping everything grounded in the characters helped me to make it so that it wasn’t super over the top at any point. I knew I had some latitude to incorporate some biblical imagery and concepts from the Bible because these are two characters who would have grown up with a church and would have some familiarity with that. It’s a point that they have in common that they don’t even really get into.

Who were the novelists and books that were influential to you as a writer?

I’d say starting out, definitely Raymond Chandler, he was the biggest influence on my first book. I love novelists like Megan Abbot, Denise Mina, and Attica Locke. For this book, it was a little bit of a departure in that it’s not a mystery, it’s more of a social crime novel. I was thinking of books by people like Richard Price, Jonathan Lethem, and Ivy Pochoda, this subgenre of crime where crime is used as a way to examine society.

And finally, what role has the library played in your life?

My first job was actually as a messenger clerk for the LA Public Library System. I had that job in high school and it’s one of my favorite jobs I’ve ever had. My shelves were always impeccable. It was nice being in high school, I would be shelving books, and a random one would catch my fancy for whatever reason and I would check it out. I’m a big fan of books as tactile objects. I like their smell, I like their feel. I think working in a library really solidified that for me. I’m still very precise with the way I deal with my books.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.