“Your House Will Pay” Is a Fictional Account of the L.A. Uprising
Steph Cha on writing realist social crime fiction and exploring the racial tensions of the '90s
On March 29, 2017, my wife and I went to the Hammer museum. We attended a talk as part of the Her Dream Deferred series, a program that aims to offer substantive analysis on the status of Black women and girls in the U.S. This particular conversation was between historian Brenda Stevenson and legal scholar Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw and was centered around Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African American girl, who was shot in the head and killed by Soon Ja Du, Korean grocery store owner in L.A. Her death, which happened just 13 days after the Rodney King beating, garnered little attention.
I share this story because afterward in the signing line, I’d bumped into author Steph Cha and her partner. While we were talking, a woman came up to my wife and said, “See! I told you I would do good things.” My wife is a deputy and at the time she worked at the Central Regional Detention Facility, a women’s jail in Lynwood. The woman who came up to her was a former inmate and she had promised that once she got released she would get involved in her community, do good things. It was a strange moment, because this night could incite rage or perhaps get you into some good trouble. Either way, in that standing small space, you had a Latinx woman and her daughter, (a former inmate), a Cherokee deputy, a Korean American attorney and writer, her white husband, and me, this multi-culti writer person. We must have been in L.A. It was then that Steph Cha mentioned she was writing a book on the topic of the L.A. Uprising and Latasha Harlins. It was then that Steph Cha mentioned, she was writing a book on the topic of the L.A. Uprising and Latasha Harlins. Cha has indeed written a novel that explores the racial tensions of ’90s L.A. by braiding the narratives of two families, linked by a moment of violence that sparked the city on fire.
I remember thinking what a big topic that is and how in the world would she do this. Having grown up in L.A. in the ’90s, I have been desperate for a novel that captures this moment with the attention and sensitivity that is this compelling and deeply human novel, Your House Will Pay. I’m so grateful to Cha for capturing our city’s complicated history, in such an empathic novel. I can’t wait for you all to read it.
Melissa Chadburn: I first just want to speak to this construct, how you dated the chapters into the recent future, well as I was reading it since I got an ARC I was reading into the future and when it comes out people will be able to read it—as if things were taking place in the recent past. Can you talk a little bit about that choice?
Steph Cha: I wanted Your House Will Pay to feel as current and entrenched in the real world as possible. When I first started working on the book, I optimistically thought it would both come out and take place in 2017, 25 years after the L.A. Uprising. As it became clear that this was a much harder, more time-consuming project than my previous books, I pushed the timeline to 2019, hoping that I would at least be able to publish by then. Because of how tightly everything is tied to real events in the early ‘90s, I felt strongly that it had to take place within 27 years of 1992. The main reason for this is that Grace Park, one of my protagonists, is pretty sheltered and naive in a way that I decided would get even less cute if I made her 28. This is all kind of arbitrary, of course, but I can get a little obsessive about things, and I’ve never been as obsessive about anything as I’ve been about this damn book.
MC: It really is my experience that you take on THE BIG issues in this novel, and wild how relevant this narrative of my adolescence is so relevant to right now. One thing I’ve grappled with and many of my students grapple with is how to have fellowship with people we don’t agree with. In particular with social media, and the current administration, and people constantly sharing how they’ve chosen to block people, which brings to mind the idea of conflict or our aversion to conflict and I think that this novel really unpacks that moment, what to do when you disagree with the people you love.
SC: I think a lot of people have had to deal with this in very direct ways since the last presidential election, but it’s a question that’s been on my mind for a long time, and that informed this book from its beginning stages. I spend a lot of time on the internet, and particularly on social media dominated by young progressives (i.e. woke Twitter), and I’m sometimes taken aback by the unforgiving nature of that space, which seems to dictate that if your grandma is kind of a racist, you can go ahead and put her in the trash. I actually think it’s very human and sympathetic to feel loyalty toward the people you love, to give them the benefit of doubt, to defend them stupidly even when they’re wrong. There’s a point where that becomes hard to do, and one of the things I wanted to explore in this book is where that point is––it’s different for different people, and as Miriam tells Grace, the evil of your loved ones can’t help but infect you, either by making you a bad person or a bad daughter/sister/partner/friend. It’s hard to be pure in your ideals when you live in a society with people you love and can’t control. People are messy and contradictory, and as much as I wish we could all agree on what is right and moral, especially when it’s as clear as, say, children locked in cages, the fact is that’s never going to happen. I tend to be rigid in my convictions and flexible with my friends and family (granted, I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by people who mostly share my values).
MC: This idea too I think is something a lot of people can relate to in their political awakening or choice to abstain from politics. There’s this quote from your novel: “Grace had always believed, without really thinking, that the world was fair and reasonable. There were systems and structures to keep society alive and safely regulated, and it didn’t make sense for her to mistrust them when she understood them so little in the first place.”
SC: I didn’t pay attention to politics until after college, when I went to law school and every one of my friends was smart and engaged in a way that I just wasn’t. My family didn’t talk about politics, or even current events, really, and I grew up in this weird comfortable bubble of home/school/church, where I just had very little understanding of anything I didn’t learn in school or read in a book. I am not an apathetic person––I always cared abstractly about equality and justice––but I think I assumed that things were just running okay and didn’t worry about them too much, largely because I was insulated from harm by a sheltered, privileged upbringing. I wasn’t an idiot, I was always a good student, but I kept busy with school work and didn’t ask any difficult questions. This is more or less where Grace is before the political becomes very personal for her and she’s forced to face things she’d been all too happy to ignore.
MC: This question may be a bit of a doozy. Most days at the core of me I have this fear of being perceived as a class traitor. That I’m betraying my class or sharing all our dirty secrets in my writing. I guess the same can be said for being a second-generation immigrant, do you worry how Korean Americans, particularly Korean Americans in Los Angeles, will receive this novel? Also I suppose that could build its own resentment, simply because Steph Cha the author is Korean to be called to this higher duty.
SC: When I started writing this book, my mom requested that I not make Koreans look too bad. I get why she felt the need to say that––Soon Ja Du is one of the most notorious Koreans in Los Angeles––but I never really sweated it. I guess maybe because this is my fourth book, and I’ve written so many Korean American characters, I don’t worry about writing about the bad apples. There aren’t a lot of Korean American Angeleno authors writing about Korean American Los Angeles, so I feel like I’m doing good work for my community just by writing about it in depth over and over again. And you know, I write realist social crime fiction, I’m not doing the Korean mom thing and writing about the great accomplishments of good Koreans boys and girls. I write about Korean Americans like the ones I know––a diverse group of people, some of them wonderful, some of them terrible, none of them perfect.
MC: Can you share a little bit about your writing process?
SC: I write at home on my couch, usually between two basset hounds. I do best when I’m on deadline; I’ve always done well under pressure, and I actually feel good and happy when I’m producing on a tight schedule. I’m very distraction-prone and have poor self-control, so I try to set strict rules for myself when I need to write. I use the Pomodoro method (Amelia Gray introduced me to this, and it has changed the way I work), which forces me to focus for 25 minutes at a time. I adhere to my rules once I set them because if I don’t, chaos will reign.
MD: How do you balance between research and writing?
SC: I’m lazy about research and tend to do it as I go, but I did have to do a good amount of it in the early stages of this book. I was dealing with real history for the first time and wanted to get everything right, and I also wanted to read up on the history of L.A. and learn more about the communities and neighborhoods I was writing about. Some of my research was just talking to people, and I usually enjoy that, especially when drinks are involved. Most of the work for the book, though, was in the writing. This thing was tough to write, and with the tight points of view, I couldn’t even jam in a lot of the stuff I learned in research.
MD: I wanted to close off this interview with another incredible bit of Los Angeles ’90s history. After the L.A. Uprising, there was a nonprofit that was formulated called Rebuild L.A. Their objective was to create jobs for people displaced from work mostly in South L.A. They also posted billboards with inspirational slogans.
But my favorite little factoid is that they purchased a song, to be L.A.’s anthem and on June 6, 1992, one thousand chorus members of South LA churches were bussed into the Hollywood Bowl to perform the anthem: David Cassidy’s “Stand and Be Proud.”
This is our chance
Now we gotta take it
We may never get to pass this way again
We gotta be strong
If we’re gonna make it
Now it’s time to dry the tears.
Through the ashes hope appears
And if we reach out for the sky
We might touch the stars.
Stand and be proud
Of who we are
We’ve come so close
We’ve come so far
Now and forever
Our light will shine
Shout it out loud
Stand and be proud
The song brands RLA as a beam of hope and poverty as an identity problem and a result of poor life choices, rather than a lack of access or circumstances.