Interview with Steph Cha
THE ART OF WRITING
A conversation with writer STEPH CHA
Author of FOLLOW HER HOME
Steph Cha is relatively new to the writing world. She just wrote her first book, Follow Her Home, published by Minotaur Books earlier this year. Of course, she’s been working on this book for years. But to the average reader she’s just arrived. Follow Her home is the story of a young woman who becomes a reluctant detective in present-day Los Angeles. It’s an homage to Raymond Chandler and his great noir stories set in the same city. Steph Cha takes her character down her own unique path, and comes up with a story that is both compelling and exciting. It’s a definite page-turner.
The Writing Disorder: Congratulations on your new book, Follow Her Home. I really enjoyed reading it. I also grew up in Los Angeles. So it was easy to visualize all of the streets and locations you write about. I love reading about familiar places.
How did you come up with the unusual concept for your book? How long did it take to write?
Steph Cha: I read Chandler in college and I just loved those novels — the style, the sense of place, the kind of noble, weary hero. On the other hand, I knew what I was reading was outdated in many ways, and that the diverse, sprawling Los Angeles I know was not really in Chandler’s imagination. I wanted to write a contemporary L.A. noir that showed the city I know, from a point of view based on my own — something like Korean-American, feminist, twenty-something shithead. Once I came up with the character and started writing, I got a draft out in about a year and a half, with several breaks. The editing took longer, about three years all told, though most of that was waiting time.
The Writing Disorder: Tell us about the process of writing your first novel? Was this your first attempt?
Steph Cha: This was my first attempt. I started writing it because I didn’t like my summer job, which is such a bratty thing to say, but it’s true. I was in school and decided that if what I was studying to do didn’t fulfill me, maybe I should give that pipe dream a shot. I started writing it a couple pages at a time, and the more I wrote, the more I thought I might finish the thing. I didn’t outline, and I wasn’t very disciplined, so there were weeks at a time when I wrote nothing, like when I hit a snag in the narrative. I’ll have to keep myself more on task going forward.
The Writing Disorder: Did you have a publisher before you finished, or did you start looking once you finished? Where did you begin to look?
Steph Cha: Oh man, I found my publisher a year and a half after I finished my first draft. I took almost a year getting my agent on board, and after that, we revised for three months before submitting anywhere. Once my agent decided the manuscript was ready to go, he pitched it to a short list of editors, and somebody bit.
The Writing Disorder: You grew up in Los Angeles? Talk about your life growing up here — your family life, friends, social activities? Where did you go to school?
Steph Cha: I grew up in Encino, so the valley, mostly. My family life was tame. Parents, two younger brothers. My grandma lived with us for a while when I was very young. I went to private school my whole life (Oakwood for a bit, then Mirman, then Harvard-Westlake), so I led a pretty sheltered, privileged existence. I was an obedient, studious sort of kid. My social life was entirely wholesome, maybe even a bit bland. I didn’t start seeing my friends outside of school with any regularity until I got my driver’s license.
The Writing Disorder: Do you follow Los Angeles history — crimes, architecture, movies, etc.? What are some of your favorite stories about the city?
Steph Cha: I follow it loosely — I’m interested in stories about L.A. but definitely more movies/books than minute local current events. I love L.A. noir as a genre, so Chandler, Mosley, Ellroy, and the accompanying class of movies. Good God, Chinatown.
The Writing Disorder: What are some of your favorite books about Los Angeles?
Steph Cha: You know, I just went through my GoodReads, and it looks like about half of my exposure to L.A. literature falls under the noir umbrella. Outside of that, I really like Elsewhere, California by Dana Johnson, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion, and Southland by Nina Revoyr, which is sort of cheating because it’s also a mystery, at least in part.
The Writing Disorder: When did you pick up your first Raymond Chandler book, and what was it?
Steph Cha: The Big Sleep, freshman year of college.
The Writing Disorder: What is your favorite book of his? What other crime authors do you read/admire?
Steph Cha: I have a special fondness for The Big Sleep, but The Long Goodbye is his best novel. It’s pretty incomparable. Other crime authors — well, outside the usual suspects, I like Denise Mina, Gillian Flynn, and when he goes that way, Jonathan Lethem. I’ve also really enjoyed books by Attica Locke, Naomi Hirahara, Daniel Friedman, and Joy Castro in the last year, and will probably keep reading them. And oh — I guess he might be canon, but Ross Macdonald.
The Writing Disorder: Are you a fan of film noir as well? Which movies do you like most?
Steph Cha: Oh yeah, though I suppose I’ve only seen the big ones. As mentioned, Chinatown, but also Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. I also like movies like Brick and L.A. Confidential. Neo-noir is sort of my jam. Drive was my favorite movie of last year.
The Writing Disorder: How do you begin a story?
Steph Cha: An idea and a little bit of discipline. I find that if the idea’s any good, it’ll bloom a bit as long as I do the work of writing words on a page.
The Writing Disorder: Do you write poetry or short stories? Anything published?
Steph Cha: I’ve been tinkering with short stories over the last several months, but I haven’t even submitted anything at this point.
The Writing Disorder: What was your youth like, and what made you want to become a writer?
Steph Cha: It was privileged, peaceful, and probably a little bit boring. My mom was strict, and I studied a lot. I was always a big reader, even when I was small, so I think that’s what did it. I fantasized about becoming an author starting around third grade.
The Writing Disorder: When did you begin to think of yourself as a writer?
Steph Cha: Ah, that’s a tricky one. I didn’t start calling myself a writer until I landed an agent, more than two years after I started writing. I probably started thinking of myself (very cautiously) as a writer once I made the decision to finish this book, maybe halfway through the first draft of the manuscript.
The Writing Disorder: What does your family think of your work and success? Do you ever get their input on your writing?
Steph Cha: No one in my family follows publishing/books very closely, but they’re all proud and happy. My grandma, who speaks no English, has been selling the book to all her friends, who also speak no English. I don’t get any input from my family on writing, but they’re enthusiastic about the end product and that’s good enough for me.
The Writing Disorder: Who influenced your work early on? What books, authors did you read growing up? Who do you like to read now?
Steph Cha: As a kid, I read Roald Dahl and a lot of those hardcover classics bound and marketed for children — Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Heidi, that kind of thing. I read Poe around fifth grade, and I think my first stab at creative writing involved a blood-splattered wall. I think my favorite book between the ages of eleven and fifteen was Catch-22. At the end of my junior year of high school, though, I read As I Lay Dying and Lolita in the span of a couple months, and I started reading furiously after that. I still read fiction almost exclusively, mostly literary stuff, a healthy amount of crime, a classic that I missed now and then.
The Writing Disorder: When did you first get published?
Steph Cha: This book. Officially, April 16 of this year, then.
The Writing Disorder: Describe what happens when you are working on a story or book.
Steph Cha: I don’t have a lot of data points, but I will say that I have a hard time sitting down and writing for eight hours. I tend to have productive spurts and dry spells, and I’m working on pushing through those dry spells with a bit more discipline. I do work much better when I’m on deadline — huge procrastinator, but I respect deadlines.
The Writing Disorder: How much of what you write do you throw away?
Steph Cha: Scraps here and there. I do edit a lot, but I haven’t trashed too many large segments of irredeemable writing.
The Writing Disorder: What are you working on now?
Steph Cha: I have a few things going, including a literary novel and bits of short stories, but the primary project is a sequel to Follow Her Home.
The Writing Disorder: What do you do when you’re not writing? What do you do for fun?
Steph Cha: I read! Ha, is that boring? I guess I also hang out with my basset hound and my fiancé and my family and my friends. I like to eat, and since I like to write, too, I post a lot on Yelp. I also like to drink, mostly in moderation.
The Writing Disorder: What are some of the challenges of being a writer today?
Steph Cha: I think I’m still too green to speak competently about the changing marketplace, or ebooks or whatever, but there are a few things I would guess are pretty timeless. It doesn’t help that most writers don’t make minimum wage doing what they love, and the constant battle of ego and self-doubt is certainly wearisome.
The Writing Disorder: Where and when do you write? Describe the space?
Steph Cha: I write on my couch, under a throw blanket, with my dog either at my side or my feet. I write throughout the day, rarely in the morning. I goof off in the morning.
The Writing Disorder: Was writing encouraged at home?
Steph Cha: In a way. When I was very young, my mom had me write stories in order to learn vocabulary words. She’d give me like ten or twenty new words, and I’d have to incorporate those into stories. I think she was more concerned about the memorization than the creative bit, but I did enjoy those exercises.
The Writing Disorder: Does anyone else in your family write?
Steph Cha: No.
The Writing Disorder: How much research do you do before you begin a new project?
Steph Cha: Very little, to be honest, unless you count whatever knowledge I get from pleasure reading. I research as needed — I tend to avoid it unless I have a specific question.
The Writing Disorder: Once you have the basic story written or first draft, is the editing process longer than the initial writing?
Steph Cha: This time around, it was, but I think that’s because I spent long periods of time waiting around. I think the cycle tightens up after the first book.
The Writing Disorder: Do you have other creative talents — music, art, etc.?
Steph Cha: I play piano and sing on a pretty basic level. I also used to play cello but I don’t even have access to a cello anymore. I’m a fair doodler, too.
The Writing Disorder: What is a typical writing day for you?
Steph Cha: Wake up, roll downstairs, dick around on the internet, eat something, walk dog, write.
The Writing Disorder: Do you spend a lot of time on the internet? What do you do, what sites do you visit most often?
Steph Cha: So much. It’s terrible. I always have Facebook, Twitter, and GoodReads open, and I frequently Google myself and spy on my Amazon page. I also spend a lot of time on Yelp and on Videogum, which is a medium-sized pop culture blog with a great commenting community.
The Writing Disorder: Do you have a lot of writer friends?
Steph Cha: I have writer friends now! I didn’t until fairly recently, but now I have a little group of people to get beers with in the middle of a random weekday.
The Writing Disorder: What kind of music do you listen to? What groups were you into growing up?
Steph Cha: I stopped listening to new music almost altogether when I was in college. I “discovered” Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Clash, Pixies, etc. in high school, and got into like Built to Spill, Beulah, Rilo Kiley, Modest Mouse in college. I have an ex who will send me cool new music now and then and I enjoy that, but I think my days of being very into music are basically over.
The Writing Disorder: Who reads your work first?
Steph Cha: I showed the first draft of Follow Her Home to my roommate and one of my best friends, who reads a lot. Now, though, my agent.
The Writing Disorder: Do you miss Los Angeles when you’re away? What do you miss most about it?
Steph Cha: Tons. And this is easy — my family.
The Writing Disorder: Was it difficult to structure your book and maintain the tone?
Steph Cha: No. Noir has constraints, and those constraints made it relatively easy to keep things consistent.
The Writing Disorder: Are the characters in your book based on people you know?
Steph Cha: Not really. I borrowed characteristics here and there, but no one whole.
The Writing Disorder: What do you do for fun? Where do you like to go?
Steph Cha: Well, this week I’ve watched an insane amount of RuPaul’s Drag Race but that isn’t typical. I mostly read and eat and drink. I live in Los Feliz, and I love my neighborhood, so I like walking around here. We have the Observatory up the street, Skylight Books down on Vermont. I go there a lot.
The Writing Disorder: I think your book would also make a great movie. Has anyone discussed this with you?
Steph Cha: Yeah, it’s been discussed, but not in a lot of detail. I think it would make a good movie, but I don’t know anything about that industry.
The Writing Disorder: What was it like going to Yale Law school? I assume you wanted to become a lawyer — what changed?
Steph Cha: It was okay. I made some very good friends while I was there, including my fiancé. I liked being in a class with so many smart, talented people. The school part, though, wasn’t my favorite. I just didn’t find it that interesting. I don’t think I ever wanted to be a lawyer, not especially anyway. I went to law school straight out of college, and I guess I didn’t have the imagination to do anything else at that point.
The Writing Disorder: You also attended Stanford. What did you study there and what was the experience like?
Steph Cha: I studied English and East Asian studies, with a minor in psychology. I loved it. I miss English class. As far as the college experience goes, I had a good time. I just went to my five-year reunion in October and a wedding on campus in April, and I really only have fond feelings for Stanford.
The Writing Disorder: So once you finished school, what was your plan — to become a writer, or something else?
Steph Cha: College? I was planning to be a lawyer, or something like that. Once I graduated law school I knew I wanted to pursue writing in a serious way.
The Writing Disorder: Are you enjoying the life of a published writer, book tour, etc.?
Steph Cha: Oh yeah. I feel very blessed, and I’m grateful for all the support I’ve received from my family and friends. Touring is stressful sometimes (you caught me at the end of a particularly rough week), but I’ve had fun doing it. I’m glad my book is out there in the world, and I plan on writing a few more before my time is up.
The Writing Disorder: Thank you very much for your time.
To follow Steph Cha on Twitter, visit: Twitter
For details about her book, visit: Follow Her Home