By Jodie Shull
Mystery novelist Steph Cha says she has always loved the 1940s noir private detective stories of Raymond Chandler. Picture Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. When Cha began to write her own noir mysteries, she channeled her unique spin on the voice of Chandler's tough guy protagonist Philip Marlowe. The result was detective-in-training Juniper Song, a 20-something Korean-American female looking for a post-college life in today's gritty, fast-paced, stress-fueled Los Angeles.
"One thing I really like about Chandler," Cha says, "is that he would describe things in a figurative way." This is the good and bad news about channeling Chandler for a modern mystery writer. "Philip Marlowe's interior monologues are very florid and figurative. Everything is a million mixed metaphors. There's a simile in every line." Cha acknowledges that this worked wonderfully for Chandler in another era. Today, though, it's hard to pull off in a contemporary novel. Steph Cha is a master of figurative language herself, but she says her agent asked her to pull back some of the excesses in her first Juniper Song novel.
For Cha, the use of unique and striking descriptions are part of building the voice and character of her protagonist, Juniper Song. "I don't like to write descriptions that are just the same as everyone else's. I want to make it seem like a fresh pair of eyes are looking at it," Cha says. Juniper Song's descriptions establish who she is and how unique her viewpoint is. "She's so observant and all of her emotions are coloring her descriptions," says Cha. Making Juniper's voice unique was her goal, "Marlowe-inflected but also approachable and colloquial." Beautiful writing need not be difficult to read or get in the way of story. Cha says she likes stylists who write beautifully but don’t call attention to their efforts.
Actually, the marvelous voice of Juniper Song is the first thing you notice in Steph Cha's novels. Here are a few of my favorite lines of description:
Of a male friend’s disheveled appearance: “His hair was a nest wrought by blind birds.”
Of a murderer’s inattention: “Maybe he was watching, worrying, and missed the moment when his victim made the binary leap from 1 to 0.”
Of a female actress’s face: “[she had]…a dainty chin, slightly dented in the middle like soft fruit pressed by a thumb.”
Of Los Angeles gangs: “[They were]…veins running beneath the skin of the city.”
“We leaned against the hood of his car, smoking and boozing, a quiet little picnic of sadness and vice. The sky was an oily black, starless, chilly, portentous.”
“I feared her like an insomniac fears the death of the sun.”
“Lusig’s confession stayed with me like a hangover that refused to dissipate.”
“I felt sick to my stomach, like my computer had crashed and swallowed my thesis.”
Each line tells us about Juniper Song—that she is a sensitive observer, a sharp wit, a wry sensibility, and a feeling actor in her own drama. These samples illustrate Steph Cha’s success in her effort to achieve fine writing in a voice that is seamless, accessible, and compelling.
By Emma C.
Noir writer Steph Cha visited Pasadena City College in October as the PCC English Department's Writer in Residence. She visited several classes and also offered a workshop session where she answered questions from the student-audience. This piece is an edited collage of the Q&A from that workshop session. Steph Cha has been working on her 3rd book in a trilogy about a Korean-American investigator.
On taking rejection:
Cha states that she was never notified if a publisher had rejected her work only if they accepted it, so she had no reaction at all to rejection from publishers. She did however get rejected by agents who she asked to represent her. Her overall feeling about rejections is that it helps to keep you humble and to have thicker skin. She realized that by being rejected, she was not writing for everyone because not everyone will connect to her story but appreciates though who do.
On being the first female author to write Korean-American Noir:
Cha feels that mystery is predominantly written by white older males and that ethnic communities in the mystery genre aren’t being explored at all. She is surprised to find that no mystery novels touch on minority groups since there is so much to touch on when it comes to these minority groups cultures and taboos.
On developing characters and setting:
Cha’s main character is based off herself, giving the protagonist her voice. Most of her other characters are also partly based off of real people she knows. Cha finds it is easiest get a character down based on people’s real life reactions to certain situations. Her settings are also based off places she is familiar with, like Los Angeles. Cha suggest to stick with a place you know very well to create a natural setting and if you want to change that setting, you should do research or travel.
On the Armenian Genocide as the topic of her latest book:
Cha puts emphasis on his historical event since she has Armenian friends who feel strongly that the Armenian Genocide isn’t given enough attention and is not recognized as an actual historical event that occurred.Cha also shares similar feeling to her Armenian friends, she too feels that some parts of Korean-American past history is neglected and never talked about. She believes that a culture and its people are meant to be heard, your people’s history is what you leave behind to continue a story.
On developing story, plot and getting her thoughts out on paper:
Cha states she is not married to plot. She wanted her novels to develop in an organic way and plot would restrict that. For Cha’s writing to get down on paper, she states to do exactly that, put your thoughts on paper. For Cha her novel came to her when she had finally decided to sit down and type.
On valuing knowledge and experience:
For Cha this was a tough question to answer, she explained that experience changes you in a way knowledge doesn’t really do. All experiences are valuable, and that experience helps build character.
On knowing when she wanted to be a writer:
Cha stated that being a writer was her “pipe dream," she believed that writers were a special breed of people. She never really got directly into writing since she never knew anyone who wrote so instead took to reading as an indirect way to get into writing.
On teasing her fourth novel:
Cha’s new novel will take a different turn, it will center around the 1992 riots and shooting in Los Angeles. Specifically on a Korean female store owner who shoots a fifteen year African -American girl over stolen orange juice and serves no time in jail. Her book will follow the lives of these characters around that time and talk about the racial tensions that occurred at the time as well.
The last question that Steph Cha was asked for that day was if she ever had any moments of doubts. She answered everyday but it shouldn’t stop you. “No magic goes into a novel just your effort”
By Jodie Shull
Brown Girl in Brooklyn
Jacqueline Woodson came to Vroman’s Books in Pasadena last month to talk about her new novel Another Brooklyn. It always amazes me when a literary idol of mine appears right there in that small space full of folding chairs and I can spend a quiet evening in their company. Jackie Woodson is a 2014 National Book Award winner for her childhood memoir-in-verse Brown Girl Dreaming, a New York Times bestseller, which also won a Newbery Honor Medal, Coretta Scott King Award, and NAACP Image Award that year.
Known for her extensive contribution to African-American literature for children and young adults, Woodson was appointed the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate for 2015-2017. There isn’t a children’s book award she hasn’t received or been nominated for, and like most superstars of the children’s book world, she is modest, generous, humorous and devoted to creating books that matter for kids.
Another Brooklyn is a departure for her because it’s a novel for adults. Woodson explained that while she was writing Brown Girl Dreaming about growing up in South Carolina and New York in the 1960s and 1970s, she jogged loose memories about the places she had lived in Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. She decided to write a history of Bushwick, a biography of a true place, and created a fiction narrative about four girls coming of age in that setting. The emergence ofAnother Brooklyn is a benefit of Woodson’s habit of writing more than one book at a time. She had insights while writing Brown Girl Dreaming that “unlocked” Another Brooklyn.
So what is the difference between Young Adult and Adult categories? According to Woodson, publishers decide how to market a given story. It’s about “time,” she says. Even though Another Brooklyn is the story of four teenage friends, it’s narrated by an adult looking back in time, a perspective that wouldn’t be of interest to a teen reader. “Young people want a young narrator,” says Woodson, “telling their story in the moment.” In her Young Adult books, her narrator is usually not older than 16.
Writers for young people don’t need to stay away from complex, troubling subjects. Quite the opposite. Readers understand things at the level of their life experience. As a child, Woodson says she read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and thought the story had a happy ending. Reading the book again as an adult, Woodson saw the layers of meaning that she couldn’t perceive as a child. It’s these layers of meaning that allow Woodson to present the tough but necessary subjects that sometimes get her books removed from school library shelves. Woodson cited a poem about tobacco from Brown Girl Dreaming as an example of “just how subversive authors who write for young people actually are.”
Jackie Woodson struggled with reading as a child. When she found a copy of John Steptoe’s picture book Stevie in the library, she first discovered a child who looked like her on the pages of a book and began to dream of telling her own stories. “My love of stories inspired and stayed with me,” she says, “creating the first sparks of the writer I was to become.” Fast forward some forty years, and Woodson is signing copies of her 19th book for a warm circle of admirers at Vroman’s. She writes “with so much love” in my copy of Another Brooklyn. That and her beautiful wide smile let me feel the true secret of her success.
Late breaking news: Jacqueline Woodson's Another Brooklyn was just listed as a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award.