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Novelist Steph Cha on her favorite novel, 'The Long Goodbye' by Raymond Chandler

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, we're talking to one of our favorite novelists about one of their all-time favorite books. Author Steph Cha published "Your House Will Pay" in 2019. That book was inspired in part by the crime novel, and nobody holds higher court in that genre than Raymond Chandler, who's the author of "The Big Sleep" and who also wrote one of Steph Cha's favorite novels, "The Long Goodbye."

Here to tell us more about why this crime fiction classic stays with her and how it inspired her own work is Steph Cha. Hey, Steph.

STEPH CHA: Hey.

CHANG: Hey.

CHA: I'm so happy to be here talking about Raymond Chandler.

CHANG: So awesome to have you here. So, you know, like, the idea for this whole series we're doing is to take a closer look at all the books that authors always find themselves returning to. I have never read "The Long Goodbye," but I can't wait to hear you talk about it. What is it about?

CHA: We find Philip Marlowe, who's a private investigator - he's kind of the quintessential LA private eye, you know, definitive of the LA noir genre. He involves himself with a married couple with a lot of problems. The husband is an alcoholic writer, much like Raymond Chandler was himself, as well as a drinking buddy of Philip Marlowe's who he ends up liking and trusting, you know, which is something that he doesn't really do in his other books, you know? So I think of this one as the one where Philip Marlowe gets his heart broken. And I think for that reason, it has a really strong, lasting resonance for me.

CHANG: Yeah. Like, what about that story, the way it was written, made you fall in love with it?

CHA: Philip Marlowe is this idealist, you know? That, I think, is what makes him an interesting character to me. He works in this world that's really awful and corrupt, and yet, he's always looking for something redeeming in it. But in this book, he really kind of opens himself up in a way that he doesn't in the others, only to be betrayed and yanked around. And it's depressing. It's juicy. It gives us a really great view onto both his tarnished heart and the rot in LA in the...

CHANG: The rot?

CHA: I guess this book came out in the 1950s. Yeah. See, he writes about...

CHANG: Dang, you like dark.

CHA: ...How LA is this rotten place.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Is there a passage that you've thought about more than others, like one that distills that rot in LA, that moves you so deeply, Steph?

CHA: Yes. There's a great passage towards the end of the book that is one of the best pieces of writing that exists about LA. I'll read it.

CHANG: Yeah.

CHA: (Reading) When I got home, I mixed a stiff one and stood by the open window in the living room and sipped it and listened to the ground swell of the traffic on Laurel Canyon Boulevard and looked at the glare of the big, angry city hanging over the shoulder of the hills through which the boulevard had been cut. Far off, the banshee wail of police or fire sirens rose and fell - never for very long completely silent. Twenty-four hours a day, somebody is running. Somebody else is trying to catch him. Out there in the night of a thousand crimes, people were dying, being maimed, cut by flying glass, crushed against steering wheels or under heavy tires. People were being beaten, robbed, strangled, raped and murdered. People were hungry, sick, bored, desperate with loneliness or remorse or fear, angry, cruel, feverish, shaken by sobs - a city no worse than others, a city rich and vigorous and full of pride, a city lost and beaten and full of emptiness. It all depends on where you sit and what your own private score is. I didn't have one. I didn't care. I finished the drink and went to bed.

CHANG: Wow.

CHA: Isn't that great (laughter)?

CHANG: I mean, it's great. It's movingly bleak. It's so funny because a lot of people, when they hear, oh, you live in LA? - that's so nice. This is a completely different version of LA. Why does that version capture you so deeply?

CHA: You know, I love LA. So I love Chandler because he writes about LA. You know, I don't think Chandler loved LA in the same way that I do, to be honest. He wasn't a native. It was an extremely corrupt place, and he wrote about it without any mercy. And I write in that genre, you know?

CHANG: Yeah.

CHA: I write crime novels that are critical of LA, but I also have a deep affection for it and a desire for it to be better.

CHANG: Well, as you mention, you are a crime writer. And I wonder, you know, it's probably hard to read books without a writer's eye. And when it comes to crime writing, the key is, I guess, like, tension, mystery, momentum. What do you see in Chandler's mastery of those elements?

CHA: You know, one thing I learned from "The Long Goodbye" is that plot matters, but it can be wild and messy and imperfect. In "The Big Sleep," Chandler famously didn't know who committed one of the murders.

CHANG: As the writer?

CHA: Yes. When "The Big Sleep" was being adapted for film, he was asked, who killed the chauffeur? And he didn't know.

CHANG: (Laughter).

CHA: And it's not clear from the book. He never really ties that up. And I think it doesn't matter. I don't know.

CHANG: That's so interesting.

CHA: So...

CHANG: You would think the unveiling of the murderer would be the key to the end of any crime novel.

CHA: Chandler is more, for me, about the mood he evokes. People will kind of buy what you're selling if you do it well, and that's something that I took away from him.

CHANG: You know, the best books in my experience, they offer something new every time you read them. I am curious, like, has this book, "The Long Goodbye" - has its significance changed for you over your life as you reread and reread it?

CHA: My relationship with Raymond Chandler has changed over the years. I still consider him one of my favorite authors. He used to be the whole world of crime fiction for me, though. And I started writing actually because I wanted to be in conversation with him. My first book, which came out almost 10 years ago now, it was a LA noir with the private investigator lead that explicitly grappled with Philip Marlowe, with that vision of LA, you know, and kind of pushed against some of it. I always wanted to write and read a book about, you know, the LA that I grew up in, which is contemporary and Korean American.

And I also recognized, you know, even as I was reading him the first time around, that the way he talks about women, the way he talks about non-white people is not always - uh (laughter) you know? It's probably a little bit cancelable. And so I wanted to kind of work against that.

But, you know, I think I can't go back to the books without relearning just how good he is, you know, how lasting. And so, you know, has the meaning of this book changed? Yeah, I think it's a little different for me now that I feel like I'm a writer, too, you know? I've now written several books. I can kind of read it like a writer. I'm able to see it clearly. And yet, it still hits me right in the heart.

CHANG: I love it. I'm going to crack it open, "The Long Goodbye." Author Steph Cha, this was so fun. Thank you so much for spending this time with me.

CHA: Oh, yeah. This has been a complete pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mallika Seshadri
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.