By Karis Rogerson
Not every author (in fact, not even most authors) have shared that their favorite part of the writing process is the research. That all changed when I interviewed Chloe Gong, who spoke rapturously of the many hours she spent in her school library reading everything from secondary sources to “actual texts from the 1930s that were probably going to fall apart in my hands if I sneezed a little hard.”
“All in all, it was definitely the part that felt most writerly to me, and I enjoy having a pretentious writerly aesthetic,” she said.
Gong is the debut author of These Violent Delights, a Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920s Shanghai while a strange monster plagues the city. It sounds like a mouthful, but having read the book in a few breathless installments, I can attest to Gong’s prowess not only as a writer but in general as a crafter of tales.
It’s a gorgeously-spun and thrilling tale that not only retells one of the seminal star-crossed romances of English literature, but also doesn’t shy away from talking about tough topics like colonialism, racism, and bigotry of all forms.
In fact, Gong said in an email interview that this was something she did intentionally. Though she confessed to being in love with the general feel of the 1920s, saying she wanted to set a story there “for the sheer coolness factor,” she also spoke candidly about the problems of that era.
“One of my biggest pet peeves is historical fiction that completely glosses over the social and political tension of that time,” she said, “because the 1920s was an era with so much racial and colonial injustice no matter what region of the world you were in, and I knew that if I wanted to write something in that time, it was something that would be at the center—which is risky, I know, because some people just want to brush it under the rug and not read about it.”
She added that writing a story set during the 1920s without thoroughly exploring those issues would have felt artificial.
As for Shanghai, she explained that it’s the city in which her parents grew up so she feels a real connection to it, and added, “I had never seen before a Western classic interpreted through a lens set in the East, where the ideas were still about bordering the space between the West and the East, about a girl and a city caught between two very different cultures trying to exist simultaneously. So I went ahead and wrote it!”
Gong was originally drawn to the Romeo and Juliet tale because of the blood feud element, she said. In These Violent Delights, the Montagues and the Capulets become the Montagov family (head of the White Flowers) and the Cai family (head of the Scarlet Gang). They’ve been sworn enemies for uncounted years, but suddenly a monster is loose, madness is spreading throughout their city, and both gangs are equally at risk.
She said she wanted to explore that tension between hating each other and needing to work together.
In addition, Gong shared that though she’d never studied the play in high school, she had delved into other works by Shakespeare, “and I really loved the way he uses language,” she said.
She re-read the play with the blood feud idea at the front of her mind, and said, “I was absolutely in love with the themes and ideas that Shakespeare was trying to put forward that actually gets overlooked so much with everyone’s typical assumption that Romeo and Juliet is just about the romance. From that moment forward it was my mission to reimagine it, and bring the ideas I thought were most important to the forefront again.”
Long before she became the author she is now, Gong said, she was a bored teenager who’d devoured all the books she owned and thought to herself that maybe she could write her own.
So, the summer after her first year of high school, she did just that, writing a tome on her iPad.
“These earliest days as a writer are definitely my fondest writing moments because that was when I was writing solely to tell a story and make a world out of nothing,” she recalled. “I didn’t care about it being good, nor coherent, nor logical.”
And even now, Gong said that writing isn’t just a career obligation for her. “I love telling stories,” she said, adding that of course, she wants others to read her stories and be a part of the worlds she creates. “But at the end of the day, even if I retreated into a cave and became completely removed from the publishing industry, the drive I have to keep creating is motivated by putting these worlds into existence, and I don’t think anything is ever going to stop me from continuing to do so.”
A key fact to know about Gong is that in addition to being the author of one of the most anticipated releases of the year (according to the anecdotal evidence of my Twitter timeline), she is also a senior in undergrad.
As far as debuting during undergrad, Gong joked that the hardest part is that days contain a mere 24 hours.
She explained that she was answering my interview questions at midnight, after she had finished her homework, and was then going to pivot to revisions until 2 a.m.
“It’s certainly a lot to have on your plate at once, and the only way I manage to keep on top of everything is by having the most extensive to-do list that I live by religiously and check every hour of every day to make sure I know what’s upcoming in the day, in the week, and what’s expected from me,” she said. “I really do love everything that comes with being an author though, so because I’m having so much fun answering these questions I really don’t mind staying up into the unholy hours.”
And because Gong is one of my personal favorite social media follows, filling my feed with incredible TikToks, hilarious memes, and the infamous Scarlet Gang/White Flowers social media feud, I had to ask her how she does it so well, and what advice she has for aspiring authors on building their own social platforms.
“People can absolutely tell if you’re having fun with your internet life or if you’re pulling teeth trying to socialize with others,” she said, explaining that authors (and anyone, really) should do what brings them joy online.
“Social media is only a front-facing version of yourself, and you can absolutely curate it however you like,” she also said. “There’s no need to share what you don’t want to share or post what you don’t want to post. There’s no one-size-fits-all on what the perfect author on social media looks like.”
In addition to These Violent Delights, which goes on sale November 17, 2020, and is an absolutely rip-roaringly good read, Gong recommended two books she thinks everyone should read.
“I recently read The Nemesis by S.J. Kincaid, which finishes The Diabolic trilogy, and I will find every opportunity to recommend that series because it is hands-down perfect YA sci-fi and it has my favorite female protagonist that I’ve ever encountered everywhere,” she said, adding that the enemies-to-lovers romance is “so good.”
And for a YA contemporary, she recommended Everything I Thought I Knew by Shannon Takaoka. “I want so badly to push it into my high school self’s hands, but since I can’t invent time-travel, I hope every teen currently out there picks it up!” she said.
Speaking of teens, Gong said she wrote These Violent Delights as YA because it was the only natural move, especially as she was an 18-year-old when the idea first formed. “I was a teenager spinning up stories for other teenagers, knowing that we wanted a world we could clutch onto long after the last page had been turned,” she said.
“YA isn’t just about the age of the protagonist or the fast-paced plot, it’s also about creating a breeding ground for discussion and obsession, and that was what I wanted to pursue because that was what made me feel welcome when I first got into YA.”
These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong is out on November 17, 2020. Pre-order here!
The year is 1926, and Shanghai hums to the tune of debauchery.
A blood feud between two gangs runs the streets red, leaving the city helpless in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all is eighteen-year-old Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned to assume her role as the proud heir of the Scarlet Gang—a network of criminals far above the law. Their only rivals in power are the White Flowers, who have fought the Scarlets for generations. And behind every move is their heir, Roma Montagov, Juliette’s first love…and first betrayal.
But when gangsters on both sides show signs of instability culminating in clawing their own throats out, the people start to whisper. Of a contagion, a madness. Of a monster in the shadows. As the deaths stack up, Juliette and Roma must set their guns—and grudges—aside and work together, for if they can’t stop this mayhem, then there will be no city left for either to rule.