Chloe Gong Didn't Set Out To Write A YA Fantasy Novel That Mirrored Our Pandemic Reality, But Readers Cannot Get Enough
"It was bizarre reading through my own fictional passages about how the foreigners in 1920s Shanghai believed the 'madness' to be a locals-only thing, and they didn’t care about it until it hit them."
Chloe Gong is the New York Times bestselling author of the YA historical fantasy novel These Violent Delights, the first book in her duology, which concludes with Our Violent Ends. First-time readers will not only be immersed in Gong's impressive worldbuilding (the series is set in 1920s Shanghai), but they'll also find all the things that make up a great fantasy novel: enemies-to-lovers, forbidden love, heart-pounding action sequences, race-against-the-clock stakes, surprising villains, and so much yearning and tension. Gong's books are long (the last one clocking nearly 500 pages), but they're intriguing — political and thoughtful — and keep readers hungry for more. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Chloe, where we discussed the strange parallels of the pandemic and this series, writing these books while attending university, and how she'll continue to expand this world in future novels.
Hi Chloe! This is Farrah with BuzzFeed! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I’m so excited we could make this happen! How are you doing?
Hi Farrah!! It’s an honor to be chatting with you. I’m very delighted hehe. I’m good! How are you?
I’m great, thank you! I’m such a fan of both of these books, and I have so many questions I am dying to ask you. Let’s dive right in!
Our Violent Ends is the finale of your duology that began with These Violent Delights, which is set in 1920s Shanghai and inspired by Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. What inspired you to create this story told within this world? And why the 1920s?
SO excited for the questions, and I will try very hard not to typo all over the place or slip into my usual lower-case-everywhere habits. I first got the idea for a Romeo and Juliet meets 1920s Shanghai story because I wanted to write about two families caught in a blood feud and the inherent tension that comes with trying to fight against that. I LOVE angst, and I had grown up reading angsty YA, and the stories that I was most obsessed with always involved love and hate and familial drama. But I also wanted to see myself represented in the type of angsty heroines who got to star in those fantastical stories, so the immediate setting that came to mind for mine was 1920s Shanghai, since I had grown up hearing about this golden age era from the cool stories my parents pass on from *their* parents and relatives. I’ve always adored the Roaring '20s aesthetic, but there was something especially delicious about Shanghai at this time — the good, the bad, and the ugly where the streets were soaked in debauchery, but it was efforts of foreign colonialism that caused the sense of party in the city…so it was just a perfect setting for me to really sink into and explore!
I, too, love books filled with angst! It’s so interesting to hear that stories passed down from your family helped shape your own novels. You paint the setting so well. And speaking of angsty heroines, Juliette is this fierce, protective total badass. What sparked the idea to create her as your main character?
I truly never would have been as drawn to Shanghai as I was and as I still am if it weren’t for my family’s stories! Juliette is so close to my heart. When I set out to create her I wanted to fully embrace the “overpowered” archetype: the girl who is going to stab anyone who upsets her… but still allow her to be flawed enough to be upset and messy and unreasonable. I had grown up reading about the Celaena Sardothiens and Isabelle Lightwoods and I thought, you know, it’s high time we get a Chinese diaspora character in YA fantasy who fits into this archetype too. A thing that was really important to me, too, was that Juliette embraces her femininity whilst being powerful. We kind of went through an era in YA where female main characters could either be feminine or they could be strong — ditching the dresses for the knives — but I wanted Juliette to be both, where she was fierce and liked wearing pretty things and maybe wearing those pretty things also gave her a certain power to navigate her society.
I love everything about this. It’s very true that those certain archetypes existed within YA, and I love that Juliette is strong and powerful while still embracing her femininity. You can be both!
I don’t want to step into spoiler-y territory for Our Violent Ends, but I’m curious about this: Did you know how this book would end from the very beginning?
Oooooh, very good question! I both did and I didn’t. And by that I mean These Violent Delights and Our Violent Ends used to be one big manuscript, but in that original format there was still so much of the story that I could flesh out, such as Roma and Juliette swapping into each other’s shoes (which is how we open Our Violent Ends: Juliette now being the one keeping secrets from Roma while Roma was the one keeping secrets in the first book) or such as the side characters like Benedikt and Marshall. So when my editor suggested a duology instead, I of course jumped at that idea and started the process of splitting them up. Our Violent Ends has the original climax from the original manuscript, so I’ve always known the course that the sequel would take and how each character would move around. But! The final chapters of Our Violent Ends are now drastically different from the original ending I set out with from the very beginning! I think once I had the chance to expand the world, more of the characters’ goals and desires revealed themselves to me, which also informed the ultimate ending and altered it. I do love this new ending much, much more.
This is so fascinating! I am certainly grateful your editor had the brilliant idea of making this a duology in order for you to more thoroughly explore this world and these characters, because I really loved getting so many of these characters' perspectives. It’s so rich and layered!
Editors are brilliant!
That is a fact!
OK, so you sold the book in early 2019, but it came out at the end of last year, so you had no idea how oddly topical some of the themes would be in 2020–21. What was your reaction to this? And what’s been the reaction of your readers?
WOW, yes, the topical nature of These Violent Delights was a shock when 2020 happened! I was honestly a little worried. When COVID started there was, of course, intense Sinophobia going through the States and anti-Asian hate crimes, and outside of my own personal safety, I was also trying to debut a book that was, well… very Chinese. From January through March, I was still in final edits, and it was bizarre reading through my own fictional passages about how the foreigners in 1920s Shanghai believed the “madness” to be a locals-only thing, and they didn’t care about it until it hit them…all while the US wasn’t doing lockdown and calling it a “Chinese virus” until suddenly the numbers started spiking here. I don’t think I’m a modern-day Cassandra or anything; I guess human nature and Western imperialist ideas just haven’t really changed much, because even though the monster and the madness in These Violent Delights was invented, the attitudes of the foreigners in the book very much were not. Readers have picked up on it for sure, and I’m really glad to offer a book that incites discussion relevant to current events, whether it’s among friends or in classrooms, since this is aimed at young adults! I’ve gotten people sending me pictures of the page in These Violent Delights where it just says “GET VACCINATED!” asking if I wrote it after COVID, and every time I’ve had to be like, “Nope, wrote it wayyyyy before; getting vaccinated is just always a good call!"
I can only imagine how bizarre that must have been, reading the manuscript back during a time when things had changed so drastically. But you’re right, it does allow young readers to have their own discussions about the world through fiction. And yes, getting vaccinated is, as you said, always a good idea.
Once readers get to the end of this series, they’re going to want to know what’s next from you. (Myself included.) Is there anything you can tell us about your third book, which is also set within this same world? Specifically, are you able to say which character we will primarily follow in the next one? 👀
Hehehe, sadly I can’t reveal that yet, but once Our Violent Ends comes out there will be much more information so that we’re not spoiling the original duology! All I can say now is that my third book, Foul Lady Fortune, is a spinoff set a few years after the events of Our Violent Ends, and while we will be primarily following one character we’ve already met, there are also other familiar characters in the main cast, and I LOVE expanding on existing worlds, so it’s been such a fun experience to push these characters farther now that they get their time in the limelight. I’ve been pitching Foul Lady Fortune as a political C-drama meets a Marvel movie because it’s about fake-married undercover spies who are assigned a mission to fight Japanese imperialism in China, so there’s also a bit of a tone shift from These Violent Delights and Our Violent Ends as far as genre goes, but I think readers who are familiar with my usual angst mixed with dramatics will also be eager to tune in. ;)
Haha, I had to try and ask! But I am SO ready for this. It sounds incredible!
I’d love to talk about YOU for a second. I read that you began writing at 13, sharpened your skills by writing on Wattpad for many years, and finished writing These Violent Delights when you were 19 — and while still in college. AND These Violent Delights debuted on the NYT bestseller list! It’s all incredibly impressive. What was the most difficult part? Was it tough navigating both your college course load and your publishing deadlines?
It was super tough! It got harder as I aged up, because back when I was 13, writing was a fun little hobby that I did when I had finished all my homework, and I didn’t think of it as anything except an enjoyment to kill time. It took a lot of pressure off of me while I was learning craft since there was never an end goal of publication or making something of the stories; I was just writing because I loved telling stories so much. Once I got an agent with These Violent Delights and started looking at it professionally, balancing the hustling with academia was a task! There were times where I needed to be strict with myself: I often couldn’t treat a Friday/the weekends like a regular college student because I would be on deadline, and I knew I needed to sit at my desk to make progress. Or if I had an assignment and a manuscript draft due on the same day, I would be planning my schedule months in advance instead of a few days before because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to stay on top of it. I wouldn’t have had it any other way, and I enjoyed my college experience as a dual student/author, but it really did test my calendar planning abilities, haha!
That definitely sounds like a challenge, and it’s so encouraging to see that it paid off! What advice do you have for young writers who look up to you and your career trajectory?
To keep writing! And I know that just sounds like the most “well, duh” advice ever, but I think it’s really worth its weight in gold — when it comes to being a writer, there are no tricks to learn, and there are no hidden secrets. There’s only working and working on your craft until it’s at a level that you can convey your stories and ideas and thoughts with, and then whether the next step is traditional publishing or non-traditional publishing, the world is truly your oyster. Adjacent to the advice of just keep going, for young writers especially, you also need to stay confident and believe in yourself, because at the end of the day most people break into the industry when they’re older, and there aren’t that many of us here, and we’re going to get talked over and told that we’re not ready by people who don’t know us. Every writer knows their own craft the most — if you’re ready to tackle writing stories and publishing them, then you’re ready, and you should do it.
I love this! OK, it’s no secret that you’re a master at using social media to market yourself and your book. Coming from someone who’s been in the digital media space for some time, it seems that when users feel like they're being sold something, or they find something inauthentic, they instantly want to scroll on. A certain creative balance has to be met. Do you have a specific approach to social media? Were you surprised at the growth of your audience?
Aw, shucks, I’m just on social media a lot, but I certainly won’t complain about being called a master at it, hahaha! I absolutely agree: People hate inauthentic content! My approach is generally to be as genuine as possible, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m putting all of myself onto the internet, but that I’m cultivating the parts of me that I’m happy for people to see and sharing what I’m comfortable with to make jokes and funny content that might also attract people to follow along my platform and check out my books. I was definitely shocked that my audience grew large, especially on TikTok! I do think a part of the growth is that I came from this audience to begin with — I was making fan blogs and running fan accounts before I became an author — and it’s very instinctual to me what might get people buzzing and what people wouldn’t really care that much about. Still, I’m always pleasantly surprised when it works!
Totally! Fun question for you: What are five things you need by your side when you sit down to write?
Oooooh, this one is hard because I’m always lounging around in the weirdest places to write LOL. I would say…a comfy pillow, a good light, maybe a chocolate bar, my water bottle, and my Spotify playlist just hovering in the airwaves.
I don’t want to take too much of your day, so I’ll end on this question! How would you describe both of these books using just three emojis?
I simply LOVE any emoji question. After careful deliberation, I would say that the These Violent Delights and Our Violent Ends duology is 🥀⚔️🔥
Amazing! Chloe, it has been SO fun chatting with you this afternoon, and I am so excited for Our Violent Ends to be out in the world soon! Thank you so much.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with me!! It’s been so fun, and I’m VERY excited for the finale to be out in the world, hehe. 🥰