YA Debut Sets 'Romeo and Juliet' in 1920s Gangster Shanghai

Posted by Sharon on November 1, 2020
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Chloe Gong has a lot going on. In addition to releasing her debut YA novel, These Violent Delights, in the midst of a pandemic, she's also currently working on its sequel and prepping for finals as a senior at the University of Pennsylvania. Her classes are being taught virtually, but Gong, who went home to New Zealand when the school shut down in March, decided to return to Philadelphia for fall semester—mostly for practical reasons. “I decided if I came back, at least I'm in the proper time zone to Zoom,” she says with a laugh.
It’s also a bit fitting that Gong is back in the place where she first started writing These Violent Delights, which is a dynamic retelling of Romeo and Juliet that she composed over the course of her freshman and sophomore years at Penn. Well, as Gong will tell you, it’s less of a retelling and more of a reimagining of the classic love story that follows the blood feud between two rival gangs in 1920s Shanghai. When a monster invades the city—killing citizens and gang members alike—it’s up to 18-year-old Juliette Cai of the Scarlet Gang and her first love (and first betrayal), Roma Montagov of the White Flowers, to join together and try and stop the “madness” from spreading.
On top of love and death, the book also explores themes of identity and colonialism, specifically between the citizens of Shanghai and encroaching foreigners. As Cai and Montagov rush to save the day, by way of Gong’s thrilling writing, we wait to see whether—as the full Shakespeare line goes—“these violent delights have violent ends.”
Gong spoke to Goodreads contributor Taylor Bryant about her love for Romeo and Juliet, her research process, and how she managed to write a book while balancing school. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: Have you always written fiction, and what was one of the first things that you wrote?

Chloe Gong: I started writing at the start of high school, so around 13, 14. I've always been a really, really big reader, and when I got into reading it was the 2010s, which is when YA was really taking off. So I've always had that category there available for me. I was obsessed with The Mortal Instruments, which was really big when I first got into reading. I read so fast that when I ran out of things to read, I got really bored because I had nothing else to do. So writing to me was this thing that I started doing to occupy my time. I definitely have always been writing fiction because it was more of a hobby to keep me entertained and to tell myself stories.
A few of my early…I guess I can call them manuscripts, but to me back then I was calling them stories because they were just really long documents. In retrospect, those were some really long books. My first few were YA paranormals because paranormal was really big on The Mortal Instruments. As I was getting further into high school, I was writing dystopian because then that [subgenre] really took off. Then I was writing a mystery series and high fantasy because that was coming on the shelves.

GR: What has going to school and also launching a book in the middle of a pandemic been like for you?

CG: It's been wild. [Laughs.] Because my release was all the way in November and everything started happening back in March, I don't really know what it's like to have a normal book-launching experience. My entire book launch timeline has been in the pandemic era now, so other authors are like, "Festivals, meeting people," and I'm like, "What? Is that a thing?"
The student aspect of it is more normal. I love writing so much that it's not hard on me. It's something that takes a lot of time out of my day, but I enjoy doing things like talking about my book and making things relate to my book so much that I'm like, "Yeah, this is a great distraction from my essays."

GR: How did you manage to balance both classes and writing when classes weren't virtual?

CG: I wrote most of These Violent Delights between freshman and sophomore year, so during the time when college was normal. But it was definitely a lot to handle. Most of the drafting I did in the summer, but then I did do a lot of rewriting and revising during sophomore year while I was attending classes. I had to keep my calendar really, really blocked out. I couldn't just be like, “OK, I might do some writing tonight.” I had to be like, “OK, from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m. I need to finish three chapters,” otherwise I could not meet my deadline.

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GR: Since you were rewriting and revising parts of it while you were in school, did any of your classes or professors influence you or seep into the book at all?

CG: I wrote most of the first draft without much influence from classes because freshman year I took a lot of introductory courses and nothing really made an impact. Then sophomore year, I started taking a lot more classes that were to my interest. Because I'm an English and International Relations double major, I was taking a mix of classes like Monsters in Film and Literature and things like Intro to Russian Literature, Intro to East Asian Diplomacy, U.S.-China Relations, all of those kinds of things. So it wasn't that in any of my classes I would necessarily learn about something and be like, "Oh, I'll write an idea around that," but more like I had this initial draft already and then as I was learning from classes, some things weirdly happened to match up. So I would be like, "OK, this is interesting. I might add a bit more of what I’m taking in in class into the book."

GR: You’ve said that Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare’s best plays and you don’t think it deserves the slander it receives in pop culture. What about the play do you love, and why do you think it receives such backlash?

CG: I think the backlash is that Romeo and Juliet is so popular and a lot of people don't actually look into it themselves. I think it's this paradoxical idea that because everyone thinks they know so much about it, because it takes up so much room in Western pop culture, that people don't actually know what it's about. If you go up to a random person on the street, they can tell you that it's a love story and they both die at the end, but I feel like most people haven't actually read it the whole way through either with a critical eye or they haven't seen [a live] production. Because it's so big now, there's no need to engage with it, which I find upsetting because the themes are so good.
I think there's a reason why it's lasted so long, because it's a very touchstone text from the earliest literature that looks at the lines between love and hate and what you would do for familial loyalty, all of those things that get pushed into consideration when it's about a blood feud between these two groups that don't even know why they hate each other. I think it's a good core concept that has inspired so much literature over the centuries and so many other ideas that have stemmed from it even if they weren't true retellings. There's so much good stuff that Shakespeare really hit on, and his sense of language is really, really beautiful. The whole of Romeo and Juliet has so many beautiful, quotable lines that have inspired so much in English literature.
So I don’t think people give Romeo and Juliet enough of their true attention. They know that it's an important text, but they just think it's like, "Oh, everyone loves it for the romance, everyone loves it for the teens being stupid." And yeah that's one point of it, but it's not the whole heart, and I wish more people would look at the whole heart.

GR: Having your debut be a retelling of such a classic work can be an intimidating task. What made you want to take that on? And are there aspects of the play that you wanted to update or improve upon?

CG: I decided to do a reimagining because I really loved the concept, and then I also wanted to make it something new in a way that I wanted to produce a work that was reintroducing something old but doing it in a way that felt like it hadn't been seen before. I didn't really want to just retell the actual content of Romeo and Juliet because you can just go read or watch one of the great movie adaptations. I wanted to engage with it in Shanghai and in the 1920s because I wanted to bring my own personal culture that I've experienced around me into the story, with a lens I don't think YA literature in the American market has really seen before.
Even though I grew up in New Zealand, I was born in Shanghai and my parents emigrated with me when I was two. So I don't remember much about actually living in Shanghai, but because of the way I was raised and because of the stories my parents would tell me and because of what my relatives would tell me who still live there, I had a sense of the city that I really liked in terms of its history and its aesthetic. But I didn't want to use it just as a flat backdrop. Because Shanghai is so richly cultured, it also has this heavy history of colonialism and imperialism and foreign powers that were taking advantage of the system in the '20s, so I also wanted to engage with the history alongside pretty aesthetics because the history is quite forgotten in [the] Western canon, and it was something that I thought maybe there's a missing niche here in literature that I can add to.

GR: What did that research process look like outside of speaking to family members? And how much of the book would you say is historically accurate and how much is fictionalized?

CG: I did a lot of online reading at first. Funnily, a lot of my research for the '20s in Shanghai came from Marxists.org, which is this free database site that has all of these primary resources about the revolution at that time. It was just funny that that was where it came from. I would also go to the Penn library, back when it was still open, and I would sit down on the steps where all of the books about 1920s Shanghai were kept together, and I would work through all of them and basically read cover to cover—not like read read because that would take too long, but skim through—to see what information I could draw out, what I could use to pump up the book a little bit more.
It wasn't like I really needed a lot of the historical information that I actually ended up learning in the process, because the plot itself isn't too contingent on the historical timeline. It’s more of a monster mystery and the blood feud. There was a lot of stuff that I could make up, so I think the research was more for my own interest and also just to have that background for the things that I was writing. I wanted to make sure that the atmosphere I was creating was actually true to the time and it wasn't something that was influenced by whatever else I made up. I tried to keep it as historically accurate as possible when it came to sentiments or how the people back then were discussing things or the political climate.
The tension between the foreigners and the Western powers or the way that the gangsters were actually running the streets—all of those things I tried to keep historically accurate in the sense that I wasn't inventing anything that wasn't already there. Shanghai in the 1920s really did have gangsters running the streets, they really did have cabarets going through the entire night. I took a lot of liberties when it came to adding real people because I didn't actually want to use historical figures. The Scarlet Gang is obviously invented, but it was inspired by the real-life Green Gang, which actually did exist. And of course, I put in the monster. There wasn't any real monster. [Laughs.]

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GR: Naturally, Romeo and Juliet was a text you turned to while writing These Violent Delights. Were there any others you drew inspiration from?

CG: Before writing These Violent Delights, I really, really loved Libba Bray’s The Diviners. It’s about the 1920s as well, and I really loved that it felt like you were part of the city and you were this omniscient set of eyes looking over it. That definitely inspired a bit of my writing style. Not so much content, even though they're both books set in the '20s. But because I really liked the way that book saw a setting.
In general, all the big blockbusters of the 2010s that I grew up obsessed with really influenced me—things like The Mortal Instruments or the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy. Honestly, even The Raven Boys. That series had really gripping characters and really inspired a sense of fandom. [That] was a feeling that I was trying to clutch onto because I really wanted my reader to feel how I did when I was reading those books.

GR: What other YA books would you recommend to fans of your work?

CG: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn and Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles. I feel like those two have a vibe that These Violent Delights has as well, even though they're almost different genres.

GR: What about books you’re currently recommending to your friends?

CG: I recently read Everything I Thought I Knew by Shannon Takaoka. It's this YA contemporary about a girl who goes through a heart transplant and has to pick up her life again, but it's not what it seems at first glance, and it made me cry so hard. I love it so much, and it's my number one recommendation to everyone. Even if they don't usually read YA contemporary, they have to pick this up. Especially younger readers, people that are still in high school I think will really love it.
All These Monsters by Amy Tintera was the last sci-fi that I really, really loved. It was just so fun and I miss having fun when I read because my school readings just aren't [fun]. Don't Date Rosa Santos by Nina Moreno was also one of the last YA contemporaries that I really loved as well.

GR: You’re turning the book into a series, and on Twitter you joked that the tagline of the sequel is going to be “more love and more death.” Is there anything else you can tell us about what we can expect?

CG: I always forget that my tweets are actually public. [Laughs.] Umm, I think in the sequel there will definitely be more romance, more yearning, more violence, more blood. That's the updated tagline.

GR: Are you working on it now while you're in school?

CG: I am. I finished the first draft a while ago, and my editor got notes back to me, so now I'm pumping away on editing and getting it nice and shiny.

GR: You must be a multitasking master.

CG: My calendar is always color-coded to the maximum.

GR: You’ve mentioned that you don’t want writing to necessarily be your day job. I know the world is pretty up in the air right now, but have you thought about what you might want that day job to be once you graduate?

CG: A.k.a. the question that I have to think about as my graduation looms. [Laughs.] I think I'll definitely end up in something diplomacy related because I like involving myself in international relations and I've always been fascinated by global exchange. No idea what yet, no idea if the economy is going to survive, but yeah.


Chloe Gong’s These Violent Delights will be available in the U.S. on November 17. Don’t forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

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whitney ༅:*・゚ YESSSS MY MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK OF 2020! Nov 17 is so close :D

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message 3: by Zywia (new)

Zywia I didn't know about this, but know I SO WANT TO READ IT. It seems amazing, and I'm going to try not to find out naything else about, so everything is a surprise! Can't wait till I can get it!

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Raju Facebook

Virginja ↢ 99% imp GR is so messed up. They put this book in the best YA fantasy nominees when this was not even out when the awards started. This is ridiculous and shows how little convents the owners of this site/award put in running it.

Bringer Of Books I'm so excited for this book!

message 7: by Jessica simon (new)

Jessica simon It's so handsome

message 8: by Ryan (new)

Ryan Foo Such an insightful interview, I'm so excited for November 17th!!!

message 9: by Maryam (new)

Maryam I absolutely love the cover!!!

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