Author Chloe Gong said writing two young adult novels while still an undergrad often felt like living in two distinct worlds.
Gong first drafted what became the bestselling “These Violent Delights” the summer between her freshman and sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania and signed with a literary agent at 19. But despite being well on her way to publishing a novel while still in her teens, very few people knew about her writing career.
“I kind of kept my writing a secret. I didn’t really talk about it, and it wouldn’t come up in class or anything,” Gong, 22, told NBC Asian America. “My friends kind of knew about it, but it was very much like having a double life.”
That secret became impossible to keep as the book’s release date approached last fall and “These Violent Delights” became an instant New York Times bestseller — making Gong one of the youngest authors to ever make the list. As its title suggests, the book is inspired by Shakespeare’s "Romeo and Juliet" and transports the setting to an alternative fantasy version of 1920s Shanghai, centering Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov, two heirs to rival gangs that are locked in a power battle over who should control the city.
“I couldn’t really keep it a secret anymore because articles started coming out. The school papers did articles about me, so the news got broadcast out,” Gong, who has since graduated from college and now lives in New York City, said. “Some of my professors would bring it up by saying, ‘Guys, you know, this happened last week,’ and I’d be like, ‘Oh, my God.’”
Juliette and Roma’s story continues Tuesday when Margaret K. McElderry Books releases “Our Violent Ends,” Gong’s much-anticipated sequel. One startling plot point in both books that many fans have noted is that Juliette and Roma’s power struggle takes place in a city that is also battling a contagious plague while desperately searching for a vaccine.
“These Violent Delights” was written years before the pandemic, so Gong said she had no idea how relevant that storyline would be.
“At a certain point, I was a little worried,” Gong, who had submitted the final edits of the book in February 2020, said. She was particularly concerned about how the sections about the local Chinese population being particularly vulnerable to a disease that Westerners weren’t taking seriously would be interpreted. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t mean to be a modern-day Cassandra in this one.’”
The fictional plague and race to vaccinate the population continue in “Our Violent Ends.” Gong, who was born in China and moved to New Zealand when she was 2, said she was drawn to creating a historical fantasy set in Shanghai because of the city’s rich past and critical role in global relations in the 1920s and her own connection to the region. She was particularly intrigued by the fact that the interwar period was considered by some to be the city’s golden age and that gangsters flourished during that time.
“I wanted to make a story out of it that looked at the good and the bad and the ugly,” she said. “Yes, the aesthetic makes a great story. But then there’s also everything about colonization and those parallels, and I was like, ‘As an [international relations] major, I want to delve into this.’”
Readers are also often surprised that Gong hadn’t read the Shakespeare play until relatively recently.
“It wasn’t until I was out of high school and I started thinking about writing this blood feud story that I read it,” she said. “I had some familiarity with 'Romeo and Juliet,' but I hadn’t read it or engaged with it until I got the idea to tell a story that was very similar.”
Gong also drew on Shanghai’s global influences while creating her version of Juliette. Both books feature Juliette feeling torn between two worlds as a young woman who had spent most of her adolescence at school in New York. Her American education and penchants for flapper dresses lead her to be viewed with suspicion by those around her.
“Juliette wants so badly to be Western so that she can survive in this Western world that she’s been dropped into. Then suddenly she’s changed so much of herself, she’s like, ‘Am I even Chinese?’” Gong said.
As a young writer of Asian descent, Gong said she is often asked about what her parents think about her books and her decision to pursue a creative career. Publishing a book early on helped.
“Because I started pursuing publishing so early on, they were like, ‘OK, well, this is, like, the professional path,’” Gong said, adding that her family has always been supportive of her stories. “And then since my debut hit the bestseller list, like even before I graduated college, after I graduated and I said I’m going to do it full time, they also didn’t have any reason to convince me not to.”