Chloe Gong talks These Violent Delights, Shakespeare and Asian representation

Author Chloe Gong chats with Culturess about her highly anticipated novel These Violent Delights, how she turned Shakespeare into 1920s Shanghai, and why representation in fiction is so important.

Author Chloe Gong’s highly anticipated debut novel, These Violent Delights, hits shelves this November. A loose retelling of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the story is set in 1920s Shanghai and follows the story of Juliette Cai and Roma Montagov, heirs to the city’s two most powerful rival gangs.

Ex-lovers with a complex and mysterious past, they are both struggling to figure out their places in their respective organizations and a city that’s changing rapidly, thanks to an influx of various foreign influences. These Violent Delights deals with everything from gangland politics to period social mores, with a terrifying monster thrown on top for good measure.

It’s a rich, complicated tale, and one that will stick with readers long after the last page. (And not just because they’ll want to know how it all ends.)

Culturess got the chance to chat with Gong herself about what readers can expect from These Violent Delights, how she went about recreating historical Shanghai, and why YA fiction is so popular among readers of all ages right now.

Culturess: Can you summarize the story of These Violent Delights a little bit for us and why our readers might want to give it a look?

Chloe GongThese Violent Delights is a Romeo and Juliet retelling by way of The Godfather, set in 1920s gangster-ruled Shanghai. When a mysterious illness starts devastating the city and rumors speak of a monster being the cause, two former childhood-lovers turned enemies from rival gangs have to set aside the blood feud between them to work together and put a stop to it.

Readers who love angst and yearning running in the backdrop while a dangerous main plot involving politics and monsters take up the foreground will love These Violent Delights!

Culturess: These Violent Delights is your debut novel – how exciting has this process been for you? Especially with being in your final year of college and everything else going on in the world right now.

Gong: It’s been incredibly exciting as an experience, though I imagine I’ve gone about it in the most unconventional way! Since I’m debuting in November, most of my bookish stuff started happening after the world shut down, so doing everything online is all I really know.

Other authors talk about these mysterious things called conferences and book events and I blink in bewilderment. It’s a whole other world! But one that I hope I’ll be able to experience one day when things start getting less bizarre. For now, debut year has been a matter of juggling virtual ongoings with virtual school and keeping everything as one long, long to-do list on my screen.

Culturess: What made you want to set your Romeo and Juliet retelling in 1920s Shanghai? You’ve made this world feel so lived in and real – how did you put this aspect of the story together?

The two components started separately, so before I had the full elevator pitch, I had in one hand a Romeo and Juliet retelling story, and on the other hand, the 1920s Shanghai setting.

I knew I wanted to examine a blood feud and all the delicious tension that comes with pitting characters against each other, and I was also incredibly interested in the history of Shanghai and the Roaring 20s era. At some point, something clicked in my head and I mushed the two together, which ended up aligning perfectly because a story about hatred and division was perfect for such a tumultuous time like 1920s Shanghai.

A lot of the worldbuilding came from real history: it was easy for me to envision the world because the city really was governed by gangsters and it really was utterly lawless as a result of foreign intrusion splitting the city into pieces.

My heavy lifting was mostly with occupying the characters, and making sure that each one of them saw the world in a slightly different way—one would be showing the reader its upper echelons in the shiny gardens while another is trudging through the night as the cabarets roar on in the backdrop.

There was so much to the world that it almost felt like I couldn’t even capture everything even though the book is over 400 pages long, but the critical part was showing the world as my characters saw them, and that way it all feels organic for the reader to absorb!

Culturess: I love that this is a Romeo and Juliet retelling that is very much not a straight paint by numbers adaptation.

There are familiar characters and beats, obviously but they take place in really surprising ways – or happen to completely different people. How did you think about what aspects of the story were most necessary to make sure got incorporated somehow?

Gong: That was definitely something that took a lot of figuring out and moving around. The earliest versions of These Violent Delights had a lot more Romeo and Juliet influence than the version which currently exists!

I always knew that keeping the heart of the characters would be important—not the carbon copies from the play, but I would take the very core of each character, and then expand outward for their counterpart in my version. Juliet Capulet’s sense of whimsy translated into Juliette, Romeo Montague’s fall-too-hard-fall-too-fast softness shifted into Roma, Mercutio’s extravagance was pulled into Marshall, and so on and so forth.

I believe that characters carry a story, and so if it was these base traits that really carried Shakespeare’s foundational ideas about love and family, then I was also going to use the same sort of skeleton to build on retelling the very themes he touched on. This meant that apart from the “heart” of the story, everything else could be entirely transformed without interfering with my ultimate retelling goals!

Earlier drafts had entire plot echoes from the play that I pulled out—references to original events that all had to go. They were darlings I was sad to kill, but to me, a retelling is about interpreting the heart of the story in a new way, so I couldn’t let my attachment to the original plot get in the way of the story I was weaving together.

Culturess: I love how much more agency this Juliette has over her life, choices, and future than Shakespeare’s original heroine does. How do you view her journey as a character?

Gong: I grew up reading YA during its heyday of badass female main characters bursting onto the scene, so that sort of influence has certainly painted the way Juliette is as a character.

I wanted her to be tough in the way that the classic archetypes of YA are—you think classic YA protagonist and Katniss Everdeen, Clary Fray, Aelin from Throne of Glass are probably a few that a 2010s YA reader would name you.

But there was a critical difference: Juliette Cai is East Asian, one of the few on the YA scene today, and I wanted her to have the agency and badassery that the classic white heroines of YA were afforded.

She’s in this place of power but she has to fight for control over her own life path. She’s rough around the edges but she cares deeply for the people that she loves. And most importantly, her character is carving a place not only for herself within her own world but in our world too as representation for Asian teens who are tired of being relegated to a stereotype while the YA heroines who are admired never look like them.

So Juliette as a character is all around defiance: against who she is expected to be in 1920s Shanghai, and against the real-life portrayal of what East Asian girls keep getting slotted into.

Culturess: My other favorite characters, I think, are Rosalind and Kathleen, who are both so three dimensional and interesting. Can you talk a little about how you approached writing both these women and their stories? (I also think it’s so important that Kathleen is trans!)

Gong: When it comes to the characters who hold an important role in the story but aren’t the leads, my favorite thing to do is to pretend that they’re the leads anyway. At least, in planning!

It might not make it all onto the page, but Rosalind and Kathleen needed the same amount of motivations and goals that Juliette did, and it would color their speech, their decisions, and their narratives.

The litmus test I perform is that Rosalind and Kathleen could fully have led their own novels if the storyline had pivoted their way, and they needed their own plotlines that would have been interesting enough to pull it forward.

However, those alternate stories aren’t the story I’m trying to tell at this moment, nor necessarily the story that I’m the best person to be telling, and so that’s why they aren’t the protagonists, but they need to be as fully realized as protagonists in order to feel like real supporting characters too!

Culturess: I’m obsessed with the cover for this book. It’s gorgeous! How much input did you have into making it, and how do you feel it connects to your story?

Gong: I didn’t offer much input at all, and I’m glad because art is definitely not my forte and my team did a fabulous job with their genius! Billelis did the art and Sarah Creech at S&S did the wonderful design, and I absolutely needed to sit down when I first saw it.

It’s just such a perfect representation of the book. The dagger that cuts down the middle, engraved with the Chinese character for “Cai” and not at all shying away from the fact that this is a Chinese story.

That being said—this is the Western publishing world, it’s a book in English because I can only write in English, and it’s a diaspora story. The fact that that too is also so well represented with the red roses, which is commonly a symbol in Western literature, combined with the golden dragon as a symbol of Eastern culture. It’s just so perfect for a book that’s also trying to grapple with the West and the East colliding—both for Juliette as a character as she juggles her identity, and for Shanghai at the time as it fought domestic politics and foreign intrusion.

 Culturess: Can you give us any hints about where the next novel in the series might go?

Gong: These Violent Delights and its sequel is a duology, so the next novel is also the conclusion of this story!

It’s all got to end with a bang, so I pull out all the stops. More blood, more conflict, more violence… but of course, also more romance and more yearning and more angst.

Culturess: I may be slightly older than the target demographic for these books, and yet I read mostly YA these days. What do you think it is about YA generally right now that’s resonating so much with readers across all ages?

Gong: I think it’s because YA has such high potential for obsession!

My hottest take about the publishing industry is that if you really take a magnifying glass to the shelves, the differences in YA and Adult aren’t wholly defined by content—if I want to get bolder, I would say it’s not even about age… at least, age is not the only thing that would dictate whether a book is YA or Adult.

Of course, there are exceptions that slide through, but in an ideal world, a book is Adult if the author was writing primarily to reach adults, and a book is classified as YA if it was written primarily to reach teens… which isn’t at all to say that older readers can’t read YA! It is only that when a story is written with teens in mind, you want to be creating a world that will generate obsession and buzz and discussion. You want memorable characters and swoon-worthy love interests and a world that keeps carrying on even after you’ve flipped the last page because that’s what teens are latching onto and that’s what holds attention in the online sphere where they hang out and create a community around book discussion.

I think that kind of story, then, being so common in YA, also grabs attention outside of teens so easily, and for readers across all ages, sometimes YA is just so much more fun than other age categories.

Culturess: What are you yourself reading these days? Not like my TBR pile needs to get any higher, but I am always curious to know what authors think is worth checking out!

I recently finished and loved Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas and Kingdom of the Wicked by Kerri Maniscalco.

On my current TBR of books that I preordered but need to get to and will definitely love are Legendborn by Tracy Deonn, Beyond the Ruby Veil by Mara Fitzgerald, The Puppetmaster’s Apprentice by Lisa DeSelm, and Where Dreams Descend by Janella Angeles.

These Violent Delights hits shelves on Tuesday, November 17. Will you be adding it to your TBR pile? Let us know!