Young adult novel These Violent Delights was released in the US three weeks ago and is already a massive hit. Sherry Zhang introduces a star.
Chloe Gong wrote These Violent Delights in her childhood home in Auckland in May 2018. As in: that month she started writing it, and also finished. She was 19. Seven months later she landed a “very nice deal” with Simon & Schuster – while she can’t reveal the exact figure, not even to old friends like me, the two-book contract is worth somewhere between US$50,000 and $99,000.
The novel is a revamping of Romeo and Juliet, set in Shanghai. It was published on November 17, powered by Gong’s Gen Z marketing nous and two major reviews. First came venerable literary magazine Kirkus Reviews: “A must-read with a conclusion that will leave readers craving more.” (Gong also just made its best of 2020 issue). Next came Publishers Weekly, calling her retelling “incisive”, her prose “arresting”. “A lush, wholly original debut that will satiate Shakespeare aficionados and draw those seeking an engrossing, multifaceted historical fantasy,” it said.
And then the New York Times released its bestseller charts for the week ending December 6.
I met Chloe Gong in Year 11 at Rangitoto College. She was always reading a YA novel, and had bleached dip-dye hair which would shift between shades of pink and blue depending on the week. She was also a writer, so I had to be her friend. And for the next three years, she’d send me her Shakespeare notes when I ditched class to chase some infatuation. We vented about the lack of punctuation in Patrick Ness’s The Knife Of Never Letting Go, and ate lunch in A-block corridor while itching to get the fuck out of high school. On the last day of Year 13, one of our favourite English teachers, Mr Randal, asked us if we were going to keep writing.
Gong thanks him in her book “for being such an amazing English teacher and having so much passion for teaching Shakespeare. I completely owe my love of language to those class lessons in Year 12 and 13 analysing metaphor and symbolism and imagery, and I hope all your future students realise how lucky they are to have you as a teacher.”
Gong was always going to be a published author and she knew the US was the biggest market for her home genre, YA. So she set her sights to go straight into the heart of it. I remember joking that my only knowledge of US colleges was from Gossip Girl – meanwhile, Gong was compiling a ranking of schools based on their English literature programmes. And while the rest of us crammed for NCEA exams and figured out being teenagers, Gong also studied for her SATs and navigated the US college application process.
Everything clicked into place. She was accepted by the University of Pennsylvania to study English and International Politics, and is now finishing her senior year.
Gong was born in Shanghai and moved to New Zealand with her family at two years old. She is still “legally only Kiwi, and nothing else,” as she puts it, and is not giving up her New Zealand citizenship anytime soon. It has been a legal nightmare for her agent and publishing team to make sure she’s not violating her study visa requirements.
Her family is still in New Zealand, and she comes home during her college summer breaks whenever she gets the chance. But this novel is, as she’s put it in a note to fans on Goodreads, “my love letter to Shanghai, to Shakespeare, and to my younger self, who so desperately wanted to find an adventure on the shelves starring someone with a face like hers. This book is also my mission as an English major to take a classic that we so dearly love and revamp it: in a new culture, with queer rep, and as a brutal takedown of colonialism – without losing its core themes about love, and hate, and loyalty.”
These Violent Delights takes Romeo and Juliet – the characters, not the play, exactly – ages them four years, and drops them into a writhing, debauched, 1920s Shanghai. These two are no lovestruck 15 year olds: they’re jaded, estranged and, as the heirs of rival gangs that control large parts of the city, destined to be locked in a blood feud. To complicate matters there is a plague on both their houses – a silver-eyed monster is releasing swarms of insects that drive people to tear out their own throats. All that, amid the constant political rumblings of the Chinese civil war and growing western imperialism.
A content warning that Gong added to her Goodreads note helps clarify the tone. “This book contains mentions and descriptions of blood, violence, gore, character deaths, explicit description of gouging self (not of their own volition), murder, weapon use, insects, alcohol consumption, parental abuse.”
Gong started writing when she started high school “because honestly, there wasn’t anything else to do. I’d come home from school, finish all my homework, I mean, there’s channel two and three on TV?”
Like most teenagers in the mid-2010s, Gong turned to the internet. Some of us made more of it than others. I ran an Arctic Monkeys fan Tumblr; Gong dropped full-length original novels on Wattpad. “I uploaded so much. But I was also removed from the general Wattpad community. In our era, it was mainly One Direction fanfiction. I did find my niche of these 200 – 500 people who read my weird paranormal series though.”
She attributes her growth as a writer to Wattpad, and says it’s given her a good start entering the publishing industry. “A lot of people have a hard time adjusting to random strangers commenting on their work. But I’ve had people sliding into my DMs giving unsolicited advice since I was 13 years old. You just have to ignore them.”
At the same time: “You always remember your first hate comment. Or your first 300 word essay in your inbox on why your original characters are acting out of character.”
At 21, Gong is a lot closer to the demographic than a lot of other YA debut authors. In an interview with The Writer, she said she is peeved “when people falsely equate experience with age … I think waiting to take the plunge into publishing isn’t about the writer’s age but the writer’s experience. If someone starts writing at age 20 and immediately tries to get published, chances are they’re going to meet some failure – but not because of age because of experience. I think I knew that my work was ready because I’ve been working on my craft for a long while. I started writing at 13, and was writing one or two manuscripts a year; These Violent Delights, when I finished it at 19, was my eighth book. I understand that maybe I see the world differently to older writers, but when it comes to my books, I can’t imagine my skill is any lesser compared to a 27 year old who started writing when they were 20 … Writers should wait until they feel that their craft is solid, that they have had their practice with drafting and revising. But waiting until you’ve blown out enough birthday candles is buffoonery.”
The upside, she tells me: the marketing side of it comes naturally, after so many years immersed in the fandom she’s now writing for.
“When I was 15 years old, scrolling on Tumblr, the sort of books I’d pick up were the ones where everyone was like ‘Oh my god! This is my biggest obsession, look at all my edits and playlist.’ Not because of an ad on Facebook, but because of organic excitement.” For her, this includes resharing fan art, and making light-hearted TikToks.
I asked if she romanticises her upbringing on the Shore – like, say, Lorde’s entire album Pure Heroine. Gong laughs. “I don’t. The image foreigners usually get of New Zealand is white suburbia. They’re surprised to hear me speak with this accent as they don’t see New Zealanders like me on TV.”
While recent years have brought about more celebration of diversity and Asian diaspora representation in New Zealand’s publishing scene (such as poet Cadence Chung, and Rose Lu’s collection of essays on growing up as a Chinese New Zealander), Gong recalls struggling to find books about teenagers who looked like her.
It’s part of the reason she chose to publish in the US first – that, plus the draw of the largest market for YA. But she’s happy the book is in NZ bookstores too.
Growing up on the Katniss Everdeens and Tris Priors of the YA world, and conscious that the east Asian diaspora is not a monolith, Gong sought to tell her own story of the leading heroine. Her Juliette is “a Chinese heroine who behaves with all the range white heroines have been allowed. In the past, east Asian characters were always the quiet best friend, or scary dragon archetypes.” While Juliette is one of the badass heroines we’re familiar with, she also stays true to the family values of her Shanghai culture.
Gong was drawn to the aesthetic of 1920s Shanghai but says it would have been completely shallow to write about the period without all the socio-political nuance. “Western literature about the time period has been historically overshadowed by orientalist, colonial ‘white savior’ narratives. And to flinch away from imperialist oppression on Chinese people would give an empty story.”
As 2020 unfolded, Gong has also noticed some jarring parallels. “I obviously wrote this before the pandemic, but all this capitalism criticism and sinophobic commentary has become very timely.” (As has the plague, of course.) Even with all the political nuance, she maintains that there’s still enough mystery and plot to make the story accessible for teenage readers.
Gong wrote the bulk of the story while on summer break in New Zealand, but had the outline of the book floating in her head for the year prior. She and I went to Wellington for a weekend that winter, after I gave her grief for being too busy – writing a bestselling novel – to catch up with friends.
“I had just sent out queries to US agents,” recalls Gong, “And I was receiving responses from various agents offering representation when we landed in Welly.” We spent half the trip in the hotel room trying to figure out who she would go with, and the other half squatting in the botanic gardens taking her author headshots. “I ended up going with Laura Crockett from Triada. She just got my book, it’s hard to explain, it’s the vibes. I just clicked with her better.”
In an email to The Spinoff, Crockett said Gong is one of the most remarkable people she’s ever met.
“Once I started reading her manuscript, I couldn’t stop. Her attention to detail, the ways in which she wove familiar scenes from Shakespeare’s play into actual historical events, the heart-stopping descriptions, the yearning so evident in the dialogue – it was overwhelming in the best way. I was impressed, and even more so knowing she was a rising sophomore in college at the time. How could someone so young write with such depth and wisdom?
“I’m convinced her writing is a natural gift. It comes from a place of genuine interest and enthusiasm for the market in which she writes.”
Triad submitted the book to market as a “crossover”, Crockett says – ie, they saw it as a book for adults, as well as young adults. Gong’s favoured publisher Simon & Schuster won the US bidding war, and Hodder & Stoughton won the second round, for the UK/ANZ rights.
As for the New York Times list? “We had a feeling Chloe had a chance of making the list due to events that occurred several months prior to publication. Her publicity and marketing teams hit the ground running, and soon Chloe was writing up guest posts, taking interviews for print, digital, podcast, and radio, appearing on roundup lists, receiving starred reviews and honors – and the requests kept rolling in. Over the summer Chloe was signing 20,000 tip-ins (the title page that’s “tipped in” to the book for printing) for several subscription boxes. That’s when it hit me, at least, that this was going to be ridiculously big. I’d never seen anything like it.
“Then Chloe took it another step further and created her rival gangs hashtags online to generate buzz for preorders. Here was this Gen-Z author writing for the Gen-Z audience, creating her own individualised marketing for Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok platforms with ease, generating natural buzz and curiosity that was entertaining as well as informative about the book. She engages with her audience – and in the YA market in particular, YA readers want to feel like they know the author too.”
I don’t remember offering any incredibly “sage advice,” about her career direction that weekend in Wellington, but Gong thanks me for it in the acknowledgments of These Violent Delights. I feel like Gong has always been the one offering wisdom. From her exquisitely detailed Othello notes, to all the times I called her about another breakup or crush. And especially that weekend in Welly, where she dealt with my “my inner creative artist is dead because I chose law school” angst swiftly and firmly, with advice that I carry to this day: “No one is going to take you seriously as a writer until you start calling yourself a writer. Just start writing!”
Right now Gong is in Pennsylvania, having just handed in the sequel to These Violent Delights. While the third book isn’t contracted yet, she’s got ideas bubbling away. She’s also thinking of a fantasy for adults, but says she’ll be writing retellings about Shakespeare for a while longer, “and always with Asian characters. Because there always needs to be more representation.”
Until last night, when the New York Times ran a short piece introducing her, it seemed she’d had little traction in mainstream media – certainly none in New Zealand. Why have we been so slow to pick up on her? Gong says she has no idea. Except: “I do wonder if New Zealand likes acknowledging their European Kiwis but not their Asian Kiwis.“ At the same time, she’s aware that our domestic book market is quite separate from the commercial American market. “Or maybe I was holding out for the Sherry exclusive scoop. High school mates exclusive.”
But for now, she’s got a university essay due in two days and is a bit nervous about going outside with Covid-19 again flourishing in her city. She ends our Zoom call by asking me what she should eat for dinner. My advice: some proper food, and not just a microwaved frozen meal.
Additional reporting by Catherine Woulfe.