"I knew I could handle it with care": Chloe Gong on the inspiration behind These Violent Delights
For Chloe Gong, the decision to reimagine William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was one that made a lot of sense.
“I wanted to tell a story about a blood feud, and the more I tried to expand on the idea — on star-crossed lovers from warring families, on themes of loyalty and hatred — the more it sounded too Shakespearean, and I was fully aware that Romeo and Juliet would be the first point of comparison,” she recalled to Her.
But rather than shying away from the comparisons, she leaned into it — fully embracing the idea of a reimagining, taking the core ideas from Shakespeare’s work and looking at them under a new lens. The result is These Violent Delights, a powerful and unforgettable story.
The college student's debut novel landed on shelves in mid-November. Set in Shanghai in the 1920s, the book charts a blood feud between two gangs — one that has left the city in the grip of chaos. At the heart of it all, there’s Juliette Cai, a former flapper who has returned so that she can assume her role as the heir to the Scarlet Gang. Their only rivals are the White Flowers, who have been fighting them for generations — and behind each and every one of their moves is their heir, Roma Montagov, who is Juliette’s first love and her first betrayal.
But then gangsters on both sides start to show signs of instability and madness, ending with them clawing their own throats out. And that leads people to start to whisper: of a contagion, a madness, and of a monster in the shadows. The deaths start to stack up, forcing Juliette and Roma to set aside their grudges and work together to get to the bottom of what’s really happening.
Following the publication of These Violent Delights, Her caught up with with Chloe to talk about Romeo and Juliet, balancing school with her writing and what’s next for Roma and Juliette after that ending.
Hi Chloe — big congrats on These Violent Delights. If you could use one word to describe the book, what would it be?
How does it feel to have your debut novel coming out in…well, a very unusual year?
It’s definitely strange. Especially because I know that the debut year experience I got is so different to the usual debut year experience, but there’s nothing I can do about it and the whole world is having to adapt! I’ve adopted a mentality to try make the most of it and lean fully into the internet arena, so that even though I can’t see readers and other authors and my publishing team, at least there’s this vast virtual world where I can always be reaching out to people and generating content to have people discover my book!
What made you want to write? Was it something that you always wanted to do — or was there an ‘aha!’ kind of moment?
It’s always something I’ve loved, mostly because I loved reading so much. And because I started so young, I don’t know if it’s that I didn’t have an ‘aha!’ moment, or if it’s because I’ve genuinely forgotten! I’ve been obsessed with consuming stories since I discovered Young Adult books in high school, and because my reading piles would inevitably run out a week after going to the library because I read so fast, my next best solution was to start writing my own stories to keep myself entertained.
What made you want to do a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet? And what else inspired you to write These Violent Delights?
The decision to reimagine Romeo and Juliet came about because I wanted to tell a story about a blood feud, and the more I tried to expand on the idea—on star-crossed lovers from warring families, on themes of loyalty and hatred—the more it sounded too Shakespearean, and I was fully aware that Romeo and Juliet would be the first point of comparison. Instead of shying away from it, I decided to embrace a reimagining, and with intentionality, I wanted to take the core ideas that Shakespeare had and apply them under a very new lens. A big part of my inspiration to write These Violent Delights was to give the YA shelves an East Asian heroine who could be just as badass as the other heroines who have been allowed to grace the market for so long. Someone who wasn’t a stereotype, because this is my identity and I knew I could handle it with care. So it became an incredibly interesting project in that this story is Shakespearean at the core, but the way it is presented and the way everything unfolds is inherently colored by this new lens and this new culture that the original Shakespeare did not have!
How much did you draw on real life places when it came to the locations in the book? And what other kind of research was involved in the writing process?
Most of the places are real! Or even if I didn’t name the exact places, they were locations that could have existed, because These Violent Delights is kept as historically accurate as possible except for the part where there is a monster running around. The atmosphere, the streets, the gangsters—they are all true to history. There was a lot of technical research in which I was flipping through library books and online databases to read real life accounts from the time period and business logs to get a sense of the conduct. However, a lot of the “research” was also from growing up with stories about Shanghai from my parents and family members, because to write a city like Shanghai is more about the culture and the way of life rather than the details that I might be able to pick up from an encyclopedia.
What was your favourite part of the book to write? And the least favourite part?
My favourite parts are the more omniscient narration sections! There aren’t many of them, perhaps only a few times in the book, but any time I had the opportunity to zoom out and detach from the main characters to look upon the city with a set of eyes from the sky was so absolutely fun. It’s the thing about writing that I adore: just letting go of the rules of what you should do and instead telling it the way that the story demands to be told. My least favorite parts are action scenes because it’s so hard to coordinate and I’m often acting it out in my room to make sure things make sense, but then the end results are worth it!
There are lots of characters in These Violent Delights, each of them brilliant in their own way. How did you balance the development of the characters with the pace of the action unfolding?
A lot of charts! I usually start with a brief idea of how the storylines and character arcs unfold and interact, because the beauty of telling a coherent story is in making sure that these two components are always influencing each other in some way. Thankfully, first drafts are never the finished versions of stories, and once I have the bare skeleton down, it’s always the revision stage where I get to really tighten and refine the balance of character arcs with the constantly running plot! Usually with more charts. Everything in my revision process is done with charts and color coding.
The power dynamics and the politics within the two gangs — as well as between them — was fascinating. What was the creative process like, when you were writing those?
I’m a very visual writer, so I started developing these two gangs by the way they would present themselves. It’s in the names too, so I would guess this isn’t a surprise! I saw the Scarlet Gang in reds and golds, which has very traditional associations in Chinese culture, and so it made sense that they would be the group who has been around for a long, long time, with roots to the imperial era. The White Flowers, meanwhile, were almost like blank slates: the newcomers, and so they were far more chaotic, far less rigid in structure and it was ambition that became their defining trait. With these starting characteristics, it was all a game of logic to me when it came to developing the two gangs’ varying influence over the city, about where they would live and what they would control, about what they choose to value and what they choose to ignore.
Why did you add in the new challenge of the monster and having to stop the madness?
I’m a big believer in the Death of the Author theory where people are free to interpret themes as they wish, but at least on my end, the monster and the madness were very much symbolic of the threat of colonialism on the city. Foreign influences taking power away from the native people is very hard to conceptualize: it is an intangible threat, and sometimes the harm has been done before someone can even point a finger to what exactly happened. A monster, on the other hand, was a physical manifestation of invasion and infection, and it added a component that brought the native Chinese and immigrant Russian gangs together to say, “Oh. Oh, I see. So this is the difference between hatred of our equal groups, and hatred from an outside oppressive entity.”
If These Violent Delights were to be adapted for the screen, who would be your dream cast if you could pick absolutely anyone?
Very specifically, I want Constance Wu as Lady Cai. Everyone else I have no opinion about ;)
How do you feel that being a university student has influenced your writing style or your creative process?
It has forced me to adapt and be extremely, extremely flexible! Because my schooling always has to take priority—given the consequences if I don’t make my assignment due dates (aka GRADUATION)—my writing routine is shaped around it. I’ll have to block out my day by focusing on what I need to get done schoolwise, and in the leftover time, I carve out my writing time and revisioning time. Sometimes it means staying up late in the night to make sure I’ve got enough writing done so that I’m also making the deadlines set by my publisher, but I think my university student mentality also means I’m happy to work as a night owl to get it all done!
Why did you want to write for the YA circuit? How did you find writing for a demographic that you’re close to in age?
I’ve always read YA, so it made sense for me to write YA too! I’ve been writing since I was 13 and then with These Violent Delights, when I wrote with the intention of publication, I was 18 and being a teenager was all I ever knew. Even though the characters of this book have other conflicts in the plot to deal with, it’s still inherently a teen story by virtue of me applying these older adolescent growing pains I was seeing 18 year olds around me deal with as I was writing these 18 year olds. Juliette is adjusting to the fact that the world she thought she knew is in fact entirely different; Roma is adjusting to the fear of being displaced from a role he thought he was going to occupy. Given how close I am to my target audience, I love that I can write by weaving in the way I see the world, and I know my intended readers will nod along in agreement.
What kind of messages and takeaways do you hope readers draw from These Violent Delights?
I always struggle to decide on any concrete messages, but I hope readers find a world in These Violent Delights which they want to live in long after they turn the final page, and that the characters will live on even when the story comes to an end!
Lastly, after that ending, when can fans expect These Violent Delights 2?
More drama, more blood, more romance.
- These Violent Delights by Chloe Gong, published Hodder & Stoughton, is available now.