Q&A: A conversation with New York Times bestselling author Chloe Gong

Chloe Gong, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, was on BookTok — a subsection of TikTok focused on literature — in its early days. Though she joined just to talk with other avid readers, she quickly realized it would be a great place for her to advertise her debut novel “These Violent Delights,” a Romeo and Juliet retelling set in Shanghai in the 1920s.

But what started as an intimate space for readers to share their thoughts and ideas has become a force powerful enough to impact book trends, boosting sales of books that are years old. More than one author has talked about being confused when one of their older books by Ella skyrocketed up the charts seemingly out of nowhere. Most bookstores you walk into now have a “BookTok” table.

The app allowed her to connect with readers and promote her book, things that the pandemic has made difficult, especially with the cancellation of book tours. The book made the New York Times bestseller list. She has since published a sequel called “Our Violent Ends,” and will soon publish a spinoff duology based on those two books.

Gong was born in Shanghai and raised in New Zealand; growing up, she spent most of her winter breaks in Shanghai, both because she had a family there and because her dad went there often for work. But a lot of her description of the landscape de ella for her book de ella is based on her relatives’ recollection of growing up in Shanghai in the 50s and 60s, she tells me.

Gong now resides in New York City, in Astoria, Queens. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing?
I started writing seriously when I was 13, because I just wanted to tell stories. I did a lot of reading, and when I ran out of books to read I just started writing them.

What is your family like? Did they play a role in inspiring you to write?
My family played a role in making me a really big reader, which I think kind of feeds into how I became a writer, even though they didn’t know about my writing for a very long time. And that was more on me because I was doing a very Hannah Montana kind of thing, like a secret writer’s life.

At what point in your life did you get the idea for “These Violent Delights”?
Right before freshman year of college. Before “These Violent Delights,” I had written eight or nine manuscripts, but they tended to be first drafts. I kind of wrote the whole book, and then I would just set it aside. And it was more for the experience of writing it than actually having the end product. It wasn’t until I got the idea for “These Violent Delights” that I actually valued the end product, because for the first time it was an idea that wasn’t on the shelves yet.

What were you writing before that?
Previously, I had been writing paranormals, dystopians, just things that were essentially very common—I knew it wouldn’t stand out in the market or anything. And then for “These Violent Delights” I was thinking, it’s a Romeo and Juliet retelling set in 1920 Shanghai, and this is something that I found so interesting, where I was like, I think other people might be interested in this as well.

You have a new book coming out in September. Can you talk about what readers can expect from the book?
It’s set four years after the events that we left off with in “Our Violent Ends.” It follows Rosalind, who we met already as Juliet’s cousin from the original duology, except now it’s 1931, she has been experimented on so that she can no longer age or sleep or get injured. So she’s kind of become this national spy who uses her abilities to figure out what is currently going on when a string of serial murders starts happening in Shanghai.

You have talked about the importance of representation for Asian and LGBT characters. Did you feel like you had someone to look up to when you were reading all those books growing up?
It did feel like there wasn’t a lot going on. Looking back at the statistics now, especially young adult fiction was very monolithic. But I think the one author that I kind of saw before I started doing my own thing was Jenny Han—she’s best known now for the “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” series. But before that, she wrote this trilogy called “Burn for Burn,” co-written with Siobhan Vivian. They had three main characters on the covers and one of them was East Asian. And I think it was the first book I picked up where it was an actual East Asian author writing the East Asian main character, and that main character was allowed to be mean and just kind of a bad person, and I loved it.

A majority of your public journey as an author has taken place during the pandemic. How has that impacted you?
Being an author in a pandemic is really all I know, which is wild because I can’t even imagine what the normal author experience would have been. So the way that I even perceive being an author is just entirely online. But that’s all I know; virtual events, virtual marketing, virtual publicity, all of that. As far as my writing process goes, it’s more of a thing where I have to kind of build boundaries between my personal online life, like using the internet to kind of be social, talk to friends, and then my work online life, because now so much of it has muddied together.

How did you start making TikToks, and what has that been like?
I didn’t even think about getting on it as an author at first — I was on it as a reader. This was during the first lockdown, so like, March 2020. And because I had nothing better to do, but not log onto most of your classes, I was on TikTok watching bookish videos, and I just kind of got started by talking about what I was reading or making bookish memes and jokes. And eventually, I realized, this is actually a really cool platform to talk about what I’m up to, and what I want other people to see. I didn’t start off on it thinking about it as like an advertising place because I think it never works if you do that.

Do you feel like there’s pressure to be a role model for so many young writers when you yourself are also so young?
It’s both an honor and a big responsibility, because I never want to mislead people into thinking it’s easy, because then they’ll be like, “Oh, well, if it’s not happening easily for me, then I’m doing something wrong. ” I never want them to think that. I do want them to know this is something that you have to keep persevering to get to it and it’s okay if you don’t get to it at a young age.

And then on the flip side, it’s also an honor, because I want them to know that it is possible. Because so often I think for younger creators, there will be older people in the industry that tell you you are too young for this, you cannot achieve what you think you want to achieve because you don’t have enough life experience or you need a day job. It’s true that we have a lot to learn; every young person has a lot to learn. But if it’s something that they feel ready for, I want young writers to know that it is something they can do.

Do you have advice that you generally give to young authors or would give to young authors?
The thing that I tell young authors the most is that it’s all about practice. Because I think that comes in both as the reason why you’re able to achieve it at a younger age and the reason why you shouldn’t worry if you don’t, because writing isn’t about the amount of life experience you’ ve gathered, or how long you’ve been alive in the world, it’s about how much you have been working on your craft and your skills and honing your voice.

What is your favorite thing about being a writer?
I love the act of creation. I think that’s why I like writing first drafts a lot, even though it’s just you and the blank page. And I love that moment of characters coming alive in a setting, like, visualizing itself, because I’ve put a few lines down and just just that moment of oh, look, I’m actually making a world by putting words down.

What are you reading right now?
I always instantly blank on every book I’ve ever read as soon as I get this question, but I’m not reading anything right now. The last book I read was called “The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea” by Axie Oh, and it is this Korean folklore inspired fantasy, about this girl who sacrifices herself to the sea god to stop the series of disasters to our village, and she ends up finding this realm beneath the sea, and it’s so good.

In one of your recent TikToks you tease the manuscript for “Immortal Longings” – what can you tell me about it?
“Immortal Longings” is an Antony and Cleopatra inspired trilogy. And it’s actually my first proper fantasy. Because “These Violent Delights” is actually more speculative historical, since it’s actually set in a real place in history. But “Immortal Longings” takes place in the fictional city called San-Er. It’s mostly based on the real Kowloon Walled City that was up in Hong Kong, from about the 60s to the 90s until it was torn down. It was a completely lawless slum.

Writing “Immortal Longings” has been quite different to all the other books because it is like adult fantasy, and there’s a lot more that goes into the – I think darker – worldbuilding. And it’s quite different when I end up writing just to target an adult audience versus when I’m writing for my teenage self as I do when I write my young adult books, because I started “These Violent Delights” when I was 19. So for as long as I stay in the world, I’m constantly writing for that 19 year old, whereas “Immortal Longings” I kind of grow with it as they grow up.

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