Chloe Gong published her first young adult novel while still in college at the University of Pennsylvania in 2020 — and it became a worldwide hit. That book,“These Violent Delights,” is a reimagining of “Romeo and Juliet” set in 1920s Shanghai featuring rival Russian and Chinese gangs, blood feuds and monsters. Her debut novel spawned a series of five books in Gong’s “Secret Shanghai” universe.
The finale of that series, “Foul Heart Huntsman,” is out in September. Gong, who was born in Shanghai and raised in Auckland, New Zealand, is making her adult debut with “Immortal Longings,” a retelling of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” set in a fictional kingdom where the palace hosts a yearly set of games where each player must fight to the death, with the last person standing winning great riches.
The story centers around Calla Tuoleimi, the Cleopatra equivalent, a disgraced princess in hiding, and Anton Makusa, the story’s Antony, who both enter the games for their own devoted motivations. The two get drawn together in a battle that includes a magical world where people can jump into each other’s bodies — making everyone a potential enemy.
Gong joined GBH News to speak about the book, which is out today, July 18. Lightly edited excerpts from the interview are below, and you can listen to the full interview.
Haley Lerner: When did you decide you wanted this story to be your adult debut?
Chloe Gong: I got the idea for “Immortal Longings” senior year of college, because I was alone in my apartment over winter break. I was already kind of surprisingly ahead of my deadlines with my other YA books, which does not happen anymore. So I just needed a project to work on.
For the first time, the idea that had come to me just felt very adult. And I think it's because at that time in my life, I was thinking more about stories that I wanted to read if I were that target audience. Prior to that I’d been writing books that were mostly young adult because it was all I was reading. But as I was aging out, I was thinking more about themes to do with where do you go if you’ve worked out who you are, but you still have other goals? It was just chaotic in a way that I think young adult coming of age stories aren't that concerned with.
Lerner: Why did you choose to adapt Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra"?
Gong: I'd started writing in the Shakespeare niche. I was reading this article in class that was comparing “Romeo and Juliet” to “Antony and Cleopatra” and saying they're both these star-crossed lovers pairings. And yet, despite this core similarity, the way that they are portrayed and occupy their stories are so different because of their ages.
Romeo and Juliet are so concerned with youth and the corruption of their circumstances around them and how that shapes them into needing to respond and ultimately needing to choose tragedy to escape the cycle of hatred. Antony and Cleopatra, though, are kind of in a mess of their own making. You can't blame the adults around them, they are the adults.
I was in the space thinking I want to write an adult book that feels very messy, chaotic, that discusses all of these things that I was thinking about to do with just getting out there and going for what you want and power. It meshed really well with what would be an Antony and Cleopatra retelling.
Lerner: How did you go about crafting the vivid fantasy world in this book?
Gong: I had to build my parameters from the get-go. I had to be very clear to myself, like what am I actually exploring in this world? What am I going to leave for the next books and what am I actually not that concerned with?
I remember there was one editing stage where I went through and I had to delete every mention of satellites because then I was like, “Oh my God, if I mentioned satellite, that implies some sort of space travel has been committed.” That implies they already discovered the entire world and I can't open that can of worms. I had to actually limit myself.
As far as the world itself, it was historically inspired by a real place, it was inspired by the Kowloon Walled City that was standing in Hong Kong from up until the nineties when it was eventually torn down. And the world building is kind of meshed with the rise of the Roman Empire.
Lerner: This world in your book has a very interesting magic system, where people can jump into other people’s bodies and take them over with their “qi” or soul. How did you come up with it?
Gong: At the time I had been watching “Altered Carbon” on Netflix, which is sci-fi, and it's about people who can download their consciousness, which means they can transfer bodies constantly. And I thought, aha, there's something interesting.
I was inspired by that to look at body jumping, but in a fantastical way. This concept of "qi" as your soul comes from ancient Chinese philosophy where they believed spirits could transfer back and forth.
"For the first time, the idea that had come to me just felt very adult."-author Chloe Gong
Lerner: You've had kind of a whirlwind career since “These Violent Delights,” publishing book after book since then. How has it felt, being young in the publishing industry?
Gong: It's been intense, especially this year, because I had three releases. The schedule has been crazy, but it kind of stems from this pressure where I think a lot of young people feel if you get even a tiny pinch of success, you want to squeeze as much of it as you can before eventually you believe it's going to be taken from you. Which is a terrible mindset to have. But I think a lot of us feel that way where it's like, they're only going to tolerate me for so long, so I might as well get to tell the stories that I can.
I know that that is not true, but I think so much of that inherent pressure just comes from wanting to make the most of your time.
Lerner: You're finishing up the universe of books that made you famous, the “Secret Shanghai” series. How does it feel wrapping up that world that started your career?
Gong: It is itself bittersweet because I'm really happy that we do get to do this conclusion. I'm really proud of what “Foul Heart Huntsman” became. I think it's the exact ending I want to do. I'm really, really satisfied with the product and I'm really excited for people to read it. But it's so sad. It's like sending your kids off to college, I imagine.
Gong will be at the First Congregational Church in South Hadley on July 19 at 7 p.m. to discuss “Immortal Longings” in an event hosted by the Odyssey Bookshop.