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From the Boston Book Festival: Chloe Gong on Writing About Messy Adults and Critiquing Colonialism

Chloe Gong at the 2023 Boston Book Festival
Chloe Gong at the 2023 Boston Book Festival By Courtesy of Millie Mae Healy
By Millie Mae Healy, Crimson Staff Writer

Author Chloe Gong graced the podium at the Church of the Covenant this past Saturday, Oct. 14., as part of the 2023 Boston Book Festival. Delivering the YA keynote lecture, Gong spoke about all of her published works, the power of YA fiction, and her creative processes. Her talk was moderated by fellow YA author Sara Farizan, perhaps best known for writing “If You Could Be Mine” and, most recently, “Dead Flip.”

Gong discussed her latest novel, “Foul Heart Huntsman,” which was just released on Sept. 26 and concluded the “Foul Lady Fortune” duology — a series that follows the immortal assassin Rosalind in 1930s Shanghai. “Foul Heart Huntsman” also rounded off the “Secret Shanghai” series that began with “The Violent Delights” duology — a “Romeo and Juliet” retelling about rival gangs in 1920s Shanghai.

Gong’s YA novels feature a fascinating array of younger-sister characters such as Alisa Montagova, who features in all of Gong’s YA novels, and Phoebe Hong from the “Foul Lady Fortune” duology.

“I just love writing teenage girl characters who are allowed to be a fluff ball of pretty pink dresses, and also very dangerous — it’s so much fun,“ said Gong. ”And there were some moments when [Phoebe] was like, I want to kill some people, and I’ll say okay, go on.”

A great part of the lecture was not only learning about Gong’s sensational writing, but her favorite childhood stories that inspired her to write in the first place. Gong described reading lots of detective stories like Nancy Drew growing up, and how the tropes and tone of those narratives influenced her writing.

“I think I was raised in the era of YA,” said Gong, “where every love interest was the most sarcastic person known to mankind. I was raised by Jace Herondale, so I really think my approach to peppering humor is always the ‘hehe’ moments.”

Gong further mentioned the importance of enjoying writing, and how writing about pain can be fun as well as meaningful, as many different types of suffering and complicated dynamics are explored across her novels.

“I love angst,” said Gong. “I think whenever characters are banging their head against the wall, I’m just giggling at my keyboard.”

Gong also made her first foray out of YA earlier this year, as her adult debut “Immortal Longings” — featuring body-jumping royals and death games, where former Princess Calla will stop at nothing to finish wiping out San-Er’s royal families — came out in July. In her talk, Gong reflected on her view of the differences between YA and adult, and why it was so interesting for her to explore both genres.

“I think so much of adult is a lot messier, it’s very undefined,” said Gong. “I have finished that coming of age experience, and that kernel of hope has vanished. I kid a little, but I think of my YA characters as people who may do bad things and mess up, but at the end of the day they are still teenagers, and they have room for growth, and you kind of want to wrap them up in a blanket and protect them from the world, no matter what they’re going through. My adult characters — sometimes they’re just bad people. Their frontal lobes have developed, they have no excuse.”

Gong also described how she was interested in reinterrogating some of the same character archetypes and plot structures from the adult perspective.

“When I was writing Calla, there’s a lot of Juliette in her as a fundamental archetype. But then when you really sit down with the two of them, you can understand that Juliette is a product of her nature, and if you remove her from that, she would be someone different. But Calla is just rotten to the core. And I love that! I love getting to write female main characters like that.”

Gong also talked about how the retellings and supernatural elements of her stories provide fuel for deep explorations of heavy topics. In “These Violent Delights,” Shanghai is being haunted by a monster that strikes without warning and makes people rip their own throats out, and Gong described finding the villain of her story beyond the gang violence.

“Most stories need a bad guy. And I was like okay, the bad guy is colonialism. Yes, that’s true, but how do you really visualize that?” she asked herself.

She explained how she came up with this violent monster as an on the page evil, and then realized it should function as a metaphor for colonialism.

“And then I went back and revised it and made it logical wherein the consequences of these colonial forces have caused this monster,” said Gong. “The spread and the false blame is in some way commentating on the politics of this time.”

—Staff writer Millie Mae Healy can be reached at

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