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Artist Profile: Author Chloe Gong on Shakespeare, Cities, and the Messiness of Adulthood

Chloe Gong has returned with her adult debut, “Immortal Longings,” the first book in a gritty fantasy-romance trilogy loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.”
Chloe Gong has returned with her adult debut, “Immortal Longings,” the first book in a gritty fantasy-romance trilogy loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” By Courtesy of JON STUDIOS
By Samantha H. Chung, Crimson Staff Writer

Author Chloe Gong is one of the most exciting new voices in fantasy. She first made waves in the young adult scene in 2020 with her bestselling novel, “These Violent Delights,” inspired by the story of “Romeo and Juliet.” This year, Gong returned with her adult genre debut, “Immortal Longings,” the first book in a gritty fantasy-romance trilogy loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.”

Gong, who has been writing novels since high school, was a reader before she was a writer. In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Gong described how she was immersed in the young adult fantasy boom of the 2010s, devouring one book after another.

“It reached a critical point where I was reading [books] so fast that my mom was like, ‘I cannot take you to the library three times a week — that is crazy,’” she said. “So I started writing my own books.”

Gong’s personal writing projects eventually landed her a book deal. “These Violent Delights,” which she wrote after her freshman year of college, was published while she was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied English and international relations.

“International relations was supposed to be my career major. It was the one that I could actually get a job in. English was going to be the thing that I really loved and I was studying for fun,” Gong said. “The more I went forward with my degree, the more I realized both of them were actually interweaving in my life. Both really, really impacted my writing.”

Gong’s international relations classes led to her interests in history and politics. This background influenced the 1920s Shanghai setting of “These Violent Delights,” as well as the dynamics between the two rival gangs at its center. Meanwhile, the idea for “Immortal Longings” came in part from an English class that Gong took in college.

“I was taking a Shakespeare class where we were studying ‘Antony and Cleopatra,’ and I was reading a lot of academic texts analyzing the play and, in a sense, comparing it to ‘Romeo and Juliet,’” she said. “Antony and Cleopatra feel different because they are adults. They’re interested in ideas of power and betrayal, and they will wield this relationship for their own use. Romeo and Juliet do not do that because it is all about youthfulness, and exterior circumstances, and fighting against the adults in your life who have let you down.”

Gong also acknowledged a difference between writing fantasy books for adults and writing for young adults. The main contrast, for her, lies in the books’ thematic content.

“Young adult, to me, was so much about hope and youthfulness,” Gong said. “Adult fantasy is about this constant circling of: Do you hold the power? Or do I have the power? Can we lower our guards for a sense of ‘love,’ in quotation marks? But is that love enough? Or does it turn into something that you can use against each other? The messier it got, the more fun I was having.”

The “messiness” of “Immortal Longings” was inspired by Gong’s own experience graduating college. While her young adult novels focused on coming-of-age themes, Gong herself was realizing that her own coming-of-age experience was reaching an end.

“It was kind of a messy sensation that I wanted to plug into an adult book,” she said. “These characters are facing life around them, rather than moving onto what’s next.”

For Gong, her next step after graduation was moving to New York City. She describes herself as someone who loves living in cities, and she was drawn to the bustling culture of New York to start her post-college life.

“Immortal Longings” is, in many ways, a book about cities. Set in the frenetic twin cities of San-Er, much of the novel’s action takes place in densely-packed high-rises and claustrophobic alleyways, overshadowed by a corrupt monarchy. The novel follows Calla Tuoleimi, a deposed princess, and Anton Makusa, an exiled aristocrat. Each driven by their own desires, the two protagonists volunteer to participate in San-Er’s annual games, in which competitors fight to the death in the hope of winning unimaginable riches.

“The world of ‘Immortal Longings’ looks at urban living as something wielded against them,” Gong said. “There’s still so much life there. They build their lives as well as they can. But if you’re low on resources — if the people that are supposed to be caring for your well-being, like the monarchy or a government, are not doing what they should, what does life look like? And how does life lose value?”

Much of the inspiration for San-Er came from the Kowloon Walled City, a largely ungoverned Chinese enclave in Hong Kong that existed briefly in the late 20th century. While the story takes place in a fantasy world based on a historical city, Gong recognized that the book also contains parallels to the present day.

“I was writing this during the thick of Covid, where every day, especially in cities, we were seeing these giant numbers of death tolls and casualties,” she said. “At a certain point, we also normalized it. They didn’t become people anymore; they became numbers. That was the environment I was writing this under. It’s not so hard to believe that this [death game] could become allowed, because one person was not just a person with so many lives surrounding them. It was one number and a statistic.”

Gong has a busy schedule when it comes to upcoming books. Her YA spy thriller “Foul Heart Huntsman” is coming out in September and the sequel to “Immortal Longings” has a release date set for 2024. Looking further ahead in career, she also wants to write a sci-fi novel. Working on so many different projects, however, doesn’t faze her.

“Every single time, because I’m interested in doing something new and different, it’s required a different part of my writerly brain muscle to work,” she said. “I think it’s put myself at ease going forward because I know there’s no right way to do it anymore. I can’t find the right way to do it. I just do what’s right, for that book in particular.”

When asked to give advice for aspiring writers, Gong emphasized the importance of training that “writerly brain muscle” through practice and steady perseverance.

“So much of writing is just a continuous process,” she said. “No matter how long it takes, or no matter how many drafts you go through, nothing is ever wasted. Because every single piece of writing that you do, whether it is completely throwaway or the manuscript itself, is something that you’ve learned. It’s growing that writing muscle in your brain. And so there’s no waste of time, there’s no wasted materials — there’s only ever continuous growth.”

—Staff writer Samantha H. Chung can be reached at samantha.chung@thecrimson.com.

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