Junior Chloe Gong has a deal to publish young-adult novel set in 1920s Shanghai

Student sitting next to building with tree in background.
Penn junior Chloe Gong has written a soon-to-be-published novel, "These Violent Delights," that is loosely based on "Romeo and Juliet," set in 1920s Shanghai.

Visiting her grandmother in China during a middle-school summer, with nothing to read and no internet connection, Chloe Gong decided to write her own book to keep herself entertained. Continuing to write after returning home to New Zealand, her story ended up at 116,000 words, with a perfect protagonist who possessed every superpower imaginable.

“It was a mess, as first books usually are,” says Gong, now a junior at Penn in the College of Arts and Sciences. “But I thought, ‘Wow, this is really fun!’” 

So, she kept writing as a hobby. She was also an avid reader, especially of young-adult books, targeted to teens aged 13-18. 

“The young-adult genre I noticed was very white-American centered,” says Gong, who was born in China and grew up in Auckland. “But around this time, there was a movement for more diverse books … so I got the idea to write about someone who looked like me, because why not?”

With that goal in mind, she started writing a new novel the summer before her freshman year at Penn. That book, “These Violent Delights,” was accepted for publication by Simon & Schuster’s teen division, Simon Pulse, and is expected to be on bookshelves in the fall of 2020, as the first in a two-book series. 

“I’m really happy,” says Gong, a Benjamin Franklin Scholar who is pursuing majors in English and international relations, and a minor in Chinese. “I am quite close to being done with book one.” 

Josephine Park, Undergraduate Chair of the English Department, advised Gong along the way. “I was stunned to learn of Chloe’s achievement—and I was especially struck by the 1920s Shanghai setting of her romance,” says Park, who is a professor of English. Gong is in her Introduction to Asian American Literature course this semester.

“It’s just so important that her Juliette will appeal to a global readership: I’ve chatted with Chloe about her experience growing up in New Zealand, and she’s filling in a gap that she felt as a young adult reader in Auckland,” Park says.

Pitched as “Romeo and Juliet” by way of “The Godfather,” the story is set in 1920’s Shanghai. The rival heirs of feuding gangs, Roma Montagov and Juliette Cai, must work together to stop a monster from destroying their world while the Chinese Civil War begins to break out around them. 

“I like to write bloody, generally violent, things for some reason,” Gong says, laughing. “I wanted to do a blood feud.”

Student standing on balcony of ornate stone building.
As part of her research for her novel, Gong visited a film set in Shanghai built to resemble a city in the 1920s. 

The story kicks off when Juliette, 18, returns to Shanghai from New York City with a Western education. Roma, 19, is the head of the rival Russian gang. “They are enemies at the start, but if they want both gangs to survive, and to save their city, they have to work together to find out why people are dying and find out what the monster is,” Gong says, describing the plot. 

But for her, writing is not all about the action. “I want to write prose that does more than tell a story. I want it to be beautiful as well,” she says. 

Aiming for historical fiction, she did a lot of research on the place and time. But because of the monster, the book sold as a fantasy, she says. “I tried to keep it very historically accurate with the details, but I do write in a monster, which is not,” says Gong. “Still, there’s no magic or new world invented, which is common in YA-fantasy, so my book straddles the young-adult, historical-fantasy genre.” 

The book is aimed for older teenagers. “I definitely wrote it for teens. I want teens to see themselves,” she says. “Juliette is someone who thinks like Westerners but on the outside is Asian. It’s really nice to see someone who looks like you on the bookshelves, and that is who I am writing for.” 

Managing the publication path for the book was challenging, Gong says. She finished the first full draft of the manuscript the summer after her freshman year. During her sophomore year she searched for and found an agent, and together they spent a few months editing. The manuscript then went out for submission. 

“I was sitting in the Penn Bookstore Starbucks and the email came in that we got an offer,” she says. Because other publishers also showed interest, the novel went up for auction in January, as a duology, and Simon Pulse was the choice. 

Since then, Gong has been working on the final rounds of edits, and on her ideas for the sequel. “I have to organize my time very well, especially when I’m on deadline for edits,” she says. “If I have assignments and exams, I have to prioritize.” 

In addition to her Penn coursework, she is involved in student groups, including the Australians and New Zealanders at Penn club, as co-prime minister. And she’s managing editor of the publication UnEarthed, an educational magazine that Penn students write, edit, design, and print, to give to middle and high schoolers in West Philadelphia.

But becoming a full-time writer is not Gong’s goal after college, she says. For now she is more interested in pursuing a career in international relations. “At least for me personally, I always have to have something new going on and be doing something different every day,” she says. “I don’t want to run out of things write about.”