By Meha Razdan.
Among my favourite things to read are retellings, young adult (YA) fantasy novels, and Shakespeare plays. So when debut author Chloe Gong announced her upcoming novel, These Violent Delights, was a YA retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in 1920s Shanghai with a fantasy twist, I basically begged, cried, and pleaded my way to an Advanced Reader’s Copy of the book as well as the opportunity to interview Gong about her book, Shakespeare’s play, and everything in between. Check out our conversation below!
Meha Razdan: We’ve both mentioned being obsessive defenders of Romeo and Juliet so I’ll start here. It’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, but what do you feel that pop culture gets wrong about it? You hear a lot of “it’s about dumb teenagers” arguments — how do you interpret the “meaning” of the original play?
Chloe Gong: The public at large misunderstanding Romeo and Juliet is absolutely one of those things that will make me pop a blood vessel sooner or later. I’ll be sitting at my computer screen and then just bam! Blood vessels all over the place.
I think pop culture has distorted Romeo and Juliet to the point where the regular media consumer thinks they know exactly what it’s about, even though they’ve never read the play or seen a production. It’s kind of like a game of worldwide telephone: so-and-so said that Romeo and Juliet can be distilled down to “dumb teenagers”, and that gets passed on and on and on, to the point where it’s just accepted as a matter of fact! Which is so tragic, because I’m of the belief that it became so popular in the first place because it’s so good. It caught audiences’ attention thoroughly enough for it to become this thing larger than itself that now the public has misunderstood, because they’re not engaging directly with the text/production anymore.
At its heart, my favorite thing about Romeo and Juliet is that it’s about two young people who chose love. They inherited a terrible conflict that put so much blood [both] between them and on their hands, whether they wanted to engage in the feud or not. It would have been so much easier for the both of them to choose hate, but they didn’t! They chose love, and they were so brave to choose love, and they died for it, and that’s the part of the tragedy that really captivates an audience. It could have been prevented if Romeo had just cried a little longer before taking poison, sure, but that’s not the point! The point was Shakespeare telling a story about love and bravery through tragedy […] and I deeply respect it.
MR: Because it is a popular play, Romeo and Juliet has been adapted and retold so many times in so many different ways. Do you have any favourite adaptations or retellings? What is it about the play that you think draws people to revisit the story so often?
CG: Controversial opinion, mayhaps, but my favorite adaptation is the 1996 Luhrmann one. However, I only watched it after writing These Violent Delights, so I started with only the written play as a basis!
I think that because it’s such a touchstone text, it’s impossible to write about star-crossed lovers or generational feuds (in the Western world, at least) without some nod to Romeo and Juliet. The story is so deeply ingrained in the Western psyche — maybe even the global psyche to some extent — that when you think “star-crossed”, you think Shakespeare, […] so I can see how natural it is for creators across the centuries to keep returning to the foundational story. There’s something inherently interesting about taking a story that everyone has some familiarity with, and then going, “Okay, but what if also (insert innovation)”!
One of my favorite TV shows before it got cancelled after one season — sobs — was Still Star-Crossed, which imagined a romance between Rosaline (Lashana Lynch) and Benvolio (Wade Briggs) after Romeo and Juliet’s deaths. While I can’t claim [these adaptations] to be sources of inspiration, I think knowing how much space exists in Shakespearean-inspired works really opens me to try anything when it comes to expanding my own work!
MR: Romeo and Juliet is known for its very tight time frame; everything happens in the space of a few days. In retelling the story in the longer form of a novel, how did you set about pacing the story and the time frame for a different medium with different parameters for length and pacing than a play?
CG: These Violent Delights has changed form a lot! It started as a standalone instead of a duology, and took place from September 1926 to April 1927. But my editor was absolutely brilliant and picked up on some character issues that needed the timeline to slow down more, so she suggested we do two books instead.
Now that I’m in the process of writing Book 2, I’ve noticed that I absolutely cannot use the usual three-act novel structure. All my outlines are in five acts! While they don’t necessarily follow the exact structure of plays, These Violent Delights and its sequel hinge on multiple turning points, just like how five-act plays end one scene and shift into a new one as a consequence — as opposed to the build-up, climax, resolution structure we’ve come to expect of novels.
However, the time frame of These Violent Delights was more because of the historical component of the book. 1926-27 Shanghai was the lead-up to the Chinese Civil War, so I had to mash the beats of real major historical events with the beats of two five-act structures. All I can say is bless my editor, because trying to pass eight months in five acts would have had Shakespeare rolling in his grave.
MR: The love story of Romeo and Juliet is one of the most famous of all time, including how they met and fell in love on the same day. However, when we meet Roma and Juliette in TVD, they’ve already had a relationship — one that ended badly. What inspired you to make the changes you did in the way your leads’ central relationship and the barriers they face played out?
CG: When I was first putting together the idea for These Violent Delights, I was going to have Shakespeare’s original play be the actual backstory for Roma and Juliette. They were going to fall in love at a masquerade, get married, try to run away together, and basically everything in the play until the death scene, when they would get caught and Juliette would get shipped off to New York.
[Eventually] I discarded that backstory, but when I think “lovers on two sides of a blood feud”, I think “enemies-to-lovers”, and how juicy that opportunity is. Obviously Shakespeare went for the insta-love route, but because I love reading and writing YA, I wanted angst and I wanted tension, so I couldn’t not grasp the potential for two characters who are so perfect for each other, but are kept apart by their circumstances. From there onward, even though their relationship takes its own path from Romeo and Juliet, Roma and Juliette’s obstacles and barriers can definitely be traced back to that original blood feud Shakespeare gave us.
Fanmade book trailer for These Violent Delights, by Sara a.k.a. TeamHodgins.
MR: Romeo and Juliet are two of my favourite Shakespearean characters, and I loved their TVD counterparts Roma and Juliette so much! What drew you to the original characters? And how did you set about making them your own characters in your own world?
CG: I gravitated toward the concept of adapting Romeo and Juliet because I wanted to write about a blood feud, so it was the themes that caught my eye first. But the more I read the play, the two were honestly so … endearing? It’s so clear how young they are! And that makes it all the more painful when they’re cursing the stars and dying! But I think the reason why they’re such memorable characters is because they both push the story forward, even while their families were trying to box them in.
I have this whole thesis-level theory that the reason why the Capulet and Montague parents don’t have first names is intentional on Shakespeare’s part, to put agency on Romeo and Juliet instead. […] Even though everyone wants to cry that the blood feud is what destroyed them in the end, it truly was their choice to die. And that action in and of itself definitely isn’t romantic — it’s a tragedy that that’s how the story ends — but [it’s about] the sheer agency in choosing to die for love rather than live in hate.
This understanding of the original Romeo and Juliet framed their new incarnations within the gangster-run world I was setting up in These Violent Delights. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet were youthful, but they were both so intense! Juliet straight up threatened to kill herself before Friar Lawrence proposed his plan to her! It’s that exact energy that builds Juliette Cai’s character: she’s very feminine, and whimsical, but she’s also brutal, and it doesn’t negate how prettily she’s dressed. Roma Montagov has the whole cold exterior, but on the inside he just wants to read poetry and dream, which felt very Romeo — adapted for the new world he’s been plopped into.
MR: Apart from Roma and Juliette, I really loved Benedikt (Shakespeare’s Benedict), Marshall (Shakespeare’s Mercutio), Kathleen, Rosalind and the side characters. Mercutio and Benedict are definitely beloved figures in the original play, but they’re small roles. How did you go about adapting the side characters into much bigger roles for your novel?
CG: [In] a very similar process to Roma and Juliette, Benedikt and Marshall came about by taking the base trait of their counterparts in the original play, and then expanding outward in a way that made sense for the new world and setting. Their ties to Romeo inform a lot of their agency in the play […] so whatever Benedikt and Marshall were up to had to link back to the plot in some manner. Rosalind and Kathleen are entirely new, so I had more navigation room when it came to who I wanted them to be and what roles they would play. I always see side characters as cool alternate universes of a book: each of them need to be well-rounded enough that they could have led the book, but there also needs to be a reason why they don’t!
MR: The city of Verona is really integral to the original play, and I think readers will find the same thing about TVD‘s Shanghai — it’s so striking that it almost becomes another character. What drew you to 1920s Shanghai as the place to set your story? A lot of the book deals with the different ethnic communities around Shanghai and the rivalries between them; how effective a tool did you find the rivalries at the heart of Romeo and Juliet in exploring these historical dynamics?
CG: The choice to go for 1920s Shanghai definitely comes from my own interest in the city! All of my family were from Shanghai for several, several generations until my parents immigrated with me to New Zealand when I was two. I grew up on a lot of stories about the city, parts of which are still well-preserved from the 1920s and 1930s. In the pre-pandemic world, I used to visit almost every year because the rest of the family are still there.
When I started doing research, it was clear that this decade — the Republican Era — was very much the city’s heyday and golden age, but it was also a hugely volatile time right between world wars. In true history, there was so much conflict and anger with the foreigners who had taken land after the Opium Wars in the 1920s, and then moving into the 30s, there was the threat of Japanese occupation as the Second World War started to clash with the Chinese Civil War. And even amid that, there was the matter of the Chinese sharing space with the huge numbers of Russians who were fleeing their own civil conflicts.
It just seemed to be this boiling cauldron of tension set to erupt at any moment, and when I decided I wanted to write about a blood feud, it was a natural link to piece this city and Shakespearean feuds together. Especially because I so heartily believe that the rivalry at the heart of Romeo and Juliet is one of equality (the Capulets and the Montagues are two houses! Both alike! In dignity!), it was a perfect match to equate it to the native Chinese Scarlet Gang and the Russian White Flowers who are on the same playing ground — pitted against each other while also trying to fight off the foreigners, who are in a different league as oppressors.
MR: Juliette talks a lot about her identity crisis as a Chinese girl who has spent many years in America and has felt like an outsider in both countries. Things like language and dialect, beauty standards, and prejudice all play into her self-identity, and I think these are all things that diaspora Asian readers like myself will be able to relate to. Is this something you drew from your own experiences?
CG: Juliette’s diaspora struggles are definitely drawn from my own experiences! From the get-go, I knew that if this story was going to take place in Shanghai — a time when so many of the young, educated Chinese were forced to Westernize to deal with the foreigners — it was going to parallel what first- and second-generation immigrant kids go through today.
I think inserting themes of identity for Juliette did come about more from my own need to put that representation on the pages rather than what I read from Shakespeare’s Juliet, because it is an extremely white-centric play that falls on the most dominant European cultural values. I do think though, that the original spirit of Shakespeare’s Juliet did have a certain depth to her which helped the matter. When I was forming Juliette Cai, I was building a girl who is caught between two worlds — needing to appear all-knowing to justify herself, but deep down, fearing her inadequacy within both of her worlds. This is something diaspora understand inherently, in a way that we can’t necessarily explain to non-diaspora who might not get it the same way.
The original Juliet is a strong character, and I think this helped carry the change in cultural lens. I always think back to that scene near the end of Shakespeare’s play, when her parents are essentially saying they’ll exile her if she doesn’t marry Paris, and, even knowing what the stakes are, Juliet plots a way out. I’ve always had my eye on that resilient part of her, which I worked with to apply a new cultural reading on — but otherwise, Juliette Cai’s sense of identity was certainly more for fellow diaspora to recognize!
MR: We can’t talk about Shakespeare without talking about the language! There’s always a lot of discussion about how language is approached in Shakespeare adaptations — Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet (1996) used the original script in an anachronistic setting, whereas the 2013 Carlo Carlei adaptation, despite being set in historically accurate Verona, uses a newly written script. How did you approach crafting your own prose and voice for the novel, including integrating the different languages and dialects of 1920s Shanghai into a book written predominantly in English?
CG: I almost wish I could have them talking to each other in sonnet form; imagine how galaxy brain that would be. I think Shakespeare’s language is a critical component of his plays, but definitely not the be-all, end-all of his ideas. Still, my favorite thing about Shakespeare is his wordplay. So much of why Romeo and Juliet captivates me is because the ideas are presented in the most loveliest lines, and I would probably tattoo the whole play on myself with no regrets. (Just joking, my mum would kill me. I do own a jacket with the entire prologue printed on it though!)
When it came to my voice in These Violent Delights, I absolutely think — maybe even on a subconscious level — I was trying to mimic that larger-than-life, lyrical quality of so many Romeo and Juliet lines. I also just love setting the atmosphere! I like making sure things have a visual to it, and I think a lot of it stems from the fact that the source material was originally something meant to be seen.
Like Juliette, my dominant language is English, so that’s what I write in, but it would have felt inauthentic to only have English on the pages when [in 1920’s Shanghai], people would have been switching between languages, depending on circumstance and who they were talking to. Of course, knowing that I’m still writing for an English-language audience, I definitely kept the variety of languages contained.
MR: TVD has a fantasy spin, and deals with a mysterious illness that’s spreading throughout the city (which has, in 2020, suddenly become very timely!). What drove you to introduce fantasy to the retelling? You said on Twitter that the element of disease and illness recurs in a lot of your writing — why did you decide to introduce it to the conflict and the blood feud of TVD?
CG: While writing These Violent Delights, I was doing an independent research project at school on the genre of historical fantasy, […] and my ultimate finding was that fantasy acts as a lens to look at what we’re already trying to re-interpret about history. In writing historicals, it’s hard to visualize how the political strikes and protests in 1926 — which occurred over a course of a few months — are pressing matters to a fiction narrative. The fantasy element to These Violent Delights contributed a sense of urgency to the narrative.
Having a mysterious illness spread gave the troubles a tangible threat, so from a storytelling point of view, I could point to this physical thing, atop the poverty and harsh working conditions brought over from real history. It’s also very much a metaphor in itself about destruction and colonialism. Similar to creating narrative urgency, it crystallizes the threat that Roma and Juliette feel with the foreigners spreading their occupation on the Settlements.
Like we’re feeling in the COVID-19 world, disease is one of the only things that can halt a society completely in its tracks — and stories are all about some event that throws the normal totally off, right? It heightens pre-existing tensions; it forces a complete evaluation. Whether in the current day or amid a blood feud in the roaring 20s, it certainly seems to be doing its job.
MR: As I mentioned, TVD is a duology. We all know how the original play ends, so … how scared should we be for Book 2? And is there any chance you’ll be nicer to your characters than Shakespeare was? (Please?!)
CG: I considered replying to this with just an evil face >:) but like, I guess technically yes, I might be nicer! Shakespeare set out to write a tragedy, and he says so in the prologue! I made no such promises! (That being said, we’re in 1926 and World War II still has to break out so like… *slinks away with finger guns*)
MR: Do you have any plans to adapt more Shakespeare plays? If so, are there any of his plays or characters you’d particularly like to visit and why?
CG: I’m certainly trying to stay in this little niche of adapting Shakespeare plays for as long as I can! I will say, I’ve already… buried some seeds within These Violent Delights — there are characters who are actually dragged over from a different play, who have potential to be stars of a spin-off retelling, but no promises!
Unrelated to the world of These Violent Delights, I would love to adapt Antony and Cleopatra one day. That’s my second favorite play after Romeo and Juliet, and I always describe them as the meaner version of R+J. Romeo and Juliet build each other up and sacrifice so much for love; Antony and Cleopatra slowly destroy each other with their love and entangle the concept with power. I just think that’s so delicious and I love delicious dynamics that bounce between lovers and enemies, so that’s something I’d like to dip my toes [into]!
These Violent Delights releases on November 17th and is available for preorder now.
Check out Meha’s full review of the book on her blog here!