So, what inspired you to write this book?
The first sprig of the idea was that I wanted to write a blood feud story. I thought it would be interesting to write about two characters caught in a conflict between their families. And they’re so alike and work so well together, yet the circumstances pull them apart. Then that seemed to come across as an innocent, star-crossed lovers’ story. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this sounds like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The more the story came to life, and the more that the elements were coming together with writing gangs and reimagining how a story like this would play out in the true historical context, I thought it would be more interesting to lean right into doing a Romeo and Juliet retelling.
This interest in blood feuds, is that because you grew up with divergent families that hated one another? Or did you just really find it fascinating as a reader?
I just found it fascinating because I love stories that come with intense conflicts. I grew up reading so much YA, and I always loved it when there’s a plot but also a couple to root for in the sub-plot. They go so nicely together when it’s the world itself trying to keep these characters apart. So I thought, I love a blood feud for the main plot, and it’ll be interesting getting into those character dynamics.
You’re in university right now. What’s it like to write a book while you’re going to school?
It’s a lot to handle. Back when I was doing the brunt of the first book’s revision—when I was working with my editor the first time—to get through the roughest draft of it was a lot of tearing it completely apart. And there was a lot of building it from the ground up, and I was doing that during my most intense course load.
Growing up, I’d always thought of writing as a hobby. But in college, I had to treat it as something to take really seriously so that I wasn’t falling behind on deadlines. After I got the deadlines in, after the book itself got into its final “pretty stages,” it was quite nice to just be in school. It was an interesting experience in the sense that it was really hard to do, but once it got done, I felt very privileged to have that role.
Did you try to somehow overlap it? Like if you had a book deadline, you thought okay, I’ll make sure to take a Shakespeare class and something about the history of China—did you try to use school to your advantage, or were they completely at odds?
I did try. I’m doing a Chinese minor, not Chinese language, but history—it was almost as if the classes I naturally gravitated towards were the stuff that was relevant anyway. I had the book together after freshman year, and then sophomore year I took a lot of classes like Monsters and Literature, East Asian Diplomacy, and Intro to Russian Literature. In all of those classes, I would pick up bits and pieces that helped me understand more. But I didn’t necessarily insert anything in. It gave me an angle to think about it again, and when I went back to revise, it was almost like I had more of a lens. My brain felt bigger.
You’re literally marketing to a group that you’re still vaguely in. Usually, when we talk to YA authors, they’re in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and a big question is how do you get yourself back in the mindset of being a teenager? What was it like to write inside the group that you were catering to?
It felt very natural because it was all that I knew. The only books that I had read were young adult, so when I was writing one, it never occurred to me to write adult fiction, because I don’t know what that is. I don’t know how adults think; I don’t know what adults do. From about thirteen onwards, whenever I was writing a book, that character would be my age, because as I was growing up, I was putting myself into the pages.
I wrote These Violent Delights when I was nineteen. I got the idea when I was eighteen, so Juliette in the book is just eighteen. I was translating myself over in terms of what I knew. After I spoke to my agent, she said that this book could actually cross over into adult. I was shocked. I thought how did I accidentally write something that adults want to read? I really like the fact that apparently my writing is accessible, but given that I was so rooted in the teen space, and I know what these teen readers like, I was comfortable in the teen space. It was always the path I was going to go down. I guess it will be interesting now, growing up, to see whether I expand into adult. I’m kind of poking my fingers into it.
I always love when I find a YA book like yours that just isn’t afraid to have really creepy monsters and people ripping their own throats out. What was it like to lean into that darkness? Have you always been interested in that aspect of writing? Or was that something that came out with these themes?
I think it was something that emerged with these themes because I wanted to work with Romeo and Juliet as inspiration, which comes from a relatively violent place. Then I was setting something in 1920s Shanghai, which was, in history, very ruled by gangs, so lawless streets was effectively the atmosphere. So even when I added a supernatural component, I wanted to embrace the natural dark atmosphere of what would have been true to the time. Because my first audience was myself—again, since I belong to the audience—I knew that teens wouldn’t balk at it in the same ways that older adults writing for the teen audience might have to be more hesitant, because they aren’t entirely sure what goes and what doesn’t anymore. But I knew that the recent reads my friends and I were into had no problem embracing the darker side. Teenagers don’t necessarily flinch at those things in the way that adult gatekeepers of the industry might think. I didn’t have an issue writing that, as long as it was true to the story I was trying to tell.
One of the things I loved about the book was your voice. It was this great merger of the more lyrical work that we’ve all grown up with in classic literature, but it had its own unique style. Did the voice just pour out of you? Did you agonize over it?
I do a lot of editing as I go, so when I write I have to make sure that the first things I’m putting down on the page are what I want them to be. So I guess in a way I do agonize over making sure that the setting on the page is sounding how I want it to sound. But I also think because of the world that was naturally in place, I was reading a lot of primary sources from people describing the city at the time and I was reading some translated literature pieces, and the way that the description tends to come about usually has that more lyrical, omniscient sense to it. So I went in with that intention, and in that sense, it made the tone quite natural to me as I went on. But to make sure that I was following through with it was always in my head. Prose is really important to me. I love YA for its quick pace and the character work, but I also never want to sacrifice the craft of it. When I write, I have to make sure that everything YA values is going on but my words have to sound pretty.
Are you the kind of writer where you knew exactly what direction you were racing in and you had the plot thought out, or do you write and let the muse take you and try to clean up everything that broke while you wrote?
A bit of both. I outline a lot. I try to know everything I write before I write it, but sometimes the story goes in its own direction completely, and then I have to readjust my outline. But even when that happens, I tend to erase a bit of what I have in my outline document and rework that, then go back to the novel itself. I hate writing words that I know I’m going to delete. I always have to feel the usefulness of something before I’m actually putting it down. I feel that I have to get the wrong part in my brain first and rework it before getting it down on an outline. That’s why my first drafts already turn out quite clean. I’ve already stumbled on it so much in its first stages.
Talk to me about the actual publishing process. You had this great idea, you thought it was viable—did you just look up how to query an agent on the internet?
Exactly like that. I used Google so much. I had the finished book, and I wanted to get it published, but I had no idea how. I typed “how do you get published” into Google, and then I sifted my way through. I realized that traditional publishing was what I wanted and realized how to query an agent, what happens after you sign with an agent, how to get in the hands of editors. I did so much research and looked up agents that represent the genres I write in, then I looked up how to approach them. I wrote my query letters and sent them all out, then once I actually signed with an agent, I had my foot in the door. Then I had someone to guide me through the industry.
How did you go about selecting an agent that you knew understood your message?
I queried the agents who represented the type of stuff I had written and was planning to write in the future because I wanted a career agent. I would check out some of their social media to see how they’d work with people and their vibe. I queried the ones that I would like to work with, and after I got a few offers from agents, I got on the phone with them all and my agent now was the one I vibed with the most.
Objectively, all of the agents who made me offers were amazing in terms of their approach, their vision for how the book could go. But I think my agent was just the one who not only did I agree with her interpretation of the book, but she was the one who talked about it and my career going in a way that felt good to me on a personal level. That was really important to me because at the time I was nineteen. I wanted someone who would take me seriously and treat me as an equal, and she absolutely did. We’ve been working together ever since.
You had a quotation about how you’ve written like eight books since you were thirteen, and you’ve really honed your craft. What do you think is the biggest thing you’ve learned from between being an adorable thirteen-year-old who’s just picking up the pen to someone who’s professionally writing?
I think a lot of writing will genuinely have to come from experience. And drawing rough stories and having them sound completely bizarre and just moving on from them. There’s a misconception that you can easily learn writing by reading enough prompt books or taking up advice. And while that is really helpful in the sense of understanding how story arcs go and how to create compelling characters, I think writing is one of those things that is genuinely like muscle memory.
What about writing from your own experience? You write about romance and so many adult themes. Have you tried to go out and live a bit recklessly so you could pull from experience? What was it like to connect on a human element?
I went about it more with the imagination route than the experience route. With cultural inspiration, I would take from stories I have heard my family talk about, and stories my parents told at the dinner table. Things like human yearning and human ambition—things like Juliette feeling frustrated that she keeps getting overlooked as the heir of a gang—all of those things, they’re very foreign to me. I would never know what it’s like to fight over an underground empire. My imagination is what I sink into for that. That’s why I love fantasy so much. You can look at the complete extremes of what someone could experience, but real-life people won’t necessarily experience. I do think that getting out into the world is something that’s helpful to gain insight into the human experience, but I think that some young writers will imagine things very deeply, and I think that gives them an edge as well.
Is there a character that you found the most natural to write? That you identified with? Or maybe someone you didn’t identify with at all and that made them so much easier to write?
For most of the characters, I took a certain part of myself and shoved it in there. That was what helped make them three-dimensional in my eyes. For example, most of Juliette’s identity crises come from my lived experiences being part of the diaspora in the Western world. But then other parts of her personality are completely unlike mine. With Benedikt, his obsession with the world and his anxiety is mine, but other parts of him are completely made up. When I create my characters, they’re all equally hard to write in the sense that I give them a part of me to make them feel real, and then I expand more on the very basics of who they should be to create a new person who feels real in their world. If it felt too easy, I would think it was getting too biographical. I like the fact that it feels difficult to make them all feel unique. Then it feels like they’re real people that someone could meet on the street.
In addition to this book, there’s a sequel. Was it an intended sequel?
It was intended in the sense that it’s always been the whole story, but it was originally one book. It was one quite big manuscript, but then my editor said that we should break it apart because it was quite chunky. I jumped at the opportunity to split it into two books. I changed the story a lot when I did this. The sequel has always existed, but what’s in the sequel now is completely different from how the original story once went.
When you originally queried the two books as one, what was your word count?
It was actually lower. I want to say it was 117,000. When you’re getting an agent, they like to keep it under 100,000. I think the current word count is 120,000. So it did grow. It’s so frustrating that it’s an industry standard to keep it under 100,000 words. Sometimes people really pull it off—the pacing is good, all of the words are needed. But because the way the industry works, they say get it under 100,000 and then grow it again once you have a book deal.
What is the one thing you really wanted to say with this book?
With this book and the duology itself, and starting with Romeo and Juliet, I think the big theme is to choose love in a place of hate.