An Interview with Chloe Gong

Chloe, what inspired you to write this book?

Immortal Longings is my adult debut. So there were a lot of big thoughts I was having about what is it that makes an adult concept different to a young adult concept. I had to make a conscious decision to make the switch. My instinct growing up and writing books was always to go for young adult, because it was what I was reading. It was the type of genre categorization that I knew best. Whereas when the idea for Immortal Longings first struck, it was the first concept I worked with that I knew that didn’t really fit into that coming-of-age story arc. There was nothing about it that felt like a teenage story anymore. I think that was because I came up with the idea when I was in my senior year of college. It was still the midst of Covid. So, I had come back on campus because doing zoom school was horrifying and bland. And the time zone was terrible; I didn’t go to class. My professors let me skip class because my professors were like “oh you’re in New Zealand.” And it also meant I was not learning a single thing. So, I came back for senior year and during winter break I was alone in my school housing apartment because everyone went home for the holidays. It gave me the idea of working with a very dense city setting, I guess because I was so isolated. Thinking about what it means to live with people literally breathing down your neck, that presence of breathing down your neck at any point. It was that feeling that first came to me as a story idea.

I had always been very inspired by the Kowloon Walled City that was torn down in Hong Kong in the 1990s. I had always wanted to work with some sort of fantastical story to do with that. I had originally been playing with a portal fantasy that didn’t work and then some other fantasy in YA that didn’t work, and I threw them out. Finally, for this I was thinking what if I made an adult setting because I am exploring a dense city setting and the bad aspects that come with it if there is a system ruling over it and the very human things that come with trying to survive in a place. That just kind of erupted into the world and then that joined up with the fact that I had debuted into YA with Romeo and Juliet and I had taken a Shakespeare class sophomore year, where I really, really loved studying Antony and Cleopatra. I thought there’s something very meta about using the two star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare tragedy cannon, but Antony and Cleopatra are so firmly adult. They are about power and obsession and grappling with the sort of the tug and pull of love. So, there was a lot of like, “ooh, I am going to make this so that the books are in conversation with each other just like how Shakespeare’s plays are in conversation with each other.” 

Very early on in the book when you’re describing the setting it’s as if the setting is its own character. I found it fascinating that you built the city where it is so tight and there’s suffering, but there’s no relief because there’s not enough oxygen to create relief.

Given that San-Er was kind of based on the Kowloon Walled City, it is the exact same kind of thing, because there is no space for civil unrest, it is another arm of an oppressive system that just kind of goes “well, that’s too bad.” 

What was it like to grapple with an inspiration that is so unruly that critics can’t even decide what it is about.

I think I decided I wanted to pluck out the character study between Antony and Cleopatra first and foremost. People can’t even agree if it is a tragedy. Is it historical? There are so many aspects about it. Shakespeare is doing so much in the play. It’s not like Romeo and Juliet where the themes are blatant. I was fascinated by comparison essays I was reading about Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra. That led to an idea of meta type engagement as well, because I was reading an essay about how Antony and Cleopatra are essentially the adult versions of Romeo and Juliet but, as what happens when you reach adulthood, things suddenly become so much more complicated, right? Not that children’s lives aren’t complicated, but in a way, your coming of age is very much funneled down into one simple sort of self-discovery type goal. Whereas you reach adulthood and it’s suddenly about nation, it’s about interpersonal relationships, it’s about everyone around you. So, it was the characters of the play that fascinated me the most. 

Not to say I don’t love the intertwining of history as well. Like I really love the rise of the Roman Empire, which is why there are kind of bits and pieces that find their way into the world building of Immortal Longings. Whenever I pitch it, it’s the 90s of Hong Kong meets the rise of the Roman Empire. People are like, “what does that look like?” Well, we’ll see! You know so history made its way in through those aspects, but as far as the inspiration of Antony and Cleopatra is concerned, it gravitates towards the interpersonal relationship between Antony and Cleopatra or how the other characters, it’s not in the play so much, but Octavia the wife he left behind and his relationship with Augustus and then Octavian and Cleopatra’s serving woman and all those little character interactions are my favorite parts of the play. When I wanted to adapt it, it was like “how do I make those little characters feel like the source material but plucked in a completely new environment?” to kind explore, like, what would they become if you completely merged that around.

Talk to me about your writing process. Are you the kind of writer who is like “okay, I’ve gone through the entire play, I’ve outlined exactly how it’s going to line up with my new plot and then I sit down.” Do you sit down and let the characters come to you? 

A bit of both, I think. I’m a very chaotic writer, but I’m also very orderly. By that I mean, before I get into a first draft, I have everything very organized. My planning document for Immortal Longings is 20 pages long, because it’s the outline of the play, outline of my story, outline of every inspirational subtext that I’ve got going on, and then it’s basically the outline of everything I want to have happen in the further series. But then I’ll write the book, I’ll get everything into its base shape, and then I throw it all out. I need to do it first just to see what works and what doesn’t. Because when I visualize it as an outline, sure it works, it kind of makes sense to lay it all out, but the magic I love about writing is that sometimes things just work and sometimes they don’t. You don’t know what that will be until you do it.  I don’t really discover what the story is trying to say until I’ve done it once, and I see that things are not corresponding as they need to. And I kind of rip it up and do a second draft. And that second draft tends to be what I’m trying to say, and then the further drafts I’ll clean it up, and so on and so forth. But I need that chaotic tearing a book apart stage most times, sometimes there’s a structured book, and I don’t tear it apart that much, but I find that’s rarer than not.

Photo credit: JON STUDIO

How much of that first draft do you actually end up keeping?

I tend to start fresh. I open a new document, but I’ll put the old one next to it. So, I will pull lines and paragraphs. Because the writing is still there. But I need the new document, so I don’t feel married to the old structure. Because I found that if I keep that old document in and edit within it, I will kind of wimp out sometimes and just let the things sit in their old structure. But if I open a new document, I can be like well these chapter orders don’t work at all. So, I’ll tear it apart and start again.

Your word-by-word writing is extraordinary, it’s lucious, it pulls you in. Is that something that comes through in the first draft and you know your voice immediately?

I do think my word by word tends to mostly come in the first draft. I think partially because I have been writing for so long now that it is a bit easier to get what I want to say out there into the sentence level form. When I was first setting out when I was much, much younger there was kind of a discrepancy between what I saw in my head and what eventually I put on the paper because I just wasn’t as practiced yet in describing the things that I saw in my head. But now that I’ve been doing it for so long, I think, the first go at it gets a bit close. There will be bits where there are just pieces missing, where I’m like “that doesn’t sound quite right but let me just put it down first.” So, when I do the second draft migration I tend to go back, I’ve got a fresh pair of eyes, because of the first draft. I’ll never go back and edit the first draft, I’ll either do it all again and I’ll go back. So, by the time it’s the second draft it’s probably been a few months since I’ve seen it and I can see what I was saying there now and I can kind of adjust the words slightly. But I would say that most of my wording, if I am keeping it, probably remains as is. 

You mesh so many genres in this story, you have historical geo-politics to fantasy to monarchy systems to sci-fi. Did all of those ideas come together in outlining? 

I’m a cross genre writer. Even with my young adult books I have always been doing that. So, with These Violent Delights I originally pitched that as just a historical and it was later on that I was talking to my agent and she was like “no, we can cross this as fantasy, you have a monster rampaging the city.” And I was like, “yeah, yeah, you’re right.”  These Violent Delights is historical sci-fi, and then Foul Lady Fortune, even more so, is a historical sci-fi thriller, which, I found that when you throw too many genres at people, their eyes kind of glaze over. So, we were like “yes, this is YA fantasy” to kind of tidy things up. It is kind of the same with Immortal Longings. It is pitched as my kind of official adult fantasy debut, but there is so much about it that is, it feels different than what you expect when you say, “I’m picking up a fantasy novel.” I knew from the get-go that I wanted the world to feel like something 90s inspired, there was technology, but there is not technology that we recognize for our modern day. There is a magic system of sorts, but it’s not magic, it’s genetic. It’s something just that is part of their world. So fantasy is kind of just the little slot that it falls into because it has the sort of archetypes.

So much of your work is deeply tied to what makes someone them. How does identity exist in this world? And what was it like to explore identity when you can literally discard your body? 

To me it was this investigation into how different people value their identity as it ties to personhood. It’s a reflection of our world where people don’t jump around, you just have one body, but I still think that sort of spectrum exists and is reflective of how people perceive themselves. Some people think of their mind as who they are, and they don’t care about outer perception. Other people are very very sensitive to external perception.

What do you think you would do if you could jump bodies?

I don’t know if I would. I might be a Calla. I might be somebody who is really stuck to myself. If I had to, would jump into any random man in the street, I just want to see what it was like.

Do you think you would choose a stranger over someone you knew?

If it’s someone I knew, I’d be controlling them, and that’s weird. A stranger, they never have to know.

How did the transition to adult feel for you as a writer, versus your preliminary work? Did it feel easier? Was it harder? Was it unexpected? 

On a craft level, I wrote the book in my usual voice. So, I don’t think it was particularly harder than any of the other manuscripts that came before it. But on an emotional level, it was hard, because I had a lot of self-doubt. Because I switched to adult and since I was still writing it at 21, it gave me a huge, crippling sense of imposter syndrome. But I was just really, really going through on a personal level, like, am I enough of an adult? Do I know how to do my taxes?  Which led to this new step in my career, where I was like “oh god, am I going to be able to do the adult genre?” So, I just had to do it; I just had to take the dive. I knew the story couldn’t be young adult, it just wouldn’t work, that kind of atmosphere is not something that feels like a teenager would care about it. I think it’s something very many adults care about more. So, I need my audience to be adult. Otherwise, it was a lot of fun getting that freedom to write for adults. I love writing for young adults, but there’s always a little box that I kind of refuse to step out of, because there are certain things that I don’t think are as interesting to teenagers. When you write for an adult sphere, and you can get a bit more morbid. The same way that growing up kind of unlocks a box for you to think of the world a different way. It was a lot of fun but also very scary.

Want to read what we thought of Immortal Longings? Check out Marizel Malan’s review.

An Interview with Jennifer Fliss

As If She Had a Say is your second published short story collection. I’m curious to know if you always saw yourself as a short story writer or whether this is something you ended up falling into?

As a kid I used to make maps. I would tape together these massive maps across our family living room. I would name the streets, place the schools, and write up little information pieces. They ended up being very elaborate. Fast forward a few decades, people ask me did you always write stories and I say no, but I realize now that I was always world building. I also had a pretty rough childhood—my father was very abusive and there was a lot of neglect—so when I was in my 20’s, I processed that through writing. I lived in New York City and would write on the subway. I was writing things that weren’t meant to be seen by anybody else. That morphed into a short story based on my life because it was the only way I could talk about it. I enjoyed the process so I kept writing short stories and here I am, still writing those stories and I love it!

I started publishing in 2014 and short stories immediately worked for me. When I start writing a story, it usually comes—more or less—in one burst, so short form seems to be a natural fit for me. I have tried novel writing, and I enjoy it, but short stories are always where I’m going to land and come back to.

You mentioned getting the stories out in one burst. In general, do you know in advance how long a story is going to be when you start? Does it change massively in the edits or does the length remain stable?

Generally, it stays the same. I wish I could point to some craft piece in my brain that tells me how long it should be, but the stories come to their own conclusions. A few years ago, I wrote a short story that I knew wasn’t working. It either had to be cut really short or expanded. I ended up turning it into a novel. That’s the only time where it didn’t come out as it was. Really the stories dictate themselves. 

I also like to play with concepts, form, gimmicks. My stories take on a little fabulism. I think those types of things work much better in short form. 

Do you think short story form is a fit for you because you’re more interested in the fragments or do you have an attention span that likes to jump from idea to idea quite quickly?

The latter. I don’t think it’s super intentional. When I sit down and write the stories just come out and I do love generating new ideas. I’m like the dog in the movie Up when he sees a squirrel—so short stories work really well for me. Revision is particularly difficult. I don’t like to do it, though I understand I need to, which is why novel writing is particularly hard. So much revision has to happen there and if you pull out one piece it’s like a Jenga tower. You pull out one block and everything could fall. The short stuff is easier for me. 

Before we get into the specifics of this collection, I’d be interested to hear about the process of selecting the pieces. What guides you making those decisions?

I actually put this collection together before my first published collection, Predatory Animal Ball. All the stories from both collections were written over the past nine years, and I feel that As If She Had A Say is my stronger work. Even though I wasn’t intentional when I wrote those stories, I realized later how much I talked about women not having a say and the roles women have been stuck in. I return to this theme subconsciously because of my childhood, and so I picked these pieces that thematically went together. Simply put, I put together the stories that could wrap around this theme and what I felt were my stronger pieces.

When you say “strength” what does that mean to you? What kinds of things define if a story has worth?  

I like a good upmarket book, but you know how sometimes there’s a formula or a “they lived happily ever after” ending—if my work is like that, I feel I have been lazy. I think a story is strong if at the end I feel very satisfied. In general, my stories are maybe not always happy endings, but they are hopeful. 

Sometimes we’re blind to our stories too, so people’s responses help me know if it’s resonating with others. I also like to read it out loud because I enjoy cadence. I like language. I like to feel if it’s like a song to see if it works. That there’s not repetition of words without being intentional. That’s what makes a piece strong for me.

How did the title, As If She Had A Say, come to you? 

It used to be As If You Had A Say and my editor thought that changing it to “she” would make more sense and I agree. It takes it out of the second person and takes it out of talking to the reader.

I didn’t have a say as a child. It wasn’t until I graduated and went to college and was more independent that I had a say in how I wanted my life to be directed. I think about choice in my life a lot and I’m grateful for where I am now based on my childhood where I didn’t have a say in what was happening. I divide my life into these two parts: the part where I didn’t have a say in my direction and now the part where I do.

Like I was saying before, these stories end in hope. My characters can have a say in their life, in their directions.

A lot of the stories also have characters with a deceased parent or partner. Is this a thematic interest or a useful plot device?

I’m really happy in my life. I have a partner. I have a child. We have a very good relationship. And I get scared that I’m going to lose that. Like I said, my childhood was pretty terrible, and now that I’m making choices, I feel lucky to have this life. I’m always a little worried about that being snatched away.

I also think grief is really interesting. Obviously, it looks different for everyone but the thing about grief, at least in my writing, are the small things. Thinking about their toothbrush still being wet because it’s only been a few days, and then having to throw it out. What a painful experience that no one really talks about. 

I know I’m not alone here, but I still have my grandmother’s number in my phone. She died in 2015 and we were very close. I feel weird about deleting it. Same with a friend who passed away last year. Do I delete their phone number? They’re obviously not going to be calling me again, but it feels like another final thing. Grief can manifest in so many ways and I’m fascinated with those micro moments of grief.

Water is also a common motif throughout your stories. Whether it’s in the form of rain, a flood wrecked home, or a woman literally turning into water. Where does this come from?

That’s so funny because I haven’t noticed that, but you’re so right! I’m not Christian, but I do remember reading in English classes about water being purifying and baptism, and all that must have lodged in my head because I still remember it.

Our bodies are mostly made of water, our planet is mostly made of water, it’s the thing we need to live. It’s really the most important, tangible, thing. I find it interesting to take a subject and explore all the different ways we use, see, or experience it.

I have two pieces in progress, one about doors and one about windows. I find it fascinating how different buildings have different doors and windows and how they evoke diverse feelings in us. How they’re both a place of escape and entrance. I love the idea of taking one thing and examining the various meanings it can have.

So I think the water motif was unintentional, but maybe it was subconscious in the same way I like to explore other themes too.

Short fiction can allow you to examine a topic or object from every angle. Your stories do this through a mix of realism and fantastical elements. What inspires you too combine realism with surrealism?

Franz Kafka has always kind of stuck out to me since reading The Metamorphosis. The character wakes up and is a cockroach, which is crazy, but in the scheme of the book no one thinks it’s all that weird. They’re concerned with how he’ll have a hard time sitting at his office desk instead of asking what the hell, you’re a bug!? That really stayed with me and was the first time I experienced that kind of magical realism typically associated with Latin American literature.

As a story telling device, fiction is my wheelhouse. The fact that you can do anything is incredible without having to waste space in the story explaining it. Then you can proceed down some really interesting avenues. I like to read work like this, so many Japanese writers, in particular Yōko Ogawa, do this really well. And Gabriel García Márquez is obviously the king of it.

It’s a fun exercise to open up your mind to what a story could be. In my collection there is a story with a lady living in a fridge sleeping on butter, I don’t know where that came from but I do come up with a lot of weird things in my dreams. The brain is doing such weird stuff at night and many of those ideas come from your brain without you thinking about it.

Sometimes it’s easier to use metaphor and surrealism to discuss the real world. I’ll take horrible events happening and come up with some ridiculous version of them. Understanding political, economic, or social issues is easier when you stretch them to be their most absurd, wonky off the wall metaphor, and I think that’s part of it as well. 

Can you talk a bit about how you explored the relationships between the sexes in this collection?

You know, I didn’t step out to write a feminist collection, but by nature being a woman, that is my life experience. Harkening back to my childhood, my father was doing terrible things but then talking about how much he loved me—which is bonkers—but I think there was part of him that really did. He just had no idea how to do that and how his actions countered what he was claiming.

That Man versus Woman got right into my head early. Though I do still harbor some anger towards her, my mother was a victim in the whole experience too. My early experiences were a woman cowering in the corner and a man being threatening. I think that the power play between genders is not that black and white. Obviously, there are plenty of great guys out there, but they are also part of that system. I think the collection reflects what we’re experiencing. One thing I’d like to learn more is that grey area. I think some stories do that, but I think they’re kind of a bit more simplistic to people than what the message really is. I love when I read things where it’s not clear and that’s really what life is more like.

Was it your intention to have the male character in the story Sounds of Nouns become more dependent on those around him, making him more empathetic and less egotistical?

I kind of love that take, but it certainly wasn’t conscious. We all grow up in certain silos, and have a hard time truly understanding what an outside perspective is. I can read and talk to people about different experiences, but that will be a surface level understanding. If we were to experience what someone else is experiencing then we have a moment like Oh! I get it! It’s unfortunate that we’re not a more empathetic animal.

What is next for you?

Well, I’m always writing short stories and little non-fiction pieces. I have alluded to a novel a few times and I need to go back and revisit that. But because I’m me, I’m going to work on a new novel idea! It takes place at a sleep away camp. I find this such an interesting microcosm setting. I’ll be going to Montana for a week this fall where I’ll work on the novel. In the meantime, I’m percolating ideas.

If you could give one piece of writing advice, what would it be?

There’s no one way to do it and you don’t need to write every day. You don’t need an MFA or to live in a big city. Resources are lovely, but you don’t need any of those things to be a writer. Remember, there’s not one way to do it.

Curious about our thoughts on As If She Had a Say? Read Sam Burt’s review.