Publishing is often seen as a “mature” person’s game, so much so that writers who successfully claim a seat at the Big-Kids Table and achieve critical success before crossing particular age thresholds are lauded as rarities, prodigies who beat the odds by creating something noteworthy despite their young years. How else would we justify the National Book Foundation’s annual 5 Under 35 list?
But unlike voting, driving, or drinking, there is no age requirement for having a story in your heart nor for knowing how to tell it.
Enter Chloe Gong, University of Pennsylvania undergrad student and author of the forthcoming YA historical fantasy These Violent Delights. Set in 1920s Shanghai, this Romeo and Juliet retelling features rival gangs, longstanding grudges, and a monster dwelling in the depths of the Huangpu River.
The following is a conversation with New Zealand’s favorite knife enthusiast about what it’s like debuting a novel when you still have midterms creeping up on you.
Your debut novel, These Violent Delights, drops this November – almost smack dab in the middle of your senior year of college. How does it feel to be hitting such a huge milestone before you’ve even turned your tassel?
Wild! It feels like leading a double life sometimes because it’s not like I wear my Twitter bio around when I’m walking about campus or going to class, so Student Chloe and Author Chloe are very much two separate people. I think the closer I get to publication, the more that these two sides of me start to merge into one, especially when my college friends find out about my books. It’s definitely something I struggle to get used to, to stop myself from brushing off my books and be all “oh, it’s nothing, just a hobby” if it comes up among the college crowd and on the other end, to not invalidate myself as a student like “oh, I just go to class” among the author crowd.
A lot of undergrads find it difficult balancing coursework with everything else in college –like spending time with friends or working a job, or, you know, sleeping. How did you navigate the publishing process alongside all of your other obligations?
Constantly planning and scheduling my time! I was unagented and unpublished freshman year, so I very much got the “college experience” where I was jumping from courses to extracurriculars to social activities based on my whims. Once I had revision or editorial deadlines on top of assignment deadlines, it became much harder to be flexible about my time because if I wasn’t careful, I would just…run out of time. Publishing obligations just mean that I had to look further ahead than my fellow college students: If I planned out what I had due in the whole month instead of just looking ahead to what was due that week, I could make sure I was finishing my two essays and my manuscript.
I often hear about the virtues of waiting to take the plunge into publishing. What made you decide to enter the fray as early as you did? How did you know that you – and your work – were ready?
One of my ultimate pet peeves is when people falsely equate experience with age, and nothing drives me up the wall more than established authors declaring all young writers are trash because they themselves were trash when they were younger. That may be true for them – I don’t know everyone’s life stories! But I think waiting to take the plunge into publishing isn’t about the writer’s age but the writer’s experience. If someone starts writing at age 20 and immediately tries to get published, chances are they’re going to meet some failure – but not because of age because of experience. I think I knew that my work was ready because I’ve been working on my craft for a long while. I started writing at 13, and was writing one or two manuscripts a year; These Violent Delights, when I finished it at 19, was my eighth book. I understand that maybe I see the world differently to older writers, but when it comes to my books, I can’t imagine my skill is any lesser compared to a 27-year-old who started writing when they were 20. So it is absolutely true that one should wait before they go into publishing: Writers should wait until they feel that their craft is solid, that they have had their practice with drafting and revising. But waiting until you’ve blown out enough birthday candles is buffoonery.
Do you feel like you’ve run into any barriers going into publishing based on your age?
Oh, absolutely. I kind of touched on this in the previous answer about well-intentioned people equating age with experience, but the sad thing is that this belief is so prevalent. I think a lot of professionals in this industry genuinely believe young people can’t write, and others believe that if we’ve made it, it’s only because our age is so shiny and interesting, and that alone is what pushes us through. I hesitate to say that it’s been a complete barrier because for marginalized writers there are certainly other barriers that are a lot worse. But when it comes to age, I’ve seen agents openly declare they would never sign a college or high school student. I’m really happy to have an agent and editors who believe in me regardless of my age and furthermore take my age into account as just another facet of who I am as a person – like how other authors are full-time mothers/fathers/caregivers. But even though I’ve landed in a really good place, I hear from many of my friends that they omit their age in their queries because many professionals don’t think we can handle it. (Which is so untrue!)
Also, my friend Faridah [Àbíké-Íyímídé] and I did a whole podcast episode about the barriers for young/college-aged writers going into publishing, so for a more extended 50-minute rant about this from me, everyone should check out her podcast “The Write Type!”
Considering that you’re debuting in the Young Adult circuit, how did you navigate writing for a demographic that you’re so close to in age? Do you feel like it was easier or more challenging than it might otherwise have been?
I love this question because I think about this a lot! I feel that my age has made it easier for me when it comes to finding the YA voice, but being so close to the demographic certainly puts me in a strange space when it comes to navigating the line between writing for the target audience and being the target audience.
I write young adult because that’s what I grew up reading, and I grew up reading the batch of YA novels that is still influencing what’s coming out today. So in a way, I think I have an advantage when it comes to knowing what YA readers want and what’s customary in modern-day YA, because I read so much and because I’m plugged right into the circuit of what’s currently hot with teen readers.
At the same time – and I say this with a lot of privilege because I’m already grateful to be here in the first place – I think being close to the demographic muddies up my status as an author. Until I hit my mid-20s, at least, I don’t think I’ll be able to see myself as equals with my fellow debut authors because I feel like I relate more to the readers than authors. I adore my debut group, but it’s only right that amongst themselves many will be discussing their kids and full-time jobs and taxes. (OK, the taxes at least I now know how to do.) When I wrote my debut, I was still at the age where I could be claiming Jace Herondale as my book boyfriend on Twitter. So I think my age is a huge benefit when it comes to the authenticity of my work, but I need to know the line between when it’s acceptable for me to put on my Reader Hat and flail around with Book Twitter, and when I have to keep my Author Hat on and remain professional.
Authors aren’t full-tilt celebrities, but there is a certain degree of prestige that people associate with literary success. How has that changed the dynamic for you and your campus experience? (Yes, I am baiting you based you having tweeted about this before.)
Hahaha, the funniest thing to me is how non-writers think that having a book deal will automatically make me the next J.K. Rowling. Going back to my double life, I do think that my campus experience hasn’t changed for the most part because even though my school has put out articles about me, it’s not like people recognize me when I’m walking to class. What I have experienced is people reaching out to me to use me as a rung up so they can break into the literary world, but I don’t think most people understand that connections mean very little in the publishing industry. At least for fiction, all I can do is tell fellow students that no, I will not be famous, and no, I don’t have the power to be connecting them to anyone, they just need to write a good manuscript.
Speaking of Twitter – how do you feel like being Gen-Z influences the way you market yourself and your work?
It completely shapes my approach to marketing, especially on social media. I think Gen Z is often more receptive to what’s new and out of the ordinary rather than what’s traditionally accepted. We kind of embrace “chaotic” as a positive descriptive, and it’s what we strive to be. I know that I personally will stop scrolling and read/watch/click something that’s a little bit weird from my usual social feed. And because I’m so close to my target audience, all I think before I embark on some marketing scheme is, “What would I want to see to learn this information?” And then I do it, whether it’s a video edit set to terrible music or a Vine compilation.
In general, being Gen Z in the circuit of YA publishing also feels like a matter of relatability. My target audience isn’t some foreign concept to me – I belong to it. So I market myself with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek attitude, as if I’m just your friend from school because that’s what I feel like sometimes, and it’s the way I like connecting with my audience the most.
Are there any last thoughts that you particularly want to share?
Although there are so many barriers when it comes to the publishing industry – for young people, people of color, and queer people – the large majority of the community is kind and wonderful. It’s so easy to get jaded, and I’m oftentimes jaded, but at the end of the day, my time in this industry has not only given me some of my best friends but introduced me to people that hardly know me, yet don’t hesitate at all to offer help when it’s needed. As a whole, we need a lot of work, and I hope that we never stop improving, but my experience so far has shown me we have such good people working toward it and so many young people ready to spring up and transform the scene for the better.
—Zora Squish Pruitt is a QTPOC author exploring the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. They are currently pursuing a BFA at Ringling College of Art and Design. Find them online if you like: @humblesquish on Twitter or humblesquish.com.