Interview: Chloe Gong Talks ‘Foul Heart Huntsman’, The Secret Shanghai Universe Ending

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Chloe Gong releases her YA “swan song” (at least for now…) today with Foul Heart Huntsman. Over the course of the last three years, Gong has steadily — more so impressively — released five YA novels, all of which belong in her Secret Shanghai universe. Foul Heart Huntsman is the continuation of Foul Lady Fortune, a duology which sees a character, Rosalind, whom many fans weren’t that fond of during the early days of Gong’s career with These Violent Delights and Our Violent Ends.

In this duology, Rosalind is an assassin that escapes the brink of death by becoming an experiment that stops her from sleeping and aging—and allows her to heal from any wound. She uses her abilities for her country but along the way meets a Nationalist spy, Orion Hong who she must enter a fake marriage with to ease suspicion of their real cause.

When Huntsman picks up, Rosalind has been exposed and Orion — and his memories — have been ripped from Rosalind. To save him, she must embark on a national tour under the guise of stirring the countrymen with pride and strength. “When the tour goes wrong, however, everything Rosalind once knew is thrown up in the air. Taking refuge outside Shanghai, old ghosts come into the open and adversaries turn to allies,” the official synopsis reads. “To save Orion, they must find a cure to his mother’s traitorous invention and take this dangerous chemical weapon away from impending foreign invasion—but the clock is ticking, and if Rosalind fails, it’s not only Orion she loses, but her nation itself.”

N&B: Firstly, I have to congratulate you on this release! I’ve been a fan since you blew up on TikTok with These Violent Delights so to follow this journey with you throughout the last 3 or so years has been such a, well, delight.

Gong: Thank you for being here since the beginning. It’s been a long time since the TikTok days of These Violent Delights!

N&B: I feel like a lot of Gen Z kind of falls into this category where you almost feel pressured to sort of adapt in a “hustle” culture, so to speak. How do you manage to stay motivated as an author? I mean, you’ve published so many books at this point. There are five books in the Secret Shanghai series and now you’re well into the Immortal Longings trilogy.

Gong: I am definitely a sufferer of the hustle culture, there’s no doubt about it. I get fully bogged down by it all the time. It has only been recently where I have actually allowed myself to kind of take a breather. I think you can even see by my publication schedule that these last three years have been insane. It’s very insane and I have felt the toll of it. Would I do it differently if I could do it again? No, I really love the way that everything has played out. And I am so grateful that things have worked out so that I am allowed to publish spin-offs and things that I want to do.

Foul Lady Fortune was such a passion project that when I had the contract to write it, I was like, ‘oh my God, I’m going to do everything I can to make it the story I want to put out into the world.’ That being said, is it healthy to only have writing in your life and no other hobbies? No [laughs]. So I think I have to keep reminding myself that publishing is not brain surgery. Things are not going to crumble and change if you take a few days off email, not to look at your manuscript, to refill the well. I feel like so many authors think that if we just stare at the laptop for enough time, the words are going to manifest. We’re people first and foremost, we need to live life and then the story starts forming.

N&B: There are so many ways that you could have ended this book. And I feel like the way that you did might surprise a lot of people. I know it surprised me as a fan of the series. So going into that, were there other ideas on the table for Foul Heart Huntsman?

Gong: Oh, great question. It has mostly always been that feeling of how it needed to end. But up until I actually wrote the book, I didn’t actually know what it was. I do this a lot where I approach an ending with tone and with vibes and with what do I want that reader to feel after they close the last page. But as for the events themselves, I’m like, ‘it could be anything. We’ll discover that when we write it.’ So going into Foul, Fortune, Heart, Huntsman, I was very aware this is a comedy retelling. take away we go from here is going to feel different to our relevance. I was very satisfied with what the ending ultimately became because it felt as though I had achieved what I set out to do for the spin-off.

N&B: Ending the universe — I imagine it’s so bittersweet growing up with these characters. You went through college with them and now you’re well into adulthood, so how did it feel writing the ending to all of these characters that you’ve essentially grown up with?

Gong: Bittersweet is the perfect word. I’m so satisfied and happy to be able to end the series like this. I think there’s a lot of value in knowing where an ending is. Especially because as much as I would love to keep writing these characters that I love, it also means putting them through more trauma because plot needs trauma. So having an end here is what they deserve. Like, this is what the story calls for. But it’s also very sad at the same time to have to say goodbye to characters that I feel like I know so well now. The realization that I’m never going to experience something like this again in the future like These Violent Delights.

Foul Heart Huntsman has a progression that I was 19 when I started writing these 19 year olds. And now with the older cast, they’re 24 as I’m 24 publishing the final book. I’m never going to grow up with my characters again, like that. I will be writing young adult novels for a very long time, but from here on out, it will always be me as an adult reflecting back on what I want teenagers to be reading. It is not going to be me as a teenager writing for my own audience again. So it is very bittersweet that this process is done. It was such a journey and we have reached the end and now the curtains are about to draw. And it is very sad to have to say goodbye, but because it is so right and fitting, I’m like this is what’s deserved, and I’m happy about it.

N&B: What I loved about Foul Heart Huntsman is that you managed to keep the focus on Rosalind and Orion, but also like really flesh out these other characters. I wanted to give you props for that because I feel like a lot of times it can get a little jumbled. So how do you manage to keep that balance when you go back and forth like that?

Gong: Well, thank you for saying that. That’s a high compliment to me because I really love writing big casts. And then I get to chapters where every single character is in the scene and I’m like, why do I do this to myself? [laughs]. The approach I always take is that I need to be very clear with myself at all times whose story this is. You know, going into Foul Lady Fortune especially, I was so committed to being able to tell it from Rosalind’s point of view, you know? So much of the point of Foul Lady Fortune is, if given love and nurture instead of betrayal and heartache, you may find yourself making different decisions and looking at the world differently. I’ve loved people’s reactions where they say, ‘I really disliked Rosalind duology and then I really loved her when we got to see it from her angle,’ that was exactly what I wanted.

So throughout the duology, I was very clear at any point in the story, even if we are going to other characters, in some way, it’s still got to influence the main storyline. And that is the way I keep myself on track. Because if I find myself writing a scene where it’s kind of like Phoebe and Silas bantering, and it has nothing to do with Rosalind’s plot line at all, I have to stop and say like, ‘this is kind of just bonus content, like we need to steer it back on course.’ At the same time, it can’t only be about Rosalind if we have this cast of like seven to nine people. They still need to feel as though you could switch gears and you would understand if, you know, Phoebe suddenly was the main character in her own story. But we understand that in this story, she is a major side character. So as long as I have those two components in any scene, it really keeps my mind straightforward down the path and anything that doesn’t fit those two components I’m like, ‘we’ve got to cut this.’

N&B: With that in mind, who do you think readers will be most surprised with? Alternatively, what character do you think has grown the most?I feel like Rosalind is a given [laughs].

Gong: Yes, Rosalind is absolutely a given because it was so blatant, right? Foul Lady Fortune is such a, I want to say, redemption story of sorts. That being said, one could argue that teenage girls are still allowed to mess up and it’s not necessarily a redemption, but all the same, you don’t like her in those two books because your loyalty is with Juliet, therefore anything that combats her is, you know, abrasive.

So Rosalind for sure, but I really love characters like Phoebe and Elisa. I think they’re often the ones who kind of get ignored in those adventure stories because they’re either the girl who’s too girly and everyone underestimates her, or the girl who’s kind of just there in the background, like the second sibling or the one who is kind of there for comedic value.

I really love those archetypes and going into creating a cast where those archetypes exist. One of my favorite things to do was to have moments where they’re acting unexpectedly for the reader, where they think, ‘Oh, I didn’t think that would happen for a character like this, but as far as their character development goes in world, it was completely expected.’ They have been shown to exhibit these traits all along. It just took a little mind switch to get there. So the reveal at the end of Foul Lady Fortune with Phoebe was one of my favorite things to do. I love those kinds of reveals. Getting to write her arc, especially in Foul Heart Huntsman, and to really explore her depth was really, really great. I mean, I joked that Phoebe’s arc was just mommy issues, which I think is kind of valid. It’s very valid, right?

N&B: I would say so, yes! [laughs]. So, there is also a lot relationship building in this book. It’s very interesting because I feel like a lot of the time you don’t see that happen at the end of a series. You were building onto multiple relationships at once — so how was that, was that stressful to do?

It was so stressful. This book was my Avengers Endgame. A lot of it was made easier for me because I had planned so much of it from the very beginning. I didn’t go into it thinking like, ‘okay, now I need to wrap it up. What do I do?’ I had put so many of the threads early on so that by the time we’re wrapping them up, all I really had to do was tighten the bow instead of make it in that analogy makes sense. There are the romantic relationships where a lot of them kind of had to be seen to fruition in the final book. I had set up so many of the threads in like the earlier one or even before that like in their narrative, that it felt as though I could just find what it is that makes these two characters tick. What is it that would finally make them yell at each other? Okay, now everything is out in the open.

I really needed to find the pivot points so that every time we did switch to a relationship, whether it was romantic, platonic, or familial between two characters, it didn’t feel like we needed to play catch up. We were just exactly where they needed to be, especially with characters that — There are characters who enter Huntsman that some readers might know and some readers might not. Because it depends on whether they read the original duology or if they came in at Foul Lady Fortune. It was really important to me that everything would still make a lot of sense if they didn’t have the original duology. I didn’t want anyone confused just because they hadn’t read those two books. So in writing it, I couldn’t rely on existing things, you had to enter that scene, you had to understand from that character, usually like within the main cast of Fortune, why it was important to them.

N&B: I remember when I finished Foul Lady Fortune and I read the end, I knew what the tease was, I screamed. I guess I should have figured that like, you know, most of the time if you don’t see something happen, like it’s not referenced, then It’s probably a different outcome. And I was still flabbergasted.

Gong: This is why I was … actually, so I guess we can spoil this because it’s been like two years. This is why I was so shocked when so many people thought Our Violent Ends meant they were actually dead. I was like, ‘guys, there were no bodies.You know YA. Come on. If there are no bodies, they’re fine!’

N&B: You know what? I still cried the entire time. There are tear stains on my pages, Chloe.

Gong: Which I also love that, because it really needed to feel like it had an air of tragedy to me, and it was like, it ultimately is a little tragedy, even if they survived, they’ve lost everything they know, so I was like, ‘guys, you didn’t waste your tears, they’re alive!’ But it’s still sad.

N&B: So I do want to touch on Last Violent Call just a bit. It was essentially the bridge between both duologies, just extra work for fans of the series if they wanted to read it, but how did that come about? Was it similar to your Roma and Juliet Christmas special that you wrote? Was it just like, you were writing it and said, ‘wow, I think people would love to read this actually. I’m gonna publish it.’?

Gong: That’s exactly it. That is genuinely exactly it! So, what happened was, I had finished writing Foul Lady Fortune and as I was planning Huntsman I was clarifying with myself what Roma, Juliet, Ben and Marshall had gotten up to in that time. So as one does, I was just writing fan-fiction to myself. I was like, ‘they’re hiding here and they probably joke about this and then they probably do this in their day-to-day life.’ And it was, starting to beef up to like a concerningly big word document. And I was like, I kind of have a short story here. I started writing it. I was like, I just want to see like what this is. I kind of have an image of the small plots in my head to understand what we’re doing in Huntsman. I do a lot of work like behind the scenes just to figure out what actually goes on the page. Like half of my planning will never make it out to the light of day. It’s just in my work document.

I was writing it at a time where I just really needed that serotonin hit because I was writing Immortal Longings at the same time I was writing Huntsman. I was really stressed. I was like, ‘oh my god, these deadlines are absolutely wild.’ And what did I do? I decided I wouldn’t do another project instead. I had actually just sent my agent a pitch for these small novellas and I went, ‘do you think maybe they would want to publish this like for funsies? I genuinely understand there’s no plot here. As far as readership goes, it will have to be people who do read both of these series.’

It is truly a treat. There’s no way you can read these novellas and understand anything on its own. You have to actually be invested in the characters first. Then my agent was on board, my editor was on board. And we were like, ‘okay, let’s write these things.’ So truly, it started as like a, ‘I’m going to make myself happy’ type thing. And I was like, you know what? If I’m just writing thousands and thousands of words of fluff, existing readers probably would like to read that, so let’s publish them. And we did.

N&B: It’s so crazy because looking at your release schedule and watching all these books come out, I’m like, three books in a year? That’s so wild!

Gong: Yeah, I’m never doing that again! I’m just putting that out there. It really was a situational thing. The novellas were decided six months beforehand. That never happens. Books are always either slated two years beforehand or at the very latest one year. But the novellas we decided needed to go before Huntsman to do that little tie in. Originally my plan had actually been to do them afterwards. So have the finale come out and then the novellas would release, but it just made more sense chronologically to put them out first. Because that got slated in there, I had an adult debut, then I had Huntsman. I was like, ‘okay, fine. Let’s do this.’ Never again. It was fun, It really was great. Would not change anything for the world.

N&B: You’ve talked about how this series ending is reminiscent of sending your kids off to college. But with that analogy, they have to come back at some point, right? Is that something you’re sort of anticipating with this release because the books are so loved? I guess, I mean, is this your YA “swan song”?

Gong: I’ve gotten a lot of questions with people asking, ‘is this really the finale? Do we have more? Are we going to see them again?’ The answer I always give is, I would never say I’m never going to go back to this. I would never rule it out and be like ‘oh I’m done for sure,’ because who knows? Maybe there’ll be an idea in the future maybe I want to do something with some of the characters but I think as of right now I have so many new ideas that I also want to explore and I think I have played around in the Secret Shanghai universe for such a long time that I do want to give it its breathing room. And this is a fully contained arc of its own. So, you know, maybe in the future, something will like a pair of my hand now I’ll say, Oh, I’m going to have fun doing this. But as of right now, like I have a new project I would rather work on and it takes up a lot of brain space to build something new so that’s where I put my focus at the moment.

N&B: We at Nerds and Beyond love to talk about nerdy things. Is there anything that you’re kind of like nerding out about right now? Things that you love — any books? Shows? Movies?

Oh, great question. You know when you get asked about what are you currently consuming and then you forget the last book you read, you forget the last like show you watch.

What was the last show I even binged? This is wild. I think it’s called The Night Agent on Netflix. That was the last show I watched I think within two days. I was signing tiffins at the same time so I needed something to distract me. It was really, really good. I really love, as you probably know, spy thrillers or like any sort of espionage on the run type thing and then with romantic subplots thrown into it because you know your adrenaline’s rushing and like you have one ally in the whole world. I love those premises. Um so that show brain rot.

Foul Heart Huntsman is available now via all book retailers.

Haley
Haley
Haley joined the Nerds and Beyond team in 2019 as a Writer and Editor. Her main fandoms include Criminal Minds, Wrestling, and The Walking Dead. You can find her on Twitter @haleyanne_.

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