Charissa Ong is a Malaysian author, having penned two best-sellers Midnight Monologues and Daylight Dialogues. Now, she’s back with a boxset Poethree O’ Clock. Thanks to Popular Malaysia, I had the chance to sit down and chat with Charissa about her works and all things writing! If you’re a fan, reader and/or aspiring writer, you definitely won’t want to miss this!
Could you tell us more about Poethree O’ Clock, and what each of the books are about?
The boxset is actually a collection of my two previous best-sellers, Midnight Monologues and Daylight Dialogues, and a new illustrated book called What Does Your Name Mean?. I wrote this specific new book (What Does Your Name Mean?) for people who are in an existential crisis, or have trouble understanding who they are. When I published the first two books, a lot of people found the love, relationships and family aspects relatable. But people also found the elements of self-help and self-actualisation in those two books interesting as well. Nowadays, millennials and Gen X find their identity through the media they consume. So they don’t really have their own true, unique identity that they can call their own.
In this book, it takes the reader through a journey from when they are born, trying to figure out his or her own identity from an identity given to you from other people (parents, friends etc.). It also talks about how people come and go in your life, and finding meaning. There are also some spaces where readers can journal in it. Actually, I have another customisable version of this book on another website called amazingfables.com, where you can actually pick the token and your name, and they’ll print it out for you. You can also pick a colour, and the whole book will represent that particular colour. It can be a customisable gift, and your name will turn up in the story.
These two (Midnight Monologues & Daylight Dialogues) are more of poetry. Midnight Monologues is the first one, and it’s a bit more melancholic. I wrote it because I broke up, so it’s quite sad. Daylight Dialogues is more of a dialogue between two people, so it’s a bit brighter, more “self-help” and contains more positivity. They both have almost the same structure, which is divided into three chapters, with short stories at the end. There are different types of poetry that I do, such as diminishing poetry, anagrams and two-sided poetry. Apparently, people read it and cry with their friends! *laughs* I’m not sure if I should feel bad, but I think it’s a good thing they can open up.
As for why I wanted to create a boxset, it’s because nobody in Malaysia I know had done it, and I did it! It’s also a very nice closing to this set, so when I want to start the next series, it’ll probably be a bit different. In the end, my goal is to have this (Poethree O’ Clock) in the classical section, where it will last forever.
Out of the three books, do you have a favourite?
Actually, I like the second one (Daylight Dialogues) more. When you come up with your first book, there could be problems you still want to fix. After a while, you feel like your work gets better and better. I mean, when you read your first works you’re like “ugh, cringe”, right? But I also think with any book that comes later, that will be my favourite.
When did you start writing, and why? Did you receive any formal training?
No, I actually graduated in interactive media design at The One Academy, and now I’m with Boost as the Lead Product Designer. I was snubbed in this writing group on Facebook, where they looked down on me because I did not have “relevant” qualifications for publishing a book. So, it’s an “in your face” thing; if you’re really passionate about something, you can self-learn it, just do it, have the guts to fail, learn from it and just be better along the way. However, I read a lot by reading for about half an hour every day, and trying to read one book a week. Currently, I’m reading a 1000-page fantasy book, and I love it! It’s going to be a series or movie soon, and that’s also one of my goals: to have a movie adapted to my story!
I started writing because I broke up and had a lot of time and emotions. I was just finding a place to release and cope with it. It was also an identity thing; I didn’t have anything to call my own, I wasn’t proud of anything I was doing, so I just wanted to do something that I thought was cool. Poetry was such a big thing with Lang Leav and everything, so I thought I could do it too. I used to write poetry to my then-boyfriend, but he didn’t know how to appreciate it.
Besides poetry and short stories, do you write other works?
Sometimes, I do some freelance corporate writing or social media postings. I write frequently on my website for blog posts on advice for how to publish and what publishers want. I write in my journal every day; I’ve been writing it for seven years! I’m also working on a sci-fi novel right now–I love sci-fi!–though I had to pause it because I got very busy with this (Poethree O’ Clock). But I’m hoping to pick it up again this year; I think I’m on my third chapter.
So I guess it was not a conscious decision to become an author?
Yeah! It just came to me! I was heartbroken and stuff, so I posted poems on Instagram. People started to say “it’s really good” and “you should publish a book!” and I was like “why?” The fellow was saying, “oh, I’d buy it!” So I had validation from Instagram, and I decided I might as well do it.
Tell us more about your writing process: where do you get inspiration from; do you set aside a certain amount of time to write everyday?
I make myself write at least one poem every three days. I post it on my Instagram, so I use it as a timer. Each poem I post is new, and I never repost old poems. I know some people repost because they have writer’s block, but I really just make myself think about it and make sure that it’s good, otherwise I won’t post it. And also, to help me throughout the day, I’ll just put keywords in my Keep app. I have a lot of notes, and a lot of stuff that I previously wrote about. It helps me get started if I suddenly feel like writing. So I really depend on my Keep app a lot. Inspiration really comes from anywhere; from people, books, TV…
Could you also tell us about getting published?
It’s impossible to find a publisher here. Everyone’s an educational publisher, so they only publish textbooks and activity books, and they don’t go into retail or fiction. After that, I went on a journey to publish it by myself to create my own publishing company, Penwings Publishing.
How do you feel about being a best-selling author, especially in Malaysia?
It’s so crazy! The image of Malaysian writers was so bad, when I started to publish my book, people were surprised that Malaysians can write. Also, when I went for autograph sessions in the Philippines and Singapore, they really changed their minds. That’s my big dream: to put Malaysian works out there, to show that we can write and publish books of quality. We can compete with international books! It can happen, as my books have been rated higher than some international authors for a couple of weeks. I think it’s more of a stigma, where people see Malaysians and they say, “oh, it’s not good”. But I do think the local literary scene is getting better, and it shows that people are reading more.
Could you tell us a little about Penwings Publishing?
Just like a normal publishing company, we receive manuscripts, and then review them. Once we approve them, we represent their title and they will become a Penwings author–like a Victoria’s Secret angel. Haha. And then, we will help market their book, try to make it a best-seller, and just continue to sell the book and distribute it to different areas. Also, we help them with PR events, content proofreading and cover designs. I’m a designer, so every single book that’s published under my company has to be beautiful. I think the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t make sense; I totally judge a book by its cover! I want the inside and outside of a book to be both beautiful.
What do you hope to accomplish, or what message do you hope to convey to readers through your writing?
With everything I write, I just want to make sure that the readers feel like it’s possible to do whatever they want to do, especially if it’s, for example, a sunset industry. Even though it’s a sunset industry and all the odds are against you, as long as you do enough research, are smart about how to market it and are hardworking enough, you’ll be able to do it. I hope they get that! And also if they write, I hope it teaches them how to challenge other people’s perspective on what they already know. The world and people’s minds are forever changing, so we should always be like that and not remain static. Every single piece in these books are aimed to change or introduce perspectives. Other than that, I just want people to read more–that’s the main thing, because it really changed my life.
Did you ever want to give writing up, at any point?
Actually, I’ve never thought about it. The reason why I came up with writing as a second career is because I was thinking about what kind of careers can still help me make money when I’m like, ugly and old. I look at successful authors, and they may be old, but people don’t care because it’s about the stuff they write, and their minds that people love. So that’s what I wanted to go into: a hobby and career that does not depend too much on outward appearances, but depends on something that ages well instead. I might stop writing for awhile, maybe. But I feel like I’ll always come back to it, because I love it too much, and I love what it does. People have been messaging me to tell me how much they love my books, so I feel like I also have a duty now, to come up with new books for the people. It’s a half-half thing, where I write for myself yet give people what they want.
If you weren’t a writer/designer, what would you be doing? Do you have any other hobbies?
I was on my way to become — actually I am a businesswoman, but on my way to become a generalist. I did my foundation in International Business in INTI for one year, and I was about to go into the degree programme. Technically, I was going to be a suit, being in a business or company, doing corporate or marketing. I think I would die though, because I needed to draw. So I left INTI and went to The One Academy. I had a temporary job doing accounts once, but it was too boring for me. I play the er hu too, so next time if all else fails, I’ll just play by the roadside. Haha.
What advice do you have for aspiring local authors?
Just do it! I have a blog post where I answered about 20 questions that are frequently asked by aspiring authors, so you can check it out. One of the highlights is that some of them are scared to post because they think someone is going to copy them. No one is going to want to copy you, so just post it. Don’t be scared, just do it, and give yourself a realistic goal and stick to it. Getting feedback from friends or the community is important as well to improve your work. Some are also scared to publish and share their work with other people, which I was in the beginning. I took two years to read and analyse books, and it was only after that I started to post on Instagram. Research and analyse your writing till you’re confident!
Who are your favourite authors?
Strangely, my favourite authors aren’t poets. I like Patrick Rothfuss (which is the author of the current book I’m reading), and Neal Shusterman, who wrote the Unwind series. I think it’s the most underrated dystopian (books) ever! I also have two favourite books: The Kite Runner and Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Sapiens is non-fiction, but it’s a really good book and every single person on Earth should read it.
And that concludes the conversation! Congratulations to Charissa once again on the launch of Poethree O’ Clock, and we look forward to your future works! If you’re interested in getting Poethree O’ Clock for yourself, it is available at POPULAR/HARRIS bookstores and POPULAR Online.
One last fun fact: Charissa used to hate reading, till she read Twilight in high school. It was her first book, and set her on this path! If you’re interested to see what else Charissa recommends, you can click here!
All images courtesy of Charissa Ong.