When publishing houses turned 24 year old Charissa Ong down for being “too young”, she turned the situation into lemonade and captured everyone’s attention back in 2016 when she became the youngest self-made publisher in Malaysia.
Her first book, Midnight Monologues that was published under her company, Penwings Publishing, was a success and had even surpassed Lang Leav and Mitch Albom on the shelves.
Inspired by life experiences, she channels that creative energy into writing. Her poetry and short stories are tales of heartbreak and healing, comfort of love, and self discovery.
JUICE spoke to Charissa to find out more on how she became the youngest self-publisher, heartbreaks, pain, and her new book Daylight Dialogues.
You started Penwings Publishing because everyone else turned you down. What drove you to make that decision?
There are many factors actually, people turning me down is only one of them. Here’s a list. :p
- A lot of publishers in Malaysia are Educational Book publishers because it’s more sustainable. You are selling a need item rather than a fictional book which is a want. My book didn’t really fit, and they don’t know how to market Poetry and Short Stories books. So, to have more control in Marketing, PR, Design and distribution, I decided that a company of my own would be a better choice.
- MPH distributors also do not buy books from individual authors. They need a publishing house with a registered company license to send payment to. Another very practical reason why.
- I was kind of frustrated with the rejections and I figured decision making was going to be very slow because there was going to be a lot of approvals and what not. It takes about 6 months to a year of proofreading to get 1 book out in a normal publishing company. For ours, we do it in a month or two.
- I’ve always wanted to have a business of my own. Something I can be proud of. And just for the heck of it.
- I wanted to publish other authors too who are clueless about the industry but have really high potential. Making Malaysia a better-read society is the goal!
Has it always been a dream of yours to become a writer?
Absolutely not, at the beginning at least. Before I first stumbled upon Twilight, yes, Twilight, at 17, I absolutely hated reading. I wanted to become an artist or a veterinarian. I did write fantasy story-comics, and blogged for a bit while I was in primary school but that was it. I used to sit under my double decker bed and read Twilight with a huge dictionary beside me. My English wasn’t that good even though it was my first language and I studied in a Kebangsaan School.
But because of that easy entry of reading, I now read EVERYTHING! Children’s’ books, Biographies, History, Sci-Fi, Romance, Comedy, Dystopian, you name it. I read a book a week because it takes 40 mins train ride to and fro my work. (My day job, I’m a UI/UX Design Lead at Axiata Digital for a Fintech Product).
The only point I thought I could make it into a career was when Midnight Monologues became successful and had an amazing reception.
Well, Midnight Monologues did end up a hit. Your book even surpass Lang Leav! Why do you think people relate to it?
Ya! I know right!! Still super unbelievable. I do insert some Malaysian topics in there, and the language is simple and able to match any English literacy level in Malaysia. People are just so amazed that a Malaysian could battle it out in the International Arena. People relate to a lot of my heartbreak pieces a lot. I think it’s because they were real emotions and stories portrayed in a simple and understandable way. Every piece is crafted with a lot of effort and empathy.
When you started writing your first book, was there an idea and theme that you already had or did you just let the flow work on its own?
It was mostly inspired from my previous heartbreak. (I’m in a happy relationship now haha) I never thought that I would publish my own book in the first place actually. Just wanted to write consistently and improve my writing on Instagram. I was doing the social media thing for about a year when people around me started to push me into publishing a book and I thought to myself, why not? 😛
What’s the difference between Midnight Monologues and your second book Daylight Dialogues? The title of your second book seems less melancholic.
Ah, you’ve noticed! Yeah, it’s definitely brighter and the self-reflection theme has a bit more content compared to the sad stuff (which people LOVE, so there’s no way of getting rid of it). I included more writing challenges in it like Anagrams, Poems that you can read from top to bottom and bottom to top, Two-sided poetry and of course, my Diminishing poetry. The Short Stories are definitely less random now compared to #MM a lot of challenges there as well. Don’t want to spoil it, but I really love them so much. For MM I just wanted to test out the waters. Haha!
I think Hemingway said “Write hard and clear about what hurts”. Would you agree that pain can be a great inspiration for writing?
Definitely, it does help with the creativity! But I have to be careful about how frequent I visit those dark places; a healthy mind quite is important. Talking to others, they give me a lot of inspiration too. I take their problems as my own quite often and write the pieces from their perspective. People tell me about their suicidal thoughts, divorces, depression and all that, and I just listen. I take it and write a piece that motivates them, gives them hope.
Give a quote from an author that resonates with you.
“For you, a thousand times over,” Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseni.
What’s your one advice for young creatives?
Always do market research. Start small, like making a simple list. It’s better than just staring at a blank sheet not doing anything. If it’s wrong, you can fix it and make it better.
Daylight Dialogues comes out July 2018. For more poetry and updates, follow Charissa on Instagram.