At only 24, Charissa Ong has recently published her very first book, Midnight Monologues which is among the topsellers of MPH today! As of today, her book is #6 in the MPH bestsellers list after only a week of hitting stores. When I first heard she had written and published her own book, I was completely awed and impressed. After all, many people say they want to write a book, but only a select few get down to doing it. Who was this girl who had decided to write a book, and get it published? I needed to talk to her!
I had a FaceTime interview with Charissa, and she was an absolute sweetheart. She was completely down to earth, very honest and generous in sharing how she had accomplished her feat of publishing Midnight Monologues.
The first thing I wanted to know was how she started. Often, getting started seems to be the toughest step.
“It started by me giving myself a challenge of doing a different genre every week. I did this for two to three months. One week I would write horror, the next week comedy, the week after romance and so forth. I don’t know why exactly I gave myself that challenge. I think I must have been really bored. I was also really, really free at that time. I had just broken up. Some girls cut their hair after a breakup, while I buy things instead. I bought a typewriter! I started writing poems as a break in between writing short stories to rest my brain. But who knew, it would become my main unique selling point!”
I was puzzled. Why on earth would anyone buy a typewriter?
“I was surfing Instagram, and I saw some really nice hipster shots of a typewriter. So after my break up, when I bought the typewriter, I just started writing on it. I didn’t want to Google quotes online because that seemed kind of fake. I began writing my own poems, and then I posted them on Instagram. I started having a good response, and people liked it! So I wrote more and more. People from all over the world then started to turn my poems into calligraphy! People from the Phillippines, Hawaii, Indonesia, Singapore and more! Because I received all this support, I continued to write more. Some of them even sent over the calligraphy they did via snail mail. You can check it out on my Instagram! I have a bunch of calligraphy art that I featured.”
Was everything written in Midnight Monologues borne from her typewriter?
Writing on a typewriter feels more real, like there’s a certain authenticity to it.
“For short stories, I would write in on my phone because it was too long and I was afraid I would run out of ink. For poems, I write it on my typewriter. Writing on a typewriter feels more real, like there’s a certain authenticity to it. I have two typewriters. A bigger one that was my father’s when he was working, and I gave it to a guy and he pimped it out! He repainted it and I started using it. But after a while, I didn’t use the typewriter so much because I have a full time job, so and I started using Photoshop to put up my stuff.
There are less distractions with a typewriter. You can’t make a lot of mistakes on a typewriter because if you do, you need to use White-Out. You have to choose your words very, very carefully. If I write something wrong, I throw the entire paper and rewrite the whole thing.”
Charissa isn’t only an author, she’s also a publisher. Midnight Monologues was published by her own company, Penwings Publishing. What was it like, being both a writer and publisher?
“I never knew the extent of stress that was coming! It’s actually quite hard to do it in Malaysia. I almost went crazy a few times, because I was handling writing the book, editing, printing, designing of the cover and so on. I also had to contact distributors.”
Given that she never had any experience or background in publishing, how did she know where to start?
“Honestly, I had no idea. I just started Googling. Google helped a lot! I went to MPH Online, and sent an email to them. For press, I went to their website and also sent another email there. Surprisingly they replied! And they were quite efficient. So from then on, I gave them my mockup samples. They read through it, and said okay, we can sell it. Then they handled most of the stuff, which was really helpful.”
Charissa initially intended to print only a hundred copies, but her mom encouraged her to go bigger. Today, she’s distributed in over a hundred bookstores!
“At first, I thought I would only print a hundred and sell it in my local bookstore, Bookalicious, which is my friend’s bookstore. I’d give them 20 copies, and sell the remaining 80 by myself. But my mom, she’s the one that pushed me and encouraged an entrepreneurial spirit. She said, why don’t you just sell a thousand? So I said fine, I’ll do it! It took up a lot of energy. It was so tiring. Super tiring! But so far MPH has already ordered 700 copies!”
Amen to supportive mothers! Midnight Monologues is also now available in major bookstores in Singapore. Another piece of good news for Charissa, MPH has already re-ordered another 100 books to restock!
With Penwings Publishing, will Charissa start publishing other the works of other authors?
“Yeah! Probably in the next one or two years down the line. I’d like to publish 2 books of mine first, so that there would be at least 2 books under my publishing name. Then I’d probably change my sole proprietorship to a proper, larger company so I could help other local authors publish their stuff. Publishing is difficult in Malaysia because a lot of the publishers I met are publishing educational books. They don’t have novels. The paper I was looking for was called novel paper, and even then not many printers have it because they all publish educational books. It was really hard to find a printer with novel paper. My mockup actually looked really unfinished. It looked like a textbook. So I had to go to so many printers directly, talk to them and seek advice.”
Charissa also got a lot of help from her boyfriend, Andrian Tam.
“He made the Penwings Publishing website, because he can code. I designed the website, and he helped code and program it. He also helped me with the deliveries. I had a pre sale where we sold 80 books in 3 days. He helped me ship it all over and make deliveries. If not for him, I would have to handle 60 over deliveries by myself, all over Damansara and Subang!”
Unsurprisingly, Charissa is an avid reader. While she reads everything from tear jerkers to dystopian fantasy, one of her favourite books is The Kite Runner.
Everyone in the world just wants to have peace.
“People should read more! It gives people new perspective on everything they know in life. It’s very humbling. Take The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. I always had an image of the people in the area as very violent and that they didn’t have the privilege of education. But after reading it, I realized that they are just like us. Everyone in the world just wants to have peace. So I think reading really opens people’s minds to what they believe in. The world needs more understanding, especially in times like these. Reading gives you a chance to play different roles. You get to be a senile prisoner, a teacher. You get to be a traveller. You’re living all these lives, and it’s just very exciting to know. When you talk to people, you can relate to them more, and you can communicate better because you have this kind of knowledge that not many people can experience if they don’t read or watch documentaries.”
What does she think is the impression foreigners have on Malaysians? She chortles before she replies.
There are lots of talented people in Malaysia, they just don’t know what to do next.
“Um, I think we’re quite popular because of our government. So people are like wow, corruption! A lot of people look down on us and think we’re not as intelligent as the rest of the world. I want to change that. There are lots of talented people in Malaysia, they just don’t know what to do next. For example, I have met so many people who can write really well but they don’t know how to get published. Just like me, I had no idea and I went Googling. Maybe they don’t have enough determination to do it. What I want to do is help them out. Hopefully, Malaysia should be known for its art. We have Yuna! I think our art industry is growing. It’s growing really well. Hopefully, we’re not categorized as unintelligent and living in trees.”
I wanted to know how Charissa maintained the momentum to start and finish writing a book. After all, a lot of goals start off with great enthusiasm but die down after a while. Charissa charmingly answered that it was her massive ego that pushed her to publish!
“I have this ego, and a very thick face. It’s very ‘malu’ (shy) to tell people you’re going to do something, and then you don’t do it. People will ask me, ‘Eh, how’s your book?’ and I would be like ‘On the way…’
I didn’t want to go through that. I didn’t want to lie to myself or to anyone else, and I didn’t want to go through that ‘malu’ face!”
I love that honesty. Would she encourage people to publicize their goals in order to push them to do it?
“It’s up to them, really. A lot of people don’t want to share their stuff publicly, which I feel is a bit of a waste. But people write for a lot of reasons. Some write for themselves, some write to share their own experiences with people. Even though some people have really good writing, they don’t have the conviction to share it with anyone. It’s a bit sad, it’s a bit wasted.”
What’s her advice to aspiring writers?
“Start your manuscript now! Put it on Google Docs, because you can collaborate with people, they can read it and share comments. That’s the most efficient way of sharing a manuscript rather than printing it out and sending it to people. Get the manuscript done, but actually, it’s never going to be done until you press print, because you’re going to keep editing it. Have a deadline! The reason I got my book done so quickly, published within six months, was because I wanted to get my book out before Lang Leav. She’s a really famous poet from Australia, and she was getting her book out in October. I wanted to get my book out before hers so I could have more purchasing power, hehe! So I gave myself a deadline of July. No matter what happens, I had to get my book out by July. So a really, really clear deadline is important. When you want to press print. When you want to sell. When you are launching the book. Find publishers! For poetry and short stories, my company can help! Since I’ve already gone through it, I know the process so it could help a lot. Or if they don’t want to go with my publishing, find other publishers, but find a good one, because a lot of publishers don’t have the interest of the author. They have more interest in profit. Find a publisher that has the best interest for you, because there are a lot of selfish people in the world.”
What is Charissa’s hope for Midnight Monologues?
“My hope is that it can reach all corners of the world! And maybe, have one of the short stories turn into a blockbuster film!”
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