Charissa Ong takes on two roles in her life — she is a User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) Designer by day and an author by night. It’s quite a big difference in professions, that’s for sure. Although her day job is in the tech world, she shows us that it’s possible to dabble in something totally different and be successful at it!
She recently published her second book, Daylight Dialogues, where she tells us that it’s a little different from her first book. Being super passionate about increasing readership amongst Malaysians, she has made that her ultimate goal with her publishing company, Penwings Publishing. She also has a strong desire to put more Malaysian creative work out there to be on par with international authors.
#TeamCLEO had the chance to speak to her about how she got into creative writing. She shares about her process, and creating a safe space for her readers to explore tough subjects and deep emotions through her poetry and prose.
She also loves technology and tells us why e-wallets are seriously the best thing ever.
Scroll through to read what the multi-talented Charissa speaks about!
CLEO (C): Can you tell us a bit about your day job and what that entails?
Charissa Ong (CO): I’m a UI/UX Lead at Boost. It’s a Fintech (Financial Tech) Product. I deal a lot with the psychology and execution of design and how people interact with digital apps.
C: Can you tell us the impact of cashless wallets and the potential it has on the future of the economy?
CO: If you take a look at India with Paytm and China with Alipay, you’d see the flaw in cash and the rising need of currency management and safety. Even hawker stalls are using e-wallets nowadays. People are definitely going to transact more, but they will do so more wisely. E-wallets aim to optimise a person’s life by saving time doing mundane things they don’t know they are wasting time on. Like paying outdoor parking, for example. You can do that now by just paying on an app. Time is the most important currency in our lives. So, anything that helps me save it is a go for me.
C: How did you go from working in that sort of environment to publishing your own book?
CO: I graduated from The One Academy in Interactive Media Design. Of course looking at screens so often I do tend to also crave for out-of-screen action. I put a lot of thought in the layout and design of my books, how the reader would feel when they hold it or bring out in public, or tell their friends about it. The whole user journey is planned out in my head whenever I do something and that is closely related to my day job. I want it to be aesthetically pleasing as well as the content to be sophisticated but simple enough for people from different English literacy levels to understand. Both jobs deal a lot with the skill of understanding your audience and developing strong empathetic connections to them.
C: On that note, congrats on your much-anticipated second book, Daylight Dialogues! Can you tell us a little bit about what readers can expect from it?
CO: Thank you so much! Prepare to have your heart broken, perspectives shifted and your imagination run wild. I have compiled and written an array of poems, prose and short stories that would leave you asking for more.
C: What was your headspace when you were writing it?
CO: The Poetry and Prose pieces are written whenever I get inspired throughout the day by daily events like the conversations I’ve had, the people I’ve met, odd situations and just plainly staring blankly in space on the train. The short stories, however, are more planned occasions where I would sit for a couple hours until I complete writing it from start to end. I’d then go back to it and edit it ten more times until I’m satisfied with it.
C: In a digital age that has overtaken the demand for the printed word, what makes your work stand out?
CO: I’m a designer by profession and a marketer by heart. I’m also a collector of books and appreciate vintage works of art. So, no matter how digital the world is, my hypothesis is that people would still want something to break away from all of that. They would need something that helps them think and widen their perceptions on life. It’s more of the deep conversations people crave.
C: Who are your biggest writing influences?
CO: Khaled Hosseini and Neal Shusterman.
C: Did you feel like you were in a different stage in your life as opposed to the first book? Did you come through the other side and you’re in a different space or were you still writing from where you were?
CO: Yes, definitely. One of it being my relationship status. I have a boyfriend of two years now. My ex made me write the book, but my current supported me the entire way. I’ve definitely become more mature in my way of thinking too. I’m not going to lie, being down really does help with the extra melodramatic pieces. I do visit those dark places at times but I come back out real quick. That’s why having a healthy mind is super important. You have full control over it, and with a little bit of courage, you’ll be able to use it for good.
C: Can you tell us a little bit about the background of that time in your life, that journey to publishing your own book and starting your own publishing company?
CO: I was lost and confused like every other graduate who just finished their studies. Looking at the passionate people around me inspired me to believe that I could do it too. Also broken up at the time, I knew that I wanted to be good at something. I wanted to feel proud of myself. So I started researching and reading a lot.
After reading and researching for about two years I decided that I was confident enough to put my writing on paper and share it out to the public (Instagram @cotypoems). Eventually it had enough traction and my readers started to ask me for autographs. I’m like, how do I sign an Instagram post? I had to have a book out, right? My readers then convinced me to get a book out. Because of them I dared to dream this impossible dream.
C: What were some things that you feel put you on the road to success?
CO: My stubbornness and opportunistic behaviour. Creating links and opportunities that bridge from one industry to another makes marketing strategies fresh. It’s one thing to write a totally great book, but it’s a whole other world when you need to market it.
C: How did you first get into making poems after writing short stories on your blog?
CO: I initially wrote a short story every week at a different genre as a challenge to myself. Funny thing is that I had ‘POEM BREAKS’ between those short stories to ease the readers’ mental burden of having to immerse themselves into this totally insane environment I’ve painted for them. I started to write more and more poetry because I found it really quick to do and satisfying. It was instant gratification. Who knew it’ll become my main thing in the end?
C: The themes that surround your poems are about tough subjects but also about finding hope and they are incredibly relatable to your audience. Could you tell us a bit about them?
CO: My readers are very honest with me when they tell me about what they’re going through. I’m no certified psychologist, but I do know that I can be a listening ear and a source of positivity if they needed it. All they need is a safe space where they won’t be judged and a community that would make them feel less alone in the world. And that’s what I want them to feel when they read my stuff.
C: How did it feel to have your personal feelings and emotions on paper and online through your poems? Was it something that was tough at first?
CO: It’s pretty easy for me because I can easily detach myself from it by saying “Eh, it was from a long time ago”. However, many people still seem to associate me with it and I don’t really mind it at all. The Asian stigma of not being honest about your feelings is the one thing I detest most of all. It’s worse for men.
C: What does it feel like to know that your poetry speaks to so many people out there, locally and globally?
CO: Amazing and humbling. I just never knew.
C: How did it feel when you won MPH’s Best Book of 2016?
CO: Haha I didn’t actually win it, I was just nominated for Best Paperback Fiction of 2016. I felt ecstatic nonetheless. I was in the nomination with other international authors like Mitch Albom, Jojo Moyes, Lang Leav and Nicholas Sparks!
C: Do you have a specific routine or set up when you write your poems to get the creative juices flowing?
CO: If I notice an interesting phrase, word or homonym, I’d just note it down in my Keep app. I’d come right back to it when I have the time.
C: When creating this publishing company, did you have any particular vision for it about its brand and future?
CO: I want to increase the readership of one book a year [amongst] Malaysians. That’s the end goal. I want to see at least 50 per cent of people on the train reading. A well-read society is a more tolerant one. I’m a huge advocate for mental health and education.
C: What is the biggest thing you have taken away from the experience of starting a publishing company and publishing a book?
CO: That you can literally do anything if you put your heart to it. Easier said than done, you really need a serious reason of why you want to do it. Dream of something bigger than yourself. It keeps you working until you see it happen. My goal is never to be just a best-seller. I want to put Malaysian work in international waters and make it relevant.
You can buy Charissa’s book Daylight Dialogues from MPH at RM39.90 here.