Living in Phnom Penh, Sophan Voleak – known as Ellis to her readers started writing when she was a high school student. As she published a serialised novel in early 2016, Ms Voleak became known to many young readers.
So far, Ms Voleak has written two standalone novels and two serialised novels. Most of her books are inspired by foreign novels, involving youthful romance. However, she said that all of her books have an educational message.
“The first standalone novel I wrote focused on three main ideas: gratitude, the definition of a psychopath, and karma. The second was about a couple that followed their parents’ wishes in deciding to get married,” Ms Voleak said.
She added: “And the purpose of my first serialised book was to educate people not to be egoistic, and think about charity. And one special message was that, ‘People shouldn’t love war because everyone loses.’ Another was to show the impact of sexual abuse.”
Recalling her life before she started writing, Ms Voleak said she started out reading Khmer novels. She read until she realised that she couldn’t find new stories in Khmer, and decided to read foreign novels. She immediately saw there was a difference between Khmer and foreign novels, but wondered why foreign novels were more popular.
“I noted that the messages of Khmer novels were great, but the plots are more limited than those in foreign novels. So I thought I should write a story in the style of a foreign novel but still convey an educational message,” Ms Voleak said.
Mentioning the challenges of writing this type of novel, she said it was important to know the geography and weather in the locations she was using as settings, and the types of characters that were at the core of her stories. But as she hadn’t travelled to these countries, she had to do plenty research first.
“Seeing people reading my books, I feel so proud of my efforts at having finished the book. And I think if I don’t write these types of novels, readers won’t experience these new and modern ways of reading,” Ms Voleak said, adding that older works tend to tell the same stories over and over.
She recalled being criticised by many people, and even being accused of copying and translating from foreign novels.
Some people said that the context of her stories were inappropriate for Cambodia’s context, especially regarding women and sexuality.
“I accept all feedback, and I also have suggestions for readers. I want them to read but not just read; they have to analyse the story. If they see bad points in a story, they have to reflect on them and use them positively in reality,” Ms Voleak continued.
Ms Voleak suggests that writers and authors should use emerging technology and social media to convey meaningful stories, to foster the reading habit among youths.
“I understand that youths don’t like reading boring books. As I am a student of international relations, I too sometimes get bored reading all those complicated theories and world history.
Yet I came up with an idea to write a fantasy book, which took the theme of war and showed it in a way that uses what is learned in class,” said Ms Voleak.
She recommends that new writers not feel discouraged if their books are not well-known. They have to develop their writing and learn to improve it next time, she said, adding that they should demonstrate cause and effect in their stories and think about what readers will learn by reading them.