You left a corporate design job in order to launch Zen Pencils. Was it something you did with on an impulse or was it more of a planned event? Did you have any money in the bank when you made the move? How scary was it?
It was definitely planned. I'm not an impulsive person - it wasn't like a movie where I snap at work and tell my boss he's a jerk and storm out. I had been unhappy at the job for a long time and was thinking of quitting but never really had the guts. I knew I was going to leave, but decided instead of just moving to another job in the same industry, I would try to create my lifelong dream job of being a cartoonist. I didn't have much money saved so what my wife and I did was actually sell our home. We made a little money from that which allowed me to quit and dedicate myself to Zen Pencils for six months. If after that six months I could see Zen Pencils wasn't going to work, I would beg for my old job back. Thankfully, it's been over 3 years now. It was incredibly scary. Looking back, I'm not sure what the hell I was thinking. I must have been pretty desperate.
Did the speed at which the website was embraced amaze you? Did the publishing success, such as being on the NYT bestseller list, come as a surprise?
It's been a steady growth, nothing crazy. I was confident in the concept of the website. I had a few failed webcomics before Zen Pencils and I knew that it was different and that if I could execute it, that it would offer something unique, which is a feat in itself on the internet. The whole publishing side of things has definitely been a surprise. Making the NYT best-seller list was totally thanks to my readers' support. They really made that happen thanks to pre-orders and buying multiple copies as gifts. I knew that I had a good readership and that if I reached out to them, they would respond.
You started out using your own favorite quotes, but now invite submissions. Do you know instantly when you want to use a submitted quote or do you chew that over for a while?
Yeah, I mostly have a gut reaction when I read the quotes. If they instantly strike a chord with me, then I'll add it to my 'quotes' notebook in Evernote. Again, the readers have been great. It's probably about 70 percent reader quotes now and I still find 30 percent of them myself. It's been a highlight, getting these new quotes, learning about the people who said them. I love when readers introduce me to someone new.
You’ve built a Zen Pencils community which is truly worldwide — I’ve appreciated the Reader of the Month posts. When you started out, did you imagine the impact your cartoons would have?
No way. I was hoping that the comics might put a smile on people's faces which they would then hopefully share with their friends. I never dreamed that the website would have the impact on people which I’ve featured in the Reader of the Month section. I just got an e-mail today from a guy in Indonesia, who wrote that he was inspired to start his own interior design business after reading Zen Pencils comics. Another e-mail I got recently was from a woman saying the comics have helped her cope with her divorce. It's been humbling and a huge honour. If you had told me these sorts of things would happen when I launched the site I would have told you that you were completely insane!
Gavin Aung Than comes to Changing Hands Phoenix on Thursday, October 15, at 7 p.m. Admission to the reading and signing is free with purchase of his newest book, Zen Pencils Volume II: Dream the Impossible Dream ($14.99). Reserve your spot and find more info at the Changing Hands Bookstore website.