Gavin Aung Than on Founding Zen Pencils and the Impact of Sharing Powerful Quotes

Not many months ago, we found a website, Zen Pencils, which deftly combines some of our favorite things: comics, pithy quotes, and short biographies. The site’s been up since early 2012, but we’re almost glad we’re behind the curve because now there are two Zen Pencils books to savor — and we found it in time for Zen Pencils creator Gavin Aung Than’s first U.S. book tour. Than, who is based in Melbourne, Australia, will appear at Changing Hands Phoenix at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 15. We recently caught up with him via e-mail.

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.
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Cynthia is a freelance writer/artist living in Phoenix. Reading comics has been a lifelong pleasure for Cynthia; creating comics is a more recent pursuit. Cynthia's other job is framing art.