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Episode XXXVIII: "I drink 25 cups of coffee a day"

Published 11/11/15
In this installment, I speak with Rolli, a cartoonist and writer. Topics include getting started, his caffeine intake, his creativity, being electrocuted, The Walrus Project, The Blue Bottle Project, his name & more.

I am here with Rolli, a writer and cartoonist who’s worked with the Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, Adbusters & more. Rollins inimitable style is recognized from a distance—his characters outlined with strokes reminiscent of storefront LED lights, his humor deadpanned, ironic, straightforward. Let’s start at the beginning: how’d you get started?

Oh, God. That's tough. I had no marketable skills, so I became a writer. That was...ten years back. 

And when you say "became a writer", how did that "happen"? When did you first get into cartooning?

Well, I just started writing things down, Andrew! I wrote a hell of a lot and also fixed people's roofs. When enough years passed, I became adequate at writing, started selling, and got down off the roof. I'm terrified of heights.

Cartooning... I just started that on a whim a few years back. Thinking, "I can draw alright and I'm reasonably clever, so this should turn out alright." To my surprise, I made big sales right away. Writing has been a long slog but cartooning was like a jack-in-the-box surprise of success.

What do you owe that success to (besides, as it sounds, luck and happenstance)? Why do you think your style clicked? When you say big sales, to what publications did you first catch on with?

I've got an overactive imagination, Andrew. Hyperactive. I drink 25 cups of coffee a day. That helps a lot, too. My style? You know, it's funny. When your work is rejected, editors can be pretty long-winded telling you everything they don't like about it. But when someone likes something, they usually just say "We'll take this" and don't bother saying why. So it's really a mystery to me why people like my style.

My first cartoon sale was to Reader's Ddigest. My first fiction sale... I don't even remember. Probably some long-forgotten zine.

Do you actually drink 25 cups of coffee a day?

I do, yes. I put ZzzQuil in the last few cups, though.

Are you being serious? How do you consume that much? Espresso? What happens if you don't drink coffee?

It's actually not as much as you think. Balzac drank 50 cups a day, I've read. I drink it in a lot of forms. For better or worse, I live across the street from a Starbucks. When they see me coming, they look alarmed.

If I don't drink coffee... That's never happened, not yet.

Tell me about The Walrus Project.

Alright. In Canada, we only have one magazine that's like Harper's or The New Yorker, and that's The Walrus. It's a great magazine. They wrote to me and asked if I'd be interested in writing a short story every week and drawing a cartoon every week for their website, I said, "Yes, I would." So that's what I'll be doing for the next year.

Are you worried? Do you ever feel stretched, not just time-wise, but as far as your well of creativity?

I'm a little bit terrified sometimes, sure. But so far so good. If my creativity starts to wane, I just drink more coffee. This morning I'm drinking coffee and working on this week's story. It's a literary zombie story. I hope people like it.

I need to know more about this lifecycle of creativity and caffeine. Do you feel like the first is dependent on the latter?

Andrew, if you'd asked me that ten years ago, I might've been able to remember! At this stage, creativity and caffeine seem like they're more or less the same thing. Not ying and yang, separately, but ying-yang. Does that make sense?

I'm a little afraid to ask, but what other marathon-esque projects have you undertaken in your life?

Oh, God! Well, I invented something a while back called The Blue Bottle Project. I did some radio interviews. The idea was, if people sent me blue bottles, I'd send them back with a message inside - a story or drawing or poem. I did some radio interviews. But I forgot to say, "Include return postage," so it became too ridiculously expensive to mail these blue bottles to people and the walls of my office are lined with blue bottles as a reminder to me of my folly.

And you also mentioned a "Take Rolli To Work Day". What's that?

Right, that's the new one. Basically I'll tag along with anyone who'll let me, and see what their work life is like for a day or part of a day. This afternoon, I'm going to an animation studio. It's a great way to meet people, be less reclusive, and learn about different occupations. No return postage necessary.

Excuse me, but there's really no there's no other way to ask this: Why are you like this? Why are you so curious?

I can't help it! People are either cat-natured or dog-natured and as a cat-natured person I have to know everything. Maybe creative people are snoops by trade. I guess I'm lonely a lot, too. When you work for yourself, you have no co-workers. I need to be around people and see what makes them tick. I'm still not sure what makes me tick, exactly.

Well, I think finding out what makes you tick is the worst thing to find out. Because then, it would probably stop ticking. Were you a creative child?

That's probably true, Andrew. I'm not joking about this, but I wasn't creative until around age 5, when I was nearly electrocuted (I stuck a house key into a wall outlet). My parents thought that jump-started my creativity. Who knows, right?

Have you ever considered seeking a medical explanation for that event? (Or for that matter, whether your coffee habit is sustainable?)

Doctors don't know anything. If you tell a doctor you've got a headache from banging your head against a wall, he'll write you a prescription for a helmet. 

To explain the impossible, could you describe how these two forms—cartoons and fictions—pull from your self-expression in overlapping and non-overlapping ways?

Oh, God! Another tough one. To be honest, Andrew, I try not to even think about that kind of thing. It would take a long, long time to figure out even if I did.

What do you think about?

I think about everything, until the instant I fall asleep.

What's with the name Rolli?

Right - I made it up. Did you know I wanted to be a children's poet? This was when I first started writing. I dreamed up Rolli as a punchy name that children might like. I abandoned that particular dream - children's poetry is no longer published, I was assured from every direction - but kept the name, for whatever reason.

Rolli, this has been a pleasure, and we're nearly out of time. What's one final thought about your life that you think is just unbelievable?

Well, I only ever sleep 4 hours a night, but I've always got piles of energy. You can believe that if you like.

You are a medical mystery Rolli, and a creative, curious man. Thanks for your time and words.

A pleasure, Andrew. Nice chatting with you.