In his early 20s, Charles Anderson BA’03, an aspiring children’s book writer, was looking for a catchy pen name that youngsters would remember. Before long, Rolli was born and now, the author, cartoonist and songwriter is enjoying unprecedented success. Latte artist: Runa Pocket
Coffee has long been a beverage of choice for writers struggling to meet a deadline. For Regina creative Rolli (a.k.a. Charles Anderson), it’s more than fuel: it’s inspiration.
“There’s an idea in every cup. Different beans trigger different flavours of ideas. You have to rummage through hundreds of ideas to find one good one,” he explains. Rolli is never at a loss for ideas, as he drinks 25 cups a day. “I think more than 25 would be excessive.”
Once coffee companies got wind of his obsession through a feature in New York Magazine, samples started pouring in, including the notoriously caffeine-rich Death Wish Coffee, a literary-themed roast called Edgar Allan Joe, and what was, at the time, the most expensive coffee on the globe, which sold at auction for $1,000 US per pound. “I make an espresso shot of that on special occasions only.”
Fortunately, the influx of coffee samples has now slowed down to a manageable pace: “It was too much coffee for even me to drink.” One of Rolli’s prized possessions is a portrait of himself drinking a cup of coffee, which was created in latte foam by a Tokyo artist who follows him on Twitter. “That was the biggest thrill of my life,” he says.
Where it all began
Rolli learned to write by being a voracious reader. He describes himself as a “strange and solitary child” whose asthma often prevented him from being able to play outdoors. His mother was a teacher, so there were always books in the house. He pored over anthologies and other tomes that were over his head at the time, falling in love with Edgar Allan Poe’s work.
From there, he progressed to being “a moody teenager who wrote moody teenage poetry, which wasn’t any good.”
“It was Sam Johnson who said, ‘A man will turn over half a library to make one book.’ Read enough and you’ll inevitably pick up the mechanics of writing, the physics of it.” From there, he progressed to being “a moody teenager who wrote moody teenage poetry, which wasn’t any good.” That phase was short-lived, fortunately, as he went on to study English at the University of Regina.
And then there’s Shakespeare
“I hated Shakespeare as a teenager. His plays are inflicted onto high school students like an archaic punishment. Having instructors who actually enjoy teaching makes all the difference in the world, though. Now Shakespeare is my favourite poet.”
He also took classes on children’s literature. “I’m a whimsical person and a child at heart,” he notes. The children’s writer who appealed to him most was Louis Carroll, with his trademark British wit. “I see that a lot in my own work. Humour is always present in some way, though it can be quite dark at times,” Rolli says.
After graduating with his BA, Rolli spent four years working part-time jobs to finance his passion for writing. Despite a fear of heights, he worked as a roofer. There was also a brief stint as an erotic greeting card writer, which provided fodder for a humourous personal essay that reads like straight-up fiction.
Variety is the spice of life
As he diversified into a variety of genres – poetry, short stories, creative non-fiction and children’s literature – he sought out new markets and connections, which meant he could taper off the odd jobs and focus solely on his creative work.
Alongside his writing, he started cartooning, developing his distinctive, quirky style. He had always been a doodler and saw this as a great way to supplement his income. “Writing is very competitive, and it takes a long time to get anywhere. I needed to make more money and faster, because I’m not a fast writer. You can do a cartoon in a day and make good money as long as you sell it to the right place.” The right place ended up being Reader’s Digest, which bought his first cartoon.
Rolli’s cartoons have been published in The Wall Street Journal, Playboy and The Harvard Business Review, and his short stories, poems, essays and flash fiction have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post and The Walrus.
He learned to be an aggressive submitter, sending out 50 submissions per month, which was key to breaking into the industry. Today, he sends less than half that, because publications often solicit him:
“I have some main clients that will buy pretty much whatever I send them now,” he says. Rolli’s cartoons have been published in The Wall Street Journal, Playboy and The Harvard Business Review, and his short stories, poems, essays and flash fiction have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post and The Walrus. He also does regular commissions for people from Twitter asking him to draw their portraits and for bands wanting him to create album covers.
Rolli gets an agent
Rolli has published numerous books: fiction and poetry include Plumstuff, a recently published reinvention of his out-of-print debut Plum Stuff; The Sea-Wave, which was longlisted for the 2017 Saboteur Award; and Mavor’s Bones: A Gothic Novel-in-Poems, shortlisted for the 2015 ReLit Award. His children’s book, Kabungo, won the Joan Betty Stuchner – Oy Vey! – Funniest Children’s Book Award.
It was also the manuscript that first caught his agent’s attention eight years ago:
“When I read that, it was something that took me back immediately to reading my favourite books as a kid. It had that sense of whimsy and magic and fun and adventure,” says Olga Filina. She signed him soon after. “I think he has a very interesting perspective on the world, and that also comes across in his writing. To me, he feels like he has the best of the incredible classic authors like Louis Carroll or Roald Dahl and something special and unique that is just his.
Any work of his I read feels a tiny bit familiar, because of that amazing connection that stands the test of time.”
Filina enjoys promoting Rolli’s diverse body of work. “It’s quite fun, because I get to have exposure to a lot of different audiences and publishing sectors. I like to introduce people to his work; if they focus on children’s publishing, they also find out about his poetry and prose, in addition to his children’s literature projects, and the other way around,” she notes.
“I’ve had lots of feedback from editors who might have considered a children’s project but went on and acquired an adult piece of work from him and have just been so impressed and enamoured by his writing and his style. He can have such a broad and varied career because he works in so many spaces and touches so many categories.”
Less is more
A landmark of Rolli’s writing is an economy of words. “I try to be as efficient as possible. As attention spans decrease, people don’t have the time or patience for wordiness. I don’t want to be skimmed. An efficient style forces readers to take in every word—or they’d be lost,” he says.
“Time is precious. I try to bring something enjoyable to every sentence and paragraph and want people to feel the time they spent perusing my work wasn’t wasted.” Critics appreciate his brevity. Of Plumstuff, Caprice Hogg of Cloud Lake Literary writes, “This is a book for those who truly love words. The words chosen are descriptive and lyrical and to the point. This shows the talent of the author, because it is no easy feat to bring about emotion with only a few syllables. In good writing and in good art, it is far easier to express oneself in lengthy diatribes; to use words and lines sparingly is an achievement.”
Rolli the early adopter
A key to Rolli’s success is his online presence. He was an early adopter of Twitter and has grown his network to more than 60,000 followers. “It’s a lot easier to sell something when you have a built-in audience that’s interested in your work. You can promote anything you publish, sharing links and attracting new readers and fans,” he points out. Social media has been invaluable to the artist during the pandemic: “If I post a little video of a reading, for example, I get thousands of views—and sell books, too. You’d never get that many people (or sales) at an in-person event. I hardly ever bother with the latter anymore.”
How do you define success?
He doesn’t stop too often to think about his success, though. “Success is relative. Compared to some, I’m an abject failure,” Rolli remarks. His main goal is constant improvement: “I’ve always been thoroughly unimpressed with myself. That may not be a bad thing, as it pushes me to do better and be better and keep refining my craft,” he says. “I’ve produced a large body of work, but I’ve only just begun. I have a million ideas and ambitions.” Another goal is standing out from the crowd. Throughout his career, he has developed a distinct style in writing and cartoons. He explains, “People can look at it right away and say, ‘That’s a Rolli piece.’ That’s something I really strove for. I try to be as distinctive as I can, so I don’t get lost in the shuffle. If your work doesn’t stick out, you might as well pack it in.”
Randomness allows one to discovers not only new authors but entire fields of knowledge one otherwise wouldn’t encounter,” he reasons. “Randomness is my mantra. It’s the only way I find new books, music, artwork and even friends. Life is random, so one might as well follow suit.”
A people person too
Coffee is not the only thing that inspires Rolli: “People inspire me. I’m a people watcher, an eavesdropper. That’s half the fun of going to cafes or rambling downtown. All the ideas you could ever use in a hundred lifetimes are right there waiting for you – and ripe for the picking,” he says. Rolli also believes randomness is important to inspiration.
“I’ll wander into a shop or library, run my hand along the book spines, and pluck a volume. I don’t follow prize culture. Grown adults with heads on their shoulders don’t need to be told what to read. Randomness allows one to discovers not only new authors but entire fields of knowledge one otherwise wouldn’t encounter,” he reasons. “Randomness is my mantra. It’s the only way I find new books, music, artwork and even friends. Life is random, so one might as well follow suit.”
With nowhere to go to find good coffee during the pandemic lockdowns, Rolli taught himself “to crudely play the keyboard” and started writing songs, releasing three EPs – Cahoots, Cahoots II and Cahoots III – with collaborator Duke Sims, lead singer of the legendary Brooklyn band Shinobi Ninja. While Sims plays everything on the records, the albums are credited to both artists. “I’m taking a stand for songwriters, who generally get booted to the sidelines. A songwriter ought to be in the band and have his picture on the cover. Songwriting is, after all, the most important instrument. There’s no music without it.” On his process, he says, “I hear the melody first, then the bass line. Once I’ve figured out the chords, I write up the sheet music and send it to my collaborators, who do the rest. It’s great fun and a change from my usual work. I routinely get drunk off it.”
What's next for Rolli?
He’s finishing up a number of projects, including a humourous, illustrated autobiography, and a collection of his most popular cartoons and drawings. A Canadian production company has acquired the rights to his short story “The Ashtray” and is currently developing it into a feature-length film to be directed by Vancouver’s Jennesia Pedri. “I’m looking forward to that. I’d like to get a cameo in it – drinking coffee in the background, perhaps,” he muses.