Sylvia Plath

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Christopher Bollen

Failure as a Natural Energy Source

NeueJournal Issue 1

We asked Christopher Bollen–former editor-in-chief of Interview Magazine and newfound novelist–about his work life and his life’s work.


NeueJournal: What is your work mantra?


Christopher Bollen: My father was a construction worker. He woke up at 5am every morning and left by 5:30. He returned home at around 6pm from a job site, sweaty, exhausted, against the ropes. And then he’d be asleep by 11 and wake up at 5am the next morning. That is working. What I do, by comparison, is very difficult, very mentally exhausting, sometimes laborious and tedious, on occasional torturous—but if I think writing and editing is anything to complain about, I need to wake up.


NJ: What is your favorite skill?


CB: In me or in others? In others, the ability to sing (which I don’t possess). In me, I can cock either of my eyebrows like a soap-opera actor; you’d be surprised how rarely that comes in handy. Is kindness a skill? I think I’m kind. I’m good at games.


NJ: What inspires you?


CB: Travel inspires me massively. Even if it’s just a drive north. Especially if it’s a flight overseas. Other books inspire me, appreciating the way certain writers corral words. Sometimes friends inspire me.


NJ: How do you feel about failure?


CB: I’m terrified of failure. Failure is one of the best natural energy sources I know. And the fear of failure changes as you get older—I don’t mean that it lessons or you learn to mitigate it. I mean, failure swings to new branches. I used to feel I’d be a failure if I never wrote a novel. Now failure for me is wasting time. Laziness, sloth, indecision, that’s failure for me right now.


NeueJournal Issue 1


NJ: If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?


CB: I don’t want to know anything. UNLESS you are allowed to do something about it. For instance, I’d like to know if I ever go broke or become homeless, but only to be able to change that outcome. So I am curious how I will die and at what age—probably more curious than most people—but knowing that information would be the cruelest torment that I wouldn’t even wish upon a mouse.


NJ: What’s the worst excuse you’ve used to reschedule a meeting?


CB: I’ve learned not to give an excuse. Keep it vague. “Something’s come up, something awful, something I can’t get out of, I don’t want to talk about it, you don’t want to know. Could we reschedule?” But you asked for the worst excuse: those are always the true excuses. I couldn’t catch a cab; the door was painted shut; I was on the radio when you called—the true ones are the least believable.


NJ: Who are your favorite writers?


CB: Norman Mailer, Joan Didion, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, I’m starting to get into Janet Malcolm.


NJ: What’s the difference between a fantasy and an idea?


CB: I have no idea. I guess you could infer that an idea is something you can act on while a fantasy can never be willed into reality. But I disagree. Lots of fantasies come to life. Oh, how about this: an idea is a practical, working method to make a fantasy a reality.


NJ: What has been your biggest career challenge?


CB: Re-convincing people. The world likes to see you one way and that’s your category and if you happen to break into a new field or medium or process that threatens that distinct categorization, humans, wired as they are, will fight you on it. They don’t want to re-think their categories. They don’t like when you unglue yourself from one box and try to stick yourself in other boxes. So that has been a challenge: moving from editor to writer, nonfiction to fiction. Because even still some folks treat this novel-writing business as a cute vanity project between magazine deadlines and it kills me.


NJ: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?


CB: I had a New York friend whose response to any quotidian story—good or bad, up or down—was always “you gotta pay the rent.” You gotta pay the rent. Because it’s true. At the end of the month, the rent is due and you better have figured out a way to pay it. Everyone has to pay the rent. And then the rest is all for fun.


Photography: Manolo Campion for NeueJournal