What was the seed of this story, or the image or thought that first urged you to write it here?
The one “true” part of the story is the commercials themselves. I vividly remember seeing these commercials when I was a kid. Every Minnesotan of a certain age remembers the gorilla.
One of my favorite parts of the story is its eerie tone. Did you write the story with this creepy ambiance from the beginning, or was it a mood that developed during the process? What was the process like?
Huh. Good question. You know, I think I try to follow the same basic process for all of my stories, and that’s to focus on character, character, character. If your characters are real, and they’re feeling real stuff, I think the reader will feel it too. Maybe Stephen King could talk about crafting tone and ambiance, but for me, all I can do is put my head down and work at revealing character, sentence by sentence by excruciating sentence.
Growing up, were your neighborhood dynamics similar to those in “Gorilla at Large”? Did you have a Zach? An Alison? An interchangeable guy always hanging out under a light?
Totally. I think every neighborhood has those kind of dynamics. I was a pretty shy kid—even shyer than the protagonist, if that’s possible—the kind of kid who hung back and observed things. I think that’s why these dynamics seem so acute to me. Even now, I’ll go back home for a funeral or something, and I’ll see one of the older guys from the neighborhood, and it’ll make me hunch my shoulders a little, like I’m waiting for a wedgie. They all still call me “Robbie.” You never really escape it.
There’s a moment late in the story when the narrator’s father reveals “how the world works.” Do you think the narrator will grow up to agree with him?
The dad is kind of a cynic. He’s correct about the economics, sure, but still a cynic. I guess I like to think the protagonist avoids that fate. Or, to put it another way, he might not know how the world really works, but maybe he’s learned something about the world inside himself. Which is all you can really do, you know?
What are you working on now? Is “Gorilla at Large” part of a larger project?
I’m finishing up a collection of “adult” stories, most of which take place in the world of Minneapolis punk rock. I think “Gorilla” will find a home in the collection. It was my first attempt at writing a coming-of-age story. I’m thrilled—and still a little surprised—it ended up in a place as cool as One Teen Story. Plus, you know, gorillas are totally punk rock.
Without giving away any plot points, what is the connection for you between the gorilla and Malcolm Young?
Another good question. If there is a “symbolic” connection between the two, it certainly wasn’t there in the earliest drafts. I don’t really know why Malcolm first popped up in the story. I think it’s something left over from my childhood. I do remember this one particular summer when it seemed like all the “older” kids in my neighborhood—the ones who were seventeen, eighteen—started to get into real trouble. One guy had a pretty bad car wreck when he was high. One girl got pregnant, and then another girl got pregnant. I had looked up to these kids. I’d wanted to be like them. To see them go tumbling, one by one, into the world of adult problems really freaked me out. I guess it still does.
What’s the best piece of advice about writing you have ever received?
I once heard Charles D’Ambrosio say that you have to say “yes” to the story. At every turning point, the protagonist must always—always—choose the more dangerous path. Would you like to cut class and go shoplifting? Yes! Would you like to fall in love with someone you know is bad for you? Yes! Would you like to wear the Magical Ring of the Dark Lord of Evil Town? Hell yes! Stories are driven by mistakes. They require mistakes.