Kea Wilson’s phenomenal debut novel, We Eat Our Own, has its roots in a film that came out decades ago.
In the late 1970s Italian film director Ruggero Deodato filmed Cannibal Holocaust on location in the Amazon rainforest of Colombia. The film graphically depicts brutal violence and caused controversy immediately upon release. Italian media accused Deodata of having made a snuff film, and the director was arrested on charges obscenity. Fueling the controversy was the fact that Deodato forced all his actors to sign contracts agreeing not to speak to the press or appear in public for one year after the film was released. Cannibal Holocaust sparked conversation about the blending of movies and real life, about how far an artist can go in pursuit of craft, about whether or not a film that tries to challenge our worst assumptions can instead reinforce them.
Wilson’s novel also takes place in Colombia, and at its core are the Italian film director, Ugo, and his American star, known throughout most of the book as Richard. Ugo is a man with a specific, intractable vision for how his film should be. But it’s a vision only fragments of which he shares with his actors and crew people. Only Ugo has seen the entire script. Only Ugo knows when Richard will need to show up to set and say his lines. Only Ugo knows whose character is going to die when and how.
We Eat Our Own expertly limns Ugo’s ambition and Richard’s uncertainty. Its scope extends well beyond Ugo’s film crew and into the revolutionary movements of Columbia in the 1970s. I sat down in St. Louis to talk with Kea about her book, horror film, and a lot more.
The Rumpus: In the acknowledgements section of the book, you thank someone for telling you that this project could be your first novel. What was this project before it was a novel?
Kea Wilson: It started as a short story, and the person I thanked was Marshall Klimasewiski. I took a class on historical fiction with him that I warped to my own ends into a class about doing research and otherwise finding ways to earn permission to write about things outside my own direct experience. I think permission-giving is a really important role for a teacher, especially for a big project that is so far outside your own direct experience. You really need someone to tell you, do it. Do these things, use these resources, and then you may.
Rumpus: Which parts of this book were in that initial story?
Wilson: The second person sections. These still act as a scaffolding for the book overall, but at first the story was only them. I felt comfortable writing that character, who gets called Richard throughout most of the book, because he’s a bumbling American who doesn’t know what he’s doing and feels totally out of his depth. As I wrote and wrote I became more comfortable writing with more authority, which led me to writing characters who have a little more authority.
Rumpus: The second person sections often take the approach of telling the reader things that Richard will never know. Was that elemental to this project, or did that develop over time?
Wilson: It was pretty elemental, definitely. I did a lot of extremely amateur theater when I was younger and still love that medium, and the thing that always struck me about acting is that you know how it ends, and a big part of successful acting is being able to forget what happens in the end. I think the literary theory term for it is disnarration, what doesn’t happen, what you don’t know, what isn’t in the realm of what characters have access to. It’s something that weirds me out about actors. They have to go on stage and, for what they’re doing to be more than just pretending, they actually have to find a way to somehow banish the reality of what’s about to happen to them. I was interested in that tension, and the second person seemed to really suit that kind of amnesia I wanted to create, and how I wanted the reader to feel.
Rumpus: But even the third person sections take a similar tact. The prose often hones in on things people intended to do, wanted to say, but didn’t do. The writing, both third and second person, is often describing a negative.
Wilson: What I think you’re pointing to has a lot to do with some of the big through questions of the novel, at least for me. When I wrote the book, I was really interested in intention, or more specifically, in moral responsibility and how we conceive of ourselves versus how we actually behave. A lot of the characters engage in violence—physical, emotional, or otherwise—and then they run over options and try to find ways to justify him or herself. Why he did this. Why it was worthwhile, or necessary, or good. I’m interested in the ways that people find to keep their ego intact in these moments, or don’t. I’m interested in that gap between behavior and identity, between who we are or what we claim to be and what we actually do.
Rumpus: Yeah, that seems like one of life’s biggest conundrums. We may conceive of ourselves as being x, y or z, but are we really the best judges of ourselves?
Wilson: Definitely. I also think that question extends to how horror movies operate in general, versus what directors think they’re setting out to do when they decide to make this kind of a movie. A lot of horror movies do have political and moral questions they are trying to ask, but they do it by way of extraordinary violence, or stereotype, or otherwise flattening moral questions into things that can be sensationalized and easily consumed. Sometimes the moral question gets lost totally, gleefully, but often it simmers under the surface and creates this crazy, paradoxical tension.
Rumpus: Reading this book I thought to myself that you must be a big horror fan?
Wilson: That is an accurate assumption!
Rumpus: When did you become interested in horror films?
Wilson: I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t a fan of horror films. My parents didn’t have a lot of content restrictions on what I watched. I made everyone watch Psycho during my twelfth birthday party; I’m pretty sure my parents got a bunch of calls afterward from other parents about that one.
Rumpus: What about horror films resonates with you?
Wilson: Well, I think a lot of people assume that when you’re a horror fan, you’re interested in fear or being scared. That’s true for me to a degree, sure, but really, I just like the stories that horror films tell, and I’m fascinated by the way they’re told. Horror directors are obsessed with craft. They’re really, really interested in the form of the story. They love it so much that they’ve created these formulas within the genre, and you can identify those forms, even if you don’t have names for them, even if you have never taken a lit theory class or gone to a creative writing workshop. You can isolate how the plot moves. You can spot tropes and spot when those tropes are twisted. I love that. I’ve always been interested in structure and how art is made, even as a kid—well, as much as twelve-year-old can be. That’s what made me want to be a writer, to manipulate story. That’s the first time that it occurred to me that a story isn’t just an egg someone lays. It’s made out of parts.
Rumpus: What about when people tell you they hate horror films?
Wilson: That’s a conversation I have a lot, especially now that I’m starting to talk about this book. To go back to Psycho, I feel like Hitchcock is a really productive example to bring up when people say they don’t like horror because everyone likes Psycho, it seems—that’s a film that people think of as a above the genre, somehow, as more than just a film that wants to scare you. When I ask people if they like horror films, usually about four out of five people will say, no way, I would never pay to be made uncomfortable. So I ask them, who do they like? And they say, Quentin Tarantino. Or someone else who is incredibly gratuitous. Or they say a movie like The Lives of Others, which definitely seems like a horror film to me.
Rumpus: The movie about East German surveillance? You would call that horror?
Wilson: I’d put it in the pantheon, for sure. Surveillance is one of the most terrifying things in our country. The biggest reason people might exclude it from horror and call it drama is that horror tends to be defined by what isn’t there as opposed to what is. There’s not a lot of grief in horror films. No one is mourning, particularly. There’s not a lot of justice in horror films, unless it’s vigilante justice, not a lot of courtroom scenes unless the movie takes place in a prison, then the first scene might be in a court. A lot of people say that horror is just drama without the budget.
Rumpus: And why was it the film Cannibal Holocaust that became the genesis for your first novel?
Wilson: I think most first novels are about something the author knows very well. There’s this cliché that all first novels are supposed to be a roman a clef, the story of my life, which obviously this is not. But I did grow up watching a lot of horror films, and I still do. I mean, I put them on in the background when I cook dinner. I first watched Cannibal Holocaust when I was about sixteen and it had a particular effect on me that other films didn’t have. I’ve always been interested in why people do what they do, and particularly where the impulse toward violence comes from, and the story seemed to be exploring question that in a way that other horror films I’d seen just didn’t seem to. Not to reveal the ending, but there’s a twist in the film that sort of indicts you for watching it, and that still seems incredibly daring to me. And then of course, the film had this notorious backstory—the director, Ruggero Deodato, was brought up on murder charges because the authorities thought he’d killed his actors. And Deodato had to actually trot them all out in front of a judge in his chambers to prove they were alive. But not before the film was banned all over the world and had spawned all these urban myths about how this filmmaker that ostensibly condemns violence may have been responsible for some actual violence along the way.
Then in grad school, ten years later, I came across interviews with a few of the actors in the film. Like the characters in my book, not all of them totally understood what they were getting into—where exactly they were going, or that they were making a horror film. But they went anyway.
I was fascinated by why on earth someone would do this. I think that’s the moment you need to find when you’re starting a big project, when you have just enough information to sink your teeth into, but also this big void that you want to fill.
Rumpus: And the M-19s and guerillas, when did they enter the picture?
Wilson: I started researching the town where Cannibal Holocaust was filmed and found out it was actually a fairly major drug outpost in the period when the crew was there, especially for a town of its size. This was something that was never, ever mentioned in cast and crew interviews, and maybe something they didn’t even know. So I began researching the drug trade and how the guerrilla and paramilitary organizations in Colombia have collaborated with that drug trade, historically, and how these groups might plausibly interact in a fictionalized version of this town. I felt a lot of responsibility when I realized that this book was going to be more embedded in that setting, was going to be more than just about Americans and Europeans there. Among the many, many books I read, I came across a really fantastic book called My Life as a Colombian Revolutionary by María Eugenia Vásquez Perdomo. A lot of one of the chapters concerning M-19 was inspired heavily by her and her story.
And then another reason these characters became present in the book was just circumstance. I started writing those chapters around the time that the protests in Ferguson started, and a lot of my friends and co-workers and generally the whole community around me were involved in protest culture and the revolutionary movements here. So my everyday life made me feel engaged, especially, in the trauma that attends revolutions, which is what those chapters steer toward.
Rumpus: You’re a bookseller, right? I was wondering if that makes you hyperaware of what people are buying, and if that is good thing or bad thing as a novelist?
Wilson: Yes, you definitely see what people are buying when you work in a bookstore, and you’re aware of what’s on trend, I suppose. But I gotta say, it’s not this intimidating, limiting thing that you might think? Because you see that people are reading everything. There’s a reader for almost every single book out there. If anything, I feel liberated by being in a bookstore—they’re just the coolest places on the planet. When I was in grad school I thought of books as writing, but now I think of books as objects because I’m talking with other people about them all day and physically putting them in their hands. I can’t remember the last time I read a book and didn’t tell anyone about it, or a day when someone didn’t tell me about a book they loved, and that’s not a bad life to be living as someone who writes books, too.