“Canny, funny and impressively detailed.” That’s what the New York Times had to say about Kea Wilson’s first novel “We Eat Our Own,” published earlier this year with Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
While you may not meet a New York Times-reviewed author walking the streets of St. Louis every day, chances are if you’ve visited independent bookstore Left Bank Books in the past few years, you’ve met Wilson, who works as the bookstore’s events coordinator.
The novel, Wilson’s first, is loosely based on the making of a contentious mondo film from 1980 called “Cannibal Holocaust.” It’s a pseudo-documentary which relies on the conceit of ‘found-footage’ from a fictional documentary crew who disappeared while filming a movie about native Colombian cannibal tribes. The film caused quite a stir when it was released, with many viewers unsure if it was real or fake — in several countries it was banned for its realistic gore.
Wilson, a life-long student of horror films as well as a life-long lover of the written word (she graduated from Washington University with an MFA in Creative Writing), was compelled by the film and wanted to answer the question of why real-life actors chose to participate in something so strange and gory.
“So I wrote [the main] character and let him tell me,” Wilson told St. Louis on the Air contributor Steve Potter.
Wilson also wanted to delve into her own fascination with the horror genre.
“I’m interested in why I like the gore,” she said. “That’s why I watch these films. I think there is something interesting to explore about humans’ desire to watch violence enacted in all kinds of genres, not just horror. The more you watch horror films, the more you can see directors wrestling with that question. There’s a meta element to how horror film directors make these movies and the way they explore your impulse to watch that is endlessly interesting to me.”
Wilson’s work follows several characters involved with the making of the film amid the encroaching violence of international drug traffickers, guerilla fighters and all manner of strange filmmaking processes. No character is more immersive than “Richard,” the lead actor who flies to Colombia on a whim to take the part with no idea of what he’s getting into. Wilson uses the second-person “you” in his character’s chapters as a way to draw the reader into the action … and consequences.
“The gore you might be anticipating at the beginning of the book is nothing compared to the actual violence that is the backdrop,” Wilson said.
Wilson writes in impressive detail, something that may come as a surprise when you find out she’s never been to Colombia or the Amazon rainforest.
St. Louis readers will be pleasantly surprised to find hidden references throughout the book, including one in reference to a “Hotel Ignacio,” a hotel in Midtown, which Wilson said she included just because she liked the name
More seriously, though, St. Louis did have a deep impact on the philosophical underpinnings of the novel, which she says delves into the difference between simulated violence and real violence. Wilson was working on revisions when the protests in Ferguson broke out in August 2014.
“The store took a very public stance on those protests and invited a lot of painful and vigorous and vital conversations about revolutionary movements and violence in our communities and what those meant for many perspectives,” Wilson said. “What I found to my surprise is that the revolutionary movements of Colombia made their way into the story that I did not know I would experience.
“I found that as someone who is not a good protester, what I could talk about more confidently was the trauma that attends revolution and how that feels to negotiate the question about ‘how do you fight violently for a non-violent cause? ‘How do you fight non-violently against violence? Those questions of how we navigate ethically what the right thing to do is versus who we are were present both in my life in St. Louis and my life with the book.”
As for the title, “We Eat Our Own,” Wilson hopes that readers will work to understand the many meanings behind it.
“Cannibalism became a metaphor for me for how we treat other people, how we utilize other people, even when we don’t necessarily view what we’re doing as violence, even when we don’t mean to cause any harm, when someone becomes nourishment for us rather than a person,” Wilson said.
While she’ll always be a devout fan of the horror genre, for a change of pace, Wilson’s next book will be set in New Mexico and will delve into the idea of utopia. She said the novel is in its nascent stages as it stands now, but she is working on it. In the meantime, however, you can still catch her around Left Bank Books. That’s also where you can pick up a copy of her debut novel.