"This book was in my brain for a good 10 years before I started writing it, long before I ever thought I would write a book," said Kea Wilson, bookseller and events coordinator at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Mo. Wilson's debut novel, We Eat Our Own, is scheduled for publication on September 6 by Scribner. Set in the 1970s, We Eat Our Own follows a struggling, unnamed actor as he travels from New York City to a remote village in the Amazon rain forest, where he joins the cast of a pulp Italian horror film. The actor quickly realizes that he's in over his head--not only is the production over budget and the team on the verge of a breakdown, but this part of the South American wilderness is home to drug traffickers, multinational corporations and armed guerilla groups.
The book is loosely based on Ruggero Deodato's notorious cult classic horror film Cannibal Holocaust, about a documentary film crew that goes missing in the Amazon rain forest and the rescue mission that finds and views its lost footage. Cannibal Holocaust proved so shocking and controversial on its release in 1980 that the director was arrested in Italy under suspicion of creating a snuff film. Although those charges were dropped once the film's four lead actors appeared on an Italian television show, Deodato still faced obscenity and violence charges.
"I've been toying with the vague idea for this book for 13 years, though only subconsciously for some of them," recalled Wilson, who by her own estimation has been a huge horror movie fan since an "inappropriately young age." She first saw a bootleg copy of Cannibal Holocaust when she was 16, and said that she's probably watched the movie at least a dozen more times in the years since. More interesting to her than the sordid aftermath of the film's release, though, was its subject matter, and the way the movie seemed to indict the viewer.
"I remember feeling like I'd never seen anything quite like it," Wilson recalled. "It makes you question, why, exactly, you signed up to watch a bunch of 20-somethings in safari outfits get eaten alive, whether the cannibalism is simulated or not."
It wasn't until she began seriously researching the making of the film, however, that she wanted to turn that story into fiction. "The story was so much more complex than the urban legend that's usually told about it," explained Wilson. "I found myself wanting to make the story mind, to add characters and plot lines and to go down paths that had nothing to do with the original movie."
In broader terms, Wilson added, the book is about violence, and how "we try to separate ourselves from violent things we do, whether because we have a political justification, or an artistic one, or an emotional one, or because we're just not equipped to own up to who we've become."
Wilson completed her first draft of We Eat Our Own while earning her MFA at Washington University in St. Louis, and she's been a bookseller at Left Bank Books for nearly three years. Her first experience with bookselling came shortly after she graduated college, when she worked for a year as a bookseller at a Hastings in Santa Fe, N.Mex. She got a job there, she admitted, in large part because she'd heard that Cormac McCarthy shopped there and she hoped to meet him. The ploy worked--she sold him three model airplane magazines--and meanwhile she was spending most of her money at indie bookstores in the Santa Fe area.
Juggling bookselling and writing, Wilson said, has not been difficult over the past few years. In fact, she continued, it's been one one of the best things to ever happen for her writing. In part, that's simply practical--she said she prefers to write first thing in the morning, and it helps to have a retail schedule that starts no earlier than 10 a.m.--but another part of that has to do with being completely immersed in books.
"I'm constantly surrounded by books and people who love books and people who write books and want to talk about them in a really earnest, generous way all the time," she said. "And that makes it a whole lot easier to think that typing little words by yourself every morning is meaningful and that you should keep doing it."
Wilson plans to have a launch party for We Eat Our Own at Left Bank Books on September 6. And though she's the events coordinator at Left Bank, she's leaving some of the planning to her coworkers. Said Wilson: "I'm not totally planning my own birthday party here." --Alex Mutter