Scraped Off the Jungle Floor: A Conversation with novelist and Interlochen Arts Academy alum Kea Wilson about writing fiction from fact, horror movies as inspiration, and how perspective influences plot.
Kea Wilson is the author of the novel, We Eat Our Own (Scribner/Simon & Schuster). Her short fiction and other writings have appeared in PANK, Diagram, Playboy, Lithub, and others. She received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where she now teaches, and she is also on the summer faculty of the Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing.
On November 30th, 2017, novelist and Interlochen Arts Academy alum Kea Wilson joined Interlochen Arts Academy Creative Writing students for a master class and reading. Interlochen Review editor Helena Notario and faculty advisor Mika Perine sat down with Kea for a conversation about her debut novel We Eat Our Own. Editor Cookie Dutch also contributed questions for the interview.
Helena Notario: How did you decide which events would be narrated by which characters, especially because there are so many chapters dedicated to different minor characters like Paolo and Teo that describe events in the story from their point of view? Why use the different points of view instead of the main character in certain instances?
Kea Wilson: That’s a great question, thank you so much. So, for people who haven’t read my book, it’s mostly narrated from the second person POV. It’s in the ‘you’ command. You are an American actor who has flown down to the Columbian rainforest to film a horror film that you don’t know is a horror film before you arrive. The whole book started as a short story just from that second person perspective, originally. It was a 50-page monster short story but a short story. It started in the second person because one of the complaints I’d always heard about the second person was that the reader feels ordered around, and I thought, “How can I write a character where it’s important the character is ordered around?” It’s important that [the point of view] is taking you by the shoulders and shaking you a little bit. When I started expanding it to novel length, I realized that you can’t do that for 350 pages. It’s cruel and unusual punishment, so I started thinking about entering some third person perspectives from characters who either knew things that this actor “you” did not, or thought they knew things that he didn’t.
I had a really great teacher in grad school who said the way she started all of her novels was making a list of ten chapter titles for a book that didn’t exist and I listed out ten characters I was curious about in this world, that had touched the story. So you mentioned Paola and Agata, they are the special effects makeup artists and at the time I was watching a lot of the reality show, Faceoff. I don’t know if you’ve seen that one. It is a reality show based on extreme horror and special effects makeup artists and I was really fascinated by that process and curious what they’d have to say about it. You mentioned Teo, he’s another actor in the film. And how would an actor who knew he was in a horror film, who perhaps really liked being in a horror film, how would he relish the experience? Loosening it up and giving myself the permission to roam between lots of perspectives enabled me to create some really interesting tensions between what you, as the reader, you, the actor, know about the story, and what else is going on.
HN: The second person has many different layers within their identity itself and just how it’s perceived on the page. You call the American actor, Richard,“you” and Adrian, and in addition to this, there’s other blurred lines between what’s real and what’s being filmed for Jungle Bloodbath. How did you handle writing about all of these layers without confusing yourself?
KW: Well I’m not confident I didn’t confuse myself. Revision is wonderful and editors are wonderful, but to the point, you’re totally astute to pick up on the fact that names are really important in this book. The germ for the entire novel was I was interested in why I, Kea Wilson, weenie, who does not like to see blood whatsoever, really liked watching horror films. What is it about me that separates the performed kind of violence that I’m okay with watching, and myself as a pretty intensely non-violent person who in fact tries really hard to be ethical in my day-to-day life? I started being interested in this question of what separates who we think we are, how we identify ourselves, and what we actually do versus how we behave in the world. I started with an actor who is literally performing as a character who had a different name and, as the book went on, I started exploring characters who took on other aliases. There is an entire section of the book devoted to a rebel cartel group that is undercover in a house and they have literal characters that they play. So it became an important theme for the book. Managing the many names that I came to give all these characters, whether it was an actor who was performing or a guerilla insurgent who was pretending to be someone that they weren't, was really just a question of close, boring revision and having an editor who was really honest with me about, “this is too confusing” and, “you need to slow this down.”
HN: In the book, you also don't use quotation marks. That's a really difficult thing that you very much succeeded in. Especially because of all the different languages you used in this book, why did you decide to do that?
KW: Yeah. I love not using quotation marks. It came, again, just organically out of decisions about how I wanted the form of the story to reflect what the story was about. So when I put the piece originally in second person way back when it was a short story, I became really interested in how the ‘you’ commands that I was giving to the reader (you go to the Jungle, you do these things) would contrast to the commands that characters were giving with one another, and when there was sort of slippage between the two and removing quotation marks. I knew it was challenging and again, editors are great, revision is really amazing and important. This is what we do as writers: your first draft usually sucks, so does your second and third, but I found that I could find ways where that was a productive ambiguity rather than something that would just trip up the reader and make them confused and frustrated. A lot of writers I admire don’t use quotation marks as well, and part of it is probably a little bit of imitation. Everyone on Goodreads is like, “she must be a big Cormac McCarthy fan,” and they are right. Mohsin Hamid is another writer who doesn’t always use quotation marks. I like the things it lets me explore. It creates and suggests some interesting ambiguities for me.
HN: In your novel, you use court transcripts. Certain components of your writing style read as if they have elements of screenplay integrated into them. Was this blending of genre planned when you began writing this? If so, have you always been interested in mixing genres or was this a new deal?
KW: You know, it was actually a later addition than a lot of the other elements in the book. When I started expanding from the short story, I got the suggestion to put the actual script of the movie in the book and I decided not to do that but I became interested in the court transcript as a form. My parents are both lawyers, and my grandfather was a judge. I spent a lot of time when I was a little kid sitting in a law library, reading either briefs or the court transcripts and waiting for my parents to get done with work. I always found the form really creepy and odd because often these would be documents that were talking about really brutal or really visceral human experiences and it was just distilled down into flat white paper with a perforated edge on the side (this was the ‘90s and ‘80s) and it just felt really bloodless, which is the point of a court transcript. They’re supposed to distill down something often really passionate that has happened into a document that can be analyzed rationally. That’s a really weird way to write; that’s not what we do as fiction writers, generally speaking. So I started becoming interested in how transcriptions of this same event (what happened in the jungle) might be refracted and told in different forms. The reason there are court transcripts is because the director is being brought up on potential murder charges because his actors are missing, and, as you're going through the story, to have a teaser of how this director is representing the event in the future. I thought that would be an interesting plot element and my editor agreed. We ended up putting more of those in there through the editorial process and they became an important part of the book.
HN: Cookie and I heard that this book was inspired, or somehow influenced, by the movie Cannibal Holocaust. Can you tell us about what intrigued you about this movie and whether or not it inspired you to begin working on We Eat Our Own?
KW: Absolutely! Cannibal Holocaust is a real film that I watched when I was a student at Interlochen––I was sixteen years old the first time I saw it. It was filmed in 1979, and it came out in 1980. It was The Blair Witch Project twenty years before The Blair Witch Project. It was the progenitor of the found footage horror genre and it was marketed that way. The plot of Cannibal Holocaust is that a crew of documentary filmmakers has gone missing in the middle of the Jungle, and their footage has been scraped off of the jungle floor and they put it on a screen. There’s also a frame narrative in Cannibal Holocaust of a team of anthropologists who for some reason were conducting this work. They are going down to look for this footage, so really the first half is the search; the second half is the footage itself.
I'm just going to say it: it is in the exploitation genre. It is exploiting racist tropes about indigenous people and it is really and truly a genre. There was a whole string of specifically Italian jungle cannibal movies that were all made in the seventies, and they are totally campy cheeseball b-movies. A lot of them are really offensive. Cannibal Holocaust somewhat included, but the difference with Cannibal Holocaust is it has a kind of weird conscience to it. The director was a guy named Ruggero Deodato, and he was, in real life, very perturbed by violence in his native Italy. At the time, a terrorist organization called the Red Brigades were killing a lot of people and he became really troubled by the way we represent violence and the way that specifically westerners behave in spaces where they don’t have power, more generally, in a global sense.
So, without spoiling too much about Cannibal Holocaust, or my book (there are some similarities and some big differences) there's a twist at the end of the movie that makes you feel a little bit guilty for jeering at all of this violence that you just watched if you are the kind of viewer that comes in to jeer, and a lot of horror film fans do, sometimes myself included. I was interested in how subversive this film was and what it sparked for me. When I started asking myself these questions about why I liked horror: what kind of film would embody that experience, and would embody those questions? What situation could I put a reader into where they would be forced to explore those questions that I could put a character into and they could explore those questions as well? So in real life, the director, Ruggero Deodato, was brought up, not on murder charges but on obscenity charges, because they thought he had made a snuff film, but they couldn't prove that actors were dead, so that's a little bit of an invention on my part in the book. My director, whose name is Hugo Veluto, is brought up on murder charges, actually. And it was banned in many countries including America. I watched it on a bootleg VHS tape with masking tape along the side, and felt really cool for doing that. It was only when I was in grad school, really, that it was a rereleased in an anniversary edition with some fascinating interviews from actors within the film and I watched those and I was just hooked and off to the races.
HN: Was this film, or the filmmaker himself, the only influence on your novel? Was this like the Big Kahuna?
KW: Yeah, it was the Big Kahuna, but I watched so many horror films. I also watched and consumed a lot of visual art and writing from the period because I became really interested in the late ‘70s and had a nice little playlist of ‘70s music that I played while I wrote. There are little Easter eggs throughout the book, I would say, references to other ‘70's horror films, especially Italian horror films––you’ll see some Dario Argento cameos, if you’re a horror fan, sprinkled in there. I just was kind of gluttonous about it, I mean that’s one good thing about the horror genre that I think mimics the way that I approach literary fiction, too, is that there is no end of it. You can just completely pig out on horror films constantly, and I used writing this book as an excuse to really give my Netflix account a workout.
HN: The end of this book in particular seems to offer a critique about how making or perhaps watching the horror genre can get in your cells, but it does so within a novel that itself can be classified as a horror novel in some ways. I was wondering if you could talk about this ambivalent double status of the horror genre within your book.
KW: I did not think I was writing a horror novel at all when I was writing this book. I thought that I was writing literary fiction, and I think I did in some ways, but at the same time, [it can be considered] genre. It's a compliment when someone thinks that your book belongs to a genre that they love. If someone reads my book and they think it's a great horror book, I’m so excited, thrilled. I actually have not read a lot of horror fiction, myself. I pig out on horror films constantly. I was watching a horror movie today while I was putting on my makeup, but I don't usually pick up horror books for whatever reason. I grew up on R.L. Stine and that's kind of where it stopped because I went to Interlochen for high school and was introduced to so many things and fell deeply in love with literary fiction. With that said, is the grammar of horror stories across media in this book? Absolutely, that's what I was sort of born and raised on. I’ve watched horror films since I was maybe nine years old. [That] was when I started getting really into basic cable edits of the faculty in-screen and all these ‘90s goodies. I'm really interested in the sort of essential tropes behind the horror form, and how those tropes can be elevated by the addition of detail––by really good craft.
HN: Do you consider your novel a horror novel, or do you not like to conform to the genre standards of books?
KW: I think I wrote literary fiction because that's what I'm trained to write but I’m very happy if anyone picks up my book and likes it so call it what you want. I think it's amazing. I worked in a bookstore for many years, and I was always really excited and surprised by what kind of readers would go to different sections of the bookstore, what kind of books I would find in science fiction that, to my mind, are literary fiction. It’s natural and I'm guilty of this on my insecure days to have a little bit of anxiety about your book being maybe pigeonholed into a genre because you think it won’t reach as many people.nI have some members of my family who think I wrote a horror novel and they won't touch it because horror is kind of like every other genre, in my opinion, but more than other genres, it tells you how you’re going to feel when you pick it up, “you will feel horror,” as opposed to literary fiction which is supposed to be encompassing many other emotions. With that said, I don't think that horror is emotionally prescriptive as a genre. I hope that my reader has a really intense, visceral, awesome experience with this book; I hope it makes them get a shiver here and there, but I think the bigger thing is I want them to explore the questions that I've introduced, and I want them to tell me what they think and reach out to me if they liked it.
HN: In a previous interview, I saw that you mentioned you were not necessarily well-versed in Colombian history. How did you navigate writing about real issues that took place in a real country in a fictionalized book? Why did you, choose to place this in Columbia during such a politically tense time?
KW: That's a great question and it was the hardest question for me throughout the writing of the book. The way that the book came about, because it started out with a specific horror film––and I will say that in its early iterations, this book was much closer to what actually happened in Cannibal Holocaust––I was much more interested in a meta-experience [but] as the book became mine, it became clear that it wasn’t going to work. I had to edit and explore and ultimately, while I didn't think I chose to put the book in Columbia, because I was trying to write a book that was faithful-ish to real events as the book became more solid and form, I found that I was writing a version of Columbia that was my own.
I changed the name of the real town to reflect that it was not a real town. In some places I was very, very faithful to true researched accounts of things that individual revolutionaries had done, particularly the section in the end, because it felt like those were the places where I needed to have a little more veracity, where I needed a little bit more closeness to fact. In other places I had to really own the fact that this was a Columbia of my imagination and this book takes place largely in a no-man's-land that exists on the border between three countries and that gave me a lot of space to create something that was just mine.
I also had some great mentors who said it's okay that you're not getting any of these travel grants you're applying for, you can write a book set anywhere you want as long as you research it well and you approach it with a good heart. I had readers from Columbia, readers with experience with these events read it. My publisher and editor helped with that as well. I hope I did a good job. It's something that I'm always going to wonder if I did it right, but ultimately I had to do it as true as I could to what the book ended up being. It's a messy process.
HN: You also reference the book Respect for Acting as well as acting techniques like the Meisner Exercises in Stanislavski's method. Were you ever into acting, or screenwriting, or playwriting, or did you simply do this research in order to write this character and this book?
KW: So I wasn't into acting in high school because I went to Interlochen and you have to major in acting to do lot of acting at Interlochen, but a lot of my friends were actors. And I actually did not do a lot of writing in college. I ended up doing more theater because it was a way I could engage creatively. I did some acting, I did some directing [though] it was not necessarily stunning acting technique. But the references to Hagen actually proceeded directly from research about the real film. I'm fascinated by the process actors undergo in order to become other people because often they’re not becoming other people. Often, they’re drawing on things that are very essential to themselves––things that are very private. In the book, I was exploring Meisner Exercises, something I saw kids at Interlochen doing all the time with one another: two actors standing in a dorm room hallway just saying the same phrase back and forth and back and forth and back and forth together. It was freaky, and I thought there was a kind of creepiness that suited my project.
HN: Do you think that your writing style, or preferred means of writing, has changed since you’ve left Interlochen? Did you envision yourself to be where you are (and who you are) today?
KW: Boy, I've been looking through high school pictures and thinking “who was this girl? What was she like?” I don't remember, it's been twelve years since I graduated and I’ve idealized it in my mind. Interlochen, in terms of my writing, had a really huge impact on me. One of the things I loved about Interlochen was that there wasn’t a lot of pressure to define who you were as a writer. There was a lot of encouragement to explore, to play, to make a big mess on the page and just experiment with craft and study hard. So, I didn't leave Interlochen thinking ‘this is the kind of writer I am.’ I had genres that I gravitated towards––I actually thought of myself as more of a nonfiction writer when I graduated.
As I got older I found that I did have common questions I would return to in my work a lot. I have common palettes and images that I return to, certainly horror movies are one of them. I am always very interested in detail, that’s something I learned especially after my book came out and reviewers started to talk about it, that I am someone who is really interested in hyper-particularities of sensory experience. That is probably something I had a little bit from when I was here because my teachers talked to me about detail, but part of it is also just learning who I was as a person. I don't know what I really envisioned I would be doing what I left Interlochen, but one of the things that I loved about Interlochen was that nobody was telling me that I needed to have that figured out when I was a teenager. My teachers and my peers took me very seriously, but that seriousness was attached to the idea that I could be flexible and explore and do lots of cool things throughout my life.
HN: Do you think that Interlochen, in a way, sort of served as a foundation for this book, or do you think that leaving Interlochen and having experiences outside of Interlochen helped build the foundations for this book?
KW: Interlochen is definitely a foundation for this book in that this was where I watched the film that this book was based on when I was a teenager. I probably rewatched it in the dorm at least a couple of times and I had a lot of friends who were also horror goons and I had a lot of friends who were writers interested in the things that I was interested in. That's such an incredible privilege and it's so cool to be able to say that you have friends that are into that. A lot of my high school friends to this day are still writers and are still readers and we read each other’s stuff. In terms of what else has set me up for this book, I went to a Master of Fine Arts program at Washington University in St Louis which was incredibly crucial. That's where I think I learned how to write a novel specifically. I didn't take any classes on long-form fiction when I was [at Interlochen]. I was mostly really into the short story and the essay and the poem. [With ] the gift of time that I had in my Master’s program, I was very lucky that the right elements came together, that I was able to start a manuscript that then also connected me to the people that I needed to be connected to and actually turn it into a book, which is an incredible privilege.
Mika Perrine: You mentioned that We Eat Our Own started out as a short story that was becoming a 50-page “monster story.” At what point did you know it was going to be a novel, and what was that shift like for you in terms of leaping from the short story form?
KW: The honest answer is from moment one I was like, “I’m gonna write a novel,” and then I chickened out really hard. Even as the the short story was growing I thought, “maybe it’s a short story, I want it to be a short story, I’ve never written a novel, of course it’s a short story.” When it got to the 50-page length and it had a beginning, a middle, and an end, I really sat it down and set it aside for about a year. I didn't touch it for a long time, and it wasn't until I was in an novel writing class where I had to start producing chapters that I picked this idea back up. I was given the tools to start outlining and expanding and exploring it. I really needed the leap. I needed tools to develop a blueprint and then I needed to follow that blueprint. I had a teacher say you have to write ten chapter titles and I went back to this project and I said here are ten chapters from this book if it existed, and then I started writing them, not in order, and then I had three years of very messy fleshing out and exploring.