An ambitious debut novel by an original young writer, We Eat Our Own blurs the lines between life and art with the story of a film director’s unthinkable experiment in the Amazon.
When a nameless, struggling actor in 1970s New York gets the call that an enigmatic director wants him for an art film set in the Amazon, he doesn’t hesitate: he flies to South America, no questions asked. He quickly realizes he’s made a mistake. He’s replacing another actor who quit after seeing the script—a script the director now claims doesn’t exist. The movie is over budget. The production team seems headed for a breakdown. The air is so wet that the celluloid film disintegrates.
But what the actor doesn’t realize is that the greatest threat might be the town itself, and the mysterious shadow economy that powers this remote jungle outpost. Entrepreneurial Americans, international drug traffickers, and M-19 guerillas are all fighting for South America’s future—and the groups aren’t as distinct as you might think. The actor thought this would be a role that would change his life. Now he’s worried if he’ll survive it.
Inspired by a true story from the annals of 1970s Italian horror film, and told in dazzlingly precise prose, We Eat Our Own is a resounding literary debut, a thrilling journey behind the scenes of a shocking film and a thoughtful commentary on violence and its repercussions.
This reading group guide for We Eat Our Own includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Set in 1979 in a remote part of the Amazon rain forest, Kea Wilson’s daring, dazzlingly written first novel pans between the perspectives of very different characters locked on a collision course. At its center is a nameless New York City actor who makes his way to an isolated region of Colombia to join the film as a last-minute replacement. All around him, the film’s all-Italian crew attempt to go about their jobs with little success—and no help from their enigmatic director, Ugo Velluto, who has barred his team from reading the script before they shoot it. (Chilling scenes set months later in an Italian courtroom, interspersed with the present-day action, reveal that Ugo is eventually tried for the murder of his principal actors.) Outside the shoot, in the small town that surrounds the film set, members of a drug cartel, revolutionary guerilla fighters and an unscrupulous American expatriate compete for political control; as the filming progresses and tensions between the filmmakers and surrounding forces escalate, We Eat Our Own reveals how the outsiders implicate themselves in the region’s unsteady future and dramatically unspools the mysterious fate of Ugo’s actors.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. One of the first things the nameless protagonist from New York City realizes after he agrees to act in the film is that no one in the production crew will share the full script. Do you believe Velluto has an overarching narrative plan for the film, or is he improvising? Why?
2. Andres remembers Juan Carlos, his supervisor in the M-19 militia, telling him “When you start calling me by my alias, I’m not your friend anymore. I’m your compañero” (63). What kind of obligations does Andres have to “compañeros” like Juan Carlos in the fight against President Turbay’s regime? Does he meet those obligations?
3. Why does classical music provide the prisoner called “the Patient” so much comfort? Why doesn’t Andres allow him to play records?
4. Why does Andres give the Patient the means to break free? Why does he decide the Patient’s freedom is worth Matón’s life?
5. Why is the American protagonist so reluctant to call his girlfriend, Kay, from his hotel in the days after he lands in Bogotá and before he ventures into the rain forest? What do you learn about their relationship through his memory of their time together?
6. What is Agata referring to when she tells Paolo, her husband and fellow special-effects artist, that “[s]omething’s different” about Ugo’s behavior on the set (117)? How do you think he behaved differently when they worked together on previous films?
7. Why do you think Marina came to the Amazon after Andres’s death, and how do you think her relationship to the original mission has changed?
8. Why do you think Marina ends her own life?
9. What problems do Paolo and Agata encounter making props for the film? Which ones are caused by the natural environment and which are the results of Ugo’s eccentricity?
10. Why does the prosecutor trying Ugo for murder ask about his “real intention, when [he] made this film” (230)? Why does Ugo ask the court to “let my work speak for itself” (233)?
11. How does the brief romantic affair between the American actor and Irena, the female lead, complicate their work in the film? Why might he, after kissing Irena in an acted scene, find he “can’t shake the strangeness of it” even though she “tastes the way she did before, smoked salt and coffee” (270)?
12. Are there any true cannibals in We Eat Our Own? In what ways are the examples of violence that characters such as Ugo, Marina, the American protagonist and Hank commit against other humans “cannibalistic”?
13. In present-day Colombia, leftist groups, namely the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), remain in control of certain remote regions, though the group was in peace negotiations with the government as recently as March 2016. Does the novel suggest any reasons that conflicts between guerilla warriors and the official regime in Colombia may not be easily solved? What kind of presence does President Turbay’s government have in the region in which We Eat Our Own takes place?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In the author’s note, Kea Wilson mentions being initially inspired by the Italian horror film Cannibal Holocaust, which takes the form of a documentary filmed about the disappearance of two anthropologists in the Amazon. Screen the film in your book club and discuss whether you see any connections between the film and the novel. (As a warning: the film contains graphic violence and may not be suitable for all audiences.)
2. Has anyone in your book club ever researched or visited a part of the Amazon? Discuss the aspects of the environment that are reflected in the novel as well as those that aren’t.
3. Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, or Symphony no. 3, the piece that brings comfort and joy to the Patient’s bleak life as a prisoner, was originally dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte for the democratic and antimonarchical ideals he represented in the wake of the French Revolution, though Beethoven later rededicated the piece. Play the song. Are there elements of it that sound rebellious? What emotions does the song inspire?
"[A] canny, funny, impressively detailed debut novel ... [Wilson is] a novelist of real substance and promise." —The New York Times Book Review
“Joining the ranks of recent hotly anticipated crime novels such as The Girls, Kea Wilson’s We Eat Our Own steps back to the 1970s with a blood-curdling horror story about making a movie in the Amazon.” —Playboy
"An exciting, impressive debut ... one of the pleasures of “We Eat Our Own” is its attention to the inner workings of horror films. Wilson’s novel is a kind of all-access pass to the movie set." —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Like Cannibal Holocaust, Wilson's debut wrestles with real versus simulated violence, with Velluto getting the punchline: "There's no such thing as murder in the jungle." This is the smartest kind of horror, one that understands and employs the trappings while making us squirmingly aware of the moral contortions required to enjoy them. A highly unusual breath of fetid air." —Booklist,starred review
"In Wilson’s gripping, ambitious debut novel, a struggling actor flies to the rain forests of Colombia to star in Jungle Bloodbath, a grind house horror film directed by an eccentric Italian auteur … The drama builds palpably and haphazardly, drawing the invading crew and invaded population together until, in a moment of cathartic bloodshed, reality and fiction collide … the story never flags thanks to the ferocious momentum of [Wilson’s] prose. This is a vivid, scary novel." —Publishers Weekly
"Inspired by actual events, Wilson shows impressive command of a narrative that weaves back and forth and back again in both time and locale; much like the viewer of a pseudo-documentary horror movie (ever seen The Blair Witch Project?), you wonder throughout whether you should trust whatever it is you're told—and jumping to the end won't help at all. You shouldn't anyway, because Wilson's writing style is hypnotic, tightly wound, and harrowingly evocative of the story's stifling, bug-heavy atmosphere. Even the sunniest skies of this ill-starred shoot are thick with menace and portent. Keep telling yourself, "It's only a novel, it's only a novel" ... except an author's note at the end says it's inspired by actual events." —Kirkus Reviews
"Kea Wilson has written an ambitious, multi-layered novel that follows a director’s dark vision into the depths of the jungle, and into a secret world of political anarchy, murder, and war." —Atticus Lish, author of Preparation for the Next Life, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award
"This is a big, fast novel—bigger than it looks, full of surprises—and it never rests. It launches into the South American jungle and finds trouble there in the form of layer upon layer of perilous and tenuous reality: in the midst of a movie and in the movie inside that movie, in a village overrun by the landscape, among tribes real and fabricated, and in the middle of a power struggle between drug cartels and guerrilla groups, under threat of a war that may be only as genuine as the cannibals. Kea Wilson writes beautifully from a wide range of perspectives. This one is hard to put down." —Marshall Klimasewiski, author of The Cottagers and Tyrants
"The jungle is alive and everywhere in Kea Wilson's remarkable debut novel, gorgeous and indifferent, it's ravening appetite the very real horror unleashed by human heedlessness and hubris. Denied all explanation of motivation by his Kurtz-like director, a young American actor finds himself on a harrowing journey, taking us with him—spellbound, resistless—into ‘one of the dark places of the earth.'" —Kathryn Davis, author of Duplex and The Thin Place
"Reading We Eat Our Own is like floating down a long dark twisting river, the jungle closing in. You know you should turn back, but as in any nightmare or horror flick: you can't. Wilson's whip-smart prose tugs you on, ever deeper into the book's bloody heart. A daredevil debut by a talented young writer." —Danielle Dutton, author of Margaret the First and publisher of the Dorothy Project