Jennifer Stevenson

Tue 1 Jun 2004 - Filed under: Authors

Trash Sex Magic by Jennifer StevensonJennifer Stevenson: An Interview
Gabrielle Moss

What led you to start writing fiction?

I’ve always written fiction, ever since I was old enough to read. My mother and my maternal grandparents all wrote, and my father wanted to write; I guess it was just assumed I would, too. Sometimes I think I’m living out their ambitions.

What inspired you to write Trash Sex Magic? The setting is vivid and powerful, and almost a character unto itslef. Where/what did you draw from to create this world?

I started working on this book in 1986 while on jury duty. It started out as a short contemporary horror novel called Early Spring. Eighteen years and many, many revisions later, Kelly Link and I carved away everything that wasn’t Trash Sex Magic. I can’t say enough about her support, her appreciation for my vision of the book, and her writerly acuity. She talks about words in a way that awes me.

The setting for Trash Sex Magic is drawn from a place where my brother and I and our dogs played as kids: Wheeler Park in Geneva, Illinois. Natives of that area will recognize a lot of landmarks, some of which have disappeared. The trees in the park are really there, but the houses across the road, by the water, were very nice houses indeed. As a kid I never got to visit them or the river. I wanted to, though. The ridge really has a railroad track on top of it, and I wanted to sit up there at night and hear the freight train go by. I wanted to see the river smash into the ridge. I wanted to see a tornado hit the water. This book let me do all that. Nature is the truest, most powerful force on earth. I wanted to keep saying that.

Other inspirations were Carolyn Chute’s The Beans of Egypt, Maine and a Tommy Lee Jones and Sissy Spacek movie, Coal Miner’s Daughter. Without these examples before me I would never have thought I could write about this kind of life.

Why did you choose to tell your story with fantasy?

Joe Haldeman talks about a kind of progression he has noticed in veterans who write about their Vietnam War experience. First they do some very autobiographical fiction, or a straight autobiographical account. Then later they expand the scope of their stories, fictionalize their personal experience a bit, include experiences that other people had but they did not, so as to make the war more accessible to more readers. Finally, maybe 20 years later, they start writing wildly fantastical stuff with extravagant imagery and “unreal” things happening, because the fantasy element is the only way they can express the violence and extravagance of theiremotions about the war.

For me, many parts of this book describe internal experiences I had as a child that I couldn’t talk about. In fact I find it impossible to talk about them now, except by telling a wildly unreal story that illustrates these feelings in a lurid, over-the-top way.

Do you do any other kinds of writing?

I’m writing raunchy romantic comedies, erotic romantic fantasy, some short fantasy stories, some experimental short funny stuff that’s all dialogue. Terry Bisson started doing that a few years ago; his stories blew me away and inspired me to try it myself. Those all-dialogue stories are bags of fun to write.

Trash Sex Magic deals with a lot of issues pertaining to class. Did you intend to write a novel with a political message?

Kind of. I wanted to respond to a trend I saw in fantasy writing and in fantasy criticism that treated magic in fiction as if it were an extension of academia. The taller your pointy hat, the longer your white beard, the better a magician you are, right? Sure, and your full professors are smarter than everybody else. This is the Tolkein/Harry Potter model. In reality, tenure doesn’t make a person smarter. I felt that in fiction, magic ought to be treated with more respect, and not as a game whose rules must have “internal consistency”–a fantasy lit-crit phrase that drove me nuts for years–but as an extension of the mysterious and marvelous and very real natural world.

If you look back through the history of science, you find the history of magic. The dividing line falls at the point when scientists stopped thinking of nature as a lover to be wooed (Paracelsus is an example) and started thinking of nature as a wife to be mastered, plowed, and dominated (as did Roger Bacon). If you squint, you can kind of see the clash of these ideas, like a battle of mastadons in the swamp, in Trash Sex Magic.

I also wanted to point out that when the Somershoe women use magic, they are flying blind, without training, without vocabulary. “Internal consistency” aside, vocabulary is a good thing. Because they have a bone-deep belief that what they are doing is “trashy,” Rae and Gelia don’t talk about it. If they were “fantasy” heroines they would, but they’re as realistic as I could make them–irrevocably outside society and yet eternally standing at its edge, half-acknowledging its rules, unable to ignore the rules. Stupid, maybe, considering their powers. It could only strengthen them to talk. But they don’t have a pointy hat. No one has given them permission to be themselves; they feel they’ve had to steal their powers under the noses of society. They’re half-right to hesitate: they live under the constant awareness that their power is in the minority; their tree can be cut down; their land can be taken; their kids can be put in foster homes. People silence themselves all the time, and they suffer accordingly.

The worst thing these people do is call themselves trash in their secret hearts. You can overcome that if it’s from the outside, but not if you’re using that word on yourself. Am I talking about class?

What books have influenced you?

Most deeply? Rudyard Kipling, especially the Mowgli stories and Kim. Ray Bradbury. Andrew Lang’s fairy tale series. Georgette Heyer, Howard Pease, Terry Pratchett, Sax Rohmer, Clifford Simak, Rex Stout, PG Wodehouse. A handful of little-known writers whose very few books hit me hard, by luck: Jody Scott, Ruth Nichols, Lorna Novak. Later, in my adulthood, Carolyn Chute, Maxine Hong Kingston, John Crowley.

Some writers who hit all the same buttons for me, but who didn’t get to me soon enough to be major “influences”, are Terry Bisson, James Blaylock, Glen Cook, Nalo Hopkinson, Barry Hughart, Diana Wynne Jones, Tanith Lee, Dan Pinkwater, Rachel Pollack, Sherri Tepper, Gene Wolfe. I read Audrey Niffenegger’s first novel last year and flew over the moon; I’m hoping for more from her.

What are you working on now?

Two things: a romantic erotic fantasy about an incubus and a farm girl, and a raunchy romantic comedy that’s kind of a cross between a contemporary blue-collar regency romance and a Romeo and-Juliet farce. The erotic fantasy is hard; I keep having to redesign my heroine because the book gets more serious the farther in I plot it, and she needs to get stronger so she can carry that weight.

The comedy is just a blast. It’s the second in a series I’m writing about stagehands. Stagehands make wonderful alpha male heroes. They’re very physical guys, sometimes bad boys, serial monogamists with a blue-collar form of chivalry that balances their sometimes-chauvinistic ideas about women. They work in the glamorous world of show biz but they get their hands dirty. Unlike performers, they don’t wear makeup or let themselves get too skinny to be strong. They’re coarse and funny and relaxed about their masculinity. I’ve been married to a stagehand for 27 years and I’m here to testify. Ya gotta love ’em.

Gabrielle Moss is on a train west. Her zine is My Life as a Liar.