Jennifer Stevenson’s raunchy, funny, and disturbing first novel, Trash Sex Magic, is full of bewitching weirdness. Set in fictional Berne, Illinois, on the Fox River near Saint Charles, it’s stuffed with all three titular aspects. The heroines, mother and daughter Gelia and Raedawn Somershoe, live in a trailer, as do most of their neighbors. Still foxy at 60, Gelia has an irresistible sexual power over the men of the area, as does Raedawn. They also have a supernatural sexual connection with their surroundings–including a 60-foot tree that happens to be one of Raedawn’s lovers.
When an arrogant developer schemes to take over their property and has the tree cut down, things get truly bizarre. Fish, snakes, toads, and turtles bubble up from pools. Birds and insects go into mating frenzies. Cast-iron foxes rise up and run. People shape-shift into animals and back. And unless Raedawn can find a lover to take the place of–indeed, become–the tree, Mother Nature has a lot more weirdness in store.
Stevenson dreamed up the premise for Trash, which started out as “a lame horror novel,” while sitting in a jury room 18 years ago. She’d recently seen Coal Miner’s Daughter and read Carolyn Chute’s novel The Beans of Egypt, Maine, and scrappy stories of rural poverty were rattling around in her head. She started to wonder what would happen if someone like her mother, whom she describes as “a very 50s housewife” with “immense personal charisma,” were able to live free of social convention. “She had enough vitality for five women and she could sell shoes to snakes,” she says of Carol Dornfeld Stevenson. “But she’d been brought up to believe that a woman could do very little with her life. That seemed wrong. I made up a character who could take those powers and run with them without worrying about what other people would think. And then I made up another one, because one is hardly enough.”
Stevenson, who lives in Evanston, grew up running around forest preserves and parks near Saint Charles. Her grandfather was the legendary Chicago newsman A.A. Dornfeld, author of “Hello, Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!”: The Story of the City News Bureau of Chicago. Her father, John Stevenson, worked on the Tribune’s nightside city desk for more than 20 years, and for a time her mother wrote features for the Aurora Beacon News. She says it was always assumed she would become a writer, though it would take her a while to get there. After graduating from the University of Iowa in 1977 she followed her husband, Rich Bynum, east, where he attended Yale School of Drama and then served as the school’s technical director for several years. Since 1986 the pair have run Hawkeye Scenic Studios, a theatrical design shop in Lakeview.
Stevenson, a sci-fi and fantasy buff since she was 12, doesn’t like the idea of “magic tenure”–the presumption that the longer the white beard or pointy hat, the better the magician. Her Somershoe women have no formal magical training; they’re flying by the seat of their pants. Living on the edge of society, they know they’re in the minority: their tree can be cut down, their land taken away, their kids put in foster homes. “Harry Potter and J.R.R. Tolkien show only upper-crust magicians,” Stevenson says. “I wanted to write a book about workaday magic practiced by the underclass, how magic empowers them and wrecks them at the same time. In effect the book is a bit of a rant about social class in fantasy.”
Stevenson’s been writing and rewriting Trash Sex Magic for the last 16 years, shopping it around whenever she thought she had a viable draft. She got a break in 2002 when Kelly Link, author of the award-winning story collection Stranger Things Happen and founder of the up-and-coming Small Beer Press, asked to see the manuscript. Stevenson knew Link from WisCon, Madison’s annual feminist science fiction convention, and had sent her a version of the novel several years earlier. Link loved the revision and signed on as publisher. Stevenson caught another break earlier this year when she secured a back jacket blurb from Audrey Niffenegger, whose own first novel, The Time Traveler’s Wife, was then climbing the best-seller lists. “I don’t know why she took a chance on it,” says Stevenson. “Maybe the title grabbed her. She did tell me that she has been asked to blurb maybe 100 books and has blurbed only two–mine and one other.”
Trash Sex Magic came out in June. Currently Stevenson’s at work on two new books. One she describes as a Regency comedy of manners about the son of the president of a stagehands local and the pious daughter of a Texas preacher. The other’s the story of an English nobleman whose sexually frustrated mistress turns him into an incubus who must be confined to bed until he learns how to satisfy 100 women. “Fast-forward 100 years and the mistress is the 100th woman,” says Stevenson. “It’s kind of a midpoint of trash and stagehand comedy.”
Stevenson will read from Trash Sex Magic at 7:30 PM on Tuesday, August 10, at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark (773-769-9299). Niffenegger will be on hand to introduce her.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.