Stephen Cox began his journey as a professional writer in 2012. While his first novel has yet to find a home, he has published other books. The first in his series Our Child of the Stars published to glowing praise in 2019. His latest, Our Child of Two Worlds, continues Cox’s focus on crafting characters and relationships that feel believable even in the midst of impossible situations. Wanting to learn more about him and his newest book, I was able to interview Cox for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved? Are there some you still enjoy revisiting?
Stephen Cox: There are still some stories that stand up for me. Earthsea led me to Ursula Le Guin’s adult work, and I reread Ray Bradbury every so often. I rediscovered (new) Dr Who with my kids, which I remember from when sci fi for kids was very limited. I first saw it in black and white! The historical novels of Mary Renault are as immersive as any fantasy and included the first same sex relationships presented as unapologetically noble, positive, loving… I recently reread Joan Aitken’s clever elegant stories which stand up very well.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career as a writer? Was there a moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
Cox: I had vaguely wanted to be a writer since I was about eight. This vague hope gets you nowhere. That itch was scratched with roleplaying games including my literary play by mail RPG, a phase writing short stories and poetry in the 90s, then that faded out. It was a sabbatical in 2012 when I sat down and discovery-wrote a first draft novel and got the bug. Now writing feels like one of my purposes and I followed it doggedly. That first book is thankfully unpublished, but it taught me enough to take the next step… Our Child of the Stars, and now Our Child of Two Worlds, the sequel.
Yanes: You mentioned in your bio that you contracted Covid-19. A topic I’ve written about is how the pandemic has impacted how creators tell stories. Given your experience, how did the pandemic influence the way you approach crafting tales?
Cox: It reminds us that real life is surprising. I have this long-standing row with my partner, that Flat Earthism isn’t harmless fun but profoundly dangerous. People’s ability to be gulled into self-harming nonsense scares me more each year. In the book I have someone deny the aliens exist just as a professional contrarian to get on TV. We should remember that in difficult times people will pull together – there was a community spirit in the pandemic many rose to extraordinary achievements. Personally, I was so whacked from work that I could only edit at weekends and the book was a useful retreat.
Yanes: Your bio also mentions that you are a Ph.D. dropout. As someone who finished their Ph.D., I envy the fact that you walked away. When did you realize you were done with higher education and academia?
Cox: It was one of those stupid decisions 21-year-olds drift into. After two years, my parents asked kindly if I felt it was right for me and that released me to leave (the next day). The issue for me is that I am a far better science communicator than a research scientist.
Yanes: Writers are notorious for being bad at marketing themselves. As a professional communicator, what common mistakes do you think writers make when promoting themselves and their books?
Cox: I’m refitting my skills to a very different scenario, and in part the product is me, which any normal person should feel cautious about. I think talk about what the book makes you feel as well as what the clever idea is. My books unashamedly play to SF tropes (intelligently) and unashamedly aims to cross over into to those for whom SF is not their first love. Conveying that has been complex. Wherever it is shelved it might miss some of its audience.
Yanes: Your latest novel is Our Child of Two Worlds. What was the inspiration for it?
Cox: I always conceived of this as two books. The first book has Gene and Molly Myers, a childless couple in the 1960s who adopt an orphan alien they call Cory and keep him safe from the government by keeping him a secret. It’s about family and found family and the cost of love – and also what we do to each other and the Earth and how that would look to someone from a world with no war, no poverty, no starvation, no violent crime. The story ends with the big issues unanswered – about whether Earth will be attacked by malign forces and whether Cory’s people will return. That had to be resolved in book two. In Two Worlds, Cory and the existence of aliens are public knowledge. The stakes are higher in relationships, in the family’s safety, and the future of the world.
Inspirations for the two books, my life (being a child, being a parent), SF, everything I read about the period, working in a children’s hospital… the joy of it helped me write more optimism than I felt at the time. My editor saying ‘yes, go write the sequel’ was very inspiring.
Yanes: Our Child of Two Worlds is set in the late 1960s. While not a perfect time, it seems to be a time in which people believed that tomorrow could be better than yesterday. When do you think that optimism died?
Cox: I set it then and in the US because I wanted that feeling of optimism at a time of change. I’m interested in why that soured – there are economic reasons, and a new conservative coalition, and a backlash against scientific hubris which was needed but which has gone too far. Although some things have improved we see clearly how much more is needed – not least to stop climate chaos. I am an Eeyore who recognizes that despair will be fatal. Of course, in my books, we encounter aliens who show us a society which shows up our failings and maybe that tips the future of the world onto a more optimistic path. But I made it an example we would struggle to copy, as however lovable Cory is, his people are not human, nor perfect.
Yanes: The characters in Our Child of Two Worlds feel incredibly fleshed out. Was there ever a moment in which a character’s development ran counter to the plot you were telling?
Cox: Characters have to act according to their nature, it is one of my horrors of much long series TV when people do things to meet the needs of an episode rather than being consistent. When this is a clash, I just either find a convincing reason or rework the plot. These tensions are creative, but it starts with the character.
Yanes: When people finish reading Our Child of Two Worlds, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Cox: I hope they enjoyed it and felt diverted. I hope they felt reminded that people can be brave and kind and decent even if they are scared or ill or whatever. That we can step up in small ways and in large. I aim to “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them think.”
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Cox: I am working on something where the lead characters are loveable women rogues, unlike the lovely Myers family – more shades of grey – which is fun. My narrator earns her living in a very dubious way but she does step up to try to stop a murder. It’s rather English – a sideways commentary on my country’s desperate need to suck up to talentless posh people and play make-believe about the past.