An Interview with Author and Editor, Danielle Ackley-McPhail / Part 6 of 6

The final part of my conversation with Danielle Ackley-McPhail, casting an eye on the nuts and bolts of creating anthologies, finding an audience, making the most of the convention circuit, and Dani’s most recent projects and ventures. Thanks all for reading! (Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, or Part 5.)

You’re known as one of the most successful anthology editors in the specialty press, having edited, co-edited, or worked on nearly a dozen anthologies in the past decade and helped to launch them. How does your role as editor shape your work as a writer?

Well…thank you again. Editing anthologies came out of my love of creating books, something I have been doing for thirty-two years. I get ideas, I find the twist, and then I am driven to complete the project. Mostly they come about because I want to explore whatever concept has captured my mind. Consequently, of all of the anthologies I’ve been involved with in an editorial capacity only two of them do not contain stories I’ve written. So…in that context my editorial work shaped my writing by enabling me to explore some fascinating concepts as I found my tale to fit the theme. Conversely, in most other ways my editorial work just gets in the way. I find I’m so busy dealing with production and administrivia (not my phrase, though I absolutely love it!) that my writing often comes in last minute as I scramble to get my story done before we have to go to press. That, in fact, is why I only have an introduction in Bad-Ass Faeries: It’s Elemental… I just couldn’t draw my story together fast enough and we were out of time. This is the first volume in the series that doesn’t have a Wild Hunt tale. I’ve started it, but I just haven’t had time to find my way to the end. I’ll likely post it on the Bad-Ass Faeries website ( as a bonus freebie once it’s done.

BAF4_ElementalLooking at it first from a writer’s perspective then from an editor’s, what’s do you think it takes to connect with science-fiction and fantasy readers today?

Oh… this is so hard to say… everyone has their own tastes when it comes to fiction. And I don’t think you can really break it out by editor and writer because there is too much overlap. Good fiction, originality, excitement. And as a writer I would add a solid connection to the characters, but that is me, as I am a writer of character-driven tales. Yet I know there are those readers out there who couldn’t care less about the characters, they want the action… You know. I think in the end it comes down to one thing: whether you are in the character camp or the action camp, you have to make the reader care. It is as simple as that.

To what extent do you think a shared connection with readers, such as common interest in fandom activities or a regular presence at conventions, contributes to succeeding as a writer versus simply publishing good writing?

I don’t know how it is for every author, but I know that I would not be where I am without my personal connection with my fans. I sell more books in person than I do on-line, with much more repeat customers because they know me. They can talk to me about what they liked and what they didn’t, we can chat and hang out at a convention. Now there are a lot more authors out there that are wildly successful who don’t do this, but most of those have a big-house publisher behind them feeding the distribution machine. And even so, I say an author that gets out and moves among their following has a stronger, more loyal fan base than one who stays up on their pedestal typing away, without connecting to their readership.

In terms of bringing great fiction to your readers, how do your goals as an editor differ from those as a writer?

Whatever hat I’m wearing, I love to create cool books. I love to share the unexpected and the wonderful with readers. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but that goal is always the same.

DAMInt_WordFantasyYou’re very well plugged in to the regional science-fiction/fantasy convention scene, appearing at several cons each year, often hosting launch parties for new publications. What advice can you offer to writers about connecting with readers, editors, and publishers at these conventions?

Talk. Listen. Socialize. Don’t pitch or pimp or continually drag focus only to your book or manuscript. Build a relationship, don’t just try and make a connection. We’re all there to have fun in a community where we are comfortable and can relax. Being pushy or obnoxious gets in the way of that and will turn people off more than anything.

Where should a reader who hasn’t yet read your work start? Give us some suggestions from your short fiction as well as your long fiction.

Well… any of my first novels are good places to start, depending on the reader’s taste: Yesterday’s Dreams (Celtic urban fantasy), The Halfling’s Court (biker faeries – urban fantasy), or Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn (historic/steampunk fantasy). After all, who wants to start with book two of a series. J As for the short fiction. If a reader is partial to science fiction it would have to be the short story collection A Legacy of Stars, which contains the bulk of my sci-fi stories. For fantasy I have a collection called Transcendence coming out later this year from Dark Quest Books. It contains a nice chunk of my fantasy stories. As for individual stories… that is so much harder to recommend. I just can’t do it. Each one contains some kernel of wonder that I love, and all of them are so different from the others. There is no comparison, no way to guide someone to ease their way in. Best to leap in with both feet. J

What should readers look for next from Danielle Ackley-McPhail?

Oh goodness! Who knows what mischief I’ll get into next! I certainly don’t. There are a number of on-going projects in the works. For anthologies I’m editing: Gaslight and Grimm, Eternal Flame, The Society for the Preservation of CJ Henderson, and The Transdimensional Adventures of the Miracle Mead Men. Those I’ve contributed stories to that are coming out this year are: Dance Like a Monkey, Athena’s Daughters, Hellfire Lounge 4: Reflections of Evil, and Lucky 13. Novels I’m working on are The High King’s Fool: A Bad-Ass Faerie Tale, Daire’s Devils (military science fiction), an as-yet unnamed sequel to Baba Ali, and an unconventional vampire novel looking for a new name. So…I guess readers should expect pretty much anything!

To follow Danielle’s projects, learn more about her, or buy her books, please check out her website and visit her Amazon author page. Also, look for her on the convention circuit where she’s a steadfast con presence up and down the east coast.

An Interview with Author and Editor, Danielle Ackley-McPhail / Part 5 of 6

Talking this week about Danielle’s science fiction stories, her oceanic fantasy tales, and her most recent novel, Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, co-authored with Day Al Mohamed, and the fine art of authorial collaboration. (Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, or Part 4.)

DAMInt_LegacyYou also write science fiction, collected in A Legacy of Stars. How do you change gears from one genre to the other?

Basically? I have way too many ideas in my head. I get an idea and I follow it, it’s that simple. I read pretty much everything so I’m equally conversant with fantasy and science fiction. Beyond that, I love to play with ideas and to play what if. Whether the speculative element is magic or science it is still a challenge to make the improbable plausible. Also, no matter what I am writing it is virtually always character-driven. With the character being the most important element in the story, the rest is just a matter of how the character interacts with their world. With that approach it doesn’t really take much of a shift for me to go from magic to science.

Jean Paul Marot, a tragic character who appears in “By Any Means” and “Last Man Standing” in A Legacy of Stars has a bit of a cult following, even though you haven’t written that much about him yet. How did you come to create poor Jean, and do you plan to write anymore about him?

Oh, Jean-Paul…one of my favorite and most ill-fated characters. This is a case of a character introducing themselves. He first appeared in New Blood (Padwolf Publishing), a collection of stories about newly-turned vampires. When I was invited to the collection I asked the editor what they hadn’t received yet that they would have liked to have seen. The immediate response was science fiction. This is how Jean-Paul was born. I won’t go into the specifics since that would ruin the first story for anyone who hadn’t read it yet, but suffice it to say that these tales give a new perspective on humanity and the innate strength of man. I love Jean-Paul and I truly feel bad about what I’ve put him through, but you know… I think it’s always him because he is the strongest character I have. He is the best suited to come out the other end… eventually… even stronger yet. I am sure we will see him again as his tale is far from done, but I have to let my current idea simmer. Give Jean-Paul a chance to lick his wounds….

burning sailMost recently you published a collection of seafaring fantasy tales, Consigned to the Sea, and a novel, Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn, co-authored with Day Al Mohamed. Tell us about these books. Do they intersect with any of your series?

Consigned to the Sea (Dark Quest Books) is a collection of my short fiction that has appeared in various anthologies over the years. The stories are either in a purely fantasy world, or they are historic fantasy so they don’t draw on any of my other works. Someday they might spawn novels of their own…but right now they are just fiction written to whatever theme I was challenged to write at the time. Several of the stories are set in established universes that I return to from time to time when I can find a way to connect those universes to a particular theme, but that is mostly to simplify things for myself because, as with serials, a lot of the groundwork is already in place so all I need concern myself with is the thread of the story.

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn is something altogether different from anything I have ever done before. Originally it was meant to be a story for Gaslight and Grimm: Steampunk Faerie Tales (Dark Quest Books, Fall 2014) and I was consulting with Day Al-Mohamed to ensure I captured the proper regional and cultural flavor the tale called for. In the end we instead co-wrote the piece, and it quickly grew beyond the bounds of our expectations. This was my first successful collaboration and while challenging, it also brought richness to the project as we mingled ideas and perspectives to find the right balance of action and introspection for the story. When we drew the “short” story to a close—having glossed over many details out of necessity—it was a hefty 17,000 words. When the publisher learned how long it had gone, he declared it a book and told us to go finish it. We owe him a drink for that one. After we fleshed it out and did a proper job of covering all the relevant points we had a work we could truly be proud of that seems to speak to the reader on so many levels, if our advance reviews are anything to go by. We are very excited to unleash this book on the world and see where it takes us all. Already we have several ideas for continuations… not to mention a new story to write for Gaslight and Grimm. We’re going with Aladdin this time, and tying it into the same universe. What can I say… we’re having fun!

What a great example of a book taking on a life of its own. Tell us a bit about what Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn is all about.

This novel is a steampunk retelling of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, but it is so much more than that at the same time. We’ve drawn in the history and the culture of both Victorian England and the Middle East to immerse the reader in Ali’s world. In our version Ali is the son, not the father, though the rest of the core story remains pretty much the same.

As the second son, Ali is sent to England to apprentice with the famed Charles Babbage as an artificer. When he is in the middle of his apprenticeship a strange clockwork falcon delivers a puzzle box and a mystery others would kill to keep secret. Ali is unaware of this and only knows the box is magical and he has yet to find the key. When his father dies and his jealous brother summons Ali back to Arabia, danger follows him home.

Once Ali returns to the desert the tale—mostly—follows the same path as original, but in its own unique way.

This is a rich tale set against an exotic backdrop where the universe itself comes alive for the reader. No matter whether a person is familiar with the original or not, this novel will enchant with its melding of the magic and the mechanical.

DAMInt_BabaAliHow did you and Day work together? What was the writing process like?

With a great deal of patience! Both of us have very take-charge personalities, our greatest challenge was in relinquishing some of that control we are both so used to having on a project. For Day this wasn’t as hard because she is used to working as a team on screenplays and comic, but for me it was my first time seriously collaborating with another author. There was never any tension between us, but I definitely had internal struggles when her creative vision didn’t match mine.

Our process mostly worked like this: One of us would write a scene and send it back to the other. That person would tweak what was there and add a little more. It would go back to the original person who would then accept or reject the revisions and then have to support why. We would use track changes to leave messages or clarifications for one another, or to question a particular decision we didn’t understand. At the same time as all of this was going on we had our alpha reader, Halla, reading sections as they were completed and she would call us on things as well. From time to time we would talk on the phone, in person, or via email and hash out particular plot points. The whole process was somewhat controlled chaos, but it worked for us!

Our individual creative inspiration, with a bit of input from Halla, really melded well together to create a lush, vibrant setting and characters with their own distinct and consistent voices. Justifiably we take pride in the fact that readers have been unable to identify segments of the text that were clearly written by one or the other of us.

Next Week: Danielle and I conclude our interview talking about what goes into making successful anthologies, the state of publishing today, navigating the wild trails of fandom and conventions, and what’s next for Danielle.

To follow Danielle’s projects, learn more about her, or buy her books, please check out her website and visit her Amazon author page. Also, look for her on the convention circuit where she’s a steadfast con presence up and down the east coast.

An Interview with Author and Editor, Danielle Ackley-McPhail / Part 3 of 6

Presenting part three of my interview with Danielle Ackley-McPhail, digging deeper into the elements of the Eternal Cycle characters and the series themes of growth and sacrifice. (Read Part 1 and Part 2.)

All of the characters in the Eternal Cycle series are changed by the events of the story, but Kara undergoes the most dramatic of transformation. She’s impulsive and willful, and there’s a good amount of spontaneity in her. Was it a challenge to balance your goals for the story with the course of Kara’s experience? Did you ever find her taking you in a different direction than you’d intended?

I had to be very careful when I wrote Yesterday’s Dreams. Certain things needed to take place as the story unfolded and I discovered that Kara was weak and whiny, without much development from there. This was one case where I consciously progressed her away from those personality traits. After that point it was just a matter of letting the story develop and focusing on the choices being made and who the characters became. Once I was aware I could back off on guiding and go back to discovering. As for divergences….most of my characters pulled those pranks on me at one point or another…some died when they weren’t supposed to, others hung around long after they were meant to go away. Some grew close to one another despite my intentions. I found that if I followed their lead, though, the story became richer with layers of flavor I couldn’t have anticipated or planned. On the rare occasions I tried to force them away from the path they were determined to follow it stole the very breath from the scene. No…things didn’t go the way I had intended, but I wouldn’t change one thing of how they did go. It would rob the story of its magic.

Kara’s evolution from a humble young lady, lacking self-confidence to an assertive and self-assured woman in control of her powers is a fascinating element of the series. In particular, I enjoyed how Kara’s ability to use and control her power is sometimes contingent on her acceptance that she does possess it and should use it. Would it be too much of a stretch to consider this authorial commentary on how we all come of age and grow into our own?

Oh! I would love to take credit, I really would, but I really didn’t put that much planning into how the personalities developed. Like any good parent I let them figure out who they were, even when I didn’t like the choices they made. I gave gentle nudges, making sure whiny Kara didn’t surface for too long, but mostly I paid attention to the choices available and the impacts they would have. I gave them consequences and I strove for my good characters to grow and respond to those choices and consequences. Sometimes reality is harsh, sometimes it is chancy; I strove to capture that in the story.

Was it a conscious decision that Kara has no romantic interest at the outset of the series or simply a reflection of where you saw her at this stage in her life?

It wasn’t a conscious decision, but several things came to play here that made that development logical. One, the book takes place over only three days’ time and Kara’s attention was definitely not on things romantic during that time. Two, the main crux of the novel is the sacrifices Kara is making. Multiple jobs, financial burden…those things don’t generally leave time or energy for boyfriends and dates. Three, by the time I was about two thirds done I was starting to think about the rest of the books in the series and had some ideas regarding romantic entanglements possibly to be developed. Those didn’t turn out precisely the way I expected they would, but there is enough there that would have made any pre-existing romance inconvenient.

DAMInt_TodayAnd as the story grows and Kara continues making sacrifices, for the sake of others or for her own sake—simultaneously, she seems to awaken to the possibility of a relationship, almost as if she’s maturing into it. Did that come about organically or did you have to play matchmaker?

It is a combination of the two. Kara’s choices throughout the story arc led to several possibilities and even I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to pursue. While I wanted to show that Kara had a future that could include romantic love, in the end I felt it wasn’t really a part of her current journey. She was still discovering who she was so how could she be ready to discover who she could be with another? I chose to give the hope of a romantic future, while showcasing the maturity and responsibility she worked so hard to refine. In the Eternal Cycle series we see her scarred and damaged and healed and growing. Her journey has been tumultuous and brutal, to have given her a sweet, pat, Happily-Ever-After would have been wrong.

The name of Maggie’s pawn shop—Yesterday’s Dreams—is deceptively melancholy. It suggests that the things stored there represent abandoned dreams, but dreams that might yet be revived if their owners only reclaim the object they pawned, however unlikely that may be. Can we read that as metaphor for how we all live our lives by bargaining our dreams for existence, sacrificing aspirations for practical concerns?

Instead of thinking of the name as a grim omen, think of it as a mission statement. Maggie is a protector, and her chosen profession allows her to protect the dreams others find themselves forced to give up. There is a quote in the book that has actually become quite popular on the Internet. Every so often someone posts it and it makes the rounds again. The quote is: Because dreams are the difference between living, and existing. If this is the only thing I am ever known for when I am gone from this earth, I will count it well done. In the context of the novel, this is something Kara’s father says to her when he discovers she has pawned the violin. It is not uncommon in life to have to let go of certain of our dreams. This is to be expected. Some are impractical, others are unwise…harmful, some are set aside so that we can reach for something greater. Other dreams we set aside out of necessity. Maybe we can come back to them; maybe they are gone forever. It is an act of faith that we make such sacrifices. The dream itself does not matter. What matters is that we keep dreaming; it is when we give that up that something in our soul dies.

Kara’s connections to her music run deep. Music ties her to her family. It also sustains her family and sustains her spirit and perhaps helps her balance her soul. As an author, how does your creative work fit into your life?

I coined a phrase a while back. It sums it all up: Words are the closest we can come to creating something from nothing at all.

I won’t say that I have a god-complex, but there is something phenomenal about being able to create people and worlds that would never have otherwise been introduced to humanity. When I write I am revitalized by the intricate nature of what I do and in awe of the inspiration that leads me to visualize the wonders I have seen, even if only in my mind. Each time I learn of someone who has seen the vision I have tried to convey…there are no words. I tell tales because my mind insists on seeing them. I share them because it is a gift I have been given that I want to explore to its fullest, the beauty, the wonder, the joy of it. Passion feeds the soul…and not just your own. Our souls could stand to have a better diet.

One of the main themes in the Eternal Cycle series is regeneration and renewal and the consequences of failing to renew one’s existence or purpose. The Tuatha de Danaan recycle the souls of the fallen, and many of your characters—human and Fae alike—must revise their concepts of reality as the story progresses. This affects protagonists and antagonists. It is both external, for example, contemporary minds accepting the existence of gods and mythological beings, and internal, such as characters accepting truths about their own nature. What interests you about the cycle of renewing and reinventing one’s self?

I think it’s very important that we be open to possibilities, whatever they might be in life. We grow. We change. We find ourselves in different situations, not necessarily of our choosing. If we resist adapting in the face of all of that we remain brittle and often bitter. We lose out on so much in life when we are not open to the prospect of change. If we do not change we stagnate, we become victims of entropy. My husband and I have had many lives together since we linked our fates. Each major change we have embraced marks a new beginning, a new existence. We bring elements of the old ones with us into the new, but like the rings denoting the years a tree has lived, our landmarks in life show how we’ve grown and changed. Better yet, they are examples of how we have survived. This is the very essence of being alive. Though the changes in real life are more often less extreme they definitely bear kinship to the triumphs and torments I inflicted on Kara and the other characters in the series.

Goibhniu, the leader of the Tuatha de Danaan, is a fascinating character. His people love and fear him at the same time—yet we see repeatedly that he seems to have only their best interests at heart, and he hints at possessing powers greater than what is revealed in the course of the story. Is there a dark or more dangerous side to the Smithgod we haven’t yet seen? 

We have already glimpsed some of the darkness in this fae. No matter his finer points, there were times in the books when his flaws were evident as well. In my perception, though, the longer a being has been alive the more likely they have worked past the petty little flaws many of us still struggle to recognize in ourselves, let alone overcome. I am sure we will see more of Goibhniu at some point and very likely the very awe-inspiring nature of him, in the truest sense of the phrase. But at the heart of him is good and that will always shine through.

Everything gained by the characters—human, Fae, or demon—in the Eternal Cycle comes at a cost. No one is left unscathed or unchanged by their experiences, their decisions, their growth. Often the price paid is a heavy one. Does this reflect your personal view of how we exist in the real world?

In most instances we are very fortunate. While uncomfortable, many of the costs we pay for our decisions are not lasting or gradually lose their sting over time. In the high-pressure, high-paced setting of these books the stakes were high, the forces faced of supernatural power, and so the costs were in proportion. When you are battling to save the world, few consequences are small. There are those who in their day-to-day lives face such conflicts and sacrifices. Every day police and fire-fighters and soldiers wake up knowing this could be the day they die…or someone else will if they don’t make the right choice. For the most part the characters in the Eternal Cycle series are or become warriors on par with these real-world heroes so what I have depicted is an extreme, but yes. If we are not changed by life we have not lived. Sometimes those changes are positive, sometimes they are not. What is important is how we allow them to shape us. What lesson do we take away from the experience? Have we made our choices count? Our scars might fade quicker than Kara’s…or they might not, but we all have them.

Next Week: We wrap up talking about the Eternal Cycle series and touch on the stories of the Wild Hunt MC.

To follow Danielle’s projects, learn more about her, or buy her books, please check out her website and visit her Amazon author page. Also, look for her on the convention circuit where she’s a steadfast con presence up and down the east coast.