Exclusive Interview: Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn Authors Danielle Ackley-McPhail & Day Al-Mohamed
The folk tale “Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves” is perhaps the most famous of the One Thousand And One Nights stories. And like all classic folk tales, “Ali Baba” has a universal appeal, even when told in a very different way. Which brings us to Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn (paperback, Kindle, audiobook), a steampunk faerie tale co-authored by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed. With a new version being released by Danielle’s eSpec Books, I present the following email interview, in which they discuss what inspired and influenced this retelling, as well as what they changed for this new edition.
Day Al-Mohamed (left), Danielle Ackley-McPhail (right)
To start, what is Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn about, and what kind of world is it set in?
Day: Baba Ali is a steampunk faerie tale set in the mid- to late-1800s. It takes place in a world where we see the rise of steam-powered mechanics and also magic. Countries and cultures have morphed and changed from what we are familiar. We have a Europe in an industrial age of steam, a Middle East filled with magic, and hints of an Asia where magic and mechanicals have been combined to create even greater wonders; Jerusalem is home to the three great schools of magic, America is building massive aerostats for transcontinental travel. But this is a story about people and relationships. How Ali seeks to learn from England’s greatest inventor, Charles Babbage, and also how Babbage teases him about “leaving milk out for the brownies.”
Danielle: Well said, Day. If I can add anything I would say it is also about being true to oneself and one’s passions, while still respecting the beliefs and philosophies that may differ from our own. Also about recognizing when they are as different as we might think.
Who came up with the original idea for Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn and how did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
Day: I think Dani did. My contribution was to emphasize that our narrative follows the older versions of the tale.
Danielle: This is my cue… Actually, Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn was supposed to be a short story for a collection of steampunk faerie tale retellings called Gaslight & Grimm. I had proposed the collection to my publisher at that time, and he said run with it. I knew from the collection’s inception that I wanted to retell “Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves” myself because it was a favorite tale from childhood. But if I was going to do it, I wanted to do it right…i.e., accurately from a cultural standpoint, particularly as the Middle East has its own age-old tradition of storytelling. With that in mind, I asked my friend Day if she would help me out as a cultural consultant. Mind you, this was just supposed to be a short story.
The thing about faerie tales, however, is that they started out as an oral tradition. That means by their very nature they are told rather than shown. The exact opposite of what authors are expected to do in today’s style. This means that a faerie tale is highly condensed. A lot of story in few words. When we retold Baba Ali from today’s standards, a tale that was a few thousand words ended up at over 17,000 words, and that was with us cutting corners because the story was too long.
When we told the publisher, he shook his head and said, that’s a book, go finish it.
It was the best thing he ever could have told us. When we had the freedom to expand Baba Ali properly, the tale became so much richer, exploring both cultural and historic elements we didn’t have the room to dip into previously.
Of course, that publisher crashed and burned soon after Baba Ali was released, but that’s another story.
Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn is subtitled “A Steampunk Faerie Tale.” Is there any significance to the fact that you spell it “Faerie” and not “Fairy”?
Day: Dani, I think you did that. And I definitely prefer Faerie. It seems to indicate something larger, darker, and less children’s story than the word “fairy.”
Danielle: I always preferred this spelling as well. I believe it stems from the French spelling and my first recollection of it is from Spencer’s The Faerie Queen. It has a richer essence and more powerful connotations than the simpler “fairy.” Faerie is more representative of the strength and fickle nature of the fae. There is danger there.
And is there any significance to the book being called Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn and not Ali Baba And The Clockwork Djinn? Y’know, like the “40 Thieves” guy?
Day: Yes. Using Baba Ali was a very specific and very intentional change. One of the things we wanted to do was differentiate our story from the 1001 Nights, especially the Burton translation which is what most people are familiar with. (For why see here.) Yes, we were inspired by “the 40 thieves guy” but we were looking at the older folktale not the watered-down translation. We wanted this to be closer (in source) to an actual Middle Eastern tale. That’s a big part of the reason you see such an active role for Morgiana. She exists in many of the older tales but her role was lessened in the later translations.
“Baba” is actually an honorific, not part of Ali’s name. You can find “Baba” used in the Middle East, Persia, and Southeast Asia. And not just as a formal honorific, it’s also used colloquially the way you’d refer to a friend. “Agha” would be another one that is similar but much more specific to certain regions and much more limited in meaning.
Danielle: To expand on what Day said, as we were reading the different versions of the tale, it stood out to us that though the story was known most commonly as “Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves,” in the tale itself other characters were noted as Baba followed by their name as we have done in our title. Only Ali had Baba after his name. Now I don’t know if that was to imply he wasn’t honored or what, since the Ali in the original tales is humble and does not receive a lot of respect, but we chose to remain consistent with Baba used as a proper honorific throughout. Of course, our Ali is also humble and not always respected…but we also rarely refer to him in the tale as Baba Ali.
On another note, some versions of the original tale (not the translations) were actually titled Clever Morgiana. We chose not to go with quite that divergent of a change for our book because we wanted people to make the connection to “Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves.” However, we did give a nod to this variant in the portion of our title The Clockwork Djinn, which is the character Morgiana.
You two wrote Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn together. How did that work? How was the work divided?
Danielle: I don’t know that anyone is going to believe this, but we wrote what inspired us as it inspired us, without necessarily caring if it was in a linear progression. I would get an idea and get it started, then I would send the segment to Day and she would clean it up, suggest changes, and then go on to add to what I had written. Even more mind-numbing from a process-standpoint, while we were doing this, sections that had already been past both of us were sent to our Alpha reader, Helen Fleisher. Eventually, we had enough pieces strung together that the gaps disappeared and we had a completed novel. While this might seem like a Mad-Hatter method of writing, by the time we had a complete draft not only was it polished, but readers could not clearly identify which parts I wrote and which parts Day wrote.
You kind of touched on this already, but Danielle, what did Day bring to this story that you did not?
Danielle: As I mentioned earlier, I wanted the tale to be both authentic and respectful to the culture being represented. Though raised here, Day was born in the Middle East and is familiar both with the culture and the conventions. That was why I engaged her help to begin with, but as she transitioned from consultant to co-conspirat…um…writer. We both have different strengths. Day has the knowledge and the love of research that complemented the story. She also brought a different view point and kept me accurate and honest, helping to identify cultural or continuity issues and recommending alternatives that flowed well with the story.
And Day, same question to you about Danielle?
Day: Experience. Before this, I was primarily a short story writer, and a pretty new one at that. I was used to writing short and still figuring out what makes a good longer narrative, even more important, what strengths (and weaknesses) I brought to a longer narrative. Dani acted as guide and taskmaster to make sure that my contributions were not just for flavor but were actually good writing. And I give her full credit as being the driver of getting this done. I like to “wallow” in my worldbuilding probably more than is good for me.
Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn is not the first book either of you have written. Are there authors, or specific stories, that had a big influence on this story but not on anything else you’ve written?
Day: Actually, Baba Ali is the first book I’ve ever written (or co-written). Saladin Ahmed was a huge influence on me and his Throne Of The Crescent Moon was an inspiration to fully immerse our story in its setting. His writing has influenced other works [of mine since], but this was the first.
Danielle: Honestly, I can’t say there were. I read a lot. Voraciously, in fact, and I always have. I’ve gone through so many books I rarely remember which authors go with which titles. I have certain ones I like well enough to remember a title or two, but I like to do my own thing, so I can’t really say they influenced me. I’ve always had a clear sense of self and have held to it fiercely.
What about non-literary influences; was Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games?
Danielle: Well…not really. It was inspired by a record I got for Christmas when I was about six years old. My mom worked for a record plant and received a free allotment each year. That year one of my presents was basically a vinyl audiobook…one side was Beauty And The Beast, and the other was Ali Baba And The Forty Thieves. I know…what a combination! But I loved that record and would play it over and over. My favorite side was the story of Ali Baba. I couldn’t think of a more appropriate tale to “punk up.”
And what about Danielle’s cats? I’ve heard they’re extremely spoiled. How did their inability to take “no” for an answer impact Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn? Or did you just give them participation trophies and send them on their way?
Day: I think you mean Dani.
Danielle: Never mind the cats, I could lock them out. Ask Day about her dogs eating her “homework.”
Now, this is a new version of Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn. What, if anything, have you changed for this new edition?
Day: One of the things we looked at was the motivations of the characters, particularly the villains. One of the biggest changes I think was to give a better picture of who they are and why they do the things they do. We had these ideas of what drove them in our heads, I think we made them more clear on the page. Family is never easy.
Danielle: I have had to re-release every book of mine that has ever been published. Some of them multiple times with different publishers. Each time I go through and clean them up. Errors that were missed the last time they were published, awkward sentences I didn’t recognize were awkward at the time, continuity issues that slipped past who knows how many sets of eyes…there is always something that can be fixed or improved. Beyond that, what Day said. One of the biggest complains we had the first time the book was released was that the villains were too cookie-cutter, not developed enough. I guess we were too true to the original tale. Anyway, we put our effort into giving them more depth.
Finally, if someone enjoys Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn, what similar novel of someone else’s would you each recommend they check out next and why that?
Day: Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon and S.A. Chakraborty’s City Of Brass.
Danielle: Beth Cato’s The Clockwork Dagger and The Clockwork Crown. Her world-building is phenomenal and her storytelling imaginative.
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