Exclusive Interview: “Echoes Of The Divine” Author Danielle Ackley-McPhail


Under normal circumstances, I cannot abide the “throw it all away” philosophy of Marie Kondo. I just like my stuff too much.

But sometimes, decluttering can be good.

Which brings me to writer Danielle Ackley-McPhail who — as she explains in the following email interview — put together her new steampunk short story collection Echoes Of The Divine And Other Steampunk Stories (paperback, Kindle) when she realized she, “…had a lot of short stories … just sitting around cluttering up my hard drive.”

Danielle Ackley-McPhail Echoes Of The Divine

To start, is there a common theme to the stories in Echoes Of The Divine?

Hmmm… Other than steampunk, I guess you could say that the common theme is some element of supernatural or divine presence in each story. As a primarily fantasy author without much background in science or technology, most of my stories in general are shaped around the fantastic in some way, even with a steampunk setting. I’m not a fan of just regurgitating life, I have to make it magical. I guess part of that comes with my early fascination with mythology.

So, did you start out wanting to assemble a collection of your steampunk stories?

This project actually was a part of a larger whole. I haven’t been writing as much as I have in the past since becoming a publisher, but I had a lot of short stories I’d written for anthologies published by other people just sitting around cluttering up my hard drive. I figured if they weren’t going anywhere, it was time they earned some rent.

But seriously, when I looked at how many stories I’d written that I wasn’t doing anything with I realized there were enough to make four — albeit small — collections, each one focusing on a different genre.

The collection was originally supposed to be called the Town Of Ground Down Gears, based on one of the unpublished stories I’d hoped to complete for the collection, but when I sat down to write it I realized that one couldn’t be wrapped up short, it wanted to be a novel, so the name changed to the other original story I wrote just for this book, Echoes of the Divine.

When I finally finished the last story, and had to shift gears, as it were, and figure out the cover, that is when I realized what each story had in common. The irony is that the only story without a magical or mystical element is the title story, “Echoes Of The Divine.” That story was inspired by a performance I had seen oh, at least ten years ago. It was at a steampunk social function called Dorian’s Parlor, held regularly in Philadelphia, and the performance was by The Divine Hand Ensemble and their theremin player, Mano Divina. I was so entranced and immediately had the idea of a young virtuoso no longer able to play recovering his music through the introduction of this ethereal instrument. Of course, the story turned out much different than I had intended…but you’ll have to read the book to find out how.

Aside from steampunk, are there other genres or subgenres at work in the stories in Echoes Of The Divine? Like, is there a steampunk mystery story, or a steampunk horror story?

Most of the stories are just straight-up steampunk, with some fantastic element, since that is how I roll, generally.

There are two stories, however, that introduce other genres along the steampunk elements. The first is “Ala al-Din And The Cave of Wonders,” which is a steampunk faerie tale retelling set in the same universe as my novel Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn, which I co-wrote with Day Al-Mohamed; and the other is a cosmic horror / steampunk story, “On The Face Of It,” which only appears in the Kickstarter limited edition, because it was actually written for [an upcoming short story collection called] The Chaos Clock, which releases later this year. This story is actually heavier on the cosmic horror aspect and broke the feel of the collection, if not the theme that developed, which is why it was only included in the hardcover. I did that because we try to always include bonus content in our limited editions, and this was my only other steampunk story not included.

So, what steampunk writers do you feel have the biggest influence on how you write steampunk?

Ah, I don’t really do “influenced,” I have and always will be the “do my own thing” kind of person in pretty much all things. Heck, most of the time I don’t even like help. When I was in high school, I was one of the only people allowed to complete the group project all on my own. The epitome of “doesn’t work well with others.” I had very particular ideas of how I wanted to do things and bristled when the group just didn’t step up and put in the effort. I’ve gotten much better at releasing total control on projects.

Now, along with Echoes Of The Divine, you also edited or co-edited three short story anthologies coming out this year. The first of which, Other Aether: Tales Of Global Steampunk, was co-edited by you and Greg Schauer, and includes stories by Beth Cato, Aaron Rosenberg, and Ef Deal. What is this anthology about?

So much steampunk out in the world has a very British or Eurocentric feel, or flat out is set in Victorian England. They weren’t the only ones to play with steam, however. We thought it would be fun to look at how steampunks would have developed in other parts of the world. What problems would they bend the technology to address? Even when it developed, because using the energy of steam well precedes the 1800s. Several of our stories are set well before that time.

You also have a story in Other Aether. Is that a story from Echoes Of The Divine?

Well, as you pointed out, I have been working on four…actually five, project simultaneously. I tend to overreach like that. I started out with plenty of time, then reach the point where I realize I am the only thing holding up the project from being complete. That happened with Other Aether, and of all the projects, it was the one I was the least clear on what I wanted to do for my own story. But while working on Echoes Of The Divine I kind of realized why: I had already written the perfect story to fit the theme of Other Aether over a decade before. Actually, with my very first steampunk story I ever wrote. And it had been long enough since I had written it that virtually no one would have read it. In the interest of the book coming out in time for the event it was planned for, I elected to include that story as a reprint in the collection. I don’t do that often, but I really couldn’t think of a better story to fit the book.

Next up is the one you mentioned earlier: The Chaos Clock: Tales Of Cosmic Aether, was edited by you solo, and which has stories by James Chambers, Teel James Glenn, and Carol Gyzander. What is this collection about?

About a year ago, James Chambers proposes an anthology idea of cosmic horror steampunk stories. That was it. Nothing else, but my mind immediately spit out the title The Chaos Clock: Tales Of Cosmic Aether, and the deal was done. See, if there is anything my friends know, it’s that I thrive on creating themed anthologies, taking common tropes, and turning them on their ear until they spin.

In this case, the clock and the aether speak to the steampunk element, and the chaos is iconic cosmic horror. We pictured a collection akin to Heavy Metal, where you have an artifact linking radically divergent stories, in our case, the Chaos Clock, and being chaotic, it has no fixed form, but always has some association with telling time. Most of the stories lean in more heavily to the Other entities characteristic of cosmic horror. The powerful, indifferent, often unaware beings to whom we are as significant as flies. The way the authors stepped up and embraced the darkness in their own unique manner was glorious. It was an ideal pairing given that most cosmic horror classics were written in the era that steampunk is set, and steampunk itself can have a darker, dystopic side that melds nicely with the esthetic of cosmic horror. It is as much about atmosphere as it is details. Our authors nailed both!

And does the repeated use of the word Aether in their titles mean there’s a connection between Other Aether: Tales Of Global Steampunk and The Chaos Clock: Tales Of Cosmic Aether?

Other Aether and The Chaos Clock don’t have any direct connection, though both books do share a number of contributors. The only tentative link is that they both feature steampunk. Otherwise they are very different books. As I mentioned, the concept of aether is very much associated with steampunk, particularly of the more magical variety (though not exclusively). One could think of it as a magical version of steam, only naturally occurring, not generated. At least, in our application of it.

As you said earlier, you have a story in Other Aether called “On the Face of It.” What is that story about?

I was so excited about the concept [of this anthology] that mine was the first story completed and turned in, whereas usually I’m last because I’m busy working on the technical aspects of these projects. This theme just spoke to me. I don’t often intentionally write horror, but cosmic horror seems to be the exception to that. This is my third story in this genre and all three of them were quite intentional. The rest of my works of horror just happened when I was trying to write something else.

Anyway, in “On the Face of It,” a nobleman with a penchant for psychology is asked by another family to help with their son, who has gone quite mad, but they want it kept secret. Our character discovers why, and his world is never the same again.

And then there’s A Cry Of Hounds, also edited by you, with stories by Keith R.A. DeCandido, Ef Deal, and John L. French. What is Hounds all about?

Last year we formed an association with the Tell-Tale Steampunk Festival. Theirs is a literary themed event whereas most other steampunk festivals are more about the attire and esthetic. As a part of what makes them distinct is that each year their theme is based on the work of an author of the period and they hold a literary scavenger hunt during the festival to engage attendees. Their original plan was to have any attending authors write a brief excerpt based on the festival’s theme for that year and those excerpts would be posted on a website that those participating would access by finding the QR codes sprinkled throughout the event space. Well…back to my thriving on themed anthologies. I proposed that if they were going to have authors write excerpts, why not have them write a whole story, and eSpec would publish the anthology. That idea was a big hit, and the Forgotten Lore series was created.

The first book was A Cast Of Crows, based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe, and this year’s volume is A Cry Of Hounds, based on the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We assigned a host of supernatural hounds (and a few mundane ones) and each author ran with it, with the instruction that the stories should include their hound and be influenced in some way by Doyle’s work and philosophy.

As with Other Aether and The Chaos Clock, you also have a story in A Cry Of Hounds. What is the story about?

What can I say; it is so much easier to sell books at convention events if I’m actually in them.

I do have a story in A Cry of Hounds, but it does not also appear in Echoes Of The Divine. It is, however, written in an existing universe of mine. A loose continuation of the story I wrote for A Cast Of Crows, following, Lina, a human girl known for being an artificer, also touched by the divine. She is recruited by Santa Muerte to corral wandering souls and start them on their journey to the afterlife. But in this story, there is an issue because something is happening to the spirits of the xolo, the sacred dogs of Mexico, the spirits of which are said to guide souls on their journey through the afterlife.

As if all that wasn’t enough, you’re also putting out a cookbook called Auntie D’s Recipes. What kind of food are we talking about? Oooh, is it a steampunk cookbook?

Ahh…no. Nothing steampunk about this one. Other that my writing and my costume horns, I am known for my cooking. Either posting photos of what I’ve made to social media, or the buffet-style spreads I’ve set up at the various launch parties we hold at conventions. Last year I participated in the Favorite Chef competition, making it all the way to the Quarter Finals. Sadly, I didn’t make it past them. What I had intended to do with the prize money, if I’d won, was put together a cookbook of all my favorite recipes. I decided to do that anyway.

You also cook whenever you hold book launch parties. Of all the foods in Auntie D’s Recipes, which go best with people standing around in a bookstore?

Well, to be honest, our launch parties almost always take place at conventions, usually in the Con Suite, but occasionally in a regular panel room. And yes, I cater them myself, with some help from the authors. Or at least, I did pre-pandemic. We modified things for a while, but are starting to get back into providing some food.

In the past it was generally potstickers and stromboli, served cold, along with cookies and dips and salsa, plus the normal chips and such. In my later years, I also served homemade flavor-infused ginger ale. All of those recipes are in the book.

Going back to Echoes Of The Divine, Hollywood loves turning short stories into movies. Are there any stories in Echoes Of The Divine that you think would work particularly well as a movie?

I expect the stories that would work best cinematically would be those featuring Lina and the underworld, or “Ala al-Din And The Cave of Wonders.” Both are very visual tales with some nice action.

So, is there anything else people need to know about Echoes Of The Divine?

This is mostly a reprint collection, with one new story, but originally there were supposed to be two. I’ve already mentioned that “The Town Of Ground Down Gears” is turning more into a novel-length piece, but an excerpt is included in Echoes Of The Divine, to whet everyone’s whistle.

Danielle Ackley-McPhail Echoes Of The Divine

Finally, if someone enjoys Echoes Of The Divine, and it’s the first thing of yours they’ve read, which of your other books would you suggest they check out next?

If they are looking specifically for steampunk and like novels, I would recommend Baba Ali And The Clockwork Djinn, which is the steampunk version of “Ali Baba And the Forty Thieves” that I co-wrote with Day Al-Mohamed.

If they prefer short fiction, I would say After Punk: Steampowered Tales Of The Afterlife, which is where Lina was first introduced. Both books are fun, original takes on steampunk that go beyond the commonly seen tropes.



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