Exclusive Interview: Footprints In The Stars Editor Danielle Ackley-McPhail


In first contact stories, writers explore what might happen when we first meet aliens. But in the new sci-fi short story anthology Footprints In The Stars (paperback, Kindle), the focus is instead on what might happen when we first get evidence that aliens exist.

In the following email interview, Footprints editor Danielle Ackley-McPhail talks about how this collection came together, what subgenres of sci-fi are included, and why it features a bunch of writers with Star Trek novels in their oeuvres.

Danielle Ackley-McPhail Footprints In The Stars

To start, is there a theme to the stories in Footprints In The Stars?

The stories in the book are very intentionally not first contact stories. They are about the discovery of evidence of the existence of other intelligent life, rather than encounters with that life itself. We wanted the collection to focus on the effects of those discoveries on mankind. Either physical, emotional, or social. How does humanity react or how is it impacted by the potential inherent in that discovery? What advancements come out of pondering “what if”? or how? How could things potentially break down? Will such a discovery bring out the positive side in humanity, or the negative?

Aside from fitting the theme, what other criteria did you use to decide what to include in Footprints In The Stars?

The only other thing that I require when I do a collection is a synopsis of what the author intends to write. Since all of our collections are invitation-only we don’t have the luxury (or headache) of a slush pile to slog through until we discover enough gems to fill a book. I need to know from the offset that each author is following a different path and no two stories are going to be too alike one another to appear in the same book.

Interesting. Is there also a framing device in Footprints In The Stars?

I don’t always have a framing device in mind when I start a collection unless it is an established series. In this case, the authors were pretty much all over the place. Once I had all the stories, I had to sit down and figure out a logical progression. For Footprints, some of the stories were modern-day, others were far future. Some were on Earth, some on another plane and everything else in between. So I strung the stories together almost like a loose timeline.

A number of the contributors are people who’ve also written Star Trek novels, including Dayton Ward [Star Trek Discovery: Drastic Measures], Aaron Rosenberg [Star Trek: S.C.E.: The Riddled Post], and Christopher L. Bennett [Star Trek Enterprise: Rise Of The Federation: Patterns Of Interference]. Is that because you’re a big fan of Star Trek novels or is it just a coincidence?

You know, I can honestly say I have never read a Star Trek novel. Not one. I’m a fan, but I’m not deep into the details. (Shh! Don’t tell!) What I am is very outgoing. And I hug. A lot. A long time ago I met Keith R.A. DeCandido. I hugged him and now he won’t go away. But, seriously, we became friends, he introduced me to his friends. It went from there. And, apparently, he is the gateway author to all the other Star Trek authors.

That’s just the first part of the equation. I’ve also got a reputation for being good at what I do. Writing. Editing. Packaging. Throwing parties… There’s the clincher. When you throw a good party, all the cool kids want to come.

So would you consider the stories in Footprints In The Stars to be rather Star Trek-ian?

You know…I hadn’t planned it that way, and I can’t say I saw it while I was putting the collection together, but there is certain feel to each story that speaks to some aspect of the Trek universe. Of course, there are a lot of Trek variations out there. It’s not surprising that even the non-Trek authors captured the feel of the series.

Now, the stories in Footprints In The Stars are obviously science fiction, but what sci-fi subgenres do these stories hit upon as well?

This collection is pretty much all over the place with subgenres. From noir to space opera to slipstream science horror. The only constant is that everyone did their own thing.

Conversely, are there any subgenres of science fiction that you intentionally avoided including in Footprints In The Stars?

No, not really. The authors had free rein as long as they stayed within the guidelines of the theme. And believe me, they took that freedom and ran with it!

Footprints In The Stars is the second anthology in what you’re calling the Beyond The Cradle series; the first being 2017 If We Had Known. For those who didn’t read the other book, what is the Beyond The Cradle series about, and what was If We Had Known about?

We have been doing anthologies for a long time. Mostly for other publishers, but now for ourselves as well. There are a couple of series that helped to build our reputation of producing high-quality anthologies. One is the Bad-Ass Faeries anthologies, of which I was the senior editor. The other is the Defending The Future anthologies, which are edited by my husband and eSpec co-founder, Mike McPhail. Defending The Future is strictly military science fiction. In fact, many of the authors throughout the series are veterans or from military families. Not everyone is into milscifi, though. Either from a writing or a reading standpoint. Mike started the Beyond The Cradle series so that our authors and fans alike would have a source of classic hardcore science fiction without the military themes. For Footprints, the theme was discovering evidence of the existence of other intelligent life; For If We Had Known the basic theme was, “if we had known the outcome, would we have done that?”

To explain the series name, Earth is the cradle of humanity, but we can’t stay in the cradle, at some point we must look outward to the greater universe. We must grow up and go forth…beyond the cradle. We just don’t always find what we expect.

If We Had Known was 192 pages long, Footprints In The Stars is 202. Is that by design or circumstance?

There is a challenge in publishing, especially print-on-demand publishing. It comes down to sheer economics. How much does it cost to print the book, what do I need to pay the authors, and how much can I sell it for? Most people expect to pay about $15 for a trade paperback. To keep the book at that cost it needs to be somewhere between 180 and 250 pages, otherwise, the profit margin just doesn’t work. The higher the page count the higher the retail price of the book. If someone is a fan, they may not have a problem putting out $20 or more for one of your books, but if you are trying to sell that same book to a potential reader who has never heard of you before that is a much harder sell. If you look I know you will find that many independent presses produce collections of about the same length for these very reasons.

Best Of collections work a bit differently. For one thing, they draw a lot of their content from magazines rather than anthologies. Magazines are one of the few markets that consistently publish novelette or novella-length fiction. Because of that, Best Of collections consequently tend to run long.

So, what is the plan for this series going forward?

Plan? We don’t need no stinkin’ plan!

Actually…that’s not true. With Defending The Future all eight volumes in the series were edited by Mike McPhail. That has led to a bit of burnout. To prevent that, the Beyond The Cradle series will have a variety of editors, with Mike still overseeing things as series editor. One of those editors will be our partner in eSpec, Greg Schauer. He hasn’t decided on his theme yet. Mike, however, will be doing the next one. We haven’t worked out all of the particulars of the theme yet, but the title is Alone In The Dark. As we add volumes to the series, we will continue to either alternate or reach out to experienced editors that we trust and offer them the opportunity to come play.

Now, along with editing Footprints In The Stars, you also have a story in it. How hard was it to decide whether to include yourself?

Hard truth…it is much easier to sell a book if you have something in it. Not only that, as the originator of the theme, I am the only person who knows exactly what I am looking for. I know some editors have a strict policy of never including their own work in their collection, but I have the exact opposite policy. Since the books are by invitation only, it’s not like I’m robbing someone else of an opportunity of getting in. I ask the people I want in the book, end of story. If that is ten or fifteen, that number doesn’t change because I am including a story of my own.

I also hand-sell a lot of books at conventions and events, and people are always more interested if they are talking to one of the authors than if you’re just the editor.

Did the fact that you’re one of the co-owners of eSpec Books, who published Footprints In The Stars, make this decision any easier or did that just complicate things?

Truly, this was irrelevant. We have been packaging anthologies for various publishers for years. We love to build books. We love to come up with creative and exciting themes for anthologies. And heck yeah, if I am excited enough about an idea to put in all that work, I want the chance to play as well. None of that changed when circumstances beyond our control made us take that final step into starting our own publishing house. My stories go through the same vigorous edit as the others in the book, and they have to live up to the same high standard. In fact, often I expect more of myself precisely because I am the editor and I know my inclusion will come under scrutiny by some out there. And if there is a conflict between my story and someone else’s, theirs takes precedence and I come up with a new idea to write.

Along with Footprints In The Stars, you also recently published a novel, Eternal Wanderings, which is the fourth book in your Eternal Cycle Series. What is that series about, what is Eternal Wanderings about, and what genre does it fall into?

Actually, it’s not book four. It is book one in a brand-new spinoff series. It does pick up pretty much right where the third book in the original trilogy ended, but it is a new story arc. Eternal Wanderings itself is urban fantasy that draws on Celtic mythology and Romani culture.

The main character for this series is Kara O’Keefe, a first-generation Irish American. She is also of Sidhe descent and a violin prodigy. The original Eternal Cycle trilogy — Yesterday’s Dreams, Tomorrow’s Memories, and Today’s Promise — is Kara’s coming-of-age journey of self-discovery. In the Eternal Wanderings series, Kara embraces her destiny and explores what it is to be uniquely other. This first volume is set against the backdrop of a Romani caravan, but the rest of the series Kara will strike out on her own for reasons that become evident in the story.

Do you think people who like your contribution to Footprints In The Stars will enjoy Eternal Wanderings as well?

I would like to think they would, but it all depends on their reading tastes. Some people are hardcore fans of just one specific genre, but others spread the love. These bits of writing are definitely in very different genres. Also, my story in Footprints, “Dawns A New Day,” is a bit experimental for me. Nothing new there, as I have a history of unique approaches in my short fiction, but definitely a different style from Eternal Wanderings.

However, both are very character-driven, and Eternal Wanderings has six bonus stories at the back, three of which are actually science fiction. In fact, at some point, there will be a science fiction novel against this same backdrop using some of the same characters. These stories set the groundwork for that. So it is possible there is at least something there for everyone if they care to invest the time in something new and don’t mind crossing genre lines.

Going back to Footprints In The Stars, we talked earlier about how a bunch of the contributors had also written Star Trek novels. Do you think any of the stories in Footprints In The Stars could work as the basis for a movie, TV show, or video game?

I definitely see the potential for a few movies in there. I would love to see Dayton Ward’s “Lost And Found” in Spielberg’s hands. And Bryan J.L. Glass’s “Generational Sins” is already the prequel to a comic book series he is developing called Dark Spaces. I think in the hands of Robert Rodriguez or Guillermo del Toro this would be a beautiful and disturbing screen experience. Some of the others, it is hard to say. Things don’t always translate well from print to cinema. These two definitely stand out though.

Danielle Ackley-McPhail Footprints In The Stars

Finally, if someone enjoys Footprints In The Stars, they’ll obviously go pick up If We Had Known. But once they finish that, what sci-fi anthology that someone else edited would you suggest they check out and why that one?

Zombies Need Brains is another independent press that does a lot of anthologies. In fact, right now they are crowdfunding three more science fiction collections. Interested parties can check out the campaign here. I particularly like their collections because they aren’t stereotypical. They pick unique slants on the genre. For instance, one of the collections they are attempting to fund right now is called Galactic Stew, where all the stories feature food in some way. You should check it out.


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