I had the opportunity to interview Danielle Ackley-McPhail. Author of six novels and numerous short stories, Danielle is an owner of E-Spec Books–an independent publishing house that specializes in speculative fiction.
Her latest book Eternal Wanderings released April 1st.
Danielle – Thank you. It has been a long, hard journey full of turmoil and too many false starts. I feel more of a sense of accomplishment completing this book than any other book I have written.
Eternal Wanderings is actually the first in a spin-off series related to the Eternal Cycle. The original trilogy is complete, but the story never ends.
In the original trilogy, Kara O’Keefe is a young woman struggling with financial burdens that stem from her father’s battle with cancer. The family finances lead Kara to pawn her heirloom violin. In doing so, Kara begins a journey of self-discovery.
She learns her fae heritage comes with the ability to do magic. These changes in her life draw the attention of evil forces who covet the power she represents.
John – Very cool. So, where do we find Kara O’Keefe at the start of “Eternal Wanderings”?
Danielle – EW picks up where Today’s Promise lets off. She has defeated the evil demigods and discovered who she is. Not everyone is comfortable with that, so she makes the decision to give the Sidhe some space. She joins the Romani clan that shelters Tony, a fellow victim of the demigods, who she must help recover from the experience.
John – I love it. Stories about those kinds of journeys are some of my favorites. Should readers feel invited to start the series here?
Danielle – This is where things got dicey. I re-wrote that beginning about five times over the years. (Yes…years, sad to say). I didn’t want new readers to feel lost starting with Eternal Wanderings. There were details the reader needed to know to understand Kara O’Keefe and the history she has with those around her. I did my best to touch on what is relevant without rehashing everything. Readers can start here, but with the understanding that a lot more came before this point.
John – You have written so many stories based on Celtic myth and themes; do you feel like you have a special connection to that world?
Danielle – Growing up I was always told I was 100% Irish on my father’s side. Doubtful, but there you go. I was always proud of that fact, but I didn’t really know what it meant to be Irish because so much family history was lost. I have always been fascinated with my Celtic ancestry. The music, the myth, the culture. I would read just about any book I could get my hands on that had a Celtic theme. Unfortunately, when we are talking fiction, most authors start with the seed of lore and legend and then get creative.
I wanted to know more.
After college I started volunteering for a writers’ board to keep my hand in writing. The volunteers would chat when they weren’t working and kick around ideas because, of course, we were all hopeful writers. My supervisor had a very eclectic work history that became the topic of discussion. Coupled with his style of dark writing, his stint as a pawnbroker inspired me.
I started with the idea of a pawnshop run by an evil magician who only accepted items that meant something special to the seller.
John – Some kind of sympathetic magic?
Danielle – In a way. The objects are imbued with a piece of the seller’s soul, and the evil magician would harvest these items for nefarious plans.
As I was writing, my Celtic interests took over and the evil pawnbroker became a benevolent elf. What was a short story transformed into a novel—then a trilogy.
John – What’s your research process like, and how closely do you try to keep to the source material?
Danielle – There were three elements I wanted to incorporate into my tale: a violin, Celtic Legend, and the pawnshop. When I get an idea, I seldom know the full scope of the project or story I will tell.
I get a single idea. That inspires me to research, and I just spiral from there. Some small, relevant point ends up being a bread crumb leading to other possibilities that pile together to create a finished tale.
With Yesterday’s Dreams, I didn’t even consider that I was writing a novel. I was just writing a story. I thought. It all began when I wanted to name my antagonist “Evil” in Irish. I started by looking up all the words that meant “evil” and then I picked the one that looked the most like a name, in this case, Olcas. From there, I knew I wanted to incorporate Celtic myth and legend as a part of the plot, so I picked up a copy of the Dictionary of Irish Mythology (Ellis) and started reading. I came across an entry for a goddess named Carman, and her three sons: Calma, Dubh, and…Olcas.
John – That’s a great correlation. You really never know where openminded research will take you.
Danielle — The minute I found that I was off and writing. My novel became a trilogy and the tale started to take shape.
With the Eternal Cycle series, I tried to stay pretty true to the Celtic myth and legend, but there are plenty of gaps that let me put my own spin on things. It was an oral tradition, after all, and so many of the finer details were lost, or had multiple iterations.
Part of my challenge in writing about Irish elves was resolving the difference between the original myths and popular culture. They don’t always agree.
John – That’s interesting. What are some of the differences between the original Irish elves, and their modern equivalents?
Danielle – There were two main differences between myth and popular culture—things that everyone accepts as fact, but I could find no mention of in the original stories.
1) Elves live forever but children are rare.
2) Elves are allergic, or have an aversion, to Iron.
The first one is easy. There was no reference to it one way or the other in the mythology, but there was an entry in the above-mentioned dictionary that Celts believed in a form of reincarnation where you come back as your descendants. So…my extrapolation from that is, someone has to die for someone else to be born. When you are immortal, deaths are rare, except through attrition.
The second is trickier. There is no mention in Celtic mythology about an aversion to iron. In fact, one of their primary gods is Goibhniu, the Smithgod. As a blacksmith he could not work his craft with an aversion to iron. However, in the folklore (not quite the same thing as the mythology) the people of Ireland believed iron was a defense against evil. They would go so far as to hang scissors over a baby’s cradle—
John – That’s scary.
Danielle — to safeguard them from the elves, who were believed to steal babies and leave changelings in their place.
My elves respect iron, or to be more precise, they respect the intent behind the iron being used as a protection. They see it as an invocation of Goibhniu, and the elves don’t want to piss him off. Of course…not everyone plays by the rules 😉
John – That’s a great connection between the myth and your modern take.
So, your hero, Kara O’Keefe—classically trained violinist, fiddler, or both? What role does music play in these stories?
Danielle – Kara is both classically trained and home-grown. She got her love of Celtic fiddling from her Grandda and possessed so much natural talent that she ended up at Julliard, though she always felt more moved by fiddling.
Kara channels her magic through her music, where her passion is. This is a nod to the intricate part music and creativity play in Celtic culture, and a nod to the folklore. They believed if you took your instrument and left it overnight on a faerie mound, the next day you would be blessed with the gift of the bard, unsurpassed by any other. It isn’t spelled out in the series, only implied, but Kara’s violin, Quicksilver, is one such violin.
John – I feel like one of the outstanding strengths of the book is its descriptions of the places and people. The little details seem perfectly picked to create an immersive reading experience. Could you share a favorite passage, and maybe tell us a little something about the craft of writing fantasy fiction?
Danielle – Thank you. I am a very visual, lyrical writer. Some would say I am too verbose, but I started out as a poet, and I am used to creating images with words. It is important, particularly when you are exploring a world new to yourself and to the reader. What makes it different? What makes it unique? How can you take someone sitting on a bus or in their comfy chair at home and transport them to this world you have only seen in your own mind? You paint a picture with words, of not just people and places, but experiences, drawing on all the senses.
By the time they set camp late that night, Kara was too wiped out to do anything but sleep. When she woke the next morning in the wagon, Sveta and her sons were nowhere to be found.
The same with Beag Scath.
Trying not to worry what mischief the sprite might be up to, Kara helped herself to some oatmeal left warming on the wood-burning stove before slinging Quicksilver’s case across her back and venturing out into the cool bright day. It felt like early spring or mid-fall. For all she knew, it could be either. She’d lost all track of time in the Sidhe realm. Drawing a deep breath, she basked in the warm sun and took joy in the bright blue sky, two things to never be taken for granted.
She wandered a while, among the wagons, some brightly painted and built from wood in the tradition of the Romani people, others battered metal caravans traveling under their own power or pulled behind trucks or cars, as you would find at any campground around the world. All of them bore the essence of the Rom, brightly painted, delightfully unique. Each family had set their own camp, with carpets on the ground and cushions for sitting. Some had fire pits, others had portable grills. At some of the hearths, awnings had been raised for shelter from the elements, at others, battery-powered faerie lights had been strung from poles but the space left open to the sky.
As she explored, Kara relaxed into the day, enjoying the real-world magic of the Romani culture, free and untethered from any society but their own. Both the exotic and the mundane mingled as they adapted what they came by for their uses. Kara watched one group of women weaving a rug of intricate geometric patterns out of rags, while another bundled and hung herbs to dry. Some of the men were making horseshoes at a makeshift forge surrounded by smoke and ash and dry heat. If not for their dark scowls, she would have watched them longer, but instead quickly moved along. The sound of their hammers striking steel rang through the camp blending with the women’s chatter in an industrious song Kara longed to join.
Throughout the morning, she remained polite and cheerful, despite the lukewarm reception she received. Everyone seemed wary. Not hostile, but too reserved to be welcoming. Kara asked questions when something puzzled her, even offered to help when she saw them at their chores, but no one would speak to her in English—though she had no doubt the majority of them could—if they said anything at all. She gave up and continued exploring, wandering the camp that was, for now, her home, trying not to get in anyone’s way. At one point, she felt eyes focus on her, more so than the wary curiosity she’d met all morning. Her shoulders tensed with the weight of that gaze. Casually looking around, she noticed Markos, the caravan leader, his arms crossed and expression unreadable as he watched her. Though the sun picked out threads of silver woven through the waves of his dark brown hair, she could not tell if age or strain had added the faint webbing of lines across his forehead and around his bright blue eyes.
She met his gaze with a faint smile and nodded respectfully.
Markos’s brow dipped into a frown, clearly not happy she had noticed him. He dropped his arms and turned sharply away, heading across the camp to his wagon. Kara waited until he was out of sight then resumed her wandering.
John – Great minds. When I asked for an excerpt, this was actually the part I was thinking of. It’s quite beautiful. This scene seems to capture some of the themes of your story, doesn’t it?
Danielle – Thank you. One of the major themes that carried over from the trilogy was that of “the other” and the many forms that takes. No matter what group Kara is introduced to, she doesn’t quite fit in, even if the group is a part of her heritage. I think we all experience this—we are all other. All unique. It up to us if it becomes a strength or a weakness. A treasure or a trial.
That said, there is a tradition of oppression and prosecution in humanity. We often fear or hate what we do not understand.
John – For sure. That’s why education and exposure are so effective at reducing fear and prejudice, isn’t it? Fear is a part of the basic, unconditioned response to the unknown.
Danielle – In part it is fear, but also misdirection. People have doubts about themselves that they don’t want to acknowledge so as a defensive mechanism they focus instead on what they see as different (read wrong or deficient) in others.
A history of oppression have made some othered people wary. This is the other of the Romani people–the community Kara has entered. They have formed a way of life so very different than what most of us experience, and I wanted to capture that as best I could by referencing photographs and websites that originate with the Rom about the Rom. Some of it is joyful and carefree, or it seems to be; other aspects are harsher…from within and without. I tried to capture a glimpse of what it is to be Romani. The rich culture and traditions, as well as the superstitions and the persecution. I am afraid any errors are my own.
John – As such an avid reader, writer, and publisher, do you feel like your writing has been influenced by any newer writers? How?
Danielle – We are always influenced by everything we take in, whether it is in appreciation of skill, or as a caution of what not to do. Unfortunately, as a long-time developmental editor, I am more likely to be mindful of things *not* to do when I encounter new writers, because I spend so much time looking for how a work could be improved. I certainly appreciate skilled storytelling, but when it comes to writing…and well… most things, I tend to do my own thing.
John – Number one most hated trope in published books–go!
Danielle – Obstacles with a capital “O”. That one thing that the whole tale hinges on that causes the primary characters to make stupid decisions throughout the book until suddenly it all works out in the end. I am not a big fan of problems we make for ourselves in fiction. There are enough other kinds of conflict that can arise that don’t involve the main character being foolish or obsessive about some element of their past or history with another character. This type of motivation becomes tedious for the reader. I invariable reach a point where I am only half-reading pages, thinking “Okay, already, get on with it.”
As an editor I have a whole laundry list, but that is another story 😉
John – I feel the same way. More than once I’ve closed a book because the protagonist caused their own inciting incident, and I’m just not feeling it.
You’ve mentioned your work as an editor twice. I was hoping you might give us some advice, editor to writer, on what you like to see in an unpublished work that you are trying to improve. What’s good? What stinks?
Danielle – I would say the biggest thing I combat as an editor is sloppy or lazy writing. I would like to see all writers take pride in the tale they are telling. Set things up properly, think things through. Keep your details straight. If you need something to happen for a scene or be there for a scene that you haven’t set up, go back and lay the groundwork. There is only so much disbelief to be suspended.
Make sure your story is well-supported and consistent, that all the threads are properly woven, and the important ones wrapped up. We can’t enjoy the tale if we are shaking our heads at things that show the story wasn’t thought through or that happen just because the author needed something to happen there. Put in the time and tell your story right. Fill in the plot holes, make sure you have hit all the relevant points. And don’t forget to flesh out your world and your characters.
John – Thank you again for the interview. It was a pleasure talking to you and hearing about your work.
The new series sounds really great.
Danielle — Thank you. This series has always been near and dear to me. I grew a lot while writing it, as a writer and a person. In part, it is my journey as well.