Interview with Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn authors Day Al-Mohamed and Danielle Ackley-McPhail
JMW: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With me today are two writer/editors Danielle Ackley-McPhail . . .
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: Hello.
JMW: . . . and Day Al-Mohamed. Hello and welcome, ladies. I mentioned that you’re both writers. You’re both editors. You both published and edited on your own. What prompted you to collaborate on the new book, “Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn”?
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: I’m actually working on an anthology that is going to come out probably sometime later this year. And it is called “Gaslight and Grimm’s,” the funk fairy tales. And when I put it together I wanted it to be more than the traditional Grimm’s tales, I wanted to explore some of the other traditions.
And when I had that concept I always knew that I wanted to do “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” because it’s a story that I grew up very close to me. I had a record that I would listen to that was the telling of the story.
So that stuck with me, and it seemed to be something that would be rather applicable to being retold as theme punk. I could see a lot of potential there, but I also wanted to do it right. It’s definitely an ethic and cultural piece as well as a fairy tale, and my friend, Day Al-Mohamed, agreed to be a consultant for me and to give me the cultural references, make sure that I addressed everything properly, and feed me some of the storytelling conventions that are integral to that culture.
And so she sent me a lot of really great material that I could use, and by the time we actually started I decided that the best way to handle it was to actually do it together.
Day Al-Mohamed: That’s true in our truth in collaboration. It was a complete and utter accident. I think what a lot of people know is that I’m very enthusiastic because I’m an evangelist for the idea of having more diversity in theme punk. So there’s a whole wide world, and it would be great to see a part of that. And I think there are folks in fandom. There are folks who want to see themselves in stories.
So when she said, “Can you provide me some information?” She’s being very gentle and her pages of stuff were like, “Here, it’s important. Make sure you get this right.” And I think she just wanted to make sure we did capture that kind of an esthetic. And I think the result was the collaboration, and I think in the end I think being really good for both of us as far as writers but I think for people who are readers.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: We actually ended up using most of the material that she provided me in one way or another.
JMW: Cool. Can you give our viewers an example of something that would not necessarily be thought of but would be very important in the context of the Arabian Nights to get right, a storytelling?
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: As far as the culture, one of the things that Day made very clear to me is that hospitality is very, very important. Sharing food, sharing tea, the ceremony surrounding that and the politeness, the terms and the phrases that go along with those. And how even in the storytelling traditions the conventional framing aspects of storytelling even integrate that.
Day Al-Mohamed: Actually an easy example would be we’re all very familiar with the idea of once upon a time. I mean, it’s just tradition left over from [inaudible 00:04:10] storytelling that was from the Western world. And it crosses over a little bit how once there was, there was not. And so the idea was what the teller may be telling may be true or it may not be true. And then leading into the story.
So we used that kind of framing aspect within the story itself. So that was one of the big things that was a part of it, the idea of community. And one of the things that’s also important in any part of the world. Sometimes it gets left out I other areas of the impact of faith, the impact of technology, the impact of the environment; the desert, what do people wear. All of those things are a part of that. The word “robe” doesn’t cover all of the variety.
JMW: Was it always intended as a novel, or did it just grow organically?
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: Well, the story “Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn,” we had to truncate an awful lot to actually make it just a story and even then it ended up being 17,000 words. And when we told the publisher that it was 17,000 words, he said, “No, it’s not a story, it’s a book. Go finish it.” He was expecting a novella, and then oh, maybe it would be 35,000 words. And I think we topped it off at about 82,000 words and probably could have written a good 30,000 more.
JMW: Mm-hmm. Well . . .
Day Al-Mohamed: I think most people when they think about the Arabian Nights I think what’s happened that it’s only in the last 10 years we actually had a straight translation to English, to French. Other languages have been so poor, so most people are familiar with the children’s story. So the reading’s a lot shorter and so when you start looking at all the material it is actually a lot longer.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: And not just that. If you look at the traditional tales, they were all told and they were oral traditions for the most part. And so their storytelling is very different than our fiction writing today where we’re told to show not tell. And so a very great amount of detail is in a short legend, but when you actually try and retell that it’s massive. There’s so many things that are happening. They just did it differently.
JMW: Why do you call it “Baba Ali” instead of “Ali Baba?”
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: Ah, well, if you look at the original, well, the translations I should say, in the story there are many characters. Some of them are background characters, and almost all of the background characters were called Baba whatever their name was because it’s an honorific, it’s a title.
It can also be a name, but in every other instance in the book Baba came first. And so we didn’t want to do the switching off because people wouldn’t necessarily understand it. It would look sloppy on our part. And also because we wanted to distinguish it from the original. So that is where the root of the story came from. We very much made it our own, and we wanted it to stand out that way.
JMW: What has been the easiest, the hardest, and the most surprising aspects of collaborating with another writer? Day?
Day Al-Mohamed: So the easiest was probably, I guess, the fact that word counts seemed to flow past really quickly. And I think that’s more a personal thing because I tend to be a slow writer. So it was like, “Wow this is working really well.” I’m like, we’re actually moving along quickly. So it was the easiest. The hardest would be to let go certain pieces of the story, and I think that what we both struggled with a little bit.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: Yeah.
Day Al-Mohamed: I think I have an advantage in so far in that I’d done some comedy before and some film before which has a lot of collaboration in it and I’ve learned to let go. So it was like, “Why is she doing it? It doesn’t make sense.”
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: But then we would talk about it, and it would make sense. Or I would understand why not.
Day Al-Mohamed: Right. And then we would find ways to make it work. I’m sure there were times when Danielle’s, “She’s wrong, wrong, wrong.” I think that was probably one of the hardest things I . . . I think that’s true of any collaboration. So I think it’s finding ways to figure out what each person’s strengths are and being able to leverage that for the betterment of the story.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: Yeah, I definitely had some very distinct ideas, what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go. And we’re setting up things that she couldn’t anticipate. And so she would do something that would totally throw a wrench into that, and on occasion I did say, “No, we’re not doing this, and this is why.”
Day Al-Mohamed: I had everything at a lovely example. It was my favorite examples, and I use it everywhere. And it wasn’t part of the original tale, but it would be, I thought, a great derivative from it. So since our character’s trying to deal with the 40 thieves and the Djinn, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fantastic to chop her up in 40 pieces and each piece go to a different thief, and then he has to get all 40 pieces back.” Yeah, Danny said no.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: No.
Day Al-Mohamed: Because I don’t think it would have been one novel, it would have been maybe not 40 novels but certainly, at least, a good number. Doesn’t this sound awesome?
JMW: Actually I’ve heard of a Japanese movie that did that.
Day Al-Mohamed: Oh wow.
JMW: A movie that did that. A guy has to put together the 40 pieces of his body. He’s a demon until he does.
Day Al-Mohamed: See? And this guy’s trying to find the 40 pieces of self.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: See? It’s done already.
Day Al-Mohamed: See, she knows. Thank you, thank you. One day in our collaboration I will get to chop someone in multiple pieces.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: Yeah.
JMW: This is a goal of yours?
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: We already dropped Kozimen [SP] to four.
Day Al-Mohamed: That’s part of the original tale. So . . .
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: So anyway. So my easiest part was the fact that we both have so much enthusiasm for the project, and we were able to bounce ideas off of each other. And it would spark other ideas, and when we did have a conflict, we were able to talk it through. And if not, find a compromise, find a way to . . .
Day Al-Mohamed: To live with it and go from there, yeah.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: Pretty much. And that worked really well. The difficult part for me is that I do definitely have those control issues, and there were times when I knew that I needed to give her the freedom to express herself and to direct things as well. And so there was times when I definitely said, “No, no, no, do it like this, but okay, fine, I’ll go with it.” And it really did work out for the best. Everything that we ended up with, really it dovetailed nicely, and it was a good progression, and I don’t think we could’ve really done any better.
Day Al-Mohamed: No, I think, if you want to talk about the last [inaudible 00:11:30] which was the most surprising . . .
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: See if it’s the same.
Day Al-Mohamed: Maybe, I don’t know, but I think it’s more of that hot potato method. I love that the hot potato method of writing back and forth like that, and the bouncing of the ideas actually made this work faster and smoother. I think the writing was more strong. At the end of the day we had some relatively unique ideas that showed up in the story that would not have been there in any other way.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: Now my most surprising part is the fact of how many times we would each have the same or similar idea to do something. And then pushing it was developing it.
Day Al-Mohamed: Actually that did go on quite a bit.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: So we were in sync.
JMW: What are you all working on now?
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: First, I want to reassure all of those people that have already grown to love “Baba Ali” that there will be more books.
Day Al-Mohamed: What?
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: What?
Day Al-Mohamed: More work? No, shake your fist.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: Shake your fist.
Day Al-Mohamed: Which was my exact response when it was suggested.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: When it became a book.
Day Al-Mohamed: Yeah, I’m like, what? No, I cannot do this.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: But wait and . . . But for myself I have to finish “Gaslight and Grimm.” I have the third novel in my wild hunt of the biker fairy series which is “The High King School.” I have “Eternal Flame,” another anthology that I’m supposed to be working on; a charity anthology for C.J. Henderson called “The Society for the Preservation of C.J. Henderson“.
JMW: Is that “Dance Like a Monkey?”
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: No, that’s a separate one.
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: “The Society for the Preservation of C.J. Henderson” is by Dark Quest, and it’s in the beginning stages of one that’s going to take a little while.
JMW: Day, we talked about in sync. We’re now in the individual part. What’s new with you? What are you working on now?
Day Al-Mohamed: Actually I’m pretty excited insofar as I’ve got several comics coming out from GrayHaven Comics and a couple of short films that I’m currently processing and working on with D.C. Filmmakers. And right now there’s two kind of novel works in process. And one is a theme published on the Civil War. I guess, kind of like “Lonesome Dove.” So it’s a trail ride across America herding cattle, but instead of the usual cows and cowboys you’ve got passenger pigeons and airships as it crosses Indian territory into California. And the other is actually more of a science fiction in what would be like a new Venice which I’m actually doing with my wife. It’ll either be amazing or we’ll kill each other.
JMW: Anything you ladies would like to add?
Danielle Ackley-McPhail: Thank you.
Day Al-Mohamed: Awesome fun.
Day Al-Mohamed: Shake your fist because we’re going to have to do it again.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.