ELLEN DATLOW INTERVIEW
I am extremely honoured to have the wonderful Ellen Datlow over for a chat. Ellen is a Multiple award-winning editor. Ellen has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for almost thirty years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and has edited more than fifty anthologies, including the horror half of the long-running The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.
Hello Ellen, I have to say before we go on; it is a great honour to have one of the most respected names in horror over for a chat. How are things with you?
Thank you. Things are great.
Can you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
I’m a New Yorker who has been living in Manhattansince the early 1970s. My professional love and expertise is in the short story and I’ve been acquiring and editing them for over thirty years, first as fiction editor of OMNI Magazine, then at Event Horizon: sf-f-h, a webzine started by me and my former OMNI colleagues, and then at SCIFICTION, the fiction area of SCIFI.COM, the website created by what was then known as the SCI FI Channel. And I’ve been editing reprint and original anthologies throughout that time up to now. I currently edit anthologies full time, with the occasional other freelance editing project.
What’s the appeal to you of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror? Do you have a favourite out of these three genres?
I love the way the three genres inject the imagination into fiction. I find most realistic fiction boring (except for crime fiction) and have always looked for that bit of the odd in my reading.
Nah, whatever I’m reading at any given time– that’s my favourite.
When did your love of the fantastic genres first develop? Was there a single book or film that flicked the switch in your head?
I grew up with it. Beginning with my mom reading fairy tales to me, then reading them on my own, along with Bullfinch’s Mythology, The Odyssey, and the strange short stories of Hawthorne, de Maupassant, and Poe. From there I moved on to Bradbury, Ellison, and Matheson. I also read Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom planet books as a child and the more graphic horror magazines of the 50s (my dad had those magazines in his luncheonette).
If you happen to get stranded on a desert island what three books, three films and three albums would you most like to be stranded with? And no cheating, no complete collections allowed?
Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural ed. Herbert A. Wise and Phyllis Fraser
The Collected Stories of Richard Matheson
Dangerous Visions ed. Harlan Ellison
Bladerunner (I can watch it over and over)
The Long Hot Summer (Paul Newman is scrumptious in it)
The Pink Panther (I think I could use a laugh on a desert island)
Afro Celt Sound System volume 1: Sound Magic
Blue by Joni Mitchell
John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman
Do you get much time to read for pleasure, and if so do you prefer to read outside of the genre for your pleasure
I read very few novels—I just don’t have the time. When not reading stories, I prefer dark crime novels.
You have had your finger on the pulse of the genre for quite some time; how healthy do you think it is?
I think it’s a golden age for the horror short story—as far as quality. As to markets? They come and go as they always have. There have rarely been more than a handful of horror magazines –ever. So the question is more how many original horror anthologies come out annually? I count about thirty-two that were worth covering in 2011. That doesn’t count the horror stories published in mixed-genre magazines and anthologies-or single author collections (most of the latter reprint, but usually an original or two thrown in).
And how do you feel about being labelled as one of the most important people in the genre? I have seen the reaction of some authors when they get a mention from you in your yearly round up.
I’ve never heard anyone say that, but one major reason I continue to edit the Best of the Year is that it gives me the opportunity to push the stories that I love onto other readers. I do more work for the current series (and the previous 21 volumes of YBFH, for which I chose the horror half) and get the least amount of payment than for anything else I ever work on—in or outside of publishing. It’s the same for every other genre Best of the Year editor. So it’s good to know that our work is appreciated.
Do you ever feel embarrassed by all the praise?
Don’t forget, being perceived as someone important to the field and the fact that I’m constantly making judgments of writers’ work (by leaving them out as well as by including them) leaves me open to criticism as well as praise. It’s the same for editors as it is for writers, we love the praise and are unhappy with negative reviews or remarks. So I’ll take the praise when I get it.
And on that note how did you feel when you won
Now that embarrassed me, as I feel I’m too young to be given such an award. But I’m also delighted that I’m young and healthy enough to enjoy it and can to continue contributing to the field. I feel lucky to have stumbled into the perfect career for me, and to be able to continue working in the field I love, with writers whose stories I enjoy. If I didn’t get something out of it, I’d be miserable.
You have edited over fifty anthologies, what keeps your motivation up?
1) I love being the first person to read a great story and on occasion be the impetus for that story having been written and 2) it pays my rent (usually)
Why did you decide to go down the route of invite only anthologies?
I’ve always only edited invite only anthologies, except for Haunted Legends. Nick Mamatas insisted we open that anthology for a few weeks and he volunteered to read all the unsolicited submissions and pass the best on to me.
I do it for two reasons. 1) Time and energy—it takes a lot of both to go through a slush pile and 2) for theme anthologies, one doesn’t want a bunch of rejected stories on a specific theme floating around
The greatest criticism (legitimate, in some cases) of invite only anthologies is that anthology editors create a “closed shop,” preventing new writers from getting into their anthologies. As said, I think that can be a legitimate gripe if the editor only solicits stories from a small circle of writer friends.
I don’t do that. Having edited a best of the year in horror for over 25 years gives me an excellent perspective on what/who is out there than most editors in the field. I read hundreds of stories annually (from sf/f/h and mystery magazines/webzines/collections/anthologies—and I at least skim some mainstream publications as well) so I see work from writers at all stages of their career. And I also sometimes solicit mainstream and/or “literary” writers to write in the fantastic and/or horrific mode.
While editing fiction at OMNI for 17 years I went after mainstream writers whose work I admired, publishing new stories (some commissioned) by William S. Burroughs, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Daniel Pinkwater, Julio Cortazar, William Kotzwinkle, Jonathan Carroll, Jack Cady (who at the time was unknown in the horror field) Joyce Carol Oates, and Patricia Highsmith (not a great story but it was still PATRICIA HIGHSMITH).
Sorry, that’s the long way ‘round to say that I know what I like and that I go after the writers whose work I want to publish. Sometimes I get them to submit, other times I don’t. Every editor has a “stable” of writers who she can count on to produce exactly the kind of story she wants for an anthology. So of course, she’s likely to ask some of those writers repeatedly for stories. My problem is that my stable is huge and everyone in it wants to be in every anthology I edit.
What qualities does a good editor require?
First of all, just to clarify, we’re talking about acquisitions and line editing. Not copy editing. Copy editing is a skill that can be taught).
The willingness and ability to work with a writer on a good story and help that writer make it better—to help bring out what the writer is trying to say if it’s not on the page. To ensure that there isn’t too much on the page (too much research, too much explanation).
The self-awareness to not impose one’s own taste and bias onto a story. It’s crucial for an editor to remember: it is not your story ever— it is not a collaboration. It is the writer’s story. Which is one reason I think non-writers often make better editors than writers.
Confidence in one’s taste.
A willingness to reject stories that aren’t good enough or don’t work for the current project and the ability to be tactful when doing so.
Business sense. A knowledge of how the publishing world works doesn’t hurt.
Is it something that can be taught?
The business part can be. I don’t think editing can be taught but it canbe learned, if there’s some ability from the start. I learned editing on the job at OMNI and I’ve continued learning for the past thirty years.
As an editor what would you say is the most annoying mistake a writer can make?
Having a typo or making a grammatical error in the first paragraph of the ms. (unless the character’s “voice” requires it).
You have edited anthologies that cover almost every sub-genre going; do you have a favourite sub-genre to work in?
Nope. I generally love what I’m working on at any given time.
How do you decide the running order of the anthologies? And how important do you think the running order is?
I try to start with a straightforward story that will immediately pull the reader in and isn’t too dense. Then maybe three or four stories in I’ll start placing the more complex stories and try to make sure I vary length by not running the longer stories one after another. I try to create a build-up to the climax with the last few stories. I’ll either end with a very strong story or have a very strong story then a last grace note of a story. This assumes that readers read the stories in order. Some don’t, and there’s nothing an editor can do about it. But I think it’s important to start and end with strong stories.
There is no way we can talk about all of your anthologies, so if it is all right with you I’d like to chat about a few of my favourites? Naked City is an Urban Fantasy anthology, what does Urban Fantasy mean to you?
Urban fantasy to me means fantasy stories in which the urban environment is crucial to the story. I tried to encourage the contributors to vary the cities they were using. I succeeded to some extent, but not as much as I would have liked. There are stories in the book set in Berlin, London, New York, Haifa, Seattle, St Petersburg, Florida, Mexico City, and several imaginary cities.
Historically, UF was a reaction to the pastoral fantasies of an earlier era. What I intended in Naked City was to bring this rich sub-genre of fantasy back to its roots, demonstrating that urban fantasy is more than romantic vampires and werewolves and supernatural detectives—but that both branches have their merits.
Wild Justice has just been released, now this is a reprint of Lethal Kisses isn’t it?
Yes it is. It’s available as an e-book only.
What prompted the title change, and why was the book only available in the UK initially?
Wild Justicewas the original title and the book was commissioned by Orion Books in the UK as a follow up to my sexual horror anthology that they published previously — Little Deaths. During production I was informed that the publisher unilaterally changed the title to Lethal Kisses in order to pursue the erotic horror boom. He also put a cover on it with a deadly looking woman in a short skirt holding a knife behind her back (with her back to the reader) and a man sitting on a bed in front of her. As far as I know, the subsidiary rights department of Orion never even tried to sell the book overseas –which would have included the US.
No it has one less story. I dropped the Ruth Rendell, which had been the only reprint in the anthology.
Have you ever been tempted to reprint any of your other anthologies?
I’ve been trying to get all my out-of-print anthologies back into print or available as e-books. This is time and energy-consuming because I have to go back to every contributor for permission.
Barnes & Noble reissued my first two vampirism anthologies Blood is Not Enough and A Whisper of Bloodin hardcover with new jacket art and combined into one volume called A Whisper of Blood. It’s from Fall River Press and has been selling well for them for the past three years or so. Terri Windling and my first adult fairy tale anthology Snow White, Blood Red was reissued by Fall River Press last year, also with a new cover (and updated bios) and is going back to press in July for the Halloween season.
And several other OP titles are being submitted by my agent for reprint and/or e-book release.
James Frenkel, the packager of the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series is working to get some of the earlier volumes reissued as e-books.
So what does the future hold for you?
Terri and I have a young adult anthology called After coming out this fall from Hyperion. We asked our contributors to imagine what happens after various catastrophes occur-natural or man-made. How do the survivors cope? It’s an surprisingly optimistic anthology despite the subject matter, and we have a wonderful array of all original stories from writers of both adult and young adult fiction.
We just handed in an all-original Victorian fantasy adult anthology called Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells which should be out from Tor in 2013.
I’m about to hand in an all reprint anthology to Tachyon called Hauntings-which included ghosts, haunted houses, and other types of haunts by writers including Peter Straub, Joyce Carol Oates, F. Paul Wilson, David Morrell, Neil Gaiman, Gemma Files, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Elizabeth Hand, Jonathan Carroll, Michael Marshall Smith, and others.
And I’ve got several proposals out.
Thanks you so much for stopping by for a chat Ellen, have you any final words for the readers?
Just that I appreciate everyone who reads and enjoys short fiction. I strongly believe they’re the lifeblood of the horror.
For the writer it’s a form with which one can experiment, using different voices and styles.
For the reader, anthologies can provide a sampling of different voices and styles and introduce you to writers you may not have previously encountered.
Without readers I’d be out of a job. So keep reading.
Please follow the links bellow to a selection of Ellen’s Books on Amazon