Interview with Award Winning Editor Ellen Datlow

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Multiple award-winning editor Ellen Datlow has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror fiction for almost thirty years. She has been fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION, currently acquires short stories for Tor.com, and has edited more than fifty short story anthologies, including the previous long-running The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and since 2009 the current Year’s Best Horror of the Year series. You can follow Ellen on Twitter at @ellendatlow or read more about her on http://ellendatlow.com/.

Q&A

Iulian: Before we jump to your amazing work, I’d like to know a bit more about the person behind your fame. Please tell us a few things about yourself: where were you born, how did you grow up, how early on did you have an idea about what your career would entail?

Ellen: I was born in Manhattan, grew up in the Bronx and then Yonkers, the latter a suburb just north of New York City. My father owned a luncheonette (cross between a diner and candy store, which sold comic books) during most of my formative years and my mom returned to and graduated from college when I was around 12 years old and taught elementary school. I moved to Manhattan in 1973 or so after traveling around Europe for a year after graduating University.

I knew I wanted to have something to do with books as a career but didn’t think of publishing until my early 20s.

To date you’ve edited 60+ horror, fantasy, and science fiction anthologies. What drives you to the speculative fiction genre? Do you remember what pushed you first in that direction? How did you see the genre change over your activity of 30+ years?

I love the magic, the weirdness, the strangeness, the creation of possibilities in the “what if” component of sf/f/h. I’ve always read fiction with an “odd” bent along with mainstream fiction.

I’ve seen the genre of the fantastic and grotesque (handy ways of referring to sf/f/h) become more inclusive as to who is writing in it. I’ve seen the genres mix more and most markets care less about enforcing strict divisions among the subgenres. I see this is a natural evolution and a positive development overall, although the development seems to have created so many more niches (sub-genres?) that the market may be having a bit of a hiccup keeping up.

We’ll get to the anthologies in a bit, but first let’s look at magazines. You’ve edited fiction for OMNI, Sci Fiction, and Event Horizon. How was that experience for you? Can you give us a short glimpse into your work in each of them?

OMNI was a joy to work for as I had a large budget and a creative art department. Omni’s art direction was the major influence on most subsequent genre magazines/webzines in the look and use of fine art for illustration. Look at old issues of SF Age and Fantasy. Their layouts look just like OMNI’s.

Initially, I was more constrained in what I could buy, so no horror. But as other editors (this position is sometimes called Editor-in-Chief or Publisher depending on the magazine) took over the direction of the the magazine, they trusted me and things loosened up, so by the end I could basically publish what I wantgreat stories of sf/f/h.

Working at OMNI taught me office politics, and gave me the confidence to contact anyone for a new story, which is how I acquired original fiction by writers such as Julio Cortazar, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, William Burroughs, and even Patricia Highsmith.

It also taught me to be creative about getting around constraints. Space limitation was always an issue at OMNI—the magazine was meant to be one-third fiction, one-third nonfiction, and one-third art. That ratio remained the same. But a good chunk of any advertising-supported magazine, requires that a percentage of the magazine contains ads. Advertisements would drop in and out at the last minute and they had to be accommodated. Over time, I had less room for fiction (the same with the nonfiction) so I thought up the idea of creating groupings of themed short-shorts in which I could cram 3-6 stories into one “slot” in addition to a normal length story. I commissioned about eight themed groups between 1983 and 1993 comprising around sixty short-shorts. Out of all those I commissioned, I turned down and paid a kill fee for only one, which is a pretty good record. (Commissioning vs soliciting stories (in the latter case—which is most often—the latter you have no commitment to pay anything). A couple of those stories have become classics: “They’re Made Out of Meat” by Terry Bisson and “Two Minutes Forty-Five Seconds” by Dan Simmons.

When OMNI went fully online we ran what was possibly the first online convention for Eos Books. We started live chats with fiction writers and scientific luminaries. We started online “round robins” of 4-6 sf/f writer participants who took turns writing bits of stories through four cycles.

Even Horizon was the brainchild of mine and my three former OMNI colleagues. Rob Killheffer and I edited it, with me in charge of the fiction and Rob in charge of the nonfiction. We intended it to be a showcase for what we four OMNI alumni could create onlinewe brought over the ideas from OMNI online, adding a commentary column written by Douglas E. Winter, Lucius Shepard, Jack Womack, David J. Schow, Howard Waldrop, Barry N. Malzberg, Carter Scholz, and Paul T. Riddell, on whatever topics interested them plus book reviews. We published original stories and reprints on a regular basis. Our biggest problem was making money from the site. Even though we sold advertising, none of us knew how to actually collect the money owed us. After a year and a half, we closed Event Horizon down. It’s still available via the wayback machine.

When OMNI online folded, I had been approached by Craig Engler and Sean Redlitz, who were working for the Sci Fi Channel’s website, then called the Dominion. They said the site wanted to expand into fiction and would I be interested in editing that section. I said sure but then heard nothing about until just as EH was closing down. They approached me again, said they now could hire me. By this time the site was renamed SCIFI.COM and we came up with the name SCIFICTION for the fiction area. I acquired fiction for the site for about six years. When I was first brought onboard, the site was expanding to become a huge portal intending to attract all kinds of sf/f fans, with web comics, online videos, fiction, book reviews and news, and a lot more. But over the six years I was there the site contracted, a lot of people were laid off, and eventually it became a site to drive traffic to the Channel, rather than provide original content. Fiction was the next to last thing to go and finally even the news/review went.

Currently you collaborate with Tor.com as a consulting editor; you also solicit stories from specific writers. First of all, how did this collaboration start and what do you enjoy about this role?

I was approached by Irene Gallo, head of Tor.com and asked if I’d like to consult for Tor.com by acquiring stories for the website.

I don’t read slush—I mostly solicit from the hundreds of writers I’ve worked with or whose work I know and like. I can buy anything I want at whatever length from very short story through novella length. Because I’m only one of several editors acquiring stories, there are no slots to fill and thus no pressure to buy things I don’t love.

Who and what type of stories do you mostly target when it comes to soliciting stories?

All kinds. As to who, see above.

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You edit a lot of horror. Please tell us about your passion for this genre, what lead you to edit horror fiction and why you chose “horror” to be your main source of editing at this time?

I started editing horror in order to avoid a conflict of interest with my editing job at OMNI, but I’ve always loved horror. I haven’t chosen it. It’s chosen me.

I would love to edit more science fiction, but there are few opportunities for me to do so. I’ve encouraged some of those who have written it for me in the past to submit their sf to me now. But I’m just getting better f/h than sf for Tor.com. I edit fantasy as much as I do horror. (at Tor.com and for anthologies). But I actually do prefer exceedingly dark fantasy/horror to light.

It seems like coming up with interesting and unique themed anthologies is a skill you have mastered. How do you keep it fresh? What comes first, the theme or the writers? What I mean is, do you create the idea in a vacuum and then source it, or do you create the theme with a few writers in mind?

Sometimes I get burned out, but then something or someone gives me an idea for a theme I’d like to work with. The theme always comes first. Then I think of writers who might be appropriate/interested.

The skills of editing for a magazine versus an anthology are a bit different, but in the end it’s all about the quality of the prose and the uniqueness of the story. How do you define a great story? And on the other end of the spectrum: what themes and motifs are you tired of seeing?

I can mention the things that draw me into a story and some of the elements that allow me to read and reread that story again and again without ending up hating it. But it’s difficult to define a “great” story.

When I buy a story for a magazine or anthology I know I’m going to be reading it multiple times because I will likely read it at least twice before buying it (possibly asking for revisions before that point) then will be rereading and editing it several months later before it goes into production. When reading for The Best of the Year, I’ll be reading and rereading until I eliminate all but the stories that will eventually go into the actual book.

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Voice matters to me. If I don’t like the voice (not the character but the “voice” of that character), I’ll very likely not love the story. Story telling and having a story to tell is important to me. I prefer there to be multiple layers to a story although sometimes a humorous story might get through to me (I feel that most humor, when not satire, is pretty lightweight). I need to believe in the characters and their problems while I’m reading the story. I also like a strong sense of place.

As horror’s the only genre I’m reading in extensively, it’s the only one in which I’m well-read. (Although I’m not well-read in horror novels).

I get tired of the (usually English) couple on the verge of a break-up who go someplace in the country on vacation, do really stupid things, and then get really screwed up. I see a lot of those while reading for the Best Horror of the Year.

There are tropes that everyone says they never want to see again: vampire, werewolf, zombie. Even I said that about zombie stories several years ago. But I’ve changed my mind because there is always something new that can be done with those tropes. But it’s ALL in the story. Most stories of all kinds (in or out of genre) are only so-so. It’s always the skill and passion of the writer that makes the reader sit up and take notice.

Let’s talk about your Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. What did that period mean for you? What was it like collaborating with Terri Windling, Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant?

Our packager, Jim Frenkel, created the project, coming up with the brilliant idea that readers would be interested in an anthology combining the best of fantasy and horror. The twenty-one years during which the series existed proved him right.

We didn’t collaborate. They read and acquired the fantasy. I read and acquired the horror. Once in awhile we overlapped on a story that we considered both fantasy and horror.

Following Year’s Best you moved on to edit The Best Horror of The Year, now into its 8th year. What do you enjoy most about this series, and can you please confirm for us that it will never, ever, ever, ever end?

I love that I can keep doing what I was doing in the YBFH seriespicking the horror stories I love best and can thus push them onto an unsuspecting reading public. (I can’t guarantee how long it will continue thatit depends on the marketplace. Will readers continue to buy enough copies to keep my publisher happy and can the publisher continue to pay me enough to make it worth my while. I do more work on the best of the year than on anything else I do, and get paid the least. I’m currently reading for the eighth volume.

Are there any editors out there that have influenced your work? Any personal heroes? And on a similar note: what qualities are necessary to make a good editor?

Judith Merril and Harlan Ellison in science fiction and horror for their taste and willingness to experiment and broaden the minds of their readers, and Maxwell Perkins in mainstream for his relationship with his authors.

You must be able to say no to submissions that don’t work, even if they’re by friends and/or big names.

You must enjoy working with writers and it helps to learn tact. (I’m less tactful with writers with whom I’ve worked a lot, but that’s because I know we’re on the same wave length and they can take a bit of bluntness.)

If you’re a writer yourself (I’m not, but I’ve heard horror stories)you must be very careful to not impose your writing style on the author’s story. For all editors, it’s important to remember that it’s your author’s story, and if there’s something you want to “fix” (and it’s best if the writer, not the editor fixes the story) it’s for the story not your own ego or from a personal bias. I may make suggestions, but I expect the writer to make the actual changes in the manuscript.

Meet your deadlines.

Here’s comes my favorite question for editors: Can you name for us your all time favorite story and favorite anthology among all that you’ve edited and published?

And why stop here? What is your all time favorite piece of short fiction?

I’m afraid I can’t. I have no one favorite story (either that I published or read). I have many favorite stories.

I’ve got several favorite anthologies but mostly those I’ve done solo because I didn’t have to compromise.

You’ve won a lifetime’s worth of awards and accreditations for your amazing work. What do these awards mean to you, and do you have any specific award you consider The One?

It’s fun and gratifying to receive an award for editing but often it’s luck and timing, as with most awards. Some of the anthologies I consider my best did not win awards. I think Life Achievement Awards might be the most gratifying.

We have a lot of writers among our subscribers, so I always like to ask this question: what is the single best piece of advice you can offer to all the young writers of today’s (crazy) publishing world?

Never throw out anything. If a story doesn’t work, cannibalize. Use the good bits for other stories.

What’s next for you? What can your fans look forward to in 2015 and beyond?

I’ve just finished an all (but one) reprint anthology for Tachyon called The Monstrousit will be out this fall. The Best Horror of the Year Volume 7 will be out this summer. I’ve got a contract for a new original anthology that won’t be out till late 2016. I’m trying to sell a couple of new fantasy/dark fantasy anthologies and I hope to sell a new reprint anthology to Tachyon.

Dear Ellen, thank you for speaking with us today. It was a pleasure!

Find below a selection of books edited by Ellen Datlow:

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Iulian Ionescu

About Iulian Ionescu

Iulian is the Editor-in-Chief and publisher of Fantasy Scroll Mag. He is a science fiction and fantasy writer who enjoys blogging and technology. He runs the fiction writing blog Fantasy Scroll and if you want to know more about his works, check out his author page.