Feature Interview: Ellen Datlow
Feature by Janelle Janson
My appreciation for books can be credited to a number of great authors from the past and present, but it was the work of Ellen Datlow that convinced me that a great editor is an incredible thing. Datlow is a multi-award winning horror, fantasy, and science fiction editor who has dominated the dark fiction scene for over forty years, and it’s not hyperbole to say that she is a powerhouse. Datlow has compiled some of the best of what genre fiction has to offer, and her intelligence, sharp instincts, and—let’s just face it—magical editing powers are unparalleled.
I first encountered her work when I picked up a copy of Echoes (2019), an anthology of ghost stories. Echoes features several of my favorite authors, including Stephen Graham Jones, Paul Tremblay, Joyce Carol Oates, Nathan Ballingrud, and John Langan, and I loved it all. So when Datlow’s anthology, Edited By (2020) published, I immediately had to have it. After finishing Edited By, I made my way through Datlow’s extensive backlist, including her annual series The Best Horror of the Year, Final Cuts (2020), Tails of Wonder and Imagination (2013), Doll Collection (2015), Body Shocks (2021), and the new Shirley Jackson anthology, When Things Get Dark (2021). So, I guess it’s fair to say that I’m now a fan, and that is why I was so grateful for the opportunity to chat with the queen of anthologies for this feature.
JANELLE JANSON: Hi Ellen! Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer a few questions. Let’s start with an easy one. Have you always been a reader?
ELLEN DATLOW: Oh, yes. I was one of those kids who was reading anything and everything, including the backs of cereal boxes.
JJ: Sounds familiar. Did your family have any influence over your reading growing up?
ED: I read whatever was in the apartment, in addition to being taken to the public library from a very young age. My parents were totally open to what I could read. I probably read things I should not have as a kid, including a sexy cartoon book on their shelf called The Tattooed Sailor.
JJ: Are you a fast reader?
ED: Not really. I can skim for the Best of the Year in order to quickly eliminate stories from consideration. But if I need to concentrate and read rich or dense material, I have to slow down.
JJ: Did you always want to work in the book publishing industry?
ED: It took me awhile to figure out what do with my love of reading and a BA in English Literature. I also was interested in photography from a very young age, and at one point, I was torn between publishing and photography as a career. But in order to make a living in photography, I soon realized I’d have to shoot things I was uninterested in, so I scratched that idea. Once I committed to becoming an editor, I worked for about six years for several different book publishers, until discovering this “new magazine” called OMNI.
JJ: And you then joined OMNI’s staff, correct?
ED: I did. A connection at one of the book publishing houses I’d worked at put me in touch with the editor of OMNI. I was able to finagle a job with Ben Bova, who was Fiction Editor at the time, and after he was promoted to Editor shortly after I arrived, I was hired to work as Associate Fiction Editor with Robert Sheckley. When Bob [Sheckley] left the position to return to full-time writing, I was able to take over the position for seventeen years through its transition to online.
JJ: Was it difficult to transition from print to an online platform?
ED: I always maintained that good stories would draw in and hold the attention of online readers for as long as necessary despite the argument in the early years that no one wanted to read long fiction on the internet. The only difficulty was how to make money. Very few companies knew how to monetize anything online for a long time (except for porn).
JJ: Do you edit full novels? Or is short fiction where your heart is at?
ED: I’m not a novel editor. I have edited novels, but only those that needed very little work (three novels by Jonathan Carroll, three by Paul McAuley). I concentrate on short fiction up to about 40,000 words, which includes novellas. Novels require a different type of skill, which for me is underdeveloped. I suppose I could be a decent novel editor with more experience, but I love editing shorter forms.
JJ: What do you love most about being an editor?
ED: There’s so much I love about my profession. I love being the first reader of some brilliant stories, and I love knowing that without my constant prodding, some of those stories would not exist at all. I love working with my authors to get their stories to communicate exactly what they want to communicate, and I even have a love/hate relationship with the onerous task of paying out royalties—I love being the bearer of monetary gifts over and above an advance, but I hate the tedious process of it all.
JJ: You edit mostly horror fiction, but also fantasy and science fiction. Have you always been a reader of these genres?
ED: Yes, but not exclusively until I started working with them as a profession. As a kid, I read Nancy Drew. As a young adult, I read historicals and potboilers. And I’ve always read a lot of off-kilter mainstream novels.
JJ: How did you come to work with two of my favorite publishers, Tor.com and Tor Nightfire?
ED: Irene Gallo, head of Tor.com, approached me in 2012 to come on board as a consulting editor for the website, and I was honored to be asked. I started by acquiring short fiction and a few novellas for the website. Then when Tor.com expanded into publishing novellas as e-books and in print (no longer online), it was natural that I’d continue acquiring novellas for them for those mediums—although the current acquisition process is completely different than when everything was published online. Now that the Tor Nightfire imprint is up and running, I have to decide whether to submit my novella recommendations to Tor.com or Nightfire, depending on where I think is the best fit.
JJ: Your career as an editor is astounding. You’re the recipient of the Bram Stoker Award, British Fantasy Award, Life Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association, the International Horror Guild Award, Shirley Jackson Award, Locus Award, Hugo Award, and so on. What is your “special sauce?”
ED: Hard work for more than forty years, working with writers whose work I love, and doing enough different things to keep it all interesting.
JJ: You’ve said in interviews that are not a writer and that you believe this helps you as an editor. I find that so interesting. Can you please elaborate?
ED: Editing and writing use different parts of the brain. I cannot create art from nothing. But I’m a good photographer because what I see through a camera lens I can compose into art. It’s the same with writing versus editing. I can’t create fiction, but once the words are on the page, I can help the writer make the story better. Some writer/editors subconsciously impose their own voice onto a manuscript, and it’s something they need to fight against. In other words, they are more inclined to rewrite than ask the author to rewrite. I ask questions and make suggestions throughout the editing process. I never rewrite.
JJ: Do authors submit their stories to you during an open call, or is it invitation only? Do you tend to work with the same authors, or do you try to discover new talent? I assume the virtual Rolodex is already immense.
ED: I rarely have open calls. I’ve been working with some writers since I started publishing them in OMNI in the early 80s, as well as authors that I published in later webzines. As for new talent, I’ve been reading for “best horror of the year” anthologies for thirty-five years, so I’ve constantly been made aware of new voices, some of whose work I pick up for reprint in my “best of the year” anthologies, and some who I reach out to for original anthologies.
JJ: What advice would you give to editors or publishers starting out? What is the best way to find new talent?
ED: Finding new talent isn’t difficult. Just read everything you can within the genre you’re working in and then approach the writers whose work you enjoy and that fits in with your vision of what you want to publish. And don’t dismiss the idea of getting big names. Big names draw in readers first. If you love work by someone you think might be inaccessible because they’re too famous, write them a note and ask politely if they might consider submitting to your magazine/webzine/anthology. It can’t hurt. When I was at OMNI, I wrote letters to and solicited stories from writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Burroughs, Joyce Carol Oates, Harry Crews, Patricia Highsmith, William Kotzwinkle, and Jonathan Carroll. All but Marquez responded, and I ended up publishing all the others in one venue or another, some of whom still write stories for me on a regular basis. Obviously the fact that OMNI had a real budget and an amazing Art Director piqued their interest.
JJ: Great advice. You have edited over one hundred anthologies, which is mind-blowing. This might be a ridiculous question to ask, but I really want to know: Do you have any favorites?
ED: That’s really hard to say. I have too much invested in each one to single a few out.
JJ: I completely understand. Are you a book collector? If so, what is your most prized edition?
ED: Yes, but I’ve been trying to divest myself of as many books as I can. I receive hundreds of books annually because of my best of the year reading. I try to keep very few of them. My favorites to collect are works by Edward Gorey and illustrated editions of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
JJ: What are you currently watching? Do you have a favorite show or movie?
ED: I just started the 2014 TV series Halt and Catch Fire about revolutionary developments in the PC industry. It stars Lee Pace, who I adore. Otherwise, I binge-watch TV shows via my Netflix account. I watched Buffy and then Angel that way, long after each show ended. And The Sopranos, Luther, Fortitude, Dexter, Justified, Hannibal, and most recently, Lucifer.
JJ: A lot of great shows in that list. I’m really enjoying the Dexter reboot. Where do you find your book recommendations?
ED: Publishers Weekly, the Tor.com and Nightfire blogs, Rue Morgue, the Horror Writer’s Association monthly newsletter Quick Bites, and other magazines that review books. I used to receive physical catalogs from many of the trade book publishers, but now those are exceedingly rare. Some publishers have digital catalogs, so I look through those to see if anything looks appropriate for me to cover in my “best of the year” summary. Also, word-of-mouth.
JJ: What are you working on now?
ED: Wrapping up Screams From the Dark: 29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous, an all-original anthology coming out from Tor Nightfire in June. I’m also still reading for The Best Horror of the Year Volume Fourteen, and I’m hoping to sell another original anthology or two.
JJ: How about a quick game of “This or That” before we end the interview?
ED: Sure. Sounds fun.
JJ: Science fiction or horror?
JJ: Coffee or tea?
ED: Coffee for breakfast; tea for afternoon tea-and-cookies, and after dinner.
JJ: Halloween or Christmas?
ED: Christmas, for the gifts.
JJ: Aliens or monsters?
JJ: Vampires or ghosts?
JJ: Beer or wine?
ED: Scotch (single malts).
JJ: Surf or turf?
JJ: “Haunted House” or “Final Girl?”
ED: Haunted House.
JJ: Dog or cat?
JJ: Fall or Spring?
JJ: Nighttime or daytime?
JJ: Ocean Diver or Cave Spelunker?
ED: Neither (ugh ugh ugh).
JJ: Thank you again, Ellen, for taking the time to answer my many questions. It’s has been an absolute delight.
Well, Dark Matter Magazine readers, that was surreal. If I hadn’t pinched myself, I would’ve thought I was dreaming. -JJ