An Interview with Ellen Datlow

by Dave Truesdale

Ellen Datlow has been nominated for the Hugo award for Best Editor at least ten times. She has won the World Fantasy Award for THE YEAR'S BEST FANTASY & HORROR (with Terri Windling) three times: 1989, 1990, and 1992. She also won a World Fantasy Award for LITTLE DEATHS and Special Award Professional in 1995. She has been the fiction editor of Omni, and now Omni On-line, since 1981, and has edited numerous highly acclaimed horror anthologies.

The following interview was conducted via e-mail from June 9 - July 2, 1997.

In your role as fiction editor for Omni, and now Omni On-line, readers have come to expect not only diversity in what you publish, but a great measure of literary sophistication. What has formed your particular philosophy in the kind of story you look for?

Before I start to answer this question I'd like to emphasize that these are not rules, these are not dictums. They are merely some of the things that might make me sit up and take interest in a story that comes across my desk. I don't believe any editor consciously thinks about what they want or don't want. All this analysis is retrospective.

When buying fiction for Omni On-line I look for stories that move me in some way--intellectually and emotionally. A good plot can be crucial but a good character can occasionally take the place of plot. An example of this occurs in the Michael Bishop story we've just published, "Cyril Berganske." Not a lot happens, but the protagonist and his voice in a way, are the plot. I prefer it when the science fictional idea is used to illuminate other aspects of the story. I don't want a story about an idea. I want good storytelling that incorporates an interesting sf idea. I think if you ask, you'll discover that every editor (not just sf and fantasy editors) want well-told, believable stories with interesting characters.

What do you think of the state of the fantasy field today? Novel and short story both. Too many endless trilogies? Is this good or bad (for the reader and/or the marketplace)? Are there any favorite kinds of fantasy that excite you, that you would like to see more of? Who do you think are the exciting new(er) fantasy writers right now, and what are they doing that excites you?

I'm afraid I feel the fantasy/sf field is cannibalizing its past. I see older writers who, in their prime, were creating wonderful new worlds and characters who are now working in other writers' universes, in gaming universes, in Hollywood universes and it sickens me. I realize that some of them need money and perhaps aren't as "creative" as they once were but this hackwork destroys their own reputations and hurts the field in general.

Newer writers seduced into writing in the Star Wars, Star Trek, etc. universes get stuck in the cycle of easy money for little work and this stunts their literary growth by discouraging them from creating their own worlds. I know this sounds harsh but I feel this short-sighted trend is destroying the future of sf and fantasy, creatively and also in the marketplace. By encouraging it, book publishers are flooding the market with movie/tv/game spinoffs, debasing the coin of the realm in readers' eyes. No trend lasts forever. Already there's a shakeout in the gaming companies with White Wolf cutting back drastically (at least in its original book lines), and TSR being bought by Wizards of the Coast. Eventually, readers will stop reading all the knockoffs and spinoffs, sales will suffer (as with R.L. Stine--his publisher, Scholastic, has gone through major upheavals because the income they were counting on, slowed down unexpectedly) and publishers will find themselves up shit's creek.

As always there is wonderful fantasy being written. Sometimes the reader has to search for it--by reading reviews, listening to the buzz in the field, looking outside the field. I'm not the fantasy expert. Terri Windling is. But obviously, I do read some fantasy, particularly in the short form. For OMNI, I've been buying wonderful "science fantasy" from writers such as Michael Swanwick (his "Radio Waves" won the World Fantasy Award last year), Michael Kandel, (Michael Bishop (there seems to be a run of "Michaels" here), M. John Harrison, Brian Stableford. For the fairy tale anthologies: Susannah Clarke, and a whole batch of new writers, some of whom came out of Clarion: Bruce Glassco, Nalo Hopkinson, Patricia Briggs, Severna Park. And established writers of fantasy and still doing marvelous work: Howard Waldrop, Nancy Kress, etc. Bradley Denton is doing fine work in novel form, as are William Browning Spencer, David Prill, Delia Sherman. There are dozens of others. So despite what I said above about publishing encouraging the field to cannibalize itself, I do think that there's a richness that persists.

Same question as above, but for the horror field. Do you see any solutions to whatever problems you see in the horror field? Just where does the problem reside? Any bright spots?

Horror is currently having a great deal of trouble in the marketplace. It's very difficult to sell anything with the "horror" label right now. The increased visibility of what was purposely transformed (mistakenly in my opinion) into a genre, made that genre vulnerable to some of the problems inherent in "genre" fiction: publishers jumping on the horror bandwagon and starting specific publishing programs for horror, creating a number of monthly slots that had to be filled whether there was quality fiction to fill it or not; limiting sales by stuffing the fiction into a niche and marketing it a particular way with easily identifiable (and bad) cover art.

Horror belongs in the mainstream. Horror is in the mainstream. Much of what I've always covered for my half (horror) of the Year's Best comes from my reading of publishing catalogs and choosing the dark material I read about in them. As long as you have a few dedicated horror editors the field should survive. However, I love horror, want to edit another horror anthology, and can't find a publisher. I've been trying to sell a non-theme horror anthology for years and have had absolutely no luck. I love reading horror. I love editing it.

There are terrific horror writers out there--new ones and more established ones. As I mentioned, some of the best things I've read (at least in novel form), are not classified as horror. A sampling from my new The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Tenth Annual Collection --Larry Brown's Father and Son, Graham Joyce's Requiem, A.M. Homes's The End of Alice, Todd Grimson's Stainless and Brand New Cherry Flavor, Stephen King's The Green Mile, Chistopher Priest's The Prestige, William Browning Spencer's Zodwollop, and John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure. And I think the field (defining that field as broadly as possible) is brimming over with short story writers who are working hard at expanding the oevre of the field (although neither writers nor editors are self-conscious enough to do this intentionally). Again, a sampling of some of the authors in my half of the Year's Best: Terry Lamsley, A.R. Morlan, Graham Masterton, Thomas Ligotti, Kathe Koje, Barry Malzberg, Michael Marshall Smith, Jay Russell, Michael Bishop, Tanith Lee, Stephen Dedman. I think the fact that this list contains writers with whom readers are not familiar as well as those who have been working in the field for years shows a very healthy field, at least creatively.

What are your feelings on the present state of horror magazines? Despite the criticism she's garnered from some quarters, I think Lillian Csernica's selected critiques in Tangent are pretty much right on target. I know this will sound harsh, but why do these editors keep buying this atrocious stuff? Don't any of them know how to edit?

I've been regularly reading Lillian Csernica's critiques of individual stories in various small press horror magazines and agree with you that she's right on target most of the time. You ask why editors keep buying "this" stuff--cheap thrill splatter type fiction and "don't any of them know how to edit?"

First a caveat: The following does not apply to all small press magazines.

To answer the first part of the question, I think many of the editors are young, new to the field, and basically started their magazines because they and their friends couldn't get published in professional markets so decided to create their own, on a shoestring. There is nothing wrong with this attitude except that what they are creating are essentially fanzines for each other.

They are often illiterate, poorly designed, and from reading some of them one comes away believing that neither the editor nor the contributors have any familiarity with what has been published in the past.

The editors and writers have no apparent concept of the elements of good storytelling --a basic literacy, believable characters, (at least one likeable character wouldn't hurt), a beginning, middle, and end (sometimes implied rather than overt), a tone of menace or disquiet that draws the reader in and keeps the reader at the edge of her seat. And an emotional payoff that involvves more than just a surprise ending.

Why so much splatter? Because the newbies saw the "splatterpunk" movement, utterly misunderstood it, and took it as an invocation to shock their readers. Most of the core members of the splatterpunk movement/blip/whatever are good writers. They have an understanding of what makes a good story. The same thing happened to the "cyberpunk" movement in sf.

The second part of the question is a bit dicier. "Don't any of them know how to edit?" No, of course they don't. Editing is an art, not a science. One learns to do it by doing it. That's how I learned. But you have to have an innate ability.

Editing is not just buying whatever comes across your desk. It's making decisions about what to publish, mostly based on your own taste (at least in magazine publishing. In book publishing it's far more important to constantly be aware of economics). As you edit you learn what your taste is and hone it. And this reflects on the magazines, the anthologies you edit.

The fun part of editing entails working with writers and encouraging those you think have promise, and getting those writers to produce their best work. And of course, working with writers you've long admired whose work you've always wanted to publish. It's crucial to be able to criticise authors when criticism is needed. You cannot be a fan and edit a big name. You must be professional and demand the same in your authors or you won't get those authors' best work. It's very difficult to edit a writer you don't know very well, particularly one you've been reading since you were a teenager.

With the manuscripts you decide to purchase, would you consider yourself a light, or a heavy editor? Have you found yourself, over the years, editing more the mechanics of stories, or the "philosophy"/direction of them?

I consider myself a light editor in that I don't rewrite someone's work --ever. I'm not a writer. Besides, how does a writer learn if not by rewriting her own fictions? The best editor is like the best therapist--she teaches you to be your own editor, your own therapist. Although unlike therapy, I think writers never completely outgrow the need for an editor.

If I like a story enough I'll work with the author to try to make it "perfect" -- that is, to get that story to say what the author intends it to say. It is not my place to "direct" the philosophy of a story. I will perhaps encourage, support, and cajole the author into clarifying what seems to be her philosophy. An editor's job is to make sure the writer doesn't fall off the highwire. If an ending doesn't work I'll try to figure out why and work with the writer to fix it.

Are we ready for online fiction?

Online fiction, if it looks good, can be read just like offline fiction. It will be nice when we have little computers that are book sized so we can actually read fiction online like a print book/story. The thing is, I'm no longer only a fiction editor, buying and editing fiction. A good net magazine is quite different from a print magazine. This is something I and my colleages at OMNI are learning all the time. It has to be more interactive and speak a different visual language than readers may be used to.

We're in the process of redesigning the entire site from top to bottom. We've already put up the new home page and a couple of other areas. Anti-Matter will look more like the original print Anti-Matter than it has. The fiction areas will look completely different. The links pages and review pages have never been designed. They were just thrown up there when we got started. The pages that had been designed are beautiful but the art (eg. photo of me by J.K. Potter) is way too large for the site and takes far too long to load.

I'm producing live programs for the net: OMNI VISIONS, the weekly two hour long series of fiction interviews with sf, fantasy, and horror writers. Right now they're only interviews, with an option (the decision lies with the guest) of an open door to let viewers ask questions after an hour. I'd love to get audio and video but we just don't have the budget. But the technology is there.

I also produce E-Media, the one hour weekly show about the Future of Culture. I took this one over in May and I'm busy working out a lot of kinks with the show. We've interviewed Hollywood animators, graphic novelists (Frank Miller is scheduled), unusual artists (a woman who paints on water), cutting edge publishers (Andrea Juno of Juno Books), the VP of MSNBC desktop video about their new service that covers all aspects of business live, on the net, etc. I'd like to get someone on censorship and the net.

I organized two round-robins on our site. The first with Pat Cadigan, Rachel Pollack, James Patrick Kelly, and Nancy Kress. The second with Karen Joy Fowler, Maureen F. McHugh, Terry Bisson, and Rosaleen Love. They took place over a period of about a month and half, (it was supposed to be a month) during which each contributor wrote and posted a few hundred words four times each.

The types of fiction I buy hasn't changed, although length is no longer a problem. Right now we've got stories up by Paul Park, Michael Bishop, and Michael Kandel. I have stories in inventory by Brian Stableford and Howard Waldrop.

Take us through the process of assembling The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror. Besides the allotted word space, and trying to get a good mix of stories, what goes into your selection process? How do you try to balance the practical aspects (x amount of words), with whatever else factors into your decisions on what goes in?

Actually, it's timely that you should ask that because for the first time in the series I try to give an idea of the thought processes involved in choosing stories for each volume. If you don't mind, just use the following:

My horror selections are not meant to be representative of the state of the field or to cover the full range of horror subgenres. (For example, if I don't love any of the ghost stories I've read during the year I won't pick one just for the sake of publishing a ghost story) but I do try to give a feel for what's going on in the field in my overview of the year. Plain and simply, the stories I've chosen are those I feel are the best of the year. How do I define best?

Smooth, powerful writing with arresting images and believable characters grab me initially, but other things keep me reading. In horror, I judge a story effective if it follows through on its initial premise, particularly if it's supernatural--I think it's harder to write an effective "logical" supernatural horror story than psychological horror story because most readers have to suspend their disbelief. Which, in my opinion, is why so few supernatural horror novels work. The long form is incredibly difficult to pull off. Most supernatural novels fail because of the "idiot" plot--ie., the characters behave in a manner that is unbelievable as it ensures their destruction and is merely a way to further the plot. If characters ignore things that point to danger, if they don't leave when they can, if they go somewhere that no one in their right mind would go, etc. it's difficult for the reader to ignore the fact that she's reading a horror novel. So it's especially crucial to give characters good reasons for their behavior.

Some of the stories I have chosen are of the short, sharp, shock type, others gain power on their rereading. And what I judge worthy to put in the Year's Best must have another element--not just one that causes discomfort, unease, terror, and occasionally, repulsion, but one that on a deeper level, stays with me and disturbs me and continues to disturb. Generally, the story must have a resonance and must hold up over several readings because by the time I make my choices I have read each story I'm considering at least twice.

What books or projects can we expect from you in the near future?

Upcoming works include more Year's Bests of course.

Silver Birch, Blood Moon, with Terri Windling, will be the next adult fairy tale anthology from Avon in their mainstream line of trade paperbacks. It will be out in 1998. And the sixth and last one will be Black Heart, Ivory Bones. We're working on it and it should be finished by fall/winter of this year. Won't be out till 1999. Sirens, and other daemon lovers is an erotic fantasy anthology Terri and I will be finished with and handing in to HarperPrism this fall. Publication is set for fall 1998.

Thank you very much for taking the time, Ellen.

You're welcome, Dave.