AN INTERVIEW WITH ANTHOLOGY EDITOR ELLEN DATLOW
AnthologySentinel: Ellen Datlow’s Reflections On Writing and the Work She Loves
By Matthew J. Bowerman Photo by Judith Clute
Editor's note: As we celebrate the life and work of Edgar Allan Poe this week, and as Poe often worked as an editor and critic, we were curious to know what a modern editor does, and so, here's Matthew Bowerman's interview with Bram Stoker Award-winner Ellen Datlow.
Imagine her tightly hemmed in on all sides by ancient mysteries and secret curses, occasionally channeling words from the Necronomicon, while unknown, violent terrors lean over her unassuming shoulders and computerized creatures breach the cracks between manuscript sentences and slither their way over the keys of her computer; whirling images of unspeakable dimensions and mechanized steel beasts hurtling over the stacks of her books and pencils, notes and sleepy-eyed cats…
A business-minded bibliophile with an eclectic background, expert editor and anthologist Ellen Datlow has been an amateur photographer since the early 70s when she was a member of the Women Photographers of New York, and continues to photograph as a hobby, as evidenced by the imaginative photos linked to her website. Professionally, she has worked with a who’swho of genre writers since being fiction editor at OMNI Magazine and OMNI online for 17 years, editing Event Horizon: science fiction, fantasy, horror and editing SCIFICTION for almost six years. Since 2005 she edits anthologies full time as a freelancer.
Many of the best genre writers of the past thirty years have been published by Datlow at some point, and her passion, taste, and drive has earned her nine World Fantasy Awards, three Bram Stoker Awards , two International Horror Guild Awards, two Shirley Jackson Awards, plus multiple Hugo and Locus Awards for her editing. In 2007 Ellen was recipient of the Karl Edward Wagner Award for outstanding contributions to the genre. She was recently recipient of the Life Achievement Award given by the Horror Writers Association.
I asked Ellen about how and where it all began:
DATLOW: I grew up in the Bronx until I was 8 and then my family moved to Yonkers, NY. My dad owned a luncheonette for most of my childhood so I was the lucky devourer of unlimited ice cream, pretzels (the long ones), the best malteds I've ever had, and comic books (as long as I read them in the store). I attended three elementary schools (two in the Bronx and one in Yonkers) by the time I finished sixth grade. I was always lousy at Math and Handwriting, but terrific in English. I started working summer jobs in order to save up money for traveling. An aunt lived in Wiesbaden, West Germany post-WWII and I'd always wanted to visit her. So I did, in my nineteenth summer. I traveled throughout Western Europe, down to Greece, Turkey and up to Scandinavia for a year after I graduated college. It wasn’t until I was around thirty that I got to California.
Datlow found a passionate interest in reading, exploring the cryptic, bizarre and eerie worlds of fantastic fiction, early on. She explained that as a child her mother had entertained her with readings from fairy tales, of which she would later go back and read on her own because she was wrapped up in the vivid experiences the characters went through.
She also fell in love with Bullfinch’s Mythology and The Odyssey, and in her teens she discovered horror in The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural, and in the collections by Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson.
Datlow’s early career began in book publishing roughly around 1974, but she felt she was “getting nowhere slowly,” and it was not until the opportunity to work at the relatively new magazine OMNI in 1980, where she was hired as Associate Fiction Editor, that she became deeply plugged into the pulse of the genre. Her time as an editorial assistant and assistant editor in mainstream book publishing, while frustrating, gave Datlow the opportunity to develop an understanding and appreciation of the production, sales and marketing parts of the publishing process, of which she says, “-- is very useful to know as an anthologist --being on the other side of the profession….selling not buying books.”
Datlow has been editing anthologies exclusively since SCIFICTION was discontinued in 2005, and her workload has remained pretty stable what with reading all the horror short fiction published for the annual “Best Horror of the Year”—a process that is “massive and takes all year.”
As a freelance editor she spends a good portion of her day online responding to writers, publishers, literary organizations, working on new proposals, paying writers, and “the little business details that can pile up if you’re not careful.” The majority of her reading, note-taking and editing starts in the afternoon and runs until 1:30 in the morning.
DATLOW: Generally my work entails reading or editing manuscripts I want to buy for an anthology and contacting the writer of that manuscript by email with my suggestions, or incorporating the agreed upon changes into the manuscript. I will also heavily focus on doing a one final line edit of an entire anthology before handing it into the publisher for production. The anthologist goes over the copy-edited manuscript, and sometimes the galleys as well. If possible, I prefer to have the publisher send the galleys to each contributor so they can go over them to check for errors. Also, I’m often working on new anthology proposals and contacting writers I want for those anthologies to help sell them to a publisher...
As Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror have evolved you have been on the cutting edge of nearly all of the literary transitions for the fields in the past twenty-plus years. In looking back on your work, what elements are you most proud of?
DATLOW: I'm proud of all of my work so it's really difficult to choose. I'm proud of different aspects of my work for different reasons. First, OMNI because I was able to introduce the largest number readers to my fiction choices. Second, Event Horizon because my colleagues (former OMNI colleagues) and I created the exact webzine we wanted to create, even though it only lasted one and a half years. SCIFICTION because it finally drove the nail into the outmoded idea that online fiction couldn't be of the highest quality. My different anthologies and anthology series have (hopefully) influenced the perception of certain types of fiction plus entertained thousands of readers.
In your regular review column, “The Last Ten Books I’ve Read” in Cemetery Dance you reference some great new works, including such standouts as BadThings by Michael Marshall and TheLittleStranger by Sarah Waters, but what are three out right now that are must reads for SF and Horror lovers?
DATLOW: The Millennium Trilogy. (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc) by Steig Larsson, the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey, and Occultation by Laird Barron.
You’ve taught several times at the Clarion West writing workshop and at other workshops over the years. What advice do you have for new writers?
DATLOW: Writing the best short stories is still the quickest way to build a reputation for yourself in the fields of the fantastic. By "best" I mean literate. I mean develop your voice, write characters that your readers can relate to (whether likable or not), and write—about--something. Learn the difference between writing a "scene" from a story and writing a story.
You attend and participate in genre conventions that take place all over the world, but do you have any special places you enjoy as a world traveler?
DATLOW: I love London and feel it's my second home. I love Japan, having been there twice, as well as Australia. I try to travel around a different part of Australia whenever I go, but I love the outback: Uluru (Ayres Rock), Kata Tjuta, and The Olgas--they're magnificent places.
We love what she does, we’re grateful for her phenomenal contributions to the field, and wondered just what it is that drives a person to spend a career as an editor? Her answer was simple and direct:
“You have to love books. You have to love stories. I love good stories and great storytelling. I read all the time, and I absolutely love being able to do this work.”
Want to read Ellen's anthologies?:
Ellen Datlow’s recent anthologies include: LovecraftUnbound, Dark Horse (October 2009) , Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, Tachyon (February 2010), Tails of WonderandMystery, Night Shade (February 2010), Best Horror of theYear 3, Night Shade (April 2010), The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People, with Terri Windling, Viking (April 2010), DigitalDomains: A Decade of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Prime (May 2010), Haunted Legends (with Nick Mamatas), Tor, September 2010, Teeth: VampireTales, with Windling, HarperCollins (April 2010), Naked City, St. Martin’s Press (July 2011), Supernatural Noir, Dark Horse (July 2011), Snow White, Blood Red (reissued in hardcover) Fall River Press, (August 2011), and Blood and Other Cravings, Tor (September 2011).