On this month's Special Page:

We present an exclusive interview with Editor Extraordinaire Ellen Datlow


Simon Clark
Trish Wilson
Brent Monahan
Nerine Dorman
Laurie R. King


Ellen Datlow is interviewed by our Media Director Trish Wilson

TRISH WILSON: How did you become Fiction Editor of OMNI Magazine?

ELLEN DATLOW: I worked as an editorial assistant for several mainstream book publishers in the mid-seventies getting nowhere. I was at loose ends, when the first issue of OMNI Magazine was published October 1978. A former colleague suggested I contact OMNI'S Editor Frank Kendig, and in the summer of 1979 I met with him and Fiction Editor Ben Bova. Ben had a secretary but no assistant and so I kept phoning every few weeks asking if anything was open.

Ben was planning to attend the World SF Convention in Brighton, UK late August. Because he had no assistant/slush reader, I asked if I could read the slush while he was away. Initially he hesitated - really, he barely knew me - but finally said yes. (probably envisioning the several foot high slush pile that would be awaiting his return). Soon after, Ben was promoted to Editor and hired writer Robert Sheckley as Fiction Editor. I was hired as Associate Fiction Editor.

Because neither Bob nor I knew the usual hierarchy of a magazine's editorial staff (I doubt that Bob had ever worked in an office before, let alone as an editor) we worked more as a partnership than we should have. We didn't realize that the way it usually works is that the editor reads the agented submissions or submissions by already published writers and the assistant (or associate, as I was) generally reads the slush. Instead I read all incoming manuscripts first (or most - once in awhile a friend of Bob's would hand him a manuscript directly), did all the rejecting, and passed on to him the works that I liked - deciding with him which stories to buy-- and editing all of them.

Bob took a leave of absence over the summer of 1981 in order to write (he'd been blocked, which is why he took the job in the first place) and during those two months I was in charge. When he asked for another month off, Ben Bova said no and Bob quit. Ben was hesitant about promoting me because I'd be the first non-writer helming the fiction department. Bob Guccione and Kathy Keeton hired Ben and then Ben hired Bob because their reputations in the sf field would automatically provide an air of respectability to an enterprise funded by Penthouse magazine. However, by 1981, it was clear that OMNI was being accepted by the field (George R. R. Martin's "The Way of Cross and Dragon" and "Sandkings" both won Hugo Awards in 1980) so I pointed out that having a "big name writer/editor" was no longer necessary. Initially, all my acquisitions had to go through Ben, but that changed shortly before Ben left the magazine in late 1981, a few months after I'd been promoted to Fiction Editor.

TRISH WILSON: What is it about short fiction that appeals to you when it comes to editing? How is short fiction for you different from novels?

ELLEN DATLOW: I've been editing short fiction for more than forty years now. In the early 2000s, I edited several novels as a consulting editor for Tor Books. The two writers with whom I worked: Jonathan Carroll and Paul McAuley handed in novels that needed no structural revisions. I've realized that I'm not particularly good at perceiving a novel's structural flaws and helping the writer to fix them so since then have stuck with novellas or shorter form fiction. 

I started editing novellas for OMNI, Event Horizon, and SCIFICTION. It's only in the past ten years that I've more regularly acquired and edited novellas, which was when I began acquiring them for Tor.com.

But I'm most comfortable editing short stories and novelettes. They're usually less complex.

TRISH WILSON: What do you love most about being an editor?

ELLEN DATLOW: Many things - being the first to read a brilliant new story that might never exist without me having requested it (for a magazine or an anthology) - working with authors to ensure their stories express exactly what they want them to express and once in awhile making the perfect comment/suggestion or asking the perfect question that gives them a eureka! moment.

TRISH WILSON: You've edited science fiction and fantasy, but you also edit horror. What was it about the horror genre that attracted you?

ELLEN DATLOW: I mostly edit horror now. The reason I moved into editing horror anthologies was initially to avoid the feeling of conflict of interest with my job editing mostly science fiction for OMNI Magazine. But I've always been appreciative of dark fiction, since I was a kid.

TRISH WILSON: Your anthologies are invite-only. How do you choose a theme for your anthologies, and how do you solicit stories from authors?

ELLEN DATLOW: Yes they are. A theme might come to me in a flash, or it might germinate over years, or - a publisher might suggest one that interests me. The important thing is for the theme to broad enough that it will engage me for as long as it takes to create the anthology and also, to spur writers to create work that might become future classics. Once I decide on a theme, I'll contact writers whose work I admire, love, and/or have published previously - and ask if they're interested in writing a story based on that theme.

But I actually prefer to edit unthemed anthologies. However, they're much harder to sell to publishers.

TRISH WILSON: How has the horror genre changed over the years?

ELLEN DATLOW: More women have been writing it and/or are being noticed. More writers from other cultures are coming into the field, and again, are gaining recognition. There's more of a crossover between horror and crime fiction (but that's been going on since Thomas Harris's Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs). It existed before, of course (example Psycho by Robert Bloch) but the sub-genre exploded with Harris' work.  There's more of a crossover between horror and weird fiction and horror and dark fantasy.

TRISH WILSON: I understand you were an avid reader when you were growing up. What were your favorite books to read?

ELLEN DATLOW: Eleanor Cameron's the mushroom planet series were among the first books I read on a regular basis. And Nancy Drew. But I also read lots of fairy tales, mythology, then later Bradbury, Ellison, and Matheson. Usually short stories.

TRISH WILSON: How did you come to work for Tor.com and Tor Nightfire?

ELLEN DATLOW: Irene Gallo, publisher of Tor.com asked if I'd like to acquire and edit short fiction for the website, along with several other consultants such as Ann VanderMeer and Jonathan Strahan. I of course said yes. Then Tor.com expanded into publishing novellas as books. The first novellas I acquired were for the website. Two were published in 2013 and two in 2015. Then, with The Ballad of Black Tom in 2016, we changed a different model: novella-as-book, and novellas were no longer published online.

Nightfire was started as a horror imprint of Tor and its first full list came out in 2021. Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw (which I acquired and edited), was the first novella published by the imprint.

TRISH WILSON: You have said in interviews that you are not a writer, and that you believe this helps you as an editor. How does that work?

ELLEN DATLOW: As an editor I feel I'm the "ideal" reader-I have no emotional investment in working with a writer's work. I think it's crucial and difficult for "editor-writers" to ensure they don't impose their own writing biases/ideas on work they're editing. Not being a writer and having no ambitions to be a writer I don't have to worry about that.

TRISH WILSON: What advice would you give to editors and publishers, especially new ones?

ELLEN DATLOW: To new publishers: Production values are important.  I've been seeing more and more poorly produced anthologies with no running heads or running heads that don't have each story title/author on them. No Table of Contents or Tables of Contents with no page numbers, no author names. No first publication information. I've been seeing anthologies with no author bios.

I've seen books with their type double-spaced. Before you put a book into production learn what a well-produced book should look like. Look at some books from larger, respected publishers. There are often variations on how anthologies/single author collections are formatted, but there are certain rules most of them follow.

Pay your writers.

Don't chase trends. By the time you get your book out, the trend will be over or waning quickly. Start slowly and produce quality books, slowly expanding your list until you can figure out how many books you can actually produce well annually.

For editors: For anthologies, don't feel you must take every story submitted. Do not verbally commit to taking a story from anyone until you've read it and decided that it's right for your book. You must be able to reject stories by friends and writers you've worked with before, if you don't like the story or it doesn't work for whatever you're editing.

Every original story an editor acquires needs editing. Every … single … story. This means line editing (not copy editing, which every story needs, even reprints). The number of stories I've bought over the 40+ years I've been in the business that needed no editing whatsoever can be counted on half a hand.

TRISH WILSON: What advice would you give to writers, especially when it comes to the editing and submissions process?

ELLEN DATLOW: Do not submit to non-paying markets (unless there's a very good reason - and there are a few exceptions). Don't be so eager to be published that you'll submit anywhere. For magazines/webzines look at what they publish first. For anthologies, do you know/respect the editor?

Don't be in a rush to publish a collection - wait until you have enough terrific stories written/published. I see collections of stories that seem to use everything a new author has written, and some of those stories are pretty mediocre.

TRISH WILSON: How do you address some people's aversion to horror? What do you say to readers who say they don't like horror? I think horror is often misunderstood. Too many think it's nothing but torturing women and slasher films. Horror is so much more than that.

ELLEN DATLOW: You've answered your own question, although I might ask if they've read Shirley Jackson's works and enjoyed it. If so, I remind them that some of it's horror. Same with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, certain dark crime books (eg The Silence of the Lambs), and other works not always associated with horror.

But one can't force someone to enjoy horror. I had a colleague at OMNI who edited the books column. We took Clive Barker to lunch one day and Clive and I expressed our joy at being scared or creeped out by what we read. My colleague expressed his own horror at this. He hated being scared.

It's difficult to argue with other people's taste. I rarely read nonfiction, as it just doesn't interest me. There are other types of books that just don't interest me - I might be persuaded to take a look at something that I think I won't like but there's no guarantee I'll change my mind.

TRISH WILSON: What are you working on now?

ELLEN DATLOW: Still reading for the best horror #14 - I'm generally done making my choices in late January and writing up my summary by late February.

Reading novella submissions for the Tor.com novella series and some short story submissions for Tor.com's website. Awaiting revisions on one novellas I've acquired for Tor.com.

About to start reading stories for a reprint anthology I'm editing for Tachyon, and just getting in/reading submissions for an all- original anthology I'm editing for Titan. (the publisher that put out When Things Get Dark)

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