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[SFFWRTCHT] A Chat With Editor Ellen Datlow

Ellen Datlow is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writer´s Association. She´s edited numerous anthologies of speculative fiction including The Del Rey Book of SF & Fantasy & The Year´s Best Horror & Fantasy. She´s often collaborated often with Terri Windling including on her YA anthology from Harper, Teeth. Her other most recent anthology is Blood & Other Cravings from Tor. The list of writers she´s bought stories from is endless. Find Ellen online at and also on Facebook and at Twitter as @ellendatlow.

SFFWRTCHT: So, let’s start with a little background. Where´d your interest in speculative fiction come from?

Ellen Datlow: I read everything as a kid so science fiction was just one of the many genres I encountered in the library.

SFFWRTCHT: Who were some of your favorite authors/books growing up?

ED: Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, Richard Matheson (his Shock collection), Heinlein, also whatever my parents had in the apartment. Also, Shirley Jackson, countless writers/stories–only some novels.

SFFWRTCHT:  Were you involved with cons and fandom? Cosplay?

ED: No-until I got to Omni I’d never known there were conventions. It was a total surprise to me. In fact, I was kind of “sheltered” from the world of science fiction. I was just a reader and wanted to be around books forever.

SFFWRTCHT: And you edited Omni for how long?

ED: Seventeen years, until it stopped publishing around 1996 or so.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you get your start as a writer or in editing?

ED: I started as Editorial Assistant. I’ve never been a writer (or wanted to). I feel really uncomfortable writing nonfiction—my intros are often agony. So is writing proposals to sell anthologies. Proposals and query letters and synopsis are a bane for me!!!! When I co-edit with Terri, she writes the brilliant intros. My intros are mostly an expansion of the proposal.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you study writing in college? How did you learn your craft/editing?

ED: I took English lit as a major but no writing courses. I basically learned to edit on the job at Omni.

SFFWRTCHT: Tell us about the first anthology you edited and how it came about?

ED: The first were the Omni reprint anthologies (Zebra). They taught me how to put an anthology together. I was in book publishing for five years before that and had a wee bit of experience editing novels.

SFFWRTCHT: What was your first original anthology idea so to speak?

ED: The first original idea was Blood is Not Enough—half originals, half reprints.

SFFWRTCHT: You’ve edited so many fantastic anthologies over the years, how do you devise new interesting themes?

ED: Sometimes an editor will suggest one (Lovecraft Unbound came about that way). Or I’ll just get an idea.

SFFWRTCHT: Have you ever been surprised by other themes percolating up while going through submissions for an anthology?

ED: Not usually surprised, as certain sub-themes are common.

SFFWRTCHT: What makes a good anthology?

ED: They are tough -especially if you want to do a good job. It’s all a balancing act. It’s not one component but many: great idea, great contributors, important to have a good mix of stories.

SFFWRTCHT: Is there a project you’d kill to do, but can’t get a publisher to take?

ED: Yes. Jonathan Strahan and I can’t sell an anthology proposal we really like. It happens a lot. If publishers don’t think an anthology will sell, they won’t buy it. Even with big names. Only surefire name is King. But Jonathan’s agent pitched it to several publishers. One bit but we couldn’t afford to edit it on the dollars offered.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you pitch that idea to the publisher? Did you already have stories in mind?

ED: I rarely have stories in advance. I wouldn’t want to encourage an author to write something on a possibility. But Maureen McHugh wrote a story for Terri and my Victorian Fantasy anthology before we sold it and refused to take it back. We finally sold the book and hers was the first story we bought. But the reprints give me the core of many anthologies, like Alien Sex.

SFFWRTCHT: What makes a good short story? Do you have any tips for us on the difference between pro and semipro stories?

ED: To me a good short story is one than compels me to read on because several elements come together—the writing: characters, pacing, ideas (if it’s science fiction)–horror is less dependent on an idea than it is on atmosphere. A pro story is topnotch on every level. (In my opinion, of course).

SFFWRTCHT: How long does it usually take to put an anthology together – acquisition, editing, etc to publication?

ED: From sale to publication about a year and a half to two yrs. But some proposals take a long time to sell.

SFFWRTCHT:  What tends to be percentage of invited writers in your anthologies?

ED: 99%- my anthologies aren’t open except for my best of the year which is wide open.

SFFWRTCHT: How does one pitch an anthology to a publisher?

ED: You have to write a really snappy proposal with a punchy title and get commitments from a few big names to contribute.  Then my agent sends the proposal out (after giving me feedback on it and pushing for bigger names—sigh).

SFFWRTCHT: Can authors submit short/novellas singly for anthologies?

ED: Only if they’re open anthologies–or certainly a published story can be subbed to a best of the year.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you think people are reading more or less short stories than they used to (as opposed to novels)?

ED: The same but with e-books maybe more. The more delivery systems the better. Certainly not less.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you recommend subbing to anthologies for budding authors and why?

ED: Sure if they’re open. Submit to whatever markets are available to you, and sub to the best paying first.

SFFWRTCHT: Any tips on how a semi-pro author can make the leap to pro in anthologies? How do you land an invite?

ED: Keep writing and keep sending out your work. If it’s good, Year’s Best editors will notice. Then they’ll contact you.

SFFWRTCHT: Okay, so Teeth is Young Adult vampire stories. My favorite has to be the first. Geneveive Valentine really nailed “Things To Know About Being Dead.” Another one I really enjoyed was “Best Friends Forever” by Cecil Castellucci, an interesting twist on friendship. Neil Gaiman has a poem in there and then you have stories by Holly Black and Cassandra Clarke, Ellen Kushner, and Melissa Marr. How do you choose the order of stories?

ED: Teri and I are so pleased at the variety of non-sparkly Young Adult vampire stories we got. There are a lot of moving stories in the anthology along with those that show vampires as vicious bloodsuckers . For the first story I try to choose the one that feels right in introducing what the anthology’s about. Next one you want to keep the reader reading. Some readers don’t read in order but pick their favorite author or the longest or shortest story, but as an editor I have to ignore that or I’d have no way to order the stories. I try to vary length, point of view, etc. The last story will be one that either blows me away or feels like a grace note after the one that blows me away. A middle of the book story might be one that I don’t love as much or a few I need to balance the book. Or it could be long so you need to put it in the middle for pacing .

SFFWRTCHT: What makes a good vampire story given that they´ve been done so often?

ED: The characters, the background, and a new point of view of telling a story. There are plenty of great vampire stories being written and published. There is no trope that can’t be made fresh by good writing.

SFFWRTCHT: Blood and Other Cravings has vampire stories but also other kinds of tales. Melanie Tem´s really stood out to me. It was about a parent longing for the child they put up for adoption. The first story, “All You Can Do is Breathe” by Kaaron Warren was also memorable—about a miner trapped in a collapse.  Any others you´d like to highlight?

ED: The anthology’s about vampirism— more than just bloodsucking—and follows up Blood is Not Enough and A Whisper of Blood. Margo Lanagan’s story “Mulberry Boys” is harrowing. Also, some nicely disgusting/creepy ones by L. Barron and J. Langan.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the most promising development in horror fiction these days?

ED: I’m seeing more interesting work by young female writers, and more writers who are fearless about working in all genres and in the mainstream: Liz Hand, Peter Straub, Genevieve Valentine, Lucius Shepard.

SFFWRTCHT: Is there a possibility of you ever doing a regular magazine again?

ED: Sure, if someone pays me to edit one. Magazines/webzines? No. I’ve done freelance work for magazines/websites—I edited an issue of Subterranean Press—and done some fiction acquisitions/editing for a science magazine but nothing regular.

SFFWRTCHT: What´s your editing time look like? Planned time? Grab it when you can?

ED: The majority of my time’s taken up reading for Best Horror, which pays the least of anything I do. To actually edit I need to focus.

SFFWRTCHT: Can you tell us what you’re working on now? At least genre?

ED: Terri and I are finishing up Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells. It’s Victorian fantasy and the publisher will be Tor. That should be out early 2013 (I’m guessing). Also, Terri’s and my dystopian Young Adult anthology will be out in Fall 2012.

Interviewer Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the space opera novel The Worker Prince, a Barnes & Noble Best SF Releases of 2011 Honorable Mention, the collection The North Star Serial, Part 1, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. His second novel, The Returning, is forthcoming from Diminished Media Group in 2012. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chatevery Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter, where he interviews people like Mike Resnick, AC Crispin, Kevin J. Anderson and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A frequent contributor to Adventures In SF Publishing, Grasping For The Wind and SF Signal, he can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website. Excerpts from The Worker Prince can be found on his blog.‎ Bryan is an affiliate member of the SFWA.

19 5-star & 4-star reviews THE WORKER PRINCE $4.99 Kindle or Nook $14.99 tpb