Ellen Datlow was born in 1949 in New York City, and now lives in a too small apartment in the far West Village in Manhattan with two cats (Dinah and Lily), a zillion books, and lots of dolls and doll heads. She is the former fiction editor of OMNI, and the former editor of Event Horizon.
She is currently the editor of SCI FICTION, works as a consulting editor for Tor Books, and is the editor or co-editor of more than 50 anthologies, including two so far this year: The 17th Annual Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and The Faery Reel. She has won the Stoker Award, the Hugo Award, and is a seven-time recipient of the World Fantasy Award. She will be the Editor Guest of Honor at the 2004 World Fantasy Convention in Tempe, AZ.
John Joseph Adams: So what do you do with all those World Fantasy Awards?
Ellen Datlow: They're on my armoire, greeting visitors with their gimlet eyes.
JJA: Let's backtrack a bit—back to before you were an award-winning editor. How did you first get involved in editing?
ED: It's actually a long, boring story but I'll try to make it a relatively short, boring story: My first editorial job was in 1973 or so, with Little, Brown & Co. in their NY office as sales secretary. I worked for Joe Consolino, the New York salesman (and father of two sons who were also in publishing).
As soon as I heard about an opening as an editorial assistant at Charterhouse, an imprint of David McKay, I left. But during the next few years I had terrible luck: Charterhouse folding within three months of hiring me, I worked for Jim Wade, of David McKay for another few months and then while I was in the hospital with pneumonia, he and the founders of McKay-Kennett and Eleanor Rawson all walked out and I was without a job.
Photo © 2004, Ellen Datlow
I lived off unemployment and food stamps till I was forced to take a job I was loath to (because I had heard rumors)—working for Donald I. Fine at Arbor House. The only good thing about working for him is that within a few months I moved from receptionist to assistant editor and learned something about publicity and even did some editing. This all happened because everyone between my desk and his quit (usually running out crying) because of his verbal abuse.
Anyway, I lasted there until he asked me to be his assistant and I said no and I resigned. I was probably one of the few who did resign, and it gave me the opportunity to yell back at him for a week or so. Finally, luck went my way and I found a new editorial job before having to beg for unemployment (since I quit, I'd likely have to prove that Fine was horrible to work for).
Next job was editorial assistant to Tom Wallace, Editor in Chief of Holt, Rinehart and Winston. I worked for him three years and became increasingly frustrated by his lack of support when I pushed to publish several titles that subsequently became bestsellers for Holt or other houses. He was also biased against non-Ivy League graduates and I later learned he never promoted any of his assistants. During the last year or so at Holt I started doing reading for the SF Book Club, Book of the Month Club, Dell Books, Ace Books, and Twentieth Century Fox.
Anyway, after three years I resigned and my next job was a short-lived jaunt as assistant editor at Crown, for their crazy Editor in Chief. I was fired after a few months and that was when I heard about OMNI Magazine from the Executive Editor at Holt for whom I had given editorial comments on some of his sf/f titles.
JJA: Of the titles you unsuccessfully championed that became bestsellers for other editors—did someone else at Holt pick them up when Wallace showed his lack of support, thus sort of making off with your discoveries?
ED: Bill Plympton's cartoon book Medium Rare was brought in by me and passed off to another editor. So yes. Cruel Shoes by Steve Martin was sent to Tom (in a small, self-published edition created by Martin that I have in my possession). I read it and was excited about it and thought we should buy it, but it was passed on to a senior colleague, and after a meeting with Martin's agent (to which I was not invited) Holt chose not to buy the book. (St. Martin's eventually published it.)
The Dead Zone by Stephen King was sent to Tom as a "back buy"—i.e., a paperback house wanted to sell it to a hardcover house for first publication. I thought we should buy it, Tom presented it to Irv Goodman, publisher of Holt, and it was turned down. Subsequently, Irv, who left for Viking shortly thereafter, bought it for Viking. If that ain't fishy, I don't know what is. (But that's all beside the point.)
JJA: What was the transition like going from books to short fiction?
ED: It wasn't all that hard as I hadn't edited that many novels by the time I got to OMNI. The production process is much shorter though, and I liked that because you could see the product much sooner than with a book.
JJA: You're a consulting book editor for Tor. If all the short fiction markets suddenly dried up, could you be content editing novels full-time?
ED: No. My heart is with short fiction. I'm a much better short fiction editor than novel editor.
JJA: Which novelists do you work with?
ED: Jonathan Carroll and Paul McAuley are my two authors at Tor. I don't have time for anyone else as long as I have a full time job. There are writer friends for whom I've given editorial feedback over the years but on a very informal basis.
JJA: When you were first starting out, did you have a mentor? Someone whose influence—more than anyone else's—helped you become the editor you are today?
ED: Not really. Carol Rinzler, my boss at Charterhouse, was starting to be but that job lasted such a short time (because of the dissolution of the company) that it didn't happen. The one person who gave me good advice when I was starting out—trying to become a book editor (and a photographer)—was that you can't do both well. This was Roger Straus III, who I met once for lunch. At the time he was in marketing at Farrar, Straus and he told me he loved photography too.
There are editors who I heard or read about who influenced me: Maxwell Perkins and Judith Merril.
JJA: What SF influenced you in your youth? Which writers made you fall in love with speculative fiction? Any specific books and/or short stories?
ED: Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, the Carnell anthologies from the UK. The Wollheim Best of the Year anthologies of the late sixties. I didn't know magazines existed until I actually got into the business. I mostly read anthologies.
JJA: It seems that, like you, a lot of SF fans read in the genre for a long time before discovering that the short fiction magazines exist. Why is that, do you think? And what should magazine publishers be doing to reverse that trend?
ED: Growing up I read comic books in my father's luncheonette. He didn't have SF magazines there. I was a book reader. I just never came across the magazines anywhere—where would I have seen them? How would I have known they even existed? I still don't know where they were sold during the 50s.
That's why newsstand placement is crucial for SF magazines. If there's any chance someone outside the field and not already in the know about SF can be attracted by the magazines then they need to be visible where those people can encounter them. How else would they come across them? Get the magazines into the school libraries, even if they have to give them away. Get them to our soldiers in Iraq. The only way the magazines will get new generations of readers is to attract them young and let them know that written SF exists and that there are stories out there. Not just movies, not just video games, not just books, even. And to do this they need to move to full size magazines so that they don't disappear on the racks.
JJA: If you hadn't become an editor, what other career path would you have followed?
ED: As a kid I wanted to be a veterinarian, until I realized I'd have to take a lot of science and math. Later on, I thought working in a bookstore would be fun because I always loved reading. Beyond that, I never had any ambitions other to "get into publishing"—not really knowing what that meant until I actually did so.
JJA: Talk a bit about the internet as a publishing medium. You've been a part of the three most successful examples of science fiction publishing on the web that I can think of—OMNI, Event Horizon, and now SCI FICTION. Is there something about this electronic medium that draws you to it? What do you like and/or dislike about it?
ED: Sorry to disappoint, but the only reason I'm in electronic publishing is that I'm not in print publishing. I see no special attraction in publishing on the net—I just love editing and I'll do it wherever I'm paid to do it and allowed to run what stories I like.
However, I like the idea that space is not a consideration. In a print magazine text always has to fit—because of advertising or just because you're given a certain number of pages to work with.
JJA: Online fiction markets seem to have been garnering more respect lately, as evidenced by Jeff Ford's and Karen Joy Fowler's recent SCI FICTION Nebula wins, not to mention SCI FICTION's two current World Fantasy Award nominations, and SCI FICTION's first-ever Hugo Award nomination for its fiction. Despite all that, do you ever wish SCI FICTION was a print publication?
ED: Sure. I like magazines as much as the next person. Although I'm not tied to the idea of "collectible magazine text"—I probably have the whole run of OMNI in my storage locker. At one time I thought it was important—kind of like tear sheets for a reporter—to prove that I actually worked on the magazine. But with experience comes a bit more confidence and although I'm not running to dump my set of OMNIs I don't feel I have to prove myself as much as I used to when I first got into the field.
JJA: What's your typical day at work like?
ED: I work from home except for Wednesday afternoons when I go into the office for a weekly meeting plus office stuff that I save for that day, like printing out a manuscript, photocopying, mailing, or discussing something with my boss, SCIFI.COM general manager Craig Engler.
I get up 9:30-10:00 am and immediately get online to check email. I usually spend a couple of hours reading and responding to it. I shower, eat breakfast (not necessarily in that order) and at some time during the day go across town to my P.O. box to get my mail—books and manuscripts. Those are the things I do every day.
Different days and different times I line edit manuscripts about to go into production, go over the copyedited manuscript (my copy editor and I work via the word editing program), read incoming manuscripts, periodically crash-read old anthologies and collections for the classics we run every other week, and write up contracts and invoices.
I may take a break to have lunch with someone. I might take a break and read for The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror or whatever original anthology I'm working on. I'm generally working till 1:30 am (which is why I get up so late). Working from home is a blessing and a curse. I always thought I'd hate it and figured I needed the constant interaction with colleagues. I was kind of shocked to discover that I love working from home. I listen to jazz all day while I work. I can work on my own schedule, can even work while traveling. The downside of course, is that you never really feel you have a day off. I may not get anything done on a weekday so I work all weekend to make up for it.
JJA: When you do take a day off, how do you spend the day?
ED: Hanging out with friends. Going to street fairs, things like the annual Mermaid Parade in Coney Island (when I'm in town for it), eating out, going to movies. Visiting friends out of town. I travel a lot—on business and to visit people all over the country. Which is why I'm always scrambling to catch up. Too much traveling.
JJA: You've co-edited The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror with Terri Windling since volume one, but now, starting with volume seventeen, Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant have taken over for Terri. What was your reaction when Terri told you of her decision to step down?
ED: I was shocked when Terri first told me and I was worried that the series wouldn't continue. Then, when she told me her idea to ask Kelly and Gavin to take over the fantasy half I thought, "Of course!" And when I was really getting burned out (as I always do late in the year) I envied her and thought "I could quit too, and then I wouldn't have all these books piling up and I could read novels again."
JJA: Speaking of editors stepping down, Gardner Dozois resigned as editor of Asimov's earlier this year—what was your reaction to that?
ED: I was very surprised. However, I hope it means he'll be writing more.
JJA: Me too. But let's get back to you and Terri. When you and she edited the YBFH, you edited the horror half and she edited the fantasy half. What's the collaborative process like on your original anthologies?
ED: When we collaborate on our original anthologies we both read each submission and we both have to love a story to buy it. We've rarely disagreed, although once in a while, one of us will care for a story more than the other—and in that case we'll usually take the story (unless one of us hates it).
JJA: In your new anthology, The Faery Reel: Tales From the Twilight Realm, you present a collection of stories drawn from the tradition of various cultures—Brazilian, in Katherine Vaz's "Your Garnet Eyes;" Japanese, in Hiromi Goto's "Foxwife" and Gregory Frost's "Tengu Mountain;" Filipino, in Holly Black's "The Night Market." Did you set out specifically to do that? That is, did you request certain authors write stories of a particular flavor, or did you simply put out a call for faery stories and turn the authors loose?
ED: We asked possible contributors to give us an idea of what faery tradition they were thinking of working in. We purposely pushed for and bought stories from all kinds of cultures. It was definitely intentional. We tried to avoid repetition. Unfortunately, there were some very good stories we had to turn down because we already had a story in the specific tradition.
JJA: Were there any faery traditions that you really wanted to include that somehow didn't make it into the book?
ED: Not really, although there were writers we wanted for the book, who didn't have time.
JJA: The climactic scenes of two of the stories—"CATNYP" by Delia Sherman and "The Faery Handbag" by Kelly Link—both take place in a library. Is there a tradition of faeries associated with libraries?
ED: Uh-oh. Terri's the faery expert—I'm afraid I have no idea. But we are definitely open to our authors creating new traditions for our anthologies. In fact, several of the faeries in the book are made up by the writers. Jeff Ford's sandcastle fairy is a new one. Kelly Link's faery handbag concept is new, and so is Emma Bull's immigrant fairy species.
JJA: How did you and Terri first come to work together?
ED: I think Jim Frenkel approached us about working together on a best of the year anthology of fantasy and horror. Once we worked on a few of those we thought we'd try collaborating on an original anthology. Snow White, Blood Red, the first adult fairy tale anthology we co-edited, is still our most successful in terms of sales. It's just gone back to press to bring the total in print to over 72,000 mass market paperbacks since the book was first published eleven years ago.
JJA: Besides your collaborations with Terri, you've also edited several anthologies on your own. Why wasn't Terri involved with those projects? Not enough fairies and folklore?
ED: We have our own interests. I'm interested in science fiction and horror. Terri is not. All the fantasy anthologies I've worked on have been with Terri. All those of SF or horror have not. Simple as that.
JJA: You once said, "I love going to strange towns and cities to check out the various local weird things for sale at yard sales, antique stores, and flea markets." What's the most unusual thing you've ever bought? What's the most unusual thing you found, but didn't buy because it was just too unusual (or expensive)?
ED: It has to be unusual and cheap! That's part of the joy of the hunt. I've bought a small Victorian basket made of an armadillo in a Maine antique mall. And a large, post-Civil War photographic portrait of a bunch of Union soldiers in their uniforms at a yard sale in Maine.
Several years ago, I found a rubber three-faced doll in the junk/antique store across from that bookstore/diner in Connecticut [Traveler Book Restaurant] that Gordon Van Gelder and I and whoever is with us—you've been with us at least once—stop at on the way back from Readercon every year. The one where you get to take a free book.
Unfortunately, that three-faced doll got me obsessed with the damned things and I've recently paid more than I should have for one on an online auction. Um, I now have seven from different places.
I usually automatically dismiss the things I can't afford and forget about them immediately, so I can't think of anything offhand.
JJA: Let's say you have a wish list of living authors who you've never published before, but would very much like to. Now let's say you find an old antique lamp while on one of your shopping expeditions, and it contains the requisite genie who then provides you three wishes. If you had those wishes and could only use them to acquire stories from the authors on your wish list, which three living authors would you wish for?
ED: Well, I'm not sure there is anyone alive I haven't published in one of my anthologies or the magazines/webzines I've edited who I'm dying to publish. There are writers who no longer write many short stories who I wish would do so and send them to me (but some of those I've published in the past).
JJA: Okay, so name three of those.
ED: William Gibson, John Varley, and Joan Vinge. Also Jack Womack and more Ted Chiang and Kelly Link. (The only ones of the batch I never published are Varley and Vinge, as neither were writing much short fiction by the time I got into the field.)
JJA: Same situation, but now you're allowed to wish for stories from dead authors. And we're not talking stories suddenly found in a trunk which have to be resuscitated by a living writer in order to be readable, we're talking an unpublished story on par with the best of his/her work.
ED: James Tiptree, Jr., Cordwainer Smith, Charles Beaumont.
JJA: Why those three?
ED: Because I enjoy reading their stories (why else?).
JJA:: Every short fiction editor I know says they're being inundated with afterlife stories. I'm sure you are too, but the question is: do you believe in one? If so, what's it like?
ED: Yes, I have been getting a lot. Nope, I don't believe in an afterlife—but I still like to read good stories about one, on occasion.
JJA: You're a big proponent of horror fiction, which leads me to ask: What unsettles you—what do you find horrifying? In real life? In fiction?
ED: Both in real life and in fiction: loss of control, mutilation, animals in pain.
JJA: You maintain an extensive photo gallery on your website, which includes photos of just about everyone in science fiction, your cats, and selections from your aforementioned love of "weird things." Is photography an actual hobby to you that you derive satisfaction from, or just a means of capturing memories?
ED: I love photography, although most of the photos on my website are utilitarian. I enjoy shooting in B&W but Locus always wants photos in color. So I'm torn. I think B&W is much more interesting. In the 70s I was member of a group called Women Photographers of NY and we had some group shows. Around that time I printed my own photographs at a rented dark room for several months. I'm too lazy now, though. I had an Olympus SLR (single lens reflex) for many years but it was big and heavy, especially with a zoom lens. When it kept breaking, I finally traded it in for a Nikon, and wow! are cameras lighter now—they're made of plastic instead of metal. But they're still cumbersome enough that when I travel the digital is easier to carry around (because of increased security and less carry-on luggage). I'm hoping to take my good camera with me to Arizona for after World Fantasy and to Australia when I teach Clarion South next year.
I did run outside to take photos in a snowstorm a year ago—that was fun.
JJA: Among your sub-galleries, you have an entire archive of photos taken at the various KGB Fantastic Fiction Readings series, which is hosted by you and Gavin J. Grant at the "infamous east village bar," KGB. How did you first become involved in this project? Were you there from the beginning, or did the series pre-date your involvement? Talk a bit about what it means to you.
ED: In 2000 Denis Woychuk, owner of KGB, asked Terry Bisson if he wanted to do a science fiction series and Terry asked Alice Turner to curate it with him. The first year they paired mainstream writers with science fiction or fantasy writers. Alice, I think, came up with the title, "Fantastic Fiction." Alice decided to drop out after a time and Terry asked me to help him run the series and I accepted. Then, in the second half of 2002, Terry left New York for California and I asked Gavin to curate the series with me.
I feel it provides a sense of community in an informal atmosphere. We've made sure that we don't compete with the NY Review of SF readings that have been going on for far longer than ours. Our readings are the third Wednesday of the month and they try to do theirs a different week. We try to get the readings listed in magazines like New York, The New Yorker, Time Out NY, the Village Voice, and the NY Press in order to get the word out. We have regulars who attend every month and some months the bar is very crowded. The readings run from 7-9 and afterwards everyone who wants to goes out to eat at an Indian restaurant a few blocks away. Gavin and I treat the readers.
JJA: You mentioned that you're scheduled to teach at the Clarion South Writing Workshop next year. You've taught at the original Clarion in the past—what's it like? Is it a rewarding experience for you? What will you get out of teaching South next year (besides a free trip to Australia)?
ED: I taught Clarion East once, when the editor came out for a weekend, and felt it was a waste of time for me and the students. I didn't get to bond with them and there was no time to even see any of their work. I gather now Clarion East emulates Clarion West and has the editor come for a longer period of time. I've taught Clarion West three times—about once every five years.
It's exhausting to teach Clarion for a week. Not only because you're constantly reading, workshopping, and talking to students, but also because of the preparation—i.e., reading several weeks worth of stories before you get there—is a lot of work. So I'm always nervous at the start, before I get into the swing of things. For me, it's useful as it forces me to hone my skills at editorial communication, plus it gives me a crash refresher course in line editing and overall editing. And finally, it gives me access to a whole bunch of talented writers. This will be especially interesting when I teach in Brisbane. I already know the better-known Australian writers, but hopefully I'll be meeting and interacting with talented newcomers.
Fresh blood. Editors are always looking for fresh blood.
JJA: Aside from its more exotic location, how will Clarion South differ from the other Clarions?
ED: I don't know what to say about Clarion South since I haven't taught it yet. I don't know how it'll compare but I'm eager to see a different group of participants. The students should be chosen soon and I've been told they've offered spots to three North Americans to get a good mix.
JJA: Besides the day-to-day editing of SCI FICTION, what other projects are you currently working on?
ED: The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Eighteenth Annual Collection, and The Coyote Road, which is a YA anthology of trickster stories that I'm co-editing with Terri Windling. It's the follow-up to The Green Man and The Faery Reel. I'm also awaiting word on editing another horror anthology. I just finished editing Jonathan Carroll's new novel, Glass Soup, which will be out from Tor in 2005.
On October 14th at 7pm I'll be hosting an evening of feminist SF readings for Bluestockings Bookstore. I'll be introducing Carol Emshwiller, Marleen Barr, Nancy Jane Moore, and Sue Lange. I was approached by Sue Lange who dangled Carol's participation in front of me. As I love Carol's work, I was delighted to host the event.
Photo © 2004, Ellen Datlow
Saturday, November 20th I, and several of the contributors to The Faery Reel, will sign books in Cambridge, MA bookstore Pandemonium 3-5 p.m.
Avi Bar-Zeev, Ysabeau Wilce, and I have started GothamLit, an online clearinghouse for information regarding events that might be of interest to readers and writers of speculative fiction in the New York City area. It's not a discussion group and anyone can post notice of events related to the field, although the posts are moderated for appropriateness by the three of us.
We started the group right before Noreascon and membership grew to 73 (counting the three of us) in less than two weeks.
JJA: We're both just back from Noreascon 4, the 62nd World Science Fiction Convention in Boston, MA. What were some of the highlights of the con for you?
ED: Mostly just seeing some of my favorite people like Connie Willis and Jack Dann and Eileen Gunn and a host of others. Seeing Jim Patrick Kelly without a beard; seeing my former Clarion students (if only in passing); shopping in an antique mall in Cambridge with Karen Haber, Eileen Gunn, Valeria Susanina (Jack Womack's wife), Ellen Klages, and Sarah Smith; the Eos party at the Boston Aquarium was marvelous. I took many photos of jellyfish. The hor d'oeuvres there was good, too.