Interviews With The Fantastic
InterGalactic Interview With Ellen Datlow
by Darrell Schweitzer
Ellen Datlow is very close to being the anthologist of fantasy and horror over the
past thirty years or so. She came into prominence as the fiction editor of Omni in
the '80s and since then has edited the webzines Event Horizon and Scifiction, in
addition to a large number of anthologies, both by herself and often in collaboration
with Terri Windling. With Windling, she co-edited The Year's Best Fantasy and
Horror for many years. In later volumes, Windling was replaced by Kelly Link and
Gavin Grant. That series has ended, although Ellen is now editing The Best Horror
of the Year for Night Shade Books. She has won five Hugo Awards, (one for Best
Website, Scifiction), two Bram Stoker Awards, nine World Fantasy Awards, two
International Horror Guild Awards, two Shirley Jackson Awards, and the Karl
Edward Wagner Award.
SCHWEITZER: How did you get to be an editor? Was this your ambition from
the start or did it just happen somehow?
DATLOW: I've always loved reading. When I was in high school and even in
college I remember thinking that working in a bookstore might be fun. After college
I traveled around western Europe, as far south as Turkey and as north as Finland,
for about a year. When I returned, I worked a lot of temp jobs until I decided to
apply for jobs in publishing houses.
I had no idea what being an editor meant until I got my first job in publishing as
secretary to the New York salesman in the New York office of Little, Brown & Co.
The office was small enough that I could see what everyone did. There was a full
time slush reader, believe it or not (this was around 1973) and because she had so
much to read, she let me read some of it in my spare time. So that was my first
exposure to anything editorial. After about nine months I was offered a job
(through someone at LB who knew someone at another house) at Charterhouse as
editorial assistant to Carol Rinzler. Unfortunately, even as she hired me I think she
was aware that the imprint at the David McKay Co. was about to go under -- it
was founded by Richard Kluger, who had left. But Jim Wade, a senior editor at
McKay, took me on as his assistant. Unfortunately, a few months later the
publishers -- Kennett and Eleanor Rawson -- plus Jim all walked out, leaving me
without a job (while in the hospital with pneumonia)
After miserable/or non-productive work-experiences in book publishing for a few
years (working for Arbor House for the monstrous Donald Fine, then at Holt,
Rinehart, and Winston -- now named Henry Holt, and finally Crown) -- my first
magazine job was with Omni. While working at HR&W for three years, I began to
read science fiction submissions for the SF Book Club, for Jim Frenkel at Dell, and
Ellen Kushner at Ace (I think it was Ace). I also read for 20th Century Fox and the
Book of the Month Club.
At Omni, I started as Associate Fiction editor for Bob Sheckley, and the rest is
SCHWEITZER: Well the rest may be history, but that's what we're interested in
here. So, did you start out with an interest in science fiction and fantasy or was this
something that happened due to where you found yourself?
DATLOW: I was always interested in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I read
everything my parents had in the apartment from the non-fiction reference book
The World We Live In to Bullfinch's Mythology and the Odyssey and the short
stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Guy de Maupassant. As a young adult I read a
lot of historical novels by Irving Stone, Harold Robbins, plus such books as Last
Exit to Brooklyn and The Group. I read everything. But I realize now that I was
also very interested in short stories. I read Ellison's collections and Dangerous
Visions and Again Dangerous Visions and Partners in Wonder and The Playboy
Book of Horror and the Supernatural, Richard Matheson's Shock series, Alfred
Hitchcock anthologies, etc. etc.
SCHWEITZER: How much would you say that Bob Sheckley influenced you as
an editor? How long did you work for him as his assistant?
DATLOW: Bob didn't influence me as an editor at all. He knew nothing about
working in an office or about being an editor. I taught myself to edit -- I'd already
done some substantive editing on a couple of novels at Arbor House and at Holt,
Rinehart, and Winston (one of the late Edward Whittemore's novels -- The Sinai
Before Bob Sheckley was hired as fiction editor, Ben Bova was the fiction editor,
giving me slush to read. Ben also went over a manuscript with me one time after he
had me line edit it. That was the extent of my hands-on editing education. But you
can't really teach editing . . . it's an on the job art/skill that I'm still constantly
learning with each story I work on.
Once Bob was hired, I was first reader for everything: for the slush and for the pro
submissions. We had no knowledge of "editor/associate editor" protocol --
neither of us. So I ended up reading 99.9 % of the submissions first, passing on the
stories I liked to Bob during the 1½ years or so he worked at Omni (a handful of
Bob's friends sent their stories to Bob's home address).
I guess you could say Bob influenced my editing by letting me do it all.
SCHWEITZER: I don't know if you want to put this in the interview or not, but
the muckraking journalist in me is curious to know why you describe Donald Fine
DATLOW: You can either use this or not -- it's common knowledge in
publishing. He was verbally abusive to his employees and at least twice a year when
he still owned Arbor House, which was located on Lexington Avenue, he was
reported to the building management by neighboring companies because they could
hear him screaming and cursing at his employees. I took the job in desperation, as
my unemployment had run out. I was warned about him. I was hired as the
receptionist and within four months I had edited a couple of novels and done some
publicity. But the so-called straw that made me resign (I'm one of the few who
actually gave two weeks notice) was his intention to "promote" me to his assistant
-- which meant I'd have had to interact with him more closely and suffer his verbal
abuse. As it was, I was sick to my stomach going into work every morning, so
even though I didn't have another job, I had to quit. I was very lucky in that I
found another job (with Holt) within a week.
Several years later when I spotted him at an ABA (now called BEA) I walked out of
his line of sight -- not that he would have recognized me. Dozens of people would
have danced on his grave if we could have (I'm one). Ask Gordon Van Gelder
about him. A woman who ran out of the office in tears when I was there worked at
St. Martin's later and she told Gordon about it. We met at a party once and toasted
to his death.
SCHWEITZER: Wow. At least he is dead and can't sue.
DATLOW: You're welcome to spread word of his atrocities far and wide.
SCHWEITZER: On a happier subject, let's talk about your editorial agenda.
Everybody says "I want good stories." For Omni you wanted good stories. But is
there more to it than that? Particularly when you're editing a high-end market like
that, you get a chance to lead, and actually shape what the field is to become. So, at
what point did you have any sense of this?
DATLOW: When I began editing the fiction at Omni I had no agenda but to buy
the stories I really enjoyed. I came into the field from the outside (even though I
read in that field all my life) and had no preconceived ideas of what I wanted to do.
I didn't know science fiction magazines existed until I got to Omni. Growing up,
I'd read anthologies -- original ones and Best of the Years. I didn't look at
copyright pages so I had no idea where those stories came from, if they'd been
SCHWEITZER: Does this mean you're the mother of Cyberpunk? After all, it
was in Omni that a good deal of Cyberpunk happened.
DATLOW: The mother of Cyberpunk . . . no. I was the Queen of Cyberpunk,
thank you! -- and only by accident. William Gibson's stories were brilliant. I
published most of his sprawl stories in Omni. It wasn't that I saw something "new"
-- just something wonderful. I bought some Bruce Sterling (not his most famous
ones), some Lew Shiner, a lot of Pat Cadigan, several Tom Maddox stories, and
one story by John Shirley. I certainly had no agenda when I was editing and buying
their stories. I just thought they were mighty fine.
I wouldn't call how I developed as an editor and what I do now as an editor an
"agenda," but over the years I've realized that loving sf/f and horror and working at
Omni, Event Horizon, and Sci Fiction gave me the leeway to publish all three of
those subgenres of the fantastic (including terror fiction, which is more
The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror also did that -- my co-editors and I always
searched for our material in all kinds of places that one wouldn't necessary expect
to find it -- mainstream magazines and anthologies and collections and literary
journals. And of course all genre publications. I continue to try to read in and out
of genre for my Best Horror of the Year.
So if seducing readers into enjoying stories outside their genre comfort zone is an
agenda then that's my agenda.
SCHWEITZER: So as far as leading the field from the editorial chair, you didn't
become John W. Campbell then. But there must have been trends you wished to
encourage and trends (or clichés) you wished to discourage. Can you think of
DATLOW: I didn't even know who John W. Campbell was when I started.
(Blasphemy, I know). I wanted science fiction to be perceived as a literature for
adults. I wanted it to be as literate as the best mainstream fiction. I really dislike
clunky writing and I have always disliked it. It's the first thing to throw me out of a
I guess when I was much younger, an intriguing idea could carry me along for the
ride, but by the time I was in my thirties I wanted to be enveloped by a story in
which the characters were believable and spoke in words and sentences that mirror
real life. Intriguing ideas were still important to me, but the story was more so. And
I think I proved that science fiction could be both stylish and intriguing during my
years editing magazines and webzines.
SCHWEITZER: Do you think an editor could deliberately reshape the field today
the way Campbell did in the 1940s? Or might it be a matter that no one is in a
pivotal enough position to do so? In 1940, Astounding was THE science fiction
market for people who wanted to be taken seriously. Today, there is more than
DATLOW: No -- there is so much diversity and so many niches in the sf/f field
now that I think no magazine editor could do that. Possibly anthologists, a bit.
SCHWEITZER: How did you come to develop that whole series of anthologies
based on fairy tales with Terri Windling? Surely this had an effect, turning the
upmarket end of the fantasy field away from generic Tolkien imitations and back
toward its roots.
DATLOW: The idea for the adult fairy tale series was suggested by Tom Canty to
Terri Windling and she approached me to be co-editor. I certainly think that series
contributed to the creation of a huge sub-genre in the retold fairy tale, although
Tanith Lee and Angela Carter of course were writing such stories way before Terri
and I began the series.
SCHWEITZER: While editing Omni you must have also gotten every second-hand Cyberpunk imitation in existence. I remember you once telling an audience (at
the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society) not to send in their cyberpunk stories
because you had Gibson and Sterling and didn't need the imitations.
DATLOW: Yes, I got a lot of so-called cyberpunk that didn't integrate the tech
into the story but made the tech the story. Boooooring.
However, I honestly believe that there is no theme that cannot be made fresh by the
right treatment by a good writer.
SCHWEITZER: Do you ever develop an editorial fatigue, in the sense of, "Oh
no, not that again?"
DATLOW: Not reading slush for a magazine has cut out a lot of that in sf/f,
although reading for a Best Horror of the Year for twenty-four years makes me
curse some of the published stories I end up skimming. I'm not sure I'd call that
editorial fatigue. Just annoyance.
I get tired of reading stories that are about nothing, that are merely an incident or
series of incidents that don't make up a story. This happens more in horror than in
science fiction or fantasy. When I critique at writing workshops (beginning and
pro) I sometimes read fiction that has no reason for existing -- it's about nothing.
If a writer has nothing to say, she should stop writing. Not everyone who wants to
write should write. That may sound harsh, but so be it.
SCHWEITZER: I suppose I have to ask: What is the strangest or funniest
submission you ever got?
DATLOW: I don't recall any particularly strange or funny submissions, but once
when I rejected a slush story and commented that "twinkies don't crackle if you
burn them" -- the writer sent me a package of twinkies with a note saying the
packaging does . . . (well, duh, he should have said he was referring to the
packaging in the story) . . . I admit that I didn't try burning the Twinkie package,
but Rob Killheffer (who was my assistant at the time) and I ate the evidence.
SCHWEITZER: For slush pile stories, maybe the high prestige of Omni deterred
some of the really awful amateurs from trying, and so you were spared. I shall
always remember a couple that came in to Amazing, including one about domed
cities under the methane seas of Venus, or the one in which, having taken an
injection, someone remarks: "'Gee, you'd think that here in the year 2463 AD we'd
have a more efficient method of taking medicine,' he continued his running
I also saw a manuscript that must have been typed on a typewriter that worked
backwards, because it read from bottom to top . . .
So how much did you find yourself as editor of Omni interacting with the writers,
in the sense of suggesting revisions, even pointing the direction of that writer's
career? Were you that sort of hands-on editor? (I suppose I am thinking of the John
W. Campbell model again.)
DATLOW: Oh we got plenty of slush, but I don't really remember it from thirty
years ago, and once I was made fiction editor I rarely read it. I had assistants or
readers who took over that task.
I've always been a very hands-on editor. During the years I've been editing, I can
recall only about four or five stories that required no edits. About a third of the
stories I buy go through at least one rewrite. That to me is one of the most
important parts of being an editor -- working with the writer.
Someone who just buys and publishes stories is lazy or doesn't understand the art
and profession of editing. Anyone who only does that (for original stories) is not
doing half her job. That crucial part of the job is to help the writer look as good as
possible, to push her into producing her best work, to keep the writer from
stumbling (here, an editor might overlap with a copy editor, catching
inconsistencies, the unintentional overuse of words/phrases/sentence patterns), and
to enable the writer to communicate to the reader what she intends to in each story.
SCHWEITZER: Let's also talk about you and horror fiction. You've been
increasingly associated with dark, supernatural fiction for a number of years now. I
assume this has always been an area of interest for you. What are some of its
special charms for you?
DATLOW: I was reading Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and anthologies such as
Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions, simultaneously with reading H.
P. Lovecraft and Richard Matheson's short fiction. I love horror and terror short
stories. Novels, not as much. I've always maintained that it's far more difficult to
write a successful (in quality) supernatural horror novel than short story or novella.
And the reason is very simple: it's more difficult to retain that "suspension of
disbelief" in a novel that's required if the reader doesn't believe in the supernatural.
I can be persuaded to play along for the length of a story if it's good enough, but
usually novels aren't tight enough and go on too long and something slips through
my concentration. Good horror makes me uncomfortable and opens up boxes I'd
not ordinarily explore about human experience.
SCHWEITZER: One question, apart from all this talk of editing: Have you ever
wanted to write fiction or tried to?
SCHWEITZER: After editing all this time, you must have a very good perspective
on how the field's short fiction is developing. Do you see steady progress, a
plateau, bumps and dips?
DATLOW: I always enjoy seeing what develops. I'm assuming you're referring to
sf and fantasy not just sf? I think on the whole, the writing itself has gotten better.
But currently I also see a lot more surreal short fiction by younger writers inspired
(way too much) by Kelly Link's unique, wonderful work.
As you said earlier about cyberpunk, "Why would I need copies of Kelly Link's
work, when I've got Kelly? (although her writing output has slowed down markedly
in the past six years)."
I think too many young writers are -- and I never thought I'd say this -- but I feel
they're concentrating too much on style and not enough on storytelling. I'd like to
see more stories about something. I especially see this in writing workshops (not
the beginning ones like Clarion West, during which each week a writer concentrates
on certain crucial aspects of writing a story, but in writing workshops run by local
groups of newer and recently published writers).
SCHWEITZER: One thing I notice is that actual science fiction with real science
in it, about the future, seems to be in decreasing supply, at least relative to
everything else. Do you agree? Is hard-SF an endangered species, as some have
DATLOW: I haven't edited an sf anthology since The Del Rey Book of Science
Fiction which including sf/f and some horror so I'm not as well-read in science
fiction these days as I have been in the past. I think there is still plenty of hard-edged speculation about the future and how science and technology is affecting the
planet and individuals living on it.
Hard science fiction is only endangered if the writers of it can't write well enough to
engage an ever-evolving audience. Over the years I've published and read hard
science fiction with stylistic elegance and three dimensional characters that I can
believe in. But there isn't enough of it. It's always been important to meld style and
substance and characterization and story.
SCHWEITZER: What do you make of "movements" generally? Any thoughts on
New Weird? Does this mean anything or is it just a marketing label and a style of
DATLOW: Very generally, I feel that all contemporary literary movements are
primarily used by publishers and writers as a marketing tool. They're also a means
for critics and historians to codify writings that have common characteristics.
Coincidentally, I just saw Howl, the movie about Allen Ginsberg and the obscenity
trial over his great poem of the same name. Most of the dialog is taken from
interviews with Ginsberg and at one point he's asked what is the "Beat
Generation?" He replies, "There's no Beat Generation. Just a bunch of guys trying
to get published." I think that says it all.
SCHWEITZER: How about Steampunk? Why do you think this has come roaring
back again, after being started in the 1980s?
DATLOW: No idea.
SCHWEITZER: But it did, so we can all be surprised. Thanks Ellen.