Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 20
Stories
Sympathy of a Gun
by Gary Kloster
The Vicksburg Dead
by Jens Rushing
The American
by Bruce Worden
Bonus Christmas Stories
Wise Men
by Orson Scott Card
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

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 history.

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 Tapestry).

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 1 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 as "monstrous."

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 published previously.

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 psychological horror).

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 examples?

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 story.

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 one.

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 dysentery."

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?

DATLOW: Never.

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 suggested?

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 cover design?

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.


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