Welcome back folks. Ellen Datlow doesn’t need much of an introduction. Master Editor and anthologist she’s turns out some of the best specfic books each year. When she’s not editing fiction submissions for Tor.com, or making ghastly hybrid Kong dolls, she’s working on any number of short fiction anthologies, including her perennially anticipated ‘Year’s Best Horror’ anthology. A big thanks to Ellen for stopping by my blog to answer a few questions.
Q. Tell us a little about yourself and your background?
ED: I grew up the Bronx and then Yonkers, NY. Moved to Manhattan in 1973 and stayed. I’ve always been an avid reader of many different kinds of fiction, although
now I mostly read sf/f/h-and crime novels, for fun.
I’ve been editing short stories since around 1980 when I started work at OMNI Magazine. Before that I worked in mainstream book publishing for a few years.
Q. What draws you to horror generally, and was there a defining moment where you decided to get into fiction editing or was it a more organic process?
ED: I’ve always been interested in horror since I was a child, reading story collections from my parents’ library —Bullfinch’s Mythology, stories by Guy de Maupassant, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. I loved fairy tales and my mother read me Oscar Wilde’s sad sad stories under a tree in front of the Bronx apartment in which we lived.
This taste for the weird and fantastic developed, and further immersed me in what I refer to as “edgier” fiction, since my late teens. This doesn’t only include horror, but also science fiction, some contemporary fantasy, crime fiction. But for horror specifically, the tone of unease can make the most mundane setting deeply disturbing and I like that.
As soon as I came to understand that there were jobs in the publishing world editing fiction, I jumped into that profession. But it took me several years to move from mainstream trade publishing (which at the time meant the companies publishing mainstream fiction and non fiction hardcovers and trade paperbacks) to actually working with short fiction at OMNI.
OMNI was my first magazine job and that was the one that started me on the rest of my career trajectory. I moved from editing mostly science fiction and fantasy at OMNI to also editing horror with my first non-OMNI anthology, Blood is Not Enough. From then on, while continuing as Fiction Editor at OMNI (and adding horror to the fiction mix) I started choosing the horror half of Terri Windling and my The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror in the late 80s and editing more fantasy and horror anthologies than science fiction. I’m just getting back into sf by acquiring it for Tor.com (in addition to fantasy and horror).
Q. Do you ever write any of your own fiction?
Q. What is your favourite horror story (if you can name a single one!) and what about it specifically rustled your jimmies?
ED: I have too many to name, but I’ve reprinted several of my favorites over the years and I occasionally pick up new favorites.
Q. You’re a well known anthologist, so is the short story your favourite form of fiction? What about the short form do you like so much?
ED: In sf/f/h yes. Especially in horror. I think supernatural horror fiction works best at lengths shorter than the novel. It’s extremely difficult to maintain the “suspension of disbelief” required for readers who do not believe in the supernatural. Short fiction can have more immediate impact than a novel. Novel editors and I kid each other. I say novels are bloated short stories. They say short stories are truncated novels.
As far as editing short fiction, up through novella length (I have edited several novels), shorter fiction is less unwieldy than a novel. I don’t feel as competent editing novels, although if I did it more often I’d probably get better at it.
Q. What are you working on at the minute?
Editing the stories I’ve acquired for Black Feathers, a mostly all-original anthology of bird horror coming out next year from Pegasus Books
Editing the stories for Children of Lovecraft, an original Lovecraftian anthology, coming from Dark Horse this fall (I think).
Finishing my introduction to Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror -all reprint-Tachyon, out this fall. Follow -up to Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror.
Finishing my summary of the Year in Horror 2015 for The Best Horror of the Year Volume 8-Nightshade, out this summer.
Editing the stories I’ve acquired for Tor.com in the last few months.
Catching up on my Tor.com submissions (and no, it’s not an open market).
Switching back and forth among all the above tasks. (and in between, answering these interview questions)
Q. What attracts you to editing ? And is there any quality or skill etc that makes a good horror editor, specifically?
ED: I love seeing stories by favorite authors before anyone else does (when having commissioned them for an original anthology or looking at them for Tor.com) and I love working with writers to make their stories the best they can be.
I work with dozens of writers at any given time on multiple projects. It helps to be “open” to possibilities. Reading all year round for a Best Horror –or Best anything—
one is exposed to all different kinds of writing ranging from light fantasy, to science fiction, to the darkest horror. So I’m constantly discovering new writers who I can tap for
the other anthologies or magazine/webzine projects on which I’m working.
Being able to work with a writer closely and not imposing one’s own taste on the work at-hand is crucial. It is not my story, it’s the writer’s. I think this might be more
difficult for writer-editors. I am not a writer, have no interest in being one, and so I believe I sometimes have a clearer eye to what a story needs.
On the other hand, not being a writer-I sometimes cannot help the author “fix” their story. There are very few “story doctors” in the field of the fantastic, but those writer-editors who are, are invaluable to some writers.
Editing can not be taught. It’s not something that can be learned if one don’t have an innate talent for it, but it can be honed.
Editing has two major components: first, an eye for what’s great or could be great-that’s the acquisition part of being an editor. You need to learn to trust your own taste. And you need to be able to say no. This story doesn’t work for me. It’s very difficult turning down stories by friends and/or by well-known writers whose names you know would help sell your anthology or an issue of your magazine.
There’s always the possibility that the writer will never submit another story to you again. Or if it’s a friend, that they’ll never speak to you again. (this latter never happened to me with friends, but it did happen to Robert Sheckley, who was Fiction Editor of OMNI for 1 1/2 years before I was promoted (and was my boss).
As I read a new story submission I’ll be judging it subconsciously. I may take notes if I like the story but have questions during that first read. Sometimes if I’m not sure what’s going on within the story, I’ll ask the writer to tell me in her own words. Then I can figure out if some of that explanation needs to be in the text on the page. If the writer is being intentionally oblique I may go along with that-or not. If we can’t agree on what the story needs, I’ll suggest they try it elsewhere.
The second part takes place after I commit to buying the story. It’s the actual sitting down and getting down and dirty with the words on the page.
The story will probably get two almost separate edits-the substantive edit during which I ask questions and make suggestions about the overall arc of the story, including character/intent/or if there are aspects that don’t quite work. And a closer edit that entails some line editing.
Finally, a few months later I prepare the ms for production, where it will be copy edited and proofread. My preparation requires one last line edit, which is just what it sounds like. I go over the story line by line and ask more questions/make suggestions about repetition of words or phrases, and checking that the author is actually saying what she intends.
Some stories need a lot more revision than others. Some only need a light edit. Whether a story needs a lot of work or a little is not necessarily related to the author’s experience.
Being a good editor requires sensitivity, kindness, and honesty. To paraphrase something Ben Bova told me when I was starting out at OMNI, no one sets out intending to write a bad story. Writers work to the best of their ability at any given time. I try to keep that in mind when I’m reading really bad fiction, but don’t always succeed.
Writers can be extraordinarily sensitive to criticism of their work, so I make it a point of being gentle when editing someone for the first time. But once I’ve worked with someone a lot, I’m a often more blunt, figuring they know by now that if I didn’t like the story, I wouldn’t be working with them on it.
Q. Who is your favourite woman writer?
ED: I have no one favorite writer, male or female. Just as I have no one favorite story of all time.
Q. Are there any projects involving other women that you’re looking forward to or would like to get on board with?
ED: I’m very much looking forward to reading Livia Llewellyn’s new collection Furnace (I have the arc).
Elizabeth Hand’s new Cass Neary novel, Hard Light, out this April. Great crime fiction with a wonderfully unlikable protagonist, with touches of the supernatural thrown in. I read it in manuscript and loved it.
Other than that, I’ve no idea what’s coming out in 2016. I’m still immersed in 2015
for a few more weeks.
Q. What book/s are you reading at present and what is in your TBR pile?
ED: I’ll be starting to read for the Best Horror #9 in a few weeks so will be deep into short fiction then. But of the few novels I’ve recently received in the mail: I’m in the middle ofStiletto by Daniel O’Malley, follow-up to his wonder novel The Rook. TBR: Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt, Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, The Everything Box by Richard Kadrey, The Mark of Cain by Lindsey Barraclough (I like her first novel Long Lankin a lot)
Q. Are there any challenges have you encountered that are unique to being a woman in the horror genre, or can you describe some of the challenges have you faced that are complicated by your gender?
ED: In my early years in book publishing I encountered “class” discrimination more than gender discrimination. Not being a “Yalie” I was not given the opportunities a younger female Yalie was in the publishing house I worked at for 3 years.
After that, only in the typical wishy washy bias that if I’ve included more than three or four women in an anthology, that means the anthology is “all women” -so not to me personally but basic to the whole “women in publishing” problem.
I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve been in a position of some power for many years (since OMNI). Although when I was first promoted to Fiction Editor at OMNI, I had beer sprayed at me by a drunken malcontent at a publishing party, who thought he should have gotten the position of Fiction Editor. And a few years later, a writer took a couple of verbal potshots at me at a party while he was drunk. He blamed me for something my male boss was forced to do (by our publisher at the time). Year’s later (once he sobered up for good), he apologized–although I don’t think he even remembered what he’d said. Did those things happen because I was female? Probably. Because a male would have likely punched the assholes out they knew it :-).
Q. Why is Women in Horror month important/not important to you?
ED: Every month should be “women in horror” month. When that happens we won’t need a specific month to point out our accomplishments.
Q. What advice would you give to aspiring writers or editors?
ED: For writers, make it easy for people to contact you. There are many times I’ve tried to track a writer down and if I have to work too hard at it,
I’ll give up. Use a dedicated email address for professional contacts-CHECK your email regularly. Don’t make contact forms hard to manipulate.
Don’t ever private message an editor asking them to look at your page, your work, or anything else like that. It’s unprofessional and really annoying.
Cannibalize cannibalize cannibalize. If you finally give up trying to fix a specific story/novel. Don’t toss it out, use pieces of it for something else some day.
Read someone’s slush pile. This is for aspiring editors and writers. It will put things in perspective. Read widely, fiction and nonfiction.
For Editors: Be kind to writers who submit work to you.
If you seriously want to write, don’t be an editor. It will sap your energy. Being a good editor is hard work.
Ellen Datlow Links: