Taking Horror With Ellen Datlowby Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, October 1999
If you like to read horror, fantasy or science fiction stories, the chances are good
As Fiction editor of Omni Magazine and Omni Internet from 1981-1998, Ellen earned her reputation for encouraging and developing a whole generation of fiction writers, and is responsible for discovering and publishing some of the biggest names in the SF, fantasy, and horror genres today. The writers Datlow has brought to the pages of OMNI include such talents as William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, Dan Simmons, and K.W. Jeter, Clive Barker, Stephen King, William Burroughs, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jonathan Carroll, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Straub, and Jack Cady, among others. She has been co-editor (with Terri Windling) of the six Snow White, Bood Red adult fairy tale anthologies the most recent of which is Black Swan, White Raven and A Wolf at the Door, a children's fairy tale anthology. She has been editing the horror half (with Terri) of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror for thirteen years. She and Terri also co-edited Sirens and other Daemon Lovers, an erotic fantasy anthology. Solo, she is the editor of two anthologies on vampirism: Bood is not Enough and A Whisper of Blood, two anthologies on sf and gender: Alien Sex and Off Limits, Little Deaths (sexual horror), Lethal Kisses (revenge and vengeance), Twists of the Tale (cat horror), and the about to be published "endangered species" anthology. She is tied for winning the most World Fantasy Awards in the award's history (five) and has received multiple Hugo Award nominations for Best Editor.
Ellen talked with us about how she got her start in the world of editing and publishing, how she chooses the stories that end up in the Year's Best anthologies, and gives us her picks for the scariest books -- just in time for Halloween.
What did you like to read as a child?
Eleanor Cameron's Mushroom Planet books. The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, Mr. Bass's Planatoid, etc. The Black Stallion Books, Nancy Drew (I read all of them), all kinds of comic books from Bible Stories to Scary Disgusting icky tales, to Superheros and Little Lulu. My dad owned a luncheonette so every Saturday after music school my sister and I would go there, have a delicious lunch (and the best malteds in the world) and read through all the comic books. I couldn't take them home but I read them all.
How did you originally get into the editing business?
I had no idea what to do with my life. I loved reading and thought, gee, I should work in a bookstore or maybe own one. Luckily (economically) I did not follow through on this but decided to go into publishing, even though I had no idea what that even meant.
But my first publishing job was as sales secretary for Little, Brown's New York office. I was in mainstream publishing as an editorial assistant for a few years: Charterhouse, McKay, Arbor House (when owned by Donald I. Fine), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, and Crown. This was all within a five year period. My longest job was at Holt, Rinehart and Winston for three years. I heard about OMNI starting up just after I left Crown and I approached Frank Kendig, then Editor of the new magazine. He introduced me to Ben Bova, who was the fiction editor and Ben hired me part-time as a reader. A few months later, Ben was promoted to Editor and brought Robert Sheckley in as fiction editor and I was hired full time as Associate Fiction Editor. When Sheckley left I was appointed Fiction Editor.
Tell us about the launch of Event Horizon. How did this project come into being?
When OMNI Internet folded March 31, 1998 my former OMNI colleagues and I started a corporation called Event Horizon. We intended to create websites for publishers, virtual book tours, and hoped to take on all kinds of internet content work in literature and the sciences (my three partners were all involved in the nonfiction side of OMNI). The best way to create a name for yourself on the web is "branding." By publishing a high quality webzine of sf/f/s we hoped to brand the Event Horizon name. We launched the webzine officially in August, 1998.
What kinds of fiction are you looking for the sfzine?
I'm not reading any unsolicited fiction for the webzine right now. And in fact, the webzine might be going on hiatus because of other projects I and my partners are involved with both in publishing and not. The kind of fiction I've been publishing though has ranged from supernatural and psychological horror by Kim Newman K.W. Jeter, and Terry Dowling, fantasy by Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, and Michaela Roessner, and science fiction by Pat Cadigan, Severna Park, and Robert Silverberg. Plus things that fall in the cracks.
What are your pet peeves as an Editor?
Writers who ask me why I didn't like their story.
Tell us about Superstrings. How has the collaboration been working out?
I think the Superstring section has been a lot of fun for most of the writers involved. The best were with writers who have worked together before and knew each other's work.
As a fiction reviewer, what really excites you about a book?
A unique voice, for example, I loved the voice of the protagonist in the new Jonathan Lethem novel, Motherless Brooklyn. Characters I want to live with. Plots I can get lost in. A new way of handling a well-worn subject.
James Frenkel approached me and Terri (we didn't know each other very well at the time) and asked if we'd be interested in collaborating on a Year's Best, with me covering the horror and she covering the fantasy. We thought it was a good idea and said yes. I hadn't at all thought through the implications of what I was assenting to. The year before, I was a judge for the World Fantasy Award, so in a way that paved the way for the vast amount of reading I'd have to do for YBFH. But my reading material has increased exponentially and so have my intros, unfortunately. In the scheme of things, (the real world of publishing) they aren't that popular -- they don't make any national bestseller lists, after all. I don't think they're any more or less popular than any other Best of the year has been, traditionally. But of course, I have no figures for earlier Best of the Year's (e.g., Saha's Best Fantasy, Wagner's Best Horror, Terry Carr's Best SF, etc.)
What are the criteria for being selected to be in the anthology?
It's very simple. I have to love the story -- it must give me a frisson of some sort, and hold up on repeated readings of it.
What trends are you seeing in SF and horror these days?
The continuation of the trend toward generic fantasy and media tie-ins in sf. A lack of line editing in books published by commercial publishers of sf and fantasy. In horror, the belief that the small press should automatically be taken seriously because it's publishing material too hot for the bigger presses to handle. Occasionally it happens that small press publishers do publish books that no one else will publish -- particularly collections these days. But...and this is a big but -- to my mind small press magazines will only be taken seriously when they produce as literate work and look as professional as so-called "pro" magazines -- but there isn't more than a small handful of those. Today with computers, there's no reason why small press publishing can't look good yet I still get material that might as well be on mimeograph machines -- no design sense, no production values. One doesn't need gobs of money to produce quality, (although you do need some). Lack of copyediting and proofreading is a dead giveaway of sloppy publishing.
In your opinion, how will all the recent publisher mergers affect the SF, fantasy and horror genres?
Immediately, via the HarperCollins-Avon consolidation, you've lost diversity and the number of books that will be published. Every time you lose editors you lose diversity -- that's why Tor is probably publishing some of the more interesting mix around -- they've got tons of consulting editors (I'm one), all with different taste. There will no longer be a Harper list. Prism is dead and its titles have been merged into Jennifer Brehl's Avon Eos list. She won't be able to buy as much because her inventory has probably just increased by about a third.
What's the scariest thing you've ever read?
I have a lot of favorites over the years: Peter Straub's If You Could See Me Now, Thomas Tessier's Finishing Touches, Tim Lucas's Throat Sprockets, Thomas Harris's Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs (I liked Hannibal, but it wasn't as scary), Dan Simmon's novella "Dying in Bangkok," Kathe Koja's Skin, and most of the stories I've published in YBFH over the years.
Tell us about your web production division. I understand you produced the Avon Eos Online Convention?
Well, we are currently producing a monthly chat for Memorial Sloan-Kettering,
|"What are your pet peeves as an Editor? Writers who ask me why I didn't like their story."|
What makes a great Net Event? What is the biggest challenge in putting on a great Live Net Event, such as a convention?
|"One doesn't need gobs of money to produce quality, (although you do need some). Lack of copyediting and proofreading is a dead giveaway of sloppy publishing."|