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Ellen Datlow:
Editorial Guarantee of Excellence

February 2000
By Paula Guran

There's no getting around it. Ellen Datlow is one of our pre-eminent editors of the fantastic -- perhaps THE pre-eminent, but I don't want to start any fights. As the fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and OMNI Internet for sixteen years, she published a diversity of authors including T. Coraghessan Boyle, William Burroughs, Jonathan Carroll, Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Peter Straub and just about anyone else worth mentioning in genre as well as introducing authors like Pat Cadigan, William Gibson, K. W. Jeter and Dan Simmons. When OMNI became a webzine, she not only continued to publish fiction of the highest quality, but pioneered collaborative fiction online and provided a forum for author (and other interesting folk) interviews and interaction. With OMNI's demise, she helped establish Event Horizon: SF, Fantasy, Horror where she continued to provide more of the same. While accomplishing all of that, Datlow also edited or co-edited numerous anthologies (including Blood Is Not, Enough, Alien Sex, Off Limits, A Whisper of Blood, Little Deaths, Twists of the Tale, and Lethal Kisses) garnering five World Fantasy Awards along the way. Her annual The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror (Terri Windling handles the fantasy) is a benchmark for genre reference and sheer great reading. The phrase "edited by Ellen Datlow" is a guarantee of top quality fiction.

Ellen Datlow Datlow's now working full time acquiring and editing short fiction and novellas for SCIFI.COM, the SCFIFI Channel's Web site. She's also a consulting editor for ThePosition.com, the newly launched erotic Web site affiliated with The Museum of Sex, opening in NYC in 2002. ("I'm buying one erotic sf/fantasy story per month for the site, so far buying original stories by David J. Schow, Kathe Koja, and Elizabeth Engstrom.") As a consulting editor for Tor, if she finds a novel she's interested in publishing she can buy it (with Tom Doherty's approval) for the company.

She currently has four books coming out or recently publishED: Black Heart, Ivory Bones, Terri Windling and her last adult fairy tale anthology after five previous -- Snow White, Blood Red; Black Thorn, White Rose; Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears; and Black Swan, White Raven -- published by Eos (formerly Avon Eos); A Wolf at the Door, also with Windling, which is a middle grade (8- to 12-year-olds) fairy tale anthology coming out from Simon & Schuster in July; The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Thirteenth Annual Collection (with Windling) from St. Martin's Press; and Vanishing Acts, a "mostly sf" anthology on the theme of endangered species for Tor. She will be the Editor Guest of Honor in May at the World Horror Convention 2000.

She has very nice eyes, but they aren't as feline as they appear in J. K. Potter's famous photograph of her shown here. (Although her cats often assist her at keyboard and with reading, she has yet to start resembling them.) I think Ellen looks a bit like an exotic gypsy princess with her masses of dark curly hair. Of course, the minute you hear her speak you know she's unmistakably a princess from New York!
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PG: Calling you "pre-eminent" and all...in some ways it is hard to think of you as a Grande Dame of sf/h (squirming). I mean I know you have tattoos! But, let's face it, you are considered as such. Do you feel like one of "Them," now -- one of the ensconced professionals to whom everyone looks for different forms of judgment or validation?

ED: And don't forget my piercings (laughing) -- but to be a bit more serious, I don't feel like a grand lady of anything. I get just as excited reading a promising newcomer as I did when I started editing short fiction and I still love working with authors to help bring out the best in their work. And I think one of the most important things for writers to learn is to not take rejection personally. An editor's job is as much to constantly reject as it is to support and publish. Doing our job well entails that we exclude most of what we receive.

PG: Tell me about how you got into editing? And what is a "good editor" anyway?

ED: I think I'm lucky to have been able to edit what I love -- short fiction --sf/f/h -- all of it, continuously for about twenty years, in a time when the short story is not appreciated (commercially). Although I started out briefly in trade, mainstream book publishing as an editorial assistant and assistant editor, I didn't really get anywhere until I was hired by Ben Bova, when he was fiction editor of a new magazine, OMNI. A few months after he brought me in as a freelance reader, he was promoted to editor. Writer Robert Sheckley was brought in as fiction editor and I was put on staff full time as assistant fiction editor and that was my break. While Ben was still fiction editor he kindly went over some stories with me and critiqued my "editing," but there really is no way you can be taught how to edit. You learn on the job and either you get it and evolve as an editor -- developing your own taste, honing your skills communicating with writers, prying their best work out of them, working with those writers you believe have potential and gently prodding them in the right direction, etc. My job is to sweetly bully writers into writing for me.

Being an editor is a constantly evolving process. As time goes on, your taste may change, your jobs may change, and certainly the writers with whom you work change. Most short story writers move on to novel writing and don't/can't go back -- either for economic reasons or because they've lost the ability to write short. There are relatively few writers in sf or horror who can write equally well in both forms.

PG: What about OMNI? What was it like in "the good old days" of a national magazine with a circulation of a million?

ED: Working for a print magazine with resources and backing certainly has its up side. I was able to pay authors real money and could guarantee a gorgeous presentation of their stories. And with a healthy circulation (it rarely hit a million, and that wasn't the magazine's natural circ anyway -- without being forced artificially, it would have been more like 600,000) there was the potential of more readers than all the other sf/f magazines together.

But as with any large corporation you make compromises and you learn to play politics. Until computers made it unnecessary (they can juggle format with minimal textual changes), every story had to be fiddled with in order to fit around the ads and the art layouts. Also, I had to write decks to fit the torturous configurations that the art department concocted (a deck is the lines that hint at what the story is about, opening a story. The movie equivalent: "In the Hood, No One Can Hear You Scream" -- Next Friday -- anyway, you get the idea --and that's a real one!). Working for a large circulation magazine gave me the entré I needed to at least approach any author I wanted to for the magazine. And this, in turn, helped me accomplish something I've enjoyed doing since entering the publishing business -- blurring the lines between genres and between genres and mainstream. So I was able to acquire science fiction and fantasy by Joyce Carol Oates and William Burroughs and Patricia Highsmith and T. Coraghessan Boyle.

PG: What happened with OMNI?

ED: Every magazine needs to reinvent itself and redesign itself periodically. OMNI was a brilliant creation of the early 80s, joining the public's increasing interest in science with a unique design sense. From the beginning, OMNI had to fight for credibility because of prejudice against Bob Guccione and his other major holding -- Penthouse.

By 1996, when OMNI published its last print issue, it had gone through six editors -- not a great sign -- and no redesign, because its owner was stuck in the past. And during that period, the publisher's enthusiasm mutated from a fascination with space travel and all the concurrent possible benefits of it to an interest in UFO-ology and more fringe material, damaging whatever credibility OMNI had.

PG: So OMNI then moved online?

Omni Logo

ED: OMNIwas one of the first print magazines to move online -- at publisher Kathy Keeton's urging, the magazine's first presence was through the AOL portal. Editor Keith Ferrell made a deal with a car company (I can't remember which)[PG: It was Dodge -- they had a model called the Omni.] to sponsor six novellas that would appear on the first OMNI site. Keith was able to persuade General Media (formerly Penthouse International) to pay for five more novellas after that. This was while the print magazine still existed. Then, in 1996 it was decided that OMNI would go online exclusively, with its own Web site on the Internet -- separate from AOL.

Keeton was fighting cancer, but it was probably only her continued influence and support that kept the magazine alive in any form -- the "suits" who had assumed control of the corporation had no use for it. As I've said before, it took a dedicated team of four editors to keep the webzine alive for as long as it lasted -- with minimal budget, technical support, or marketing. OMNI was getting thousands of page impressions monthly but making no money because no one in the corporation was interested enough to make the minimal effort required to sign up with an ad network.

PG: What do you think you accomplished with OMNI and then Event Horizon?

ED: I'm very proud of what my colleagues and I accomplished with OMNI Internetand Event Horizon. We created a positive role model, if you will, for high quality Net fiction and nonfiction. We created a lively venue for the net savvy to "meet" and interact with writers (and artists and scientists on OMNI Internet) in our live chats, and experimented with collaborative fiction. I'm especially proud that stories published first on OMNI Internet or Event Horizon won the World Fantasy Award two years running and that two stories from EH made the preliminary ballot of the Nebulas for 1999.

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PG: And you are editing for SCIFI.COM and ThePosition.com. Does this signal a commitment to genre fiction on the Web?

ED: Do you mean am Icommitted to genre fiction on the Web? I'm committed to fiction wherever it appears -- I'll edit short stories wherever I'm hired to do so. I think the fact that a large, moneyed corporation such as USA Networks (owner of the SCIFI channel) has committed to publishing short fiction on the Web is an excellent sign. And the fact that ThePosition.com, the recently launched Web site affiliated with The Museum of Sex is running erotic genre fiction, is also a good sign.

I think the need for editors will become more and more evident the more fiction there is on the Web. Because it's so easy to put whatever you want up on the Web, most of the fiction published on the Net is the equivalent of a print slush pile. Readers will not/do not want to wade through the crap to find a few gems. The sites that will succeed in commercial terms will be those that have editors. There's nothing wrong with publishing your own work or that of your friends. But don't mistake it for professional publishing. If you aren't getting paid for it you aren't a professional.

PG: Where is the Net going with fiction?

ED: Producers of Web sites with fiction will eventually learn that you mustn't overdesign the material if you want people to read it. Yes, people read online -- if the text is readable. Yes, they download it, and yes, they sometimes print it out. I think the electronic hand-held readers that allow one to download a story onto them will become very common over the next few years.

PG: This is HorrorOnline here, so let's talk a little bit specifically about your "dark side." How did you get into editing horror?

ED: Editing horror fiction (which I've always loved reading) happened because I was editing science fiction for OMNI. I wanted to do more editing because I was dissatisfied buying just enough stories to publish one or two a month. But I felt I couldn't sell an sf anthology as it would conflict with my OMNI job -- although I occasionally published horror at OMNI it wasn't my primary concern. Of course, my anthology editing started to slop over into sf by accident. I hadn't realized what I had done until several years after Alien Sex came out. But I was able to justify it to myself because most of the reprints were stories I'd had to turn down for OMNI. And besides, no one ever seemed to notice or make an issue of it.

Then Jim Frenkel, who had been packaging The Year's Best Science Fiction for a few years (under the auspices of Bluejay Books) approached Terri Windling and me to co-edit a similar book but covering fantasy and horror. I don't know why he approached me; I don't believe I had edited the two vampirism titles at that point. [Blood Is Not Enough and A Whisper of Blood] Terri and I often saw each other at publishing parties and I was aware of her already formidable reputation as a fantasy editor. I said sure. The fact is, Terri and I only consult on a story that we're both considering: she for fantasy, me for horror -- and that's rare.
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PG: What do you look for in a horror story?

ED: I look for stories that make me uncomfortable -- that give me a chill. I crave believable and skillful handling of unbelievable events or about unbelievable creatures. A great vampire story will still "get" me.

PG: How do you determine what is a "best" story of the year?

ED: Those stories that I find creepy and that stay with me the longest, that can still affect me on multiple readings.

PG: I know our personal definitions of horror are pretty broad -- would you enunciate yours?

ED: Fiction with a very dark tinge to it. If it's dark enough, it fits within my definition of horror. That can include black humor and science fiction ("Who Goes There?" the novella upon which two film versions called The Thing are based is an example).

PG: Who should we be reading nowadays? Are there "new names" you can point out for us?

ED: Kelly Link, whose ghost story "The Specialist's Hat" I published on Event Horizon in 1998 (and won the World Fantasy Award). Gemma Files, Tia Travis, Andy Duncan, Tim Lebbon, Gary Braunbeck, Gene Wolfe (who occasionally pulls a great horror story out of his hat of tricks), Paul McAuley (known as an sf writer, also occasionally writes some excellent horror), Kim Newman for his wonderful novellas, Ian MacLeod. Novelists: Stewart O'Nan (A Prayer for the Dying), China Mieville (first novel King Rat)

PG: Where do you think horror is going?

ED: I won't know till we've been there. (grin)


Portrait of Ms. Datlow by J. K. Potter

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