Fantastic Worlds: An Interview with Ellen Datlow
Ellen Datlow knows the best short fiction, novellas, and poetry to be found in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. Her impressive credentials in the literary field include serving as the fiction editor for both Omni Magazine and Omni Online throughout the eighties and nineties and as editor and coeditor for a multitude of anthologies consisting of ghost stories, horror, fantastic realms, faeries, aliens, and extreme imaginative ideas. Throughout her magazine work and her published collected volumes, she has collaborated with and presented the fiction of such modern literary masters as Harlan Ellison, Neil Gaiman (EDITOR’S NOTE: See Myth, Magic, and the Mind of Neil Gaiman in WRR 4.2), Clive Barker, Peter Straub, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen King, Terry Bisson, and many, many others.
Most people with Ms. Datlow’s accomplishments could sit back and reflect on a career well done, but even now she continues to publish (with several works on the way in the next twelve months) and still finds the time to instruct aspiring writers at workshops and respond to interview questions from fans and editors of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres.
After already experiencing thousands of extraordinarily innovative and thought provoking stories and working closely with so many iconic literary talents, what still draws you to editing work today?
The same thing that always has: my love for the genre short story, for working with authors, and being the first to read the best short fiction around.
There are so many compilations you’ve been responsible for creating. The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series is one continuing example (the nineteenth volume is due in August of 2006). Does any single anthology or volume stand out to you either because of the experience putting it together or the particular assemblage of stories?
I have a soft spot for my cat horror anthology, Twists of the Tale, partly because the idea was close to my heart and partly because there are stories in it that I just adore: A.R. Morlan’s and Michael Marshall Smith’s come immediately to mind. The poor book was orphaned several times before publication so they got royally screwed. However, it did sell all over the world.
Modern science fiction, fantasy, and horror are increasingly integrating stories by both sexes. What strengths do you feel women authors bring particularly well to these genres and what strengths do you think male authors excel at providing?
First of all, sf and fantasy have been increasingly “integrated” by both sexes over the past twenty years. By the late eighties I counted the nominees for short story Nebula awards and if anything they were dominated by females. Fantasy, if anything, has been dominated by women, certainly in the short fiction world. I don’t see any difference.
What makes a memorable villain to you? Please name at least one of your favorites. What qualities endear you to a hero? Please name at least one of your favorites.
I can only speak of movie villains or those I see in the stories I publish as I rarely read novels. In movies, the head android played by Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner is my favorite villain because he isn’t really a villain — he and his kind are becoming more human than the humans that created them.
I like heroes who have flaws and are imperfect: most of the men in Lucius Shepard’s novellas and stories, the spiky pov character in Severna Park’s novella, The Three Unknowns, the main characters (male and female) in John Kessel’s, The Baum Plan For Financial Independence, Franny, the protag in the novel, In the Cut, by Susanna Moore and in the movie made of it.
The concept of the vampire is completely ingrained in fantasy, horror, and science fiction culture as hero, villain or character of mystery. Do you see any conceptions from modern writers that possess that kind of creative malleability or have similar potential for such lasting appeal across the genres?
Maybe I’m just too close to it but no, I don’t see any equivalent in modern literature, other than the serial killer — certainly not in science fiction. But I see modern writers doing wonderful new things with vampires, ghosts, and indeed, the serial killer.
Do you feel the push to franchise many modern characters/adventures and then promote them across multiple types of media has helped or hurt the quality of storytelling? Please expand on your comment why it helps or hurts.
I’ve always felt it hurts, if for no other reason than it prevents good writers from writing their own work. I have friends who do this because they need the money and I’m not begrudging them the work. But personally, as a reader I would much prefer they could make a living from writing exclusively within their own creations.
The worst thing it does for newer writers is that it stunts their creativity — if they’re playing by someone else’s rules they aren’t being allowed to be as imaginative as they should be.
Have you ever attempted to do a compilation of stories in any one of the three genres that would hold all of the authors to using the same characters, specific world setting or single definitive theme? Is this a practical project going forward or one fraught with peril?
I’ve done many theme anthologies but my intent is the opposite of the above — I urge them to stretch the “theme” to breaking which I think is far more satisfying for the writer, the editor, and the reader. I have no interest in editing anything that would use the same characters or setting for every story.
In your opinion, what are the new technologies or scientific developments that have triggered your imagination and that you think are going to be the next big drivers for modern science fiction stories?
My job as editor is not dependent on new technologies or scientific developments. I can urge my authors to write about such things but if I had any imagination I’d be a writer. That’s not what an editor does. I work — and work well — with other peoples’ ideas and get those writers to produce the stories they mean to tell.
Are there any types of quests or grand themes in fantasy that you feel have been underserved (authors simply overlooked or an obvious idea that you thought was filled with possibilities)?
I’m not an idea person so I really don’t know. But frankly, I dislike high fantasy and don’t read it at all.
What topics in horror or what type of monstrosities still give you the chills when you read a story involving them? What do you find so disturbing about them?
It’s never the topic; it’s what’s done with it. Bodily mutilation is scary to me but only when treated in a subtle manner such as in Michael Marshall Smith’s classic story, More Tomorrow.
It’s all in the writing — especially when working in horror.
What new sub-genres or voices are emerging in science fiction, fantasy or horror that readers should keep an eye out for? Please briefly describe why these new areas appeal to you.
There’s more of a blending of genres than ever before. I’m not certain whether I think this is a good thing or not overall. I worry that a certain mode of storytelling is becoming as bland as a lot of so called mainstream fiction. I think there are excellent new voices being heard in the past few years: Glen Hirshberg, Joe Hill, Kelly Link, Margo Lanagan. They all have strong voices. I doubt that’s what you’re asking for but I’m afraid that’s what’s important to me.
Do you have any upcoming projects you would like to tell our readers about?
The Dark of the Woods edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling is a bindup of their two children’s fairy tale anthologies from S&S: A Wolf at the Door and Swan Sister. It will have a new Charles Vess cover and is being published by Barnes & Noble. It will be available this June.
As you mentioned The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2006: Nineteenth Annual Collection comes out in August.
The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales (a YA antho) edited by me and Terri Windling is coming out from Viking in 2007.
Salon Fantastique, a non-theme fantasy anthology edited by me and Terri Windling is coming out from Thunder’s Mouth in Fall 2006.
Inferno, a non-theme horror anthology edited by me is coming out from Tor, probably in 2007.
I’m teaching Clarion West this July. (EDITOR’S NOTE: Clarion West is an annual writer’s workshop focusing on the science fiction and fantasy genres. It is held in Seattle Washington.)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two other compilations already available that Ms. Datlow would like to mention appear below:
The Faery Reel
The Dark: New Ghost Stories
John Moskowitz is a professional business consultant who has performed project management, coaching/training and process improvement for clients in the pharmaceutical, credit card and construction materials industries among others.
John has been responsible for the design of PowerPoint presentations for executive management, training materials focused on financial analysis, project management and process improvement and flow mapping, step-by-step instructions for software self-help menus and templates for teaching six sigma statistical control concepts. He has also authored numerous corporate internal change management communications to reinforce company-wide policy.