Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Feature: Interview with Ellen Datlow

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Ellen Datlow is a prolific and award-winning editor who has worked on both print and online publications such as Omni, Omni Online, Event Horizon: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, SCIFICTION, and The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. She is also the recipient of numerous awards including The World Fantasy Award, The Bram Stoker Award, The International Horror Guild Award, The Locus Award for Best Editor, The Hugo Award for Best Editor, and The Karl Edward Wagner Award. On April 29, 2008, Del Rey will be releasing Datlow's latest anthology, The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Sixteen Original Works by Speculative Fiction's Finest Voices.

Hi! First off, thanks for doing this interview. First off, let's talk about the Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Can you tell us more about the book, what your criteria was for picking the stories, and how the book came into existence (did you approach Del Rey or did they approach you)?

You’re very welcome.

Unusually, I was approached by editor Chris Schluep and publicist Colleen Lindsay just as SCIFICTION was closing down. We talked about editing a reprint anthology of SCIFICTION stories and also about me possibly editing an original anthology of stories covering the wide range of fantastic fiction that I did in SCIFICTION. Although the reprint idea fell through and Colleen left before the deal was done, Chris bought the book for Del Rey.

I say “unusually,” because it’s the norm for me to approach publishers with proposals for anthologies. As SCIFICTION closed down, there were stories that I’d received on submission—two that I loved and wanted to buy for something were Jason Stoddard’s “The Elephant Ironclads” and Kim Newman and Paul McAuley’s novella “Prisoners of the Action.” The story “Sonny Liston Takes the Fall” by Elizabeth Bear was submitted to Terri and my Salon Fantastique anthology. Terri didn’t get it but I loved it. So I told Bear that I was about to edit an original anthology and could I buy the story for that. For the rest of the stories I contacted writers whose work I admired and asked for stories. It wasn’t until the very end of the process that Chris and I came up with the title. Until then it was the untitled non-theme mixed genre anthology.

How about your other upcoming books? Can you give us more info on them?

Twists of the Tale, my cat horror anthology is being reissued by Wildside this year and at least two more of the adult fairy tale series: Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears and Black Swan, White Raven will be out this spring (keeping fingers crossed) from Prime.

And of course The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror 2008: Twenty First Annual Collection will be out in the fall. I’ve just made my final choices and am still working on the summary of the year.

I handed in my “inspired by Poe” anthology to Solaris. The title is Poe: 19 New Tales of Suspense, Dark fantasy, and Horror Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe. The book was commissioned in honor of Poe’s Bicentennial in 2009 and is scheduled for late January publication in the UK and US. The book came out longer than I’d expected and it’s almost 134,000 words. I’ve posted the TOC on my blog—it’s an interesting mix—mostly dark, although it begins with a (darkly) humorous story by Kim Newman.

Barnes & Noble Books is reissuing my two vampirism anthologies: Blood is Not Enough and A Whisper of Blood as one B I G vampire book in August. I’m excited to get the two books back into print. We don’t yet know what the overall title will be but it’ll likely be something along the lines of A Treasury of Contemporary Vampires Stories.

Also coming out in 2009 is The Cinderella Game and Other Villainous Tales, Terri Windling and my middle grade (8-12 year olds) fairy tale anthology for Viking. This is the follow up to A Wolf at the Door and Swan Sister, published by Simon & Schuster.

Prime Books reprinted Black Thorn, White Rose last year and from your website, it seems that they'll be reprinting your other anthologies with Terri Windling. What's the story behind those reprints?

All of the series is out of print except for Snow White, Blood Red, the first—which continues to sell for Avon. We’d always been interested in getting the rest of the series back into print. Prime was interested and decided to publish them as trade paperbacks with a totally different design concept than the originals, which were (except for the hard cover of Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears) created by Tom Canty.

You've made yourself a name as an editor. Did you always know you wanted to be one? How did you go about pursuing such a career?

I knew early that I either wanted to work in a bookstore or get into publishing because I loved books and reading. After I graduated from college I looked for a job in publishing. I knew nothing about what this entailed but I sent my resume, such as it was, to every book publisher and magazine in the NYC phone book whose name I recognized. Little, Brown & Co. responded and so did Seventeen Magazine. But the Seventeen job required publishing experience of which I had none. I started as assistant to the New York salesman at Little, Brown’s NY office and moved on to editorial assistant jobs, and an assistant editor job (for mainstream hardcover book publishers) and subsequently through a combination of a contacts, persistence, and luck got a job as associate editor at OMNI magazine.

Before the job at Little, Brown I knew nothing about publishing or editing. I started editing during a brief stint at Arbor House, run by a notorious monster named Donald Fine. Because he couldn’t keep employees I moved from receptionist to assistant editor in a few months—doing publicity, editing novels, and being utterly miserable.

Can you talk to us more about your editing process? Also, when I heard the word editor, my initial reaction is that one checks for spelling, grammar, etc. but that's not what you do. Can you tell us a bit about your role in the production process?

What you’re describing is copy editing, which happens after the editing process.

The first part of the editing process is the reading and selection of stories. Very few stories are so perfect that they can’t use the critical eye of an editor. Throughout my career I think I’ve seen maybe three or four that needed absolutely nothing. Many stories come in that I like a great deal but that I feel need work-- from just a light line edit to a major rewrite. I may suggest, push, and cajole but I’ll never do the actual rewrite –that’s not my job. It’s the author’s job... I will try to help the author communicate what she intends to the reader by asking questions: What do you mean by this? What happened here? Why did this happen? I tell writers that they need to know what’s going on in their story—even if this information never appears in the final text.

Anyway, the first go-through questions and tries to address the more major problems in the story (that is, of course, if I like the story enough to invest the time and energy in it in the first place). Then, I’ll see if the rewrite fixes those problems. There’s generally a back and forth with the writer in a few emails.

The final line edit –something I do in the weeks before the book is due to my publisher--is a literally line by line read-through to make sure words/phrases aren’t overused, make sure there are no inconsistencies, that numbered items (e.g. how many bullets in a gun match the number of shots fired), and minor things like that.

Then the book goes to the publisher and goes through the production process. The mss is sent out for copyediting which is mostly correcting punctuation and typos but is also meant to catch factual errors and things I’ve missed in my line edit. The copy edit comes back to me and I go over it page by page and either approve or STET (put back as it was) the copy edits and I respond to the copy editor’s queries. At this point I go back to each author to find out what he wants to do about the useful queries brought up. If you’re lucky, a good copy editor discovers things that the author and editor both missed. If you’re unlucky, you get a copy editor who is ignorant of the genre or has a tin ear for authorial voice and wants to rewrite everything. It’s always the author’s final decision as to what is changed or not. Then the book is proofread by someone else.

How did you end up collaborating with Terri Windling on your other anthologies? When did the two of you first meet?

Jim Frenkel approached us (we knew each other through the NY sf/f crowd when Terri lived in NYC) and asked if we’d be interested in co-editing a Year’s Best combining fantasy and horror modeled after Gardner Dozois’s science fiction Best of the Year (originally published by Frenkel at Bluejay Books). We said yes. Because we enjoyed working together (although we didn’t interact very much while editing YBFH) when artist Tom Canty had the idea of us co-editing an original anthology of retold fairy tales we liked the idea and decided to try to sell it.

Who are some of the writers that influenced you when you were young? Who are some of your favorites now? Is there any author whose works you regularly re-read?

I’m not sure about influencing me as I don’t write, but some of the books and stories that made a difference in my life were the mushroom planet series by Eleanor Cameron, the Nancy Drew Books, comic books of all sorts, The Man Who Was Thursday by Chesterton, Steppenwolf by Hesse, The Magus by John Fowles, the plays of Tennessee Williams (I read them during study hall in the library), Bullfinch’s Mythology, Fairy tale collections, collections by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Guy de Maupassant that my parents owned. I read Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. in my early teens. Later, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Marquis de Sade, Henry Miller, Doris Lessing’s mainstream novels, The Left Hand of Darkness by le Guin.

Novelists who I read today: Jack O’Connell, William Gibson, Elizabeth Hand, James Lee Burke (up until a couple of books ago, I read everything of his), Harry Crews, Janette Turner Hospital, John Burdett. Dan Simmons’ The Terror was absolutely brilliant!!!

Too many short story writers to count.

I reread no one these days. No time. I’m always trying to keep up with the current year for YBFH.

What do you look for in a story, whether it's for an anthology or for your personal reading pleasure?

As an editor, I sometimes look for different things than when I’m just reading for pleasure. As an editor I feel strongly that writing is a means of communication. The writer can choose to communicate with a tiny cult audience or with a wider audience. It’s entirely up to her. Some writers do one or the other with different stories. The stories I enjoy most –as editor and reader--are those that can be read on several levels—the obvious, “storytelling” level with a discernable plot. And the more subconscious level that really gets to a reader. Those stories are more likely to be read over and over again with increasing comprehension and pleasure. I said earlier that I don’t reread…well, I don’t reread for pleasure any more. But I of course, constantly reread while I edit a magazine or anthology. As part of the editing process that’s what I’m doing all the time.

What I look for as I work depends on what I’m reading FOR—for a theme anthology, the first thing I’m looking for (or at least am aware of in a tiny space of my brain)—is whether or not the story fits within but pushes the boundaries of that theme. But far more importantly, I’m looking for stories that “blow me away”—that have a major impact in my reading experience. I never get jaded. A great story jumps out as often now as it ever did. Writing that thrills me-- with its style, its voice, its ingenuity (especially all of that together) is an extra bonus.

When did you fall in love with cats? What about them appeals to you?

I grew up with a wonderful dog that I adored. I never had any interest in cats until my first roommate in Manhattan acquired two kittens. That’s when I fell in love. And when she moved back to Ohio, I kept one of the young cats and she took the other with her.

I don’t have to walk them and they don’t smell as bad!

What's it like working in three genres? What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses (if any) of each?

I love it. I never get bored because I usually have projects involving all three. if I get tired of reading horror I can just switch gears to the fantasy or the science fiction.

It’s not that the genres have weaknesses or strengths but that the purveyors of genres write well or badly and use the genres ambitiously or in hackneyed ways.

Science fiction does a dandy job of exploring possibilities, pointing the way towards ethical behavior should certain futures (scientific or not) come to pass. Example: cloning. There are a LOT of stories and novels about cloning. The uses clones might be put to, the rights of cloned humans, the repercussions on economics, the social fabris, and politics of cloning humans. Same with the possibility of banishing sleep (Nancy Kress has written a series of novels about this). And speculation of different future punishments for criminals. Future wars or wars with aliens. Meeting aliens. I think these are very useful exercises that enable the reader to deal with what is going on today in science and in politics.

A weakness of science fiction is that it is still ghettoized (something I mentioned earlier) both ways—by some literary mainstream critics and by some science fiction writers who want recognition only for what is considered the “party” line. But that’s a weakness in perception, not in the actual works of sf. Ideas with no characters or style or voice. Flashy style with no substance—those can be seen as weaknesses—not in the genre, though. In the writers of the genre.

Good fantasy creates new worlds and refreshingly refurbishes the real world.

Bad fantasy cannibalizes traditional myths and legends and great fantasy novels-- Strip mining Tolkien and other early fantastists without giving anything back to the terrain.

Horror at its best creates a mood and a feeling of disquiet, chills, and/or terror all while telling an absorbing story. The worst of it contains no story but just a bloodfest with a paucity of characterization, theme, or credible behavior.

So again, it’s not a weakness or strength of genre but weakness or strength (and ambition and skill) of the writers IN the various subgenres of the fantastic.

From the perspective of an editor, what advice can you give aspiring writers?

First of all, if you want to be a writer for no other reason than that it sounds like a really neat idea—forget it.

Be passionate about your writing. Write about themes and subjects that matter to you.

Be willing to hone your craft. Rewrite rewrite rewrite. To get a feeling for different “voices” in literature read aloud some of the writers whose work you love –in all fields.

Do not read exclusively in the genre you plan to write in. Read widely—you’ll learn something from everything you read—bad and good.

Always be willing to listen to writerly advice and you will learn what to accept and what to ignore.

Don’t be so in a rush to get published that you’re willing to be published anywhere. Get paid for your work, even if it’s only a few cents. Or if you choose to give something away, at least do it for a respected non-paying market

Choose your markets carefully and pay attention to the guidelines. If a publication says “no vampire stories” or “no space opera” –do not send the editor a vampire story or space opera.

I could go on and on—but I won’t.

Anything else you'd like to plug?

My website is www.datlow.com and it’s kept pretty up to date.

My blog is http://ellen-datlow.livejournal.com/ and you can also find more info there

My photo page is: http://www.flickr.com/photos/35025258@N00/

I often take photos of sf/f/h events and post them there.


kaolin fire said...

Very cool! :)

banzai cat said...

Hmmm... was wondering if ever Datlow ever thought of writing her own stories and if no, why so...

Charles said...

From http://www.australianhorror.com/articles.php?article=16

[Damien Kane] Ellen, you state in an interview with Nancy O'Greene that you don't want to be a writer and never have. With your credentials and super-dooper experience, why wouldn't you want to capitalise by writing a novel?

[Ellen Datlow] Um, 'cause I can't write and have no ideas to write about....other than that. No problem