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Ellen Datlow Interview

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    Posted: Mar-10-2015 at 9:11am
An Interview With Ellen Datlow
by Daniel Blackston

Here it is, SFReader fans - an interview with one of the most influential and consistently celebrated editors of short SF on the planet. I've long been a fan of Ellen Datlow's work as an editor, from her days at OMNI magazine right through to the most recent short fiction (new stories updated weekly) published under her editorship at one of the web's best destinations for short fiction, SCIFICTION.

Whether you're into horror, fantasy, science fiction, or slipstream (what Datlow refers to as 'quirky'), it's likely that your literary universe has been influenced in some way by Ellen Datlow's editorial vision. You can learn more about her at her web site or Nightshade Books.

Let's start off on a political note, if you don't mind. How much, if at all, has the current war on terrorism and the post-911 climate influenced the kinds of SF stories you're seeing as submissions to SCIFICTION? Has the current political climate influenced your own thinking about SF in any tangible way?

I've been receiving some excellent political sf concerned with both terrorism itself and its spread, and the encroachment on civil liberties. These stories are well-told and interesting and a lot of the political material is mentioned in the background so they aren't at all pedantic. I hate pedantic fiction. So my choices have not been deliberately political - I just pick the stories that move me in some way - although I am very concerned personally about the direction our country seems heading. Over the last year, I've published stories touching on the political by Suzy McKee Charnas, Daniel Abraham, John Grant, and Susan Palwick. Each of these stories is very different from each other and I think show the range of what's possible in political science fiction.

You say you hate pedantic fiction. I wholeheartedly agree. But don't all writers with a message risk being pedantic? Is the nature of successful fiction, then, based more in emotional than cerebral responses?

Yes, but you asked about political fiction specifically. Expecting the reader to think is not being pedantic. It's only when the message overwhelms the telling of the story that a piece of fiction fails.

I was talking with a buyer for Borders bookstores and he remarked that your anthologies still sell very well, that you are one of the few names in the industry that can really draw readers, even ones that may not be familiar with many of the current short SF authors. This clearly shows that thousands of readers trust your instincts about short fiction, in effect trusting you to deliver the best every time. Do you receive much direct feedback from SF fans?

Ohmigod! That is really comforting to hear. Seriously. As a short story editor I sometimes feel I'm working in a little rarified room that only a few readers are aware of. One always hears how short fiction is dead, anthologies don't sell, blah blah blah. I hope all my editors and publishers read this. My mission in life is to get readers to read what I consider wonderful short fiction, whether it be sf/f/h. Or even mainstream fiction that's quirky. Before Bruce Sterling dubbed it "slipstream" I was reading and enjoying and recommending a rash of oddball novels and stories that were published as mainstream but were clearly (to me) not. Books and stories by Steve Erickson, Ian McEwan, Edward Whittemore, William Kotzwinkle, Patrick McGrath, and T. Coraghessan Boyle.

Sometimes readers do give direct feedback. That's why I check the Nightshade and SCIFI.COM Bulletin Boards regularly - to see what the readers think of what we're publishing. However, I will admit that reader feedback doesn't influence me all that much - I just buy what I enjoy reading and hope that readers will come along with me and enjoy it, too. Advice? Me? Nah. I was just talking to some other editors about being an editor recently. And we agreed that although an editor can hone her skills (and needs to constantly) whether you're a good editor or not is instinctual. It's not something that can be taught. Some people just don't get it and should not be editing. If you don't love what you're editing and buying you should quit the business and get a job that pays really well instead.

With your deep and lasting involvement in speculative fiction, you have seen many sub-genres or modes of short SF come and go. Are there modes or sub-genres of speculative fiction that you feel nostalgic about? Some feel nostalgic for Golden Age SF for instance, others for "pulp" fantasy, etc. Is there a SF story style you miss seeing around?

Nope. I love seeing what's new on the horizon. I love reading great new stories and new treatments of old themes. Everything has to evolve or die. Science fiction has had to as well. I don't like to see current writers and editors throwing out the past but I also see no purpose in looking back nostalgically at what was done early in the age of sf.  Some stories are dated, others are not at all. Some work as period pieces. Because I publish a classic (story over 25 years old) every other week, I'm constantly searching for the stories that still work on some level. Fantasy and horror fiction often dates slower than sf.

Certain assumptions were made at that time that didn't pan out. Just as the stories being written today may look dated in twenty years time and then new stories will be written reflecting current fears and hopes.

You remarked in a recent interview with John Joseph Adams (assistant editor for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) that you are "a much better short fiction editor than a novel editor." Care to point out some of the key differences and why you feel you may be less adroit with novel editing?

I'm more comfortable with short fiction because that's what I've been editing for twenty-five years. I have provided editorial feedback on novels to several writer friends over the years and I do edit two authors at Tor in my consulting position but I just feel less skillful at it.  Editing a novel means looking at the whole overarching structure of that novel. As a short story editor I don't feel I have enough experience in structure - I don't feel I could take apart a novel and help put it back together.

You are an ardent enthusiast of horror fiction - what new voices have you encountered lately that send a shiver down your spine?

Margo Lanagan, an Australian writer whose first collection,Black Juice, came in Australia in '04 and in the US in '05.Glen Hirshberg, although I guess he isn't new any more as he's been publishing award nominated stories for the past four years already.I liked Simon Bestwick's collection A Hazy Shade of Winter.

Laird Barron, whose story "Old Virginia" I picked from F&SF in 2003 and from whom I've published another chiller - "Bulldozer" - on SCIFICTION a couple of months ago

Jeffrey Ford, certainly not a new voice in sf/f but not known enough for his excellent horror and dark fantasy stories.  M. Rickert's dark stories are often horrific.

George Saunders, better known for his mainstream and humorous fantasy fiction has written some chilling horror.

Many readers including myself enjoyed the Periodic Table of Science Fiction, Michael Swanwick's series of short-short SF pieces featured at SCI FICTION. Do you foresee more experimental formats for online SF? Are there formats that interest you that you'd like to pursue? Do you see possibilities for meaningful innovation with Internet technology?

At OMNI I commissioned groups of short-shorts on one theme. From those experiments came Terry Bisson's "They're Made Out of Meat" now considered a classic (and made into a radio and a stage play). At OMNI online I started the round-robin story with several authors taking a turn at posting a piece for four rounds. At Event Horizon and SCIFICTION contributors created glossaries with pop-up windows along with the whole glossary at the end of the story for those who didn't want to be interrupted in their reading. In other words, I've been there done that. I may once again commission a few short-shorts either with an overarching theme (like the periodic table) - or not. It's a lot of work for me as well as the author. And to create a successful one you need a writer who can produce quality on time.

"Hard-working" would be an understatement in your case. As an editor you are constantly on the go and always working -  but you never seem to busy to answer newcomers who email you or those who post questions to you in online forums. Where does the energy come from? Are there ever times you wish you could turn it all off? Ever think about changing careers?

I'm tired a lot and wonder why - I guess it's because of what you just said above. I love what I do although I'd prefer longer deadlines. An assistant would help although I haven't had one since OMNI. Not just a reader, which I do have - but someone to take care of all the administrative hassles like chasing up payments. Editing short fiction is the only thing I want to do. And I'm not sure I could do anything else.

How deep of an impact do you feel you've had on the short SF industry specifically as a woman editor? By this I mean, prior to your influence, the science-fiction field was largely dominated by male writers, editors, and fans. There are exceptions and nuances, of course, but you are the first female editor to cast as large an influence as, say, Asimov or Ellison....  What do women bring to speculative lit that males may be lacking?

Well first of all, Judith Merril was an enormous influence on me with her Best of the Year anthologies, inclusive and prescient enough to reprint fantasy and sf by Bernard Malamud, Lawrence Block, John Steinbeck. Muriel Spark, Jules Feiffer, Lawrence Durrelll, Conrad Aiken, Howard Fast, and Kingsley Amis in addition to writers more identified with the field. She certainly is a model I've considered throughout the eighteen years of my co-editorship of The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror series.

If I have any long-term impact at all, I'd like to believe it has nothing to do with my being a female. I'm an editor, pure and simple. My editorial tastes have been crafted by years of reading all sorts of material as a child and as an adult. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time (with hopefully, good taste and editing instincts) after a really lousy run of luck in book publishing for the first six years or so during the beginning of my full-time working life.

I don't feel women bring anything more or less to spec lit. I feel great writers, who use their imaginations to intrigue, provoke, and draw in readers - whatever gender or color - are a boon to spec lit.

What kinds of non-speculative fiction do you like to read? Non-fiction?

Unfortunately I don't have much time to read anything other than short fiction. However, when I DO read novels, I read crime novels or quirky mainstream novels (that have weird and/or dark elements in them.) I guess I don't read what could be considered "non-spec fiction." Nonfiction that's odd and quirky. Over the years I've written mini-reviews of the nonfiction titles I've read for the YBFH. A book on the giant squid.  A book on freaks. Books on predators - insects or mammalian. Stuff like that.

What ambitions do you hold? What, if anything, would you like to accomplish that seems elusive?

I love editing short fiction and hope to have the strength and opportunity to continue doing so.  The only thing I really would like is the certainty of a job I continue to love from one year to another.  But that's an impossibility in the publishing industry, so I do what I can as long as I can.

copyright © 2004,  Daniel Blackston

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