Wednesday, August 1, 2012

An interview with editor Ellen Datlow

Here's an interview I did some years back with Ellen Datlow, editor or fiction editor for such projects as: OMNI magazine; OMNI On-Line; Event Horizon; the sadly vanished SCI FICTION pages of the Skiffy Channel, now SyFyllis Channel, website; an abortive erotica web-section,, for The Museum of Sex's online presence; and a number of award-winning and -nominated anthologies...

The interview was originally published in the long-vanished magazine The Fix, from the same folks who now publish Interzone, and even then were publishing Crimewave and Black Static (which was then known as The Third Alternative).

The Fix Interview: Ellen Datlow
By Todd Mason
(First appeared in The Fix: The Review of Short Fiction, Issue Two, 2001)

Ellen Datlow spent a decade and a half as fiction editor of Omni the magazine, when it was the highest-profile US newsstand magazine regularly featuring speculative fiction and then, from 1986-1989, at Omni Online, one of the most impressive early web magazines, even more invested in sf; in the latter format, she had more room to offer up longer fiction, including a "lost" early novella by Fritz Leiber. Among her other work simultaneously and since has included The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror annual and several other anthologies co-edited with Terri Windling, as well as anthologies edited on her own and three more web-magazine short-fiction projects. At Event Horizon, she published, among much other impressive work, Kelly Link's "The Specialist's Hat" (1999 Howard, from the World Fantasy Convention) and at her current position at SCIFICTION she's seen to the republication of many interesting reprints and even more new fiction, including Linda Nagata's "Goddesses" (2000 Nebula, from the SFWA). Datlow herself has been frequently nominated for the Best Editor Hugo (from the World SF Convention).

TM: I'm under the impression that you are one of the editors in the field who came to fantastic fiction professionally as an adult, unlike that other set of editors in the speculative fiction field who burned throughout their adolescence to become sf, fantasy, and/or horror movers and shakers. You began to work at Omni magazine after working at Donald I. Fine . . . were you able to work on any interesting projects involving short fiction there or previously? Have you been a reader of short fiction throughout your life?

ED: That's definitely true. Although I was always interested in reading sf/f/h books and comic books and watching sf/f/h movies it never occurred to me to work professionally in those fields until I started working in publishing as an editorial assistant. And I intentionally did not try to get a job in companies that had sf programs because I didn't want to be pigeonholed in one area of fiction.

I had never heard of or read any of the pulps (nor their "digest" fiction-magazine heirs) while growing up. The short fiction I read was from anthologies: Best of the Year anthologies, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, The Playboy Book of Horror. All my book-publishing jobs were in "mainstream" areas although I did read for the SF Book Club, Ace, and Dell Books while working at various mainstream publishing houses (the last was at Crown. I was at Holt, Rinehart and Winston for three years and that was the longest I'd worked at any publisher. I left Holt for a better position at Crown).

TM: At Omni, you followed Ben Bova and Robert Sheckley in the position of fiction editor, two men with decades of experience in the field of sf, and found yourself as the short-fiction editor with the largest budget set exclusively for fantastic fiction. What were the good and bad aspects of this? Were you challenged to prove yourself (aside from those who might challenge you for working for Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, Sr), and were there other stresses your position put you in?

ED: Since I had never worked for another magazine the budget I had to work with just seemed normal to me. I remember when I started editing original anthologies and was only able to pay 5 cents a word I received a submission that wasn't right for Omni but was perfect for the anthology on which I was working. I was shocked that the agent didn't bat an eye when I told her how much (or rather little) I could pay.

Working with Bob Sheckley was fun and a great learning experience. I basically learned on the job—we both learned on the job, as he hadn't much or any experience working in an editorial position previously. But once Bob left I had to prove to Ben that I could gain the respect of the field. Because he and Sheckley were so well-known, and were hired as much for their visibility in the field as any other reasons, I had to argue that after two part-time fiction editors/writers, the magazine was visible and accepted by and large, the fiction editor could now be someone who wanted to be a professional editor, who could do the job full-time rather than part-time and also be a writer.

There were very few writers (or anyone else) who gave me a hard time for working for the Guccione organization. The only stresses were from dealing with corporate stress: fighting for space for fiction; fighting off control freaks in the company; negotiating the miasma of the art department; production; and ad sales' conflicting interests.

TM: What were you able to do in the field at Omni, and since? What trends in the fiction have you sought to further, which have you been less enthusiastic about?

ED: At Omni I worked with many fine new and seasoned writers over the years and was able to provide them with a beautiful and well-paying showplace for their work. And working for a slick, high-profile, well-paying market helped me make connections that have been very fruitful over the years—Joyce Carol Oates and Jonathan Carroll for example. Once I published Oates in Omni, and we became familiar with each other I was able to buy stories from her for several anthologies. And Jonathan Carroll and I developed a warm friend-ship and excellent working relationship that has led to me becoming his editor at Tor for The Wooden Sea.

Event Horizon enabled me to publish weirder fiction than usual and enabled Rob Killheffer and me to publish interesting and provocative non-fiction. I'd like to think it brought some respect to the idea of publishing short fiction on the web. With my various anthologies I've been able to encourage writers to stretch and to prove that a theme anthology needn't be a straitjacket for authors but rather a spur to the imagination.

The only trends (if that's what they are) I seek to further is that style and voice and excellent writing should count as much as the ideas in science fiction (hard or soft) and a further blurring of the boundaries between sf/f/h and mainstream. I don't think there's any inherent reason for someone who reads what may be considered "mainstream" fiction can't be seduced into reading what our field considers fantasy or horror.

Hard sf presents a problem if it's too technical but even much sf can appeal to many different types of readers. I feel that the sub-genre of alternative realities has been becoming a cannibalization of history for effect rather than a thoughtful re-examination of what might have been.

TM: As Omni moved away from being a newsstand magazine and became one of the pioneering magazines on the web, your role in the transformed magazine enlarged. When that project was halted, you went onto co-found Event Horizon, a webzine where you appeared to have had even more freedom to make it as you wanted it; both published impressive fiction and offered other interesting features, including interactive ones. After EH ceased offering new material as a fiction magazine, you took on the new position of fiction editor at the Sci-Fi Channel website, SCIFI.COM, and also a similar role for ThePosition.Com, where you edited their fantastic/erotic fiction offerings (I've seen a good Kathe Koja story there under your aegis). With the financial shakiness some of the other ambitious sf webzines have suffered (notably Galaxy Online and one Eileen Gunn was set to edit, The Infinite Matrix), is there a likelihood to go with the potential for fully-professional sf or other short fiction magazines online? What advantages or freedoms does this medium offer over the newsstand magazine; what limitations? Having worked on paper and phosphor magazines, do you have a preference? Do readers tend to discriminate against web magazines, take them less seriously than printed and bound magazines, or prefer them?

ED: Regarding ThePosition.Com, the website is sponsored by The Museum of Sex, an actual museum that was planned for NYC. Soon after I acquired the two original stories: one by Kathe Koja and one by David J Schow, everyone was laid off but (as far as I know) the publisher who hired me, Jack Heidenry [TM: who, as John Heidenry, may best be remembered in sf circles for his "keynote entry" story in Harlan Ellison's anthology Again, Dangerous Visions]. I managed to get the authors paid but I'm still awaiting payment for my editorial work. I doubt I'll ever see the money but one can always hope.

I'd love to be working for a print magazine again, if only because they do seem to be a bit more stable these days. However, working on the web does have its advantages. Since space is not a consideration, you can run longer stories. And the web is ideal for adding glossaries to stories, something we've done two times so far (and about to do another). We ran one with Kim Newman's pop-60s murder mystery "Tomorrow Town". Kim is very knowledgeable and interested in the 60s sensibility and knows everything about the media of that period so I got him to do a glossary of the unfamiliar names and titles—we did pop-ups for each linked word, that you could click on or ignore. The glossary was also at the end of the story. We did the same with Paul Di Filippo and Bruce Sterling's gonzo futuristic story "The Scab's Progress" because there was a lot of made-up lingo. And we're going to do it with an upcoming Howard Waldrop story because his 50s movie and TV obsessions demand explication. We're launching "Michael Swanwick's Periodic Table of Science Fiction", an ongoing series of short-shorts, one per week until Michael finishes up the elements—right now there are about 112. So that should take more than two years. The only [post-pulp-era fiction] magazine that ever tried publishing weekly was Pulphouse. Webzines are much easier to update as often as you want (or can afford to).

As far as the editorial process it's the same. Or faster. As long as my authors are on email we can go back and forth on revisions and fixes much quicker than when working with paper. Of course, that has nothing to do with the web per se. But our proofreader can read the file off our server and print that out and make corrections, getting back to me and my producer on email. Also, if there's an egregious error found after the story goes "live" it can be fixed, unlike in print.

TM: Aside from SCFI.COM, with its nearly unique reason for existence making it an ideal place for an sf (broadest sense of speculative fiction) web magazine, is it likely as well as possible for other fully-professional sf or other short fiction magazines to flourish, particularly outside two-pronged, so to speak, ventures such as Atlantic Unbound, Zoetrope All-Story, and Nerve (with only Zoetrope mostly devoted to fiction)? Is the current lack of support (at least faced by the other sf projects mentioned, Galaxy and Infinite Matrix) indicative of a probable future difficulty in getting solid financing . . . or one any greater than bound-paper magazines have faced?

ED: I think it is very tough to get financing for any fiction magazine or webzine these days. But the examples you give are misleading: Galaxy Online barely published fiction (though it promised much), and then only at the end of its short run. Its raison d'etre seemed to be to push a web-based film technology that the web is not yet up to.

The Infinite Matrix was conceived of more as a house webzine than as a moneymaking proposition by its publishers—the intention was to use it for publicity and good will towards the parent corporation. The financing was outside the norm --it was neither subscription- nor advertising-based -- and because of this the loss of its funding is not relevant to other webzine start-ups. Until a workable business model is created for webzines independent of large corporations funding them as part of a larger entity (like mine), it's going to be a tough sell. But what I see in print magazines isn't any better. They start very small as semi-prozines, the best get bigger, more ambitious, come out more often and then the publisher/editor (usually the same person) burns out and/or runs out of money.

Flourish? I don't know. Limp on over the years, yes definitely.

TM: Simultaneously with your magazine work, you've been editing a number of anthologies, some by yourself, many with Terri Windling, including your annual The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror and collections of new fairy tales for adults, such as Ruby Slipper, Golden Tears. Many of your solo compilations have been collections of horror fiction, such as Blood is Not Enough, and have often been mixes of new and reprinted work. Do you approach anthology-editing much differently than you do your periodical work? Since you and Ms Windling essentially split your annual between her primarily-fantasy selections and your primarily-horror choices, is it much different to turn to working with sf stories for one or another anthology or SCI FICTION, your pages within SCIFI.COM? Do you favor horror fiction over other forms of fantastic fiction?

ED: I find it refreshing to move between the genres, and I love both horror and science fiction short stories. I can switch from reading for SCIFI.COM stories to reading horror for YBFH or reading fantasy for a fantasy anthology Terri and I are working on. All within a few hours, if I want a change of pace.

It's kind of strange that I've become so involved in the adult fairy tale series (and our children's fairy tale anthology -- with a second commissioned) because fantasy is not my favorite type of fantastic fiction; although as a child I did love reading fairy tales, folk tales, and mythology. Working on an anthology is a different process. I have more juggling and weighing to do. You want to have a good balance of the types of stories you're publishing -- whether it's a reprint or original anthology.

TM: You continue to commission new work (even as materials you've published first in electronic form win awards, perhaps helping to end any prejudice that does exist against web publication) and to reprint classic and overlooked or unavailable older stories on SCI FICTION. What is SCI FICTION's place in the sf field, its ultimate importance?

ED: I think that SCI FICTION's place is to continue to showcase the best in sf --new work and old. It should (I'm hoping) lay to rest the prejudice that does indeed linger against web publications. Just as showed that sex could be sexy and smart on the web I believe that SCI FICTION increases the awareness that science fiction literature (in the short form, in any case) can also be smart and even sexy (in a different way, of course).

But the ultimate importance cannot be gauged right now and will not be for several years. There are so many factors: how long will we last? How many good or great or memorable or important stories will we publish? What kind of influence (if any) will it have on other webzines? On print magazines?

I'm still seeing the influence of Omni today -- I mean the look of Omni. Realms of Fantasy and Science Fiction Age borrowed from Omni's design. Amazing in its most recent incarnation used some of the same artists we used and certainly was influenced by our use of a particular kind of fantastic art. And again, its design was influenced by Omni.

TM: Who have been your inspirations, particularly among earlier editors and your colleagues today?

ED: Early on I was inspired by Maxwell Perkins and what I read about his working relationships with his authors. I think the author-editor relationship is one of the most important and rewarding part of publishing short fiction. I was inspired by Judith Merril for her attempts to mix what was perceived as mainstream fiction with fantastic fiction. I've been inspired by Gordon Van Gelder when he was editor at St Martin's Press for his passion for taking chances on unusual books. Terri Windling, my co-editor inspires me with her creativity and artistry.

TM: What is the flow of your work: certain days or times of day for periodical editing, certain others for anthology reading?

ED: I usually spend the first few hours of my day answering and generating email. Most of my correspondence is business related; taking the place of the hours I would have spent on the phone before email. Handling the little problems that crop up editing a webzine equivalent: dealing with authors, production, contracts, payments. Since I work from home it's especially crucial that I pace myself and make sure that things that need to get done do get done in a timely fashion. I'll put aside several hours one day to read manuscripts for SCI FICTION. Or a few hours another day to read mss. for an anthology I may be working on. I'll put a pile of three stories that I've already bought and edited once and then do a final line edit on each before sending it to my copy editor. Some things have to be done quickly. Once I get the copy edit back I have to go over it quickly with the author (if there are any queries) and get it to my producer/designer. Once he's prepared it for publication, our proofreader works on it from our server before it goes live. This process often is done relatively last-minute and we've been trying to get ahead several weeks. But that's always a challenge as our copy editor and proofreader are freelancers who hold full time jobs elsewhere.

The Year's Best reading is an ongoing process through-out the year, although I generally take a break between early March and May before reading for the next year. And as I read I take notes so that by the near end of the year I have a rough draft of the final summary of the year.

TM: Have you been involved with other projects at SCIFI.COM, such as their audio-drama series and the author-readings?

ED: I'm not involved with anything else within SCIFI.COM--I pass on the fiction we publish to our "on air" contact for them to evaluate for possible purchase. So far, nothing as been chosen but there have been nibbles. The author readings were often recorded at one of the reading series in NYC but Seeing Ear Theater, our department that creates audio drama, has chosen not to use them any more as there weren't enough of an audience for them.

TM: Do your short fiction projects reach their full potential audiences? How might they better, if not? Can one reasonably expect to make a living editing, publishing or writing short fiction? Is it worth doing even if not? Is the situation likely to improve in the near future?

ED: I've been making a living editing short fiction for over twenty years and I hope I can continue doing so for at least another twenty. If you're asking if magazines or webzines of short fiction are economically viable I'd say yes. The magazines being published can support those who publish them. They may not make a lot of money but they obviously pay staff. One can not make a living writing only short fiction today. The top-paying markets don't pay enough --even if Playboy and Omni were still viable markets for sf writers the amount of fiction they could sell per year to those magazines would not support them. But so few writers have ever made a living completely from their short fiction—what's the difference? Of course short fiction is worth writing. It's the best breeding ground for young writers because they have a smaller canvas with which to perfect their craft. Other short-story editors and I, and some publishers, are passionate about short fiction (that includes novelettes and novellas). In horror, particularly, the short form (again, up to novella) is the heart of the genre. Some of my anthologies sell as well or better than some novels -- I don't know if that's a cause for celebration or a cause for depression . . . depends on your point of view, I guess.

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