An Interview with Ellen Datlow

June 30, 2023

Ellen Datlow and Jack the Jerk

Weird Little Worlds Press would like to congratulate Ellen Datlow on her most recent Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in an Anthology- Screams from the Dark: 29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous (Tor Nightfire)! Another well-deserved award to a great mind in horror.

We would like to celebrate Ellen and her wonderful talents by posting a recent interview Willow Dawn Becker, CEO of Weird Little Worlds recently had the honor of conducting with Ellen. We hope you enjoy her delightful personality and insight into Ellen’s world.

WLW:  You are the queen of horror anthologies. Everybody who reads short fiction knows that your hand on something means that it’s awesome. You’ve won so many Stokers and British Fantasy Awards, and so many other awards. Do you have any of those awards that have been especially meaningful? If you look back on all of the awards that you have won, which one sticks out in your mind because it felt incredibly special or important for you personally?

ED: That really is hard to say. I think it was when I won the Hugo Award. It took 20 years for me to win a Hugo Award as Best Editor. It was weird, because I was surrounded by these great names in science fiction: Terry Carr, Shawna McCarthy, and people like that. But we were friends and we met together one weekend. We tried to guess who was going to get the first Hugo out of us. It ended up being Terry, then Shawna. I was the last of us. I won mine years later than the others. So, it was really satisfying to finally get a Hugo. That one was very meaningful to me. But they’re all meaningful. Don’t ever let someone tell you that they’re tired of getting awards, because I don’t believe it.

A Life Achievement Award is really weird. You feel like, wow, I’m honored. But, then you think, “Am I done?” Does this mean, I won’t receive any more awards? I’ve reached the top of that organization’s awards, I’ll never win one again.

Winning awards for specific books is different from winning an award for Best Editor. Being nominated for an anthology–it seems to me– is an indication that readers appreciate that specific work.


WLW:  So that leads me to another question. You have compiled so many anthologies. What do you feel is the secret thumbprint that you put on the anthology that is uniquely you? So when people read it they say “This is Ellen’s work. I know for sure that this is hers.”

ED: I’m not sure. You know, I’ve published science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies. I don’t feel that my co-edited anthologies are purely my taste–I mean, I’ve enjoyed co-editing, but it’s always going to be negotiation with your co-editor, because you’re bound to have different taste.

I can tell you what readers would say about what I was publishing while I was Fiction Editor of OMNI. A lot of what I published was downbeat. I was known in science fiction as doing a lot of depressing stories. So it was natural to me to move into horror actually. 

The first thing, is that a story must be literate, and there has to be something about the language that attracts me. I’m interested in the language. Not every story I publish has beautiful language or is beautifully written. But that is certainly something that I like. The language can’t get in the way of the plot and characterization though. I have read stories that were beautifully written, but were about nothing. There was no plot. I don’t like poorly written stories or cliche language. Hopefully you’ll find the opposite in my anthologies. Other than that, I try to balance the stories in tone, point of view, characterization, and plot. You need to be aware of what’s being submitted, to ensure you’ve got variety. It’s all a juggling act.


WLW: Is there any anthology idea that you haven’t done? One you thought would be too controversial? Too difficult to do? Or do you have one that’s off in the distance that you think, “Someday I would like to do that, but the world’s not ready yet”?

ED: Well, yes. And no. It’s not that the world’s not ready. It’s that I don’t know how to sell it. And it’s not controversial at all. But there’s an anthology that a friend of mine recommended that I do years ago. I’d like to do it, but I just can’t get it together. I guess I’m not passionate enough about the subject to actually write up a proposal. The Book of Shoes. I would want it to be mainstream and genre, both nonfiction and fiction. I think it would be really fun. But it just kind of stays in the back of my mind. Of course, if an editor said, “Oh, I’m really interested–why don’t you write up a proposal?” Then I would do it. But there are other anthology themes I’m more interested in.

I prefer to edit non-themed anthologies but they’re very difficult to sell.  I’d be happy to edit anthologies on themes I’ve already covered. I loved editing Supernatural Noir and would be happy to edit another one like that. I’ve always loved ghost stories. I’ve edited a few anthologies of ghost stories: two containing mostly original stories, and one or two all-reprint anthologies about “hauntings.” I would love to edit another original one. I would love to do a hell-bound trains anthology.

I just met with my agent last week, and we were talking about what I should do next. And she was saying I should do one about zombies. I swore I would never do a zombie anthology. There are some very good zombie stories I love. I have published some of them, but I will never do a zombie anthology.


WLW: What’s your superpower? A secret thing that hardly anyone knows about you?

ED: I can call squirrels. But I found that I can’t call them in Florida. Only New York squirrels respond. I make clicking sounds at them and they respond. They come to me and look at me and want food. A friend of mine who lives nearby said, “You’re teasing them. You never give them anything.” But, I’m just saying hello. Actually, I don’t know what I’m saying but they do come, when I call.

WLW: Do you think maybe you’re swearing at them? Do you feel like they’re offended when they’re done talking to you?

ED: Well, I think they’re offended that I’m not bringing them food. They seem happy though. I’m just saying hello and goodbye. The Florida squirrels don’t understand the same language. It must be a different dialect. So the Floridian squirrels are like, “You’re not from around here, are you?”


WLW: What’s the question that you get asked a lot that you think is really boring and you hate?

ED: How did I get into publishing. Please don’t ask. Just look at my interviews. I’ve done so many interviews on how I’ve ended up where I am professionally. I feel like I should just hand out printouts saying, “Check out this and this interview, they tell you everything: How I got into the field, how I started working for Omni, how I started editing anthologies, how I ended up doing what I currently work at.’


WLW:  What’s a question you wish someone would ask you?

ED: That’s tough. Well, a couple of people have actually noticed something, a question that no one had asked me that was a joy to respond to. I’m happy to talk about it, because I don’t think it was published anyplace. I have a lot of collections of things, objects. I love them. A friend connected the idea of my collecting, to my curating of my anthologies, which had never occurred to me. He sees my curation of what I collect as similar to loving to creating anthologies.


WLW: So do you feel that the collections that you put together the ones that you curate, do you feel that they are similar? Is every piece as meticulously chosen? Do you choose them with your gut, or is there a combination of things? Does it parallel how you choose to stories for your anthologies?

ED: It depends on what you mean by meticulous. I love finding interesting things at antique malls and thrift shops. What I tend to buy these days is small, cheap, and weird. That adds up to a lot of things.  When eBay started, I began collecting doll heads– these things that are three-faced. These three-faced dolls moved from crying, laughing, and sleeping. I collected every type that existed. But eBay is the bane of everyone’s existence. Partly because, yes, it’s easy to find things.  But it’s more fun to do it in person.

One of my collections became a book. I don’t know if you’re aware of Tool Tales. My friend, Australian writer Kaaron Warren, saw that one of my collections is of antique tools. Small ones, not huge ones. I don’t know how it came up. I guess we were both not too busy at the time. I think I might have posted a few photographs on Facebook. She said, “Hey, why don’t I do 100-word stories about those tools?” Some of them, we had no idea what they were for. Some, we had no idea what they were. Others, I knew. For those we didn’t, we put out the call on facebook, as we posted the photos of each tool and its story.

We ended up posting 10 tools with 10 tiny stories.

Then Gerry Huntman of IFWG- It’s an Australian small press, and Gerry asked to publish a chapbook titled Tool Tales. It won Australian’s Ditmar and Shadows awards.


WLW: It seems like what you’re passionate about is really what helps direct the projects that you work on. Or is it that people have ideas they bring to you and you have to find the passion? If there’s no passion do you still do it?

ED: I have to be passionate about my projects, as I’ll be spending two or three years on them. I have to work on what will maintain my interest during that period of time. I have to think it will keep my interest for that period of time.

Yeah. As far as editing an anthology. I solicit stories. I rarely have open markets. I go after the writers who I think are doing interesting work. People I’ve worked with before. People who I have published maybe, or I notice when editing the Year’s Best. I may invite a writer I haven’t worked with previously to submit a story for an anthology. Some of those stories I end up turning down because I just don’t like them, or they don’t work for me, or they don’t fit
the theme.

Others are really good, but need too much work for me to put in the effort. It totally depends on whether or not I think the author can do what needs to be done with as little agony as it would take for both of us.

And of course, some I buy.

When I do work with a writer, it’s to enable that writer to create the best story they can and occasionally pry out of them what their story needs to get across what the author intends to get across to the reader.


WLW: If you could teach a course to any young person who wanted to be you, this is not about how you became what you became in your career. This is, “How do I become Ellen Datlow?” Or, anybody who sees you and says, “This is a great human, somebody who I think I would like to be like, someone who would be a fantastic mentor.” What’s the secret? What would the course curriculum include?

ED: Read widely. Read everything. If you’re interested in one genre, become familiar with that genre, but don’t only read in that genre. I have a history of reading science fiction, fantasy, and horror from when I was a kid. You should be aware of what is going on in the field you’re working in. There’s no way to teach substantive or line editing- you can teach copy editing, which is an entirely different skill. I would say that I finally got to where I am by being in the right place at the right time. And taking any opportunities presented to you and running with them. Be open to people giving you advice. When people want to help you or want to give you advice, listen. When editing, learn to ask questions of the writer about their story. You have to tactfully work with a writer. You don’t want to hurt the writer. Don’t be mean, treat writers with sensitivity and be aware that their work is their baby. Learn how to be tactful while asking your questions and bringing out what they want to come out in their story.

Those are certainly some of the things I would advise those who want to be editors. There is no secret, it’s just a journey. I learn more with every story I edit. It’s my whole experience. It’s 40 years of getting into the field and going through what I went through, which were many different things. It’s all the things I learned. I worked in book publishing for five years getting nowhere slowly as I say, but I learned office politics. I learned not to offend the art director. You learn how to deal with “no”. You learn how to work. You learn what you can from any job you have. You learn as many different things as you can.

But mostly, learn to be kind. Try not to be mean.


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