Guest of Honor - Ellen Datlow

Photo: Greg Frost

Ellen Datlow has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for over thirty years. She was fiction editor of Omni Magazine and SCIFICTION and has edited more than fifty anthologies.

Ellen has won multiple Locus Awards, Hugo Awards, Stoker Awards, International Horror Guild Awards, World Fantasy Awards, and the Shirley Jackson Award for her editing. She was named recipient of the Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for "outstanding contribution to the genre." She has also been honored with the Life Achievement Award given by the Horror Writers Association, in acknowledgement of superior achievement over an entire career.

Ellen Datlow on the web:

Musings on Ellen Datlow

By Pat Cadigan (reprinted from Progress Report 2).

Photos: Pat Cadigan

The genre of the fantastic - science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and all the subcategories from New Wave to New Weird, from cyberpunk to steampunk, from Analog hard to Magic Realism and all stops in between and beyond - wouldn't be worth a damn without editors.

There, I said it. But then, it's nothing I haven't said before.

The genre of the fantastic - which, to save time and words, I'm going to refer to as SF - is one of those things that is utterly tribal. It cuts across all ethnicities, classes, creeds, even languages. Readers stick with it for life. Writers are also lifelong readers, and that goes double and triple for editors.

The SF editor is someone with a unique set of skills. You can't hire just anybody out of the general pool of people looking for editorial work. Just as SF writers are lifelong SF readers, so are editors. In fact, back in 1995, at SwanCon in Perth, Western Australia, I revealed the truth: writers and editors evolved from a common ancestor. The point of divergence was how each reacted to something they were reading. Writers said, "I could have done better than that," while editors said, "I could have made that better."

This discovery actually came about because of Ellen Datlow, who mentioned during the same panel that she had always read with a critical eye - the usage of "critical" here being in the best possible way. I know, because Ellen Datlow made me the writer I am.

I'm afraid I don't remember a great deal about Datlow: The Early Years (senior moments come thick and fast these days; I'm good if I can remember what I ate for breakfast). I know she worked for Donald Fine briefly. However, I'm absolutely clear about when she came into her own: in 1981, she became fiction editor at Omni magazine.

Omni, for you young whippersnappers who don't remember a time when we didn't have the Web, was a magnificent science magazine produced by the late Bob Guccione, of Penthouse fame. It was what we called, in those days, a slick, meaning it had slick, glossy pages, high-style graphic design (I heard that tweet - not that kind of graphic, you pigs), and, best and most important of all, it paid big. BIG. Bigger than most of us who couldn't sell to Playboy (also a slick that published science fiction) had ever seen.

Ellen's predecessor had been Robert Sheckley and, before him, Ben Bova, who became editor-in-chief. (I'm trying to avoid begats here, but it's tempting.) My first submission to Omni was during Sheckley's tenure. He was one of my favourite writers and I sent in a humorous short story about time junkies sucking spare time out of parking metres. Well, I thought it was humorous. Mr. Sheckley decided Omni could survive without it but I did get a personal rejection letter, which was signed by assistant editor Ellen Datlow.

After Robert Sheckley left, Ellen Datlow ascended to fiction editorship and Omni went from merely a high-paying slick to a source of exciting new fiction, by well-established authors like Connie Willis and Ursula K. LeGuin and new writers, authors you wouldn't expect to find in any SF magazine, like Joyce Carol Oates and T. C. Boyle (forgive me, I can't spell Coraghessan), and new writers like William Gibson, Michael Swanwick... and me.

Ellen didn't just sit back and wait for good fiction to show up. She read everything she could and she consulted other editors like Gardner Dozois, asking who the up-and-comers were, anyone he thought she might be interested in reading. Which was how, in 1981, I came by a letter - street-mail, hard copy in an envelope with a stamp on it - from Ellen, telling me she had read a story of mine called "The Pathosfinder." She said she liked it and hoped I would consider submitting something to her.

Now, as flattering as this story is to me - it's so flattering, in fact, that I'm almost ashamed of myself for telling it - I should add that I know I'm not the only writer Ellen approached. She was proactive to the point where she approached writers she wasn't personally acquainted with, on the basis of their work. I'm lucky she did, and I'm glad I was smart enough to write something immediately and send it to her.

She sent it back - with a number of suggestions for revisions. If I wanted to make them, she said, she would love to see the story again. Well, if my family had a coat of arms, the slogan would be, Momma didn't raise no fools. I made the revisions and sent the story back to her. And this time, the story didn't come back to me.

There were a few more adjustments and edits, which we did together over the phone. And that is how "Vengeance Is Yours" came to be my first sale not just to Omni, but to Ellen Datlow. It is notable to me not just because of the enormous cheque I got for it but because it was a turning point for me as a writer. The cheque was dwarfed by what I learned about writing in the short time it took to revise the story to Ellen's satisfaction. In a few short weeks, I learned more about how to tell a story well than I had in... well, my entire life.

Ellen knows short fiction the way a cardiac surgeon knows the human heart. She knows what's fat and what's muscle. She knows what has to be cut away and what has to be strengthened. She knows which of those things that feel good are actually harmful, and which things that are painful are absolutely necessary. And I can't remember the last time she was wrong.

Working with Ellen, I learned to become the servant of the story.

You don't find a whole lot of editors with this kind of high-level skill in short fiction. Gardner Dozois is one, Gordon van Gelder is another, and there are some promising talents starting to make their mark. Book-length fiction is rife with talented editors and some of them do well with short fiction, too. But you won't find many editors who have such a gift - and a love - for short fiction as Ellen Datlow. And when I say short fiction, I mean short fiction. SF, fantasy, horror, and all points between and beyond, even cross-pollination: SF-horror hybrids, dark fantasy, high fantasy, literary science-fantasy. And don't even think about sneaking any crap science past her to make the horror work - Ellen knows her science and her horror. You can't get away with anything.

Okay, I suppose I am prejudiced. Short fiction is my first love. When I broke into print, I was working fulltime. I could complete short fiction in a short period of time. I've since written novels and I like to think I've done them well. Lately, constraints on my time have meant I'm mostly working at shorter lengths again. But I never stopped writing short fiction. Between novels, during novels, before and after finishing a novel, I always had a few short pieces in progress. I think I always will. Probably in the hope that Ellen is editing another wonderful anthology.