Curating Horror: An Interview with Ellen Datlow

Curating Horror: An Interview with Ellen Datlow

Ellen Datlow's name is synonymous with horror. For more than four decades she has been curating horror for best selling and award winning anthologies. As a lover of short fiction myself, I have read dozens of horror anthologies edited by Ellen. She's the best in the business and knows everything about putting together a solid array of stories from the genre's most talented authors. 

I sat down with her at the beginning of September, on the cusp of the Autumn season, to talk about her role as an anthologist and what we can expect from her editing desk for this year's spooky season.


Thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to join me today. Does this Tuesday actually feel like a Monday since yesterday was a holiday?

This week is sooo screwy that I can't remember what day it is. A lot of places are closed today (or people are not in) because of Rosh Hashanah.

Ahhh, I didn't know that. I can't handle holiday weekends. The short week throws me off so bad!

Same here, but since I work from home all the time anyway, it's not as bad as when I'd go to an office.

How do you like working from home? I do that too and I have opinions, but I want to know how you make it work for you—pros and cons.

I've been working mostly from home since I left OMNI in 1996 or so. While I worked at SCIFICTION, I only came into the office intermittently. The important thing is to figure out deadlines and stick to them.

But you need to do that in or out of an office. I think I'd hate to go back to an office now. I thought I'd miss the "companionship" of officemates/friends but I got over that really quickly. Now my co-workers are furry. How do you feel about it?


Photo Credit: Tachyon Publications

Yes! You have fur-babies to keep you on task. I love working from home. I have a neuro-divergent child at home who is starting his first day back at high school tomorrow and I'm enjoying the peace and comfort that comes with knowing I'll be here for him in the morning and when he gets home and if he needs to leave due to anxiety—the last two school years have been a lot.

I'll bet it's been really tough for you and many other parents like you. It's good that you're there for him. I live alone, so only have to answer to the cats. The fur babies distract—especially when one is chasing the other!

I now have a dining room but it's far from the window—the way my desk is set up in the living room, I can see out the window. Until I moved in December I always worked in my living room, just using my sofa and a low cocktail table as a desk. I finally got a real one a few months ago, and while I'm still working in my living room, I've created an office "nook" which I love.

We have our desk situation in common! I camp out at the dining room table where I can look out a huge window while I type. Does being at home with the cats mean that you work long hours or do you turn everything off at a certain time of the day—like a 9-5 schedule?

Unfortunately not. I guess that's the downside. I never turn everything off except to go to bed. I'm online from the time I get up till when I go to sleep. (Not checking online but basically, this is where I sit unless I have company or when I eat an actual full course meal at home—then I sit at my dining table and read while I eat.) The good thing is that with my own schedule, I can go out and run errands or go out and socialize whenever I want... as long as I get the work I need to get done on time.

Yeah, I love that about being your own boss. You make the rules. You punch in and out when you want or not at all.

Yup. I love that. Also, with freelancing I can go away for a few days, as long as it doesn't interfere with specific things, like the KGB readings I run, or interviews/conventions/etc.

When I first contacted you about the interview, you were working on a deadline—what were you wrapping up, if you don't mind my curiosity?

A BIG monster anthology (all new stories) for the new Tor Nightfire imprint.

OH. MY. GOD. I just got so excited. I love Tor Nightfire and I love your anthologies.

The title is Screams From the Dark: 29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous.

YESSSSS.

I don't recall when we first got in touch, but I was on the tail end of getting in stories, and several were very very late. In fact, the last one I got in came about a week before the book was due... and I had to read/reread, and line edit it.

(sidenote: I would never want to miss an Ellen Datlow deadline. Just saying. That's scary)

Ellen sends me a winking emoji

Your anthologies are all invite-only, correct?

Generally yes, unless I'm co-editing and the other editor wants to screen slush for a week or two. Nick Mamatas wanted to have a two week open reading period for Haunted Legends and so we did—and he passed on about 20 stories to me. Interestingly, although we took a few stories from that period, only one—maybe—was from someone we'd never heard of.

And the HWA anthology Haunted Nights that I co-edited with Lisa Morton had several open slots for an open reading. We had a few volunteers from HWA reading what came in and they passed a few stories on to us. The reason is that I don't have time to read hundreds of submissions, and for a theme anthology, I don't want dozens of rejected stories on the same theme floating around.

I imagine you are the most informed on everything in the genre of horror and what it has to offer. You must be reading and watching so closely during the year... for a variety of purposes. How do you do it, Ellen?

Well, reading for a Best of the year in horror for more than 30 years means that I'm pretty aware of the really good or promising up and coming writers.

Although I always discover new ones to watch. For the past few years, I've been giving the stats on the make-up of writers for each annual in my summary of the year. And each year I surprise myself when I discover how many writers are included that I never published before (in original or reprint anthologies) and even sometimes a few I've never been aware of reading before.

I wanted to circle back to the lingo you used, "screen slush." I imagine that's the hardest part of the anthology process—reading all the submissions and then the rejections. For small presses, editors, and the like—what advice can you pass on to them?

Since I rarely have to read slush anymore (by the way, that means unsolicited), the story submissions I do get in are usually a pleasure to read. I'm always sorry when I have to reject a story by a writer whose work I have solicited, but it happens. The story might not hit the right buttons for me or it might feel wrong for the theme. The important thing to learn is you don't have to read the whole story if you don't like it or you can tell immediately that it's wrong for what you're working on—reject it. It saves a lot of time. Unless you're workshopping/teaching you do NOT HAVE TO READ THE WHOLE THING. But you do have to learn to reject work graciously (even in a form letter) and not be mean.

I love that you're telling people this about not reading the whole thing. I think that's going to lift a lot of burdens for people who believed otherwise.

Your job as an editor is not only to acquire and edit work, but to reject. You cannot physically accept everything submitted (to a magazine) or to an anthology, if it's open....there just isn't enough space. Perhaps the hardest thing is rejecting work by your writer friends, but you must if the work doesn't fit your needs. Or if it isn't good enough.

And I'm sure that if you work hard at fostering a culture of mutual respect and kindness like you mentioned, people can swallow that jagged pill easier, because it's from you—a safe person who is respectful.

I hope so. I have been told in the past that I write the nicest rejection letters in the field, LOL.

That's a huge testament!

I'm much meaner to the writers I work with a lot. I have said (to at least one of my regular writers) are you fucking kidding me? This is terrible—only once or twice though. I have received terrible stories by writers who believe they've written the best thing they've ever done before (often after a divorce) and I have to tactfully let them know it's, um... "not right for me."

*let it be known I laughed out loud*

In fact, if one of my writers tells me in their submission note that "I really think it's the best thing I've ever written," I groan to myself and know I'm going to have to slog through something ....not so good!

Now sometimes after the fact I'll let them know that I adore their story and that I think it's one of the best things of theirs I've read—they might agree or not.

Oh man, that made me think of a fun question. I hope this doesn't put you on the spot too much. But I have to know!

Uh oh.

Do you have one or two or three stories that stand out as some of the most memorable ones for you? Not bad stories, the good ones, the BEST!

There are many stories I've read and/or published that I've loved over the years. They are often the ones I reprint more than once. Are they the "best"? They are in my eyes. You can get an idea from my reprint anthologies Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror, Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror, and the Best of the Best. (and a bit from my anthology Edited By). I tried to avoid repetition in Nightmares and Best of the Best.

I love the way Edited By came out. It was commissioned by Bill Schafer at Subterranean. I would never have thought of doing such an anthology otherwise.

It's one of my favorite books in my library. Everyone should own it.

Thank you. It's a sort of overview of much of my professional career as an anthologist. It doesn't include any of my magazine/webzine work. That would be way more complicated to put together.

Ellen, before you go—what can we look forward to this Fall?

First up is When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson, featuring all-new stories, coming out September 28th from Titan-US and UK. Body Shocks: Extreme Tales of Body Horror, all reprints from Tachyon October 19th, and The Best Horror of the Year Volume Thirteen from Night Shade—in November, I think.

Oooo, I'm currently reading (and loving) When Things Get Dark and I read Body Shocks. It’s one of my favorite anthologies ever—so brutal and extreme and amazing.

Thank you. Those two are so different from each other.

Ellen, thank you so much for joining me today. I appreciate you and the impact you have on horror so much.

It’s my pleasure! Thank you so much for that.


Get When Things Get Dark at Bookshop or Amazon 

Get Body Shocks at Bookshop or Amazon

Get Best Horror or the Year Vol. 13 at Amazon

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