Interview: Ellen Datlow talks to the Grim Reader


Ellen Datlow is a name any discerning reader of dark fiction will be familiar with. Unless you have been living in a cave for a number of years you will probably know that Ellen is one of, if not THE premier editor for science fiction, fantasy and of course horror. She has won numerous awards as editor including multiple Hugo awards, Bram Stoker awards, Shirley Jackson awards, and the list goes on. The Best Horror of the Year anthologies are the books every dark fiction writer wants to feature in. Year after year they showcase some of the very best writers the genre has to offer and they never disappoint.

Ellen also acquires short fiction for Recently there have been some incredible shorts from Tor, these include The Night Cyclist by Stephen Graham Jones and A Human Stain by Kelly Robson. Both of these stories in particular blew me away. February of this year saw the release of Black Feathers – the latest anthology of dark fiction, edited by Ellen Datlow, and sure to include many memorable stories.

I approached Ellen and asked if she would be willing to part with some of her time in order to answer a few questions. I am delighted to report that she obliged and below are her answers. HUGE thanks to Ellen. I can’t imagine how busy she must be and I am stoked that she was willing to take the time out of her busy schedule to spend some time with The Grim Reader. Enjoy!

TGR: Firstly, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions. I’d like to turn back the clock and ask where your love of stories came from. Were your family big readers? And what was the first book you remember reading that made you want to be more involved with the editing process?

ED: You’re very welcome. My parents were always reading and there were all kinds of books around our apartments. But mostly, my mom took me to the library on a regular basis and I checked out as many books at a time that I could. At home we had coffee table sized books on natural history with pictures of animals. I loved looking through that. I read Bullfinch’s Mythology and The Odyssey. (The Iliad bored me).

I knew/understood nothing about the editing process until I was an adult and trying to figure out what to do with my life. But because I loved reading, I figured that working with books would be fun and interesting. Maybe in a bookstore (never did), perhaps in a library (I did so while in college). It wasn’t until after I graduated college that I through about going into publishing, although I had no real idea what that even meant.

TGR: You must’ve seen some huge changes throughout the publishing landscape over your career. In what ways have you adapted to these changes, and do you approach the editing process any differently now than earlier on in your career?

ED: The editing process hasn’t changed all that much. I still pick stories I love, and work with writers to make them better.  Only the publishing process has changed. Now I work via email rather than by letter or phone. And I usually get manuscripts and galleys to go over with track changes or as pdf files.

TGR: You have been editing across a number of genres for over 35 years now. It’s clearly something that you love to do and you show no signs of slowing down. What is it about the editing process that you enjoy so much?

ED: I love “discovering” new stories, that is, the stories I’ve solicited that might never have seen the light of day if I hadn’t done so. I love working with writers, guiding them to make a story as powerful and effective as it can be. And of course, I love reading, so editing is the perfect profession for me.


TGR: My primary love of reading is within the horror genre. It’s a genre for me that never seems to get old. There are some incredible writers releasing brilliant work, many of whom you have edited in various anthologies. What is it that attracts you to the darker side of fiction?

ED: I don’t know, but I’ve loved dark fiction since I was a child. It’s partly the suspense that builds in a really good horror story.


TGR: How do you define horror and what does Ellen Datlow look for in a horror story?

ED: To me it’s the genre of unease and a feeling that all is not right with the world as we think we know it. I often say “if it’s dark enough, it’s horror” –often referring to crime novels. A grimness. Something that makes you want to look away–it can border on disgust—but you can’t.

Horror can be any genre. There’s science fiction horror, there’s dark fantasy that’s really really dark, there are mysteries, thrillers, and as mentioned earlier-crime novels– that I’d consider. It depends on how far the writer goes down the path of darkness. Science fiction is about the future, but horror can be about any period of time. The combination of the tone the writer takes to the material and how the reader responds emotionally to that material can be an indicator as to whether something is horror or not.

In my mind, I subconsciously create a separation between dark fantasy and horror as I’m reading. I’ll think, “I’m not going to take this for the Best of the Year because I really like it but the story just isn’t quite dark enough for my purposes.” It’s a question of degree—my personal reaction to the material. I’m deep into working on my Best of the Year, so I’m reading a lot right now and as I read something I constantly judge the material—not just “do I like it” or “is it a good story” but “is it dark enough for me and my readers?” Is it hitting the buttons that makes me squirm and think, “ooh this is really creepy?” Is it making me uncomfortable?

That’s why I loved editing the horror half of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Even though I didn’t choose the fantasy half, to me the choices were all on a continuum: fantasy, dark fantasy, and horror. High fantasy or light fantasy versus horror are separated in a sense– or joined–by dark fantasy, which is perhaps the gray area between them.


TGR: What is it that attracts you to short stories in particular?

ED: Again, I don’t really know. I apologize-but the question about why I love horror and this one are two I’ve never been able to answer in any satisfying way.

I’ve read short stories since my youth (along with novels) but only started editing them at OMNI Magazine.

TGR: Who are some of your favourite writers and what books have you read that blew you away?

ED: Hundreds. I can only say what books I’ve recently read that I loved: Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones, The Fisherman by John Langan, Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, and the Cass Neary series of crime novels by Elizabeth Hand.

TGR: We don’t see much of a horror section in book stores these days unfortunately. Horror movies are big business, with new ones coming out all the time. It seems there is definitely an audience out there for horror so why is it do you think that we don’t see as many horror books on the shelves?

ED: We do. Horror, because it’s tone as much as anything else, is all over the place. The books just aren’t in their own separate sections any more. They’re in the mainstream, fantasy, mystery/crime areas. The dedicated “horror” section was an anomaly that I and many others think did not help our field but in fact harmed the field by forcing the overproduction of horror titles merely to fit into publishing slots. In addition to horror published by the big publishers and in the mainstream, horror is also being published by small presses.

TGR: You are a monthly host at the KGB Bar in Manhattan for the Fantastic Fiction Reading that takes place on the third Wednesday of every month. Can you tell us a little bit about this and how you became involved?

ED: The bar was originally a social club for Ukrainian socialists until the members aged out and Denis Woychuk (who used to hang out there with his father) opened an art gallery and then the Kraine Gallery Bar (aka KGB) in the early 90s. He and his business partner, both writers, wanted to attract writers to their bar and so in 1994 they invited their first reader.  (not genre).

I’ve co-hosted the readings since around 2000. They were started by writer Terry Bisson and Playboy Fiction Editor Alice K. Turner in the late 90s. The idea was originally to bring together a genre and non-genre reader, which was easier for Alice because she was in contact with so many mainstream writers while working for Playboy.

Once she left and I took over for her, it evolved into a more genre-oriented reading series. We still have the occasional mainstream writer who writes fantastical or horrific fiction, but not as much.

After Terry Bisson moved to the west coast, Gavin Grant became my co-host. Several months after he and his wife Kelly Link moved away from New York he gave it up-the commute was too much. Matt Kressel has been co-hosting with me since 2008.


TGR: What does the rest of 2017 have in store for Ellen Datlow?

ED: I’ve acquired novellas by Stephen Graham Jones, Jeffrey Ford, Katherine Vaz, Kelly Robson, and Elizabeth Hand for the novella series and I’m either editing them or awaiting those I commissioned to come in. I continue to acquire and edit short fiction for the website.

Mad Hatters and March Hares, my anthology of stories and poems inspired by Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass will be out from Tor late this year. And Haunted Nights, a Halloween themed HWA anthology edited by me and Lisa Morton will be out this fall from Blumhouse Books/Anchor.

I’m working on The Best Horror of the Year volume 10.

I’m also finishing up Devil and the Deep, a horror anthology of “sea horror,” my first original anthology for Night Shade (My BOTY publisher).

And one other I can’t talk about!


TGR: Thanks heaps to Ellen for taking time away from her busy schedule. Check out the Kickstarter below and help keep Fantastic Fiction at KGB Bar for a further 3 years!

2017 Fantastic Fiction at KGB Fundraiser

Also, check out Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales – a collection of dark fiction, edited by Ellen Datlow. Click here. for more.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Bookwraiths says:

    Great interview!


    1. adishotbolt says:

      Thanks. I appreciate you stopping by.


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