Interview With an Author: Ellen Datlow

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Ellen Datlow and her latest book, Body Shocks: Extreme Tales of Body Horror
Author Ellen Datlow and her latest book, Body Shocks: Extreme Tales of Body Horror

Ellen Datlow is one of horror’s quintessential, bestselling, and most acclaimed editors. She has won multiple Hugo, Bram Stoker, Locus, and Shirley Jackson awards and has received lifetime achievement awards from several organizations including the World Fantasy and World Horror Associations. She was the fiction editor of OMNI for nearly twenty years, and edited the magazines Event Horizon and Sci Fiction, and is currently a genre fiction editor at Her many anthologies include the long-running Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, the Best Horror of the Year series; Snow White, Blood Red; Lovecraft’s Monsters; Naked City 9; The Monstrous; and Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror. Datlow lives in New York City. Her latest anthology is Body Shocks: Extreme Tales of Body Horror and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Body Shocks?

I’ve edited several reprint anthologies for Tachyon and it’s always a challenge to come up with a theme that interests me, that publisher Jacob Weisman thinks will sell, and which I feel I can include a wide range of writer and stories. I think this one might have been Jacob’s idea and because I’ve never edited a “body horror” anthology before, I found the idea intriguing.

What was your process for putting together this collection? Did you ask writers for stories that fit your theme, open up the submission process, or did you approach it in a different way?

Body Shocks is an all reprint anthology so first I thought of the writers whose overall short fiction has included body horror. Second I considered stories I’ve read and remembered over the years that might fit the theme.

Finally, I contacted some of my favorite writers and asked them if they’d ever written something that might be considered “body horror”. Overall, I reread about 100 stories and chose 30.

Do you have a favorite earlier or longer work of “body horror” (a short story you were not able to include)?

The time period for me to choose from was wide open. I even got a few submissions of public domain work from my friend Stefan Dziemianowicz—who is extremely knowledgeable about the history of horror. I didn’t end up taking anything he suggested as I didn’t feel they quite fit. I would have taken George R. R. Martin’s “The Pear-Shaped Man”, which I originally published in OMNI, but it’s been overused. I considered Elizabeth Hand’s chilling novella “Cleopatra Brimstone” but decided it was just too long. (20,000 words). I love Karen Russell’s creepy “Reeling for the Empire,” but it’s too difficult and costly to acquire rights to stories controlled by mainstream publishers.

A favorite in another medium (novel, television, motion picture or some other media)?

There are a couple of novels I love that I’d consider body horror: Crash by J.G. Ballard and Throat Sprockets by Tim Lucas. The former was made into an effective movie by David Cronenberg. In fact, of course, so much of Cronenberg’s work is body horror (I never saw his earliest movies) like Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Naked Lunch 9, and Dead Ringers.

Is there a theme/idea for an anthology that you haven’t yet been able to work on that you would like to pursue or wish you had pursued in the past (and can talk about)?

Sure. I’d like to do a horror anthology about trains and one with a theme of insects and spiders. I have a file of “dead anthology” proposals…Eventually, some sell. I always want to do more non-theme anthologies but they’re a very hard sell.

You’ve been an award-winning Editor for over three decades. Is there a common misperception about what you do as an Editor that you would like to explain/correct?

That being an editor is simply buying stories that you happen to like. For an original anthology or working with any previously unpublished work, there’s a process of working with the writer on the story’s editing, which might or might not consist of revisions (minor or major). I won’t ask for major revisions unless the story has something special about it in the first place. The author-editor relationship should be beneficial to both. Should not be adversarial. That we only publish our friends. Good editors turn down stories by their friends if the stories don’t work. It is true that over time many of my regular authors have become my friends. I’ve published stories by writers I’ve never heard of before (most often in my Best Horror of the Year volumes—because I have more exposure to new writers when working on that series.

As an Editor, what do you wish writers, especially newer ones, knew or understood about the process of submitting a story for possible inclusion in an anthology on which you are working?

I’m afraid I rarely edit anthologies that are totally open. I generally approach various writers who I want in my books. But if an editor asks for a story on a specific theme/within a certain length/by a certain date -don’t blow it by writing something off-theme/way too long/late.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I’m ¾ of the way through an excellent new dark fantasy by Angela Slatter called All the Murmuring Bones. I’m reading various anthologies for the best horror of the year.

Interestingly, I’m reading through the journals I kept in the early 70s, mostly while I traveled in Europe for a year after college. I read a few pages every night before I go to sleep. Synchronistically, one of the people I traveled with in 1972 from Munich through Italy, Yugoslavia, and Greece contacted me recently to re-connect.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

No one I work with regularly now (it’s like picking a favorite child otherwise)
Harlan Ellison
John Fowles (before he went mainstream)
William Gibson
Jonathan Carroll
Lewis Carroll (I’ve always adored the Alice books)

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Very young: Eleanor Cameron’s Mushroom Planet books: The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, Mr. Bass’s Planetoid, Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet. A bit older Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Nah-although I did sneak read some of my dad’s softcore porn (really softcore) that were in his night table, when my parents weren’t home. ( learned some really skewed things about sex from them).

Is there a book you've faked reading?

No but there sure were plenty I read and loathed in junior high and high school. Most of Charles Dickens, Treasure Island, ugh ugh ugh.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I bought several UK pb editions of J.G. Ballard novels that I’d already read or had because the cover art was so striking.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Sisterhood is Powerful; The Second Sex, and a whole bunch of feminist titles I read in the early 70s.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Over the years there are novels that I pushed on everyone I knew: Stone City by Mitchell Smith, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, anything by Jonathan Carroll, Throat Sprockets by Tim Lucas. Anything by Edward Gorey. Honestly, too many to count.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

I rarely read books more than once. I no longer have the luxury.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

Promising Young Woman, the recent movie with Carey Mulligan. I found it brilliant, and very disturbing. Before that the series Lucifer. I’m almost embarrassed to say that I became so obsessed that I begged a friend to use their pw to watch the 5th season on their web account because it wasn’t available on my Netflix DVD account.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I have many perfect days. Getting some work done then going out with a friend to a park or a movie or museum, and afterward eating a wonderful meal.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Can’t think of anything. If I did I would just bring the subject up myself .

What are you working on now?

The Best Horror of the Year Volume Thirteen. Going over proofs of the three books I’ve got coming out this fall: Body Shocks, When Things Get Dark (my Shirley Jackson anthology-all new stories), and BH #12. I’m also going to be doing the final line edits on stories and novellas I’ve acquired, coming out from In the home stretch of a BIG new all-original anthology I’m working on for Tor Nightfire (can’t say more about it) that’ll be out in 2022. Hoping to sell another anthology or two this year so I can start work on them next year (we shall see).

Book cover for Body Shocks: Extreme Tales of Body Horror
Body Shocks: Extreme Tales of Body Horror