Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling on Sci-Fi Anthologies, Collaboration, and Cats vs. Dogs

Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow are the editors behind AFTER: 19 Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia, a young adult anthology that asks the question, “What happens after the end of the world?” There are few short-story editors as highly-regarded as Terri and Ellen. The two have won pretty much every important science-fiction award—in fact they’re tied as winners of the most World Fantasy Awards with nine each. Lucky for Figment, they stopped by to chat with us about their new anthology, their passion for short stories, and who makes a better pet, cats or dogs.

Describe the anthology in five words.

Terri: Dystopian tales for teen readers.

Ellen: Imagining the future gone wrong.

You have both built careers editing (and, in Terri’s case, writing) fantasy, horror, and science fiction books and anthologies. What initially drew you to these genres?

Terri: I loved fairy tales so much as a child that I went on to study myth, fairy tales, and folklore in college. Modern fantasy literature is rooted in the world’s oldest tales, so working in the genre of magical fiction puts my background in folklore studies to good use.

Ellen: I loved fairy tales as a child too, but the tales I loved best were the dark, twisted, scary ones! So while Terri gravitated to the fantasy field, I was pulled instead to the stranger realms of horror and science fiction.  We’re really kind of opposite that way. I love old, dark, gloomy castles . . .

Terri: . . . and I love bright, golden mythic landscapes.

Ellen: I love living in New York City . . .

Terri: . . . and I love living in a teeny-tiny English village.

Ellen: I love cats . . .

Terri: . . . and I love dogs.

Ellen: I love books . . .

Terri: . . . and I love—Now, wait a minute. I love books too, that’s not opposite!

Ellen: It’s our mutual love for books and stories that has made our partnership work all these years.

You’ve worked with some amazing writers, including Neil Gaiman and Gregory Maguire. Can you suggest some writers we should be reading, but might not necessarily be big names?

Terri: The trouble is choosing just a few to recommend, as there are so many great writers working in the YA field today. The very best YA books I’ve read recently have been three historical fantasies: Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman (about slavery in the American south), Chime by Franny Billingsley (about witchery in the English fens), and The Shadow Hunt by Katherine Langrish (about faeries in 12th century Wales). I also loved Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, which is a straight historical fiction (set during World War II). And I think Ysbeau Wilce should be getting more attention—her Flora Segunda series is so original and so much fun.

Ellen: As Terri says it’s difficult to choose just a few, but I loved debut novelist Lindsey Barraclough’s creepy novel Long Lankin, about ghosts, curses, and witches. I also enjoyed Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs from a couple of years ago, about a mysterious island off the coast of England that was a refuge for children who escaped the Nazis during WW II. Both are dark and can be read by both young adults and adults.

How do you come up with the topics for your anthologies?

Terri: We suggest themes to each other . . .

Ellen: . . . and then we run with any idea we both like.

How do you choose the stories you’re going to include in an anthology? Could you briefly walk us through the compilation and editing process?

Terri: A lot of people don’t really know what it means to “edit” an anthology. So here, in nutshell, is what we do:

We come up with an idea for an anthology; then we sell that idea to a publisher; and then we invite, encourage (and sometimes arm-twist!) authors we admire to write stories for our book. Out of that pool of submitted stories, we select and buy the ones that will best fit together to create a satisfying anthology (avoiding stories that are too similar, for example), and then—if needed—we work with the writers to strengthen anything in their stories that isn’t quite working in terms of character or plot.

Ellen: Once we’ve got all of the stories, we arrange them into a sequence that “flows” well; we write the introductory and interstitial material for the book; and we then turn the completed manuscript over to the book’s publisher. Finally, we work with the publisher’s team on all the different steps that it takes to turn a manuscript into a published volume.

What is it like to edit an anthology together? How do you divide the work? Do you ever disagree about what should be included?

Terri: We’ve been editorial partners for over 25 years, and know each other’s tastes and quirks pretty well by now, so working together is reasonably easy . . . even though we live in different countries. Thank goodness for the Internet. In our early years we had to do it all by international mail and long distance phone calls. . . .

Ellen: Writers submit their stories to both of us, and then we read them as quickly as we can and confer. Sometimes we both have the same reaction to a tale: an immediate “yes” or an immediate “no.” Other times, one or both of us will be ambivalent . . . so the tale will go onto the “maybe” pile. In that case, we’ll revisit the story again when we see what other tales have come in.

Terri: The process gets more complicated as the anthology takes shape—because then we can no longer base our decisions about a tale submitted simply on whether we like or it not. Other considerations have to be factored in, such as: Have we already bought a similar story? Will it mix well with the other tales in the book? Do we already have too many stories on this theme, or from a first person point of view, or set in this locale? (So you see, the writers who get their stories in first have a distinct advantage over the ones whose tales trickle in last!)

Ellen: We do sometimes disagree about stories, and here’s our rule of thumb: If one of us absolutely loves a story and the other is lukewarm, we’ll usually take it. But if either of us actively dislikes a story, we’ll turn it down, no latter how much the other loves it. Fortunately, this rarely happens.

Terri: As for division of labor: We confer on story submissions and on author revisions. Ellen, bless her, does the bulk of the organizational work and the final line-edits, while I do most of the editorial research and writing. But each looks over the other’s shoulder, so it really is a true collaboration.

We read that you decided to do an anthology that targets the YA market because you want to encourage teens to read more short stories. Why do you think it’s an important format?

Ellen: The short story form gives writers a chance to explore different kinds of ideas, and tell different kinds of tales, than those that need the space of a novel to unwind. Writers often feel freer to take creative risks in a piece written over days or weeks, rather than months or years.

Terri: Also, just as some musicians are good one instrument and not another, some writers are better at short stories than novels . . . and it would be a shame if their work remained unknown because of this. A good short story packs a punch and can rock your world, just like a novel can.

You’ve edited several adult anthologies. Did you take a different approach to editing After?

Ellen: The writing quality we expect of our authors is exactly the same, whether the tale will be published in a book aimed at teens or adult readers.

Terri: The one distinct difference is that YA tales (as a general rule) center on YA protagonists.

What advice would you give to young writers interested in having their work published?

Ellen: The best advice we have for would-be writers of any age is to write, and to finish your story. Go over it a few times to make sure it’s as perfect as you think you can make it, then submit it to magazines or other markets. There are some very good places online to find what different magazines and anthologies are looking for, such as Ralan.com and Duotrope.com.

Terri: And then don’t just sit around waiting for a response, which can be a long process. Sit down immediately and write your next story. And then the next one.

Now that we’ve asked all our questions, are their any questions you would like to ask one another?

Ellen to Terri: But honestly, how can you like dogs best? Everyone knows that cats are the superior beings.

Terri to Ellen: How can you like cats best, when dogs are so  much more loving and loyal?

Some questions just can’t be answered . . .


3 thoughts on “Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling on Sci-Fi Anthologies, Collaboration, and Cats vs. Dogs

  1. Oh, Terri! When I first knew you, you used to be such a Cat Person. Nothing like a convert to preach with so much zeal . . . . (I guess you just had to meet the Right Dog.)

    You guys are adorable.

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