Charles Tan Interviews Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas

Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas

Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. How did you two end up collaborating with each other and what was the collaboration process like?

Nick Mamatas: A few years ago, the Horror Writers Association, of which I was a member at the time, put out an open call for anthology ideas to its membership in an attempt to reinvigorate its HWA-branded book program. I quickly thought of the idea of regional ghost stories, retold and revised by real writers. It was a pretty commercial idea as such a book could potentially be sold to a regional publisher or a mainstream one, it could be marketed as fiction or non-fiction, and extant collections of regional folklore have strong potential as perennial backlist sellers.

I got a note back from the HWA basically saying that they liked my idea, and that they were surprised and disappointed—they hadn’t expected someone as obscure as I am to have a good idea. Could I get a co-editor among the ranks of famed HWA members? Well, Ellen came immediately to mind, so I asked her to join the project. We then couldn’t come to an agreement with HWA that would have made it worth our while to edit the book under its aegis, as there were just too many stakeholders—HWA, its agent, its book packager, etc.—who needed to be paid out of any advance we might have received. So Ellen took the book to Tor, where she had previously published anthologies such as THE DARK and INFERNO. After a year or so of the usual aging of the proposal (as with fine cheese, many publishers think book proposals will improve if kept in a cold, wet cave for an extended period), Tor said yes.

Ellen Datlow: Nick proposed the idea to the HWA but the organization thought he needed to find a co-editor who was a bigger name (although Nick’s visibility as writer/editor blogger has increased exponentially since we sold the book). He approached me and I said sure, but was a little hesitant because I had no idea if we’d be able to work well together. But then we decided to try to sell it on our own, because at the time HWA was involved in a partnership that would have taken too much of a cut for the anthology.

Nick insisted on a limited open submission process, something I’ve never used with my original anthologies for a few reasons that I won’t go into. He passed on about two dozen to me and I responded with my opinions of each one. From the start we agreed that each of us would have one “free” yes and one “free” no. I used my yes with an early submission that I liked more than Nick but he immediately backed down and said I didn’t have to take my “yes”. We agreed on everything else. When it came to editing the stories and working on rewrites, Nick worked with at least a couple of the writers extensively before we made a decision. And I think I probably did the same with a couple of other writers. And I think I did the final line edits.

I think we worked well together and I’d be willing to collaborate with Nick on another anthology.

What is it about regional ghost stories/legends that appeals to you? What made you decide to expand it to stories from around the world?

Nick Mamatas: “Expand” is the wrong word—the regional ghost story has ever been an international phenomenon. It would have been odd, and worth questioning, had we restricted the anthology to the United States. Tourists will go on ghost tours or thrill to some half-baked story of a local haunting while on their vacation to other countries, so it is not as though a regional ghost story is only interesting if you live next door to the haunted site. The opposite is more like it, really. I lived in Boston for a while, and really none of the locals seemed to care about the old cemeteries, the pre-Revolutionary era, or the events up in Salem and Ipswich.

For me, I always liked the idea of old houses and old places, probably having come from growing up in a railroad apartment from the nineteenth century that was falling apart onto my head, sometimes literally. Collections of regional ghost stories always disappointed me though, partially because they tend to be poorly written by either some breathless true believer or by the local university’s adjunct folklorist. Often it’s the story part, the motor of plot, that was missing. So why not put real writers to the task of finding a narrative within the anecdotes? It seemed obvious enough to me that I was surprised that there were few attempts to produce an anthology like HAUNTED LEGENDS before now.

Ellen Datlow: There’s such a rich variety of ghost stories and urban legends from around the world—how could we not? Ghosts exist in almost every culture—it’s both fun and illuminating to have stories about them.

What was your criteria–aside from the theme of course–in selecting the stories for the anthology?

Nick Mamatas: Ellen and I probably had different criteria! We had to agree on the stories, though each of us had a “magic button” to press that allowed for one override. Ellen could put in one story I hated, and I likewise. Too much agreement can eliminate more aesthetically extreme stories, after all, and its those stories that are worth re-reading and reprinting. For me, the main criterion was closely related to the theme: the traditional story had to be reinvigorated, usually through some act of revision. We received a number of well-written stories that simply repeated or retold the traditional tale without turning it inside out to better explore the innards of its plot and social function, and those we rejected. Editing isn’t just a matter of selecting and rejecting; I had a few writers alter the endings or structure of their stories to better express the theme before acquiring them. One was even edited via an epic AIM chat.

I also kept a little promise to myself made during my rejection slip days to read unsolicited submissions if I ever “made it big” in publishing. Also, it was easier to hold to the world theme by opening the anthology to over the transom submissions. No matter how large the Rolodex, and Ellen has a huge one, we would necessarily leave some people or some location out of our hunt. So in the so-called “slush” I was looking for the same, but had a special interest in writers utterly unknown to me. Having just edited Clarkesworld for two years, I had seen stories from nearly everyone in the field, but I was still surprised by Steven Pirie’s excellent story “The Spring Heel.” If I remember correctly, when I sent it on to Ellen I wrote a note saying, “And this one’s full of whores!”

There. Aren’t you glad I didn’t say, “I just wanted good stories”?

Ellen Datlow:  We wanted to invigorate the sub-genre of “true” urban legends, which usually comes across as badly written, unimaginative, and silly non-stories. We wanted talented writers to run with the idea—to give it a depth,  a darkness, a poignancy that most books of that ilk just don’t have.

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