The Big Idea: Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Welcome to the apocalypse! What’s next? This is a question at the heart of After, an anthology of nineteen stories set in apocalyptic or dystopic times. But there’s another question that After is interested in, and it involves short fiction and the young adult genre. Here are After’s editors, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, to tell you what that question is and how they went about finding the answer.
ELLEN DATLOW and TERRI WINDLING:
There were actually two Big Ideas behind this anthology, so we’ll talk about them both.
As editors, we are passionate advocates of short stories as a literary form…but getting YA readers to try short fiction is an increasingly uphill battle. So our first Big Idea was a somewhat obvious one: we looked at the books that teens are reading and chose two of the most popular genres: YA vampire fiction (for our previous anthology, Teeth) and YA dystopian fiction. In the past, we would have shied away from these topics precisely because they are so overly-familiar…but now our aim was to use this popularity to tempt teens into giving short fiction a try.
We did this with a certain amount of trepidation, however. Could we move out of the long shadows cast by Twilight and The Hunger Games to create books that were fresh, original, and literary, yet still accessible to readers who loved these series? And would stories on each theme be diverse enough to make a varied and satisfying collection? For the dystopian book, in particular, we feared ending up with a volume that was unrelievedly grim…one bleak, despairing story after another. How could we ensure a diversity of styles, settings, characters, and moods? We decided to put the challenge to our writers — to have faith in their powers of invention and innovation.
For the dystopian book, we next had to decided what exactly we meant by “dystopian fiction” — the precise definition of which has been an ongoing cause of contention. In YA publishing circles, the term is broadly used to refer to stories that take place in darkly imagined futures: ranging from those exploring the dangers of repressive governments and societies-gone-bad to those whose plots unfold in bleak, savage, or oppressive post-apocalypse settings. A dystopian label often conveys more about a story’s overall tone than its plot-line (or subtext of societal critique): the worlds depicted are dark ones, in which protagonists must struggle for physical and/or moral survival. The literary purists among us, however, note that the classical definition of dystopian literature is far more specific: it refers to tales of utopias gone wrong. Traditionally, post-apocalyptic novels are dystopian only if the narrower definition applies – otherwise they are a genre of their own.
Although we respect the purists’ view, we decided to take the broader road in the creation of our anthology, which would include both dystopian and post-disaster tales (as well as stories that fell somewhere in between) in order to reflect the wide range of dystopian fiction beloved by young readers today. Once we’d made that decision, we searched for an appropriate book title — and that’s when we had our second Big Idea: We’d call the book After, and that single word would be the anthology’s organizing theme.
Here’s how we pitched the book to our publisher, Hyperion:
We will ask our contributors for stories that take place after some major catastrophic event: after the melt-down, the flood, the plague, the third World War, the new Ice Age, the Rapture, the invasion, the clamp-down, the meteor hit…or whatever else they can imagine. Rather than focusing on the disaster itself, each story will be set after the change, exploring the lives of teen protagonists raised in catastrophe’s wake — whether set in the years soon after the change, or in decades far in the future.
And that’s precisely what we did, soliciting stories from a selected list of authors who came from a variety of backgrounds — both those already known for YA dystopian fiction and those who were decidedly not. Publishers, of course, want a book filled with as many Big Name Writers as possible — and that’s fair, since that’s a useful tool in selling anthologies to bookstores and readers. But a well-known name won’t guarantee a place in one of our books if we don’t like the tale that’s been submitted (or it doesn’t fit with the others in the volume), and we’ve always been deeply committed to putting good fiction by emerging writers into readers’ hands, too.
As an anthology progresses and we begin the hard work of deciding which submissions we will and won’t use, we must consider not only the quality of the stories but how they fit into the anthology as a whole. Sometimes we have to turn down tales because they’re just too similar to something we’ve already bought. This results, mid-way through the anthology process, in sending group emails to our writers like this:
“No more flood stories please! Or medical plagues! We’ve got those covered!”
“If you’re still mulling over story ideas, what we’re most in need of now is humor. Black humor, perhaps, or satire. Any takers?”
“We’ve got too many tales in first person. Is anybody writing in third…?”
As the stories for After rolled in, one after another, our worries about diversity disappeared. They were dark, yes (these were dystopias, after all), but remarkably varied in style and mood — running the gamut from traditional (Garth Nix) to experimental (Gregory Maguire), from sharply cautionary (N.K. Jemisin) to gently poignant (Carol Emshwiller), from deeply disturbing (Susan Beth Pfeffer) to quietly hopeful (Cecil Castellucci). We had dystopian science fiction (Beth Revis), dystopian fantasy (Sarah Rees Brennan), dystopian horror (Nalo Hopkinson), dystopian satire (Jeffrey Ford), dystopian poetry (Jane Yolen), and dystopian surrealism (Matthew Kressel). We had floods in London (Katherine Langrish), pestilence in California (Carolyn Dunn), and anarchy on the streets of Manhattan (Richard Bowes). We had zombies (Carrie Ryan), bugs (Steven Gould), nanotechnology (Caitlín R. Kiernan), and reality television (Genevieve Valentine) all running amok. And we had teenagers building their lives in the ruined worlds they’d inherited. (Sound familiar?)
This was one of the hardest anthologies we’ve ever edited…but also one of the most rewarding. Our hope is that young readers will find it and love it enough to seek out other works of short fiction. And that teachers will use the book as a springboard for discussions about literature, culture, and society’s future. We hope adult readers will enjoy the book too, filled as it is with stories both finely written and entertaining. And perhaps after the book is done, we’ll all think just a little bit harder about the world we are passing on to our children’s children.