An Interview with Janet Hutchings, Editor of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine

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by Art Taylor

In April 1841, Edgar Allan Poe published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” long since credited as the first modern detective story—laying the template for much of the genre today.

A century later, in the fall of 1941, came another milestone for the mystery world and the future of the mystery short story: the debut of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The first issue featured stories by Dashiell Hammett, Margery Allingham, Cornell Woolrich, and Ellery Queen, the pseudonym of cousins Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee. Since that time, the magazine has cemented its place in the pantheon of the crime writing community with short stories, book reviews, poetry, cartoons, puzzles and more. Stephen King has called EQMM “the best mystery magazine in the world, bar none,” and the magazine and its sister publication, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, founded in 1956, stand as the most prominent publications in the genre.

In 2016, EQMM celebrates its 75th year of publication. Only three editors have helmed the magazine during that time: Frederic Dannay himself, until his death in 1982; Eleanor Sullivan, until her death in 1991, and now Janet Hutchings, for whom 2016 is a landmark year as well. It’s her 25th with the magazine.

Hutchings and her assistant editor, Jackie Sherbow, are EQMM’s only editorial staff. Together, they read and respond to 2,000 submissions per year, publishing 110-120 stories annually in 10 monthly issues, including the March/April and September/October double issues.

On the eve of the milestone year for both EQMM and its current editor, we reached out to Janet Hutchings for some perspectives on the magazine’s past, present, and future.

With 2016 marking a big year both for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and for you personally, there’s plenty to celebrate. Are there plans afoot for any commemorative events?

We’ve got special issues planned throughout 2016, including one modeled on founding editor Frederic Dannay’s “All Nations” issue of August 1948, which included stories from every continent but Antarctica. Our new “All Nations” issue will be published in May 2016. Most of the stories are translations, but England, Australia, Canada, and the U.S. will also fly flags, with a story apiece. The July 2016 issue will consist entirely of the work of authors who got their start in our Department of First Stories. That issue is a very special one for us, as so many of our first-story authors have gone on to successful writing careers, something we’re pleased to be able to highlight. An issue dedicated to MWA will feature Edgar and Robert L. Fish Award winners; another issue will be dedicated to EQMM’s editors, with articles on Frederic Dannay and Eleanor Sullivan, and even a short story in which Editor Dannay stars as sleuth.  Since EQMM was launched with an issue dated “Fall 1941,” we’re considering September/October 2016 the issue that marks the true anniversary. It’s full of great stories, articles, and other features, starting with a new cover by artist and designer Milton Glaser, whose first published work was a cover for EQMM in 1954.

In addition to the year’s special issues, the celebration will include a two-month EQMM exhibit at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library (mid-September to mid-November 2016), and a half-day symposium, also at Columbia University, in September 2016.

As for my own anniversary, what better way could there be to celebrate it than through these special events for EQMM?

There’s a lot of talk about significant changes in the publishing industry these days. What have been the biggest changes in the magazine—either within the pages itself or behind-the-scenes in terms of editing, production, distribution—during your time at the helm?

That’s a big question! Almost everything has changed since I began at the magazine, starting with desktop publishing, which we converted to in the early ’90s. That was really a game-changer; it meant we could put issues together quicker, making last-minute changes if something important came in close to a deadline, have more quality control, and (maybe not entirely a good thing) get more done with fewer people. A change that I consider a definite negative is that it is no longer easy for magazines such as ours to reach the general reader. Niche marketing has taken over, for a variety of reasons. It didn’t start with the Internet, or with digital publishing, but the trend toward targeting potential readers based on a known interest in a particular field (in our case mystery) has certainly been furthered by those technological developments. But technology has opened some doors for our magazines too. We can now produce issues (especially e-editions) for much less cost than before, and we can reach people through a lot of new means, such as the podcasts and blogs we’ve been hosting over the past few years.

What has been your biggest challenge as editor?  What has been your best moment?

I had the great good fortune to inherit a magazine with a long and respected history and devoted readers. But that has also always presented my biggest challenge: how to stay true to EQMM’s history and still move with the times and incorporate into the magazine’s traditions something of my own vision.

There have been a lot of good moments. One that particularly stands out is the 2005 symposium at Columbia University in honor of the Ellery Queen centenary.  Witnessing the love so many fans retained for the characters and stories created by the two cousins who wrote as Ellery Queen decades after the publication of their last book was eye-opening for me. It showed me how important the enterprise we in the fiction-publishing industry are engaged in is.  The stories and novels we publish are not only enhancing but also essential to many readers’ lives. I remember that day as a happy one.

It’s been argued that we’re in a short story renaissance these days, courtesy of the internet, information bursts, and readers with shorter attention spans. Do you see the short story as enjoying a resurgence in any way? More readers reading short stories? More writers interested in the form? Some greater dynamism or innovation in the writing itself?

I’m afraid I’m no expert on that subject; I too have seen articles by people who have really looked into reading trends that say the short story is in fact enjoying a renaissance. I can’t offer any real evidence to the contrary. What I can say is that every fiction magazine that I know anything about has struggled to maintain circulation in recent years. There may be more outlets for publication now than there were a decade or two ago, thanks to the Internet and also to the rise of small-print-run anthologies, but how many people are each of those publications reaching? Perhaps the sheer number of books, magazines, and sites publishing stories gives the impression of a resurgence in the form, but I wonder if the total number of readers would compare at all to the days when, for example, virtually every women’s (and men’s) magazine ran a short story every issue. Every one of those magazines reached hundreds of thousands of readers, and there were quite a few of them. Here I come back to what I said earlier about niche marketing of short fiction; there are a lot of small niches now, not so many big general markets for short fiction.

As to the quality of EQMM’s submissions, yes, I’d say the level has risen over the years since I started. There were always a lot of good stories coming in, but now we’re having to turn away more and more fiction that I’d like to publish for lack of space.

We see trends in books, of course—the paranormal in recent years, for example—and I anticipate that you see trends in the short fiction submissions you receive. What trends seem predominant now? And which trend or type of story are you ready to see less of?

For a number of years now, we’ve been receiving a large number of stories about battered or abused women.  The topic has been in the news more in recent years than in the past, so perhaps that’s why. I’m always open to seeing a new story of that sort if the author brings something original to it. But there’s a limit to how many stories we can publish on the same theme.

EQMM’s Department of First Stories is a terrific feature—a celebration of fresh talent in each issue. When did this begin, and in what ways has that continued to be such an important part of your work? Are you able to chart how many of your submissions are indeed from new writers?

The Department of First Stories began in 1949.  I’ve always enjoyed this department. I came to EQMM from a book publisher that I guess you’d call a “discovery house.” Two-thirds of my list was composed of first-time novelists. It was a thrill to bring those new authors into print. I experience a little bit of that excitement each time we buy a first story. And I do not feel that the quality of the first stories is much, if at all, behind that of the work of our more seasoned writers. In fact, there’s sometimes more genuineness to the first stories than we might see in later work. Often I get the feeling they’re drawn from intensely personal experience.

Now that we’ve got a submissions server on which to track what comes in, it would be possible, I suppose, to determine what percentage of the work is from new writers. I don’t know offhand,  but it’s a lot.

While the Department of First Stories celebrates debut authors, I know you’ve also said that you’re hesitant to offer advice to aspiring writers. What do you see as the fundamental trouble with such advice?

The trouble with offering advice to aspiring writers is that someone with a truly original voice or vision will be able to break the rules to good effect, and I don’t want to turn that person away from submitting to EQMM. It’s true, of course, that we see far too many stories, in general, that open with a weather report, far too many P.I. tales that open with a beautiful woman striding into the office of a hung-over and insolvent P.I., far too many perfect-crime stories that center on the murder of a spouse, and so forth. Those are all clichés loved by parodists. But I like to remind myself of the Saturday afternoon years ago, before I came to EQMM, when I went into my office to catch up, for just an hour or two, on manuscript reading. I picked a submission out of the pile, turned to page one, and encountered something similar to the prototypical P.I. scenario described above. But do you know what? I couldn’t stop reading. I sat there for hour after hour, way longer than I expected to be there that day. I was captivated, and I think the reason was that the author’s voice was strong and he was able to do something very different with common elements. (That book, incidentally, became one of the few first mysteries I had ever seen receive a featured review in the New York Times).

So, rather than try to give new writers advice about what to write or how to write, I prefer to stick to more mundane suggestions. Chief among those is: If you don’t have success with your first few submissions to a publication, let it rest for a little while. Try other publications with the rejected stories. Then, after a bit of time has passed, send another story, and make sure it is a story you believe in.  Like most editors, I try hard to be open to each new submission I read. But some new writers send us new work nearly every week thinking, perhaps, that their chances of acceptance are increased by putting more stories before the editors. The opposite is true. It’s hard not to have a preconception that a story is not going to work for us when we’ve had to pass on so many earlier submissions. So be selective in what you send, and target each publication with the type of story you know they publish.

It’s sort of standard advice to all writers that they should read publications before they submit to them—familiarize themselves with a publication first. But I’ve heard both beginning writers and veteran ones struggle to determine the difference between Ellery Queen and its sister publication Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. One writer told me that EQMM liked shorter sentences and more dialogue. Another writer told me that EQMM was more interested in psychological suspense while AHMM favored more traditional detective fiction. And consensus has it that AHMM is maybe more open to supernatural fiction or fantasy fiction—but is that right? What do you see as the differences between the magazines in terms of identity and/or audience?

Well, first I’m going to have to confess that it’s been a while since I’ve had time to really keep up with our excellent sister publication, AHMM.  You really need to ask someone who reads each issue of each magazine each month if you want a dependable answer to that question. But of all the things you say you’ve heard writers say about the differences, the only one that strikes me as valid is that AHMM is more open than we are to fantasy and the supernatural. That’s not to say that EQMM never publishes fantasy stories. We do. But we usually have some special reason for doing so, even if it’s only that it’s an issue coming out near Halloween.

I’m completely flummoxed by the claim that EQMM stories have shorter sentences than AHMM stories.  I can’t imagine where that impression comes from! There are, however, a couple of really obvious differences between the two magazines—things you could observe just from the contents pages. One of these is that EQMM publishes more stories by authors from abroad—England primarily, but also many stories in translation. Another is that EQMM publishes more stories per issue, on average, than AHMM. And since we have the same number of pages per issue, it’s clear that EQMM publishes more of the shorter short stories than AHMM does. That said, we do also publish a lot of long stories and occasionally we will include novellas of up to 20,000 words.

A quick follow-up: How widely do you try to represent in EQMM the range of subgenres and tones/approaches under that large umbrella of crime fiction? Are readers as likely to find a cozy in the pages of EQMM as a harder-boiled tale or noir or…?

I’m glad you asked this question.  My aim has always been to try to make EQMM’s umbrella as wide as that of the genre. Partly, that derives from personal taste; I enjoy classical mysteries, hard-boiled, noir, suspense, historicals, you name it.  Part of it is that, despite what I’ve heard people say over the years, EQMM has always striven for the broadest possible range. What we want to give our readers is variety.  An article in one of our upcoming special issues contains a quote from a letter written to Frederic Dannay by Manfred B. Lee in 1950. In it he says, “There is nothing so deadly in a magazine as sameness. That’s why I can’t read most slick magazines; the identical slant is too monotonous. I think most people of intelligence feel the same way, and I think most people who read EQMM regularly are people of intelligence…by including one of every broad type in each issue, wherever possible, you are catering to the widest possible range of tastes – consequently attracting the widest possible audience.” I saw this quote from Manny’s letter for the first time just a few weeks ago, and I was delighted, because I knew then that in following my own instinct about this, I was also following, at least in this sense, in Fred’s footsteps.

You’ve mentioned a couple of times that EQMM publishes a lot of international fiction. “Passport to Crime” has become a cornerstone of each issue. When did that debut? And how has that changed the scope or texture of the magazine, or has EQMM always featured international fiction in some way?

Passport to Crime began in 2003. EQMM had always had an international outlook. Fred Dannay ran a number of “Worldwide Short Story Contests” in the early days of the magazine, and they really were worldwide. Stories came in from every corner of the globe, as he said in one of his introductions to the winning stories. EQMM was also one of the three or four most widely translated of all American magazines during that period, so writers from all over knew about EQMM as a market. And, one of the things EQMM was most famous for was bringing the work of the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges into print in English for the first time (in a translation by Anthony Boucher).  What changed with Passport to Crime is that we were no longer going to wait for authors or translators to approach us with stories from overseas. We found people who could translate from the languages we were interested in and asked them to scout actively for stories. It took some time to get all of this going, but now we generally have a comfortable supply of translations for our monthly feature.

Finally, any changes ahead for EQMM? Or what are your own next goals for the magazine as it moves into this 75th year and beyond?

My goal for the years ahead is to make sure EQMM is on the cutting edge of whatever comes next in our genre. Of course, I don’t know yet what that will be, but I’m keeping my eyes and ears open.

Click here to subscribe to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.

 A member of ITW’s 2015-16 Debut Authors, Art Taylor has won two Agatha Awards, the Anthony Award, the Macavity Award, and three consecutive Derringer Awards for his short fiction. His stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, in the Chesapeake Crime anthologies This Job Is Murder and Homicidal Holidays, and in other journals and anthologies. His novel in stories On the Road With Del and Louise was published in September 2015 by Henery Press. He teaches at George Mason University and contributes frequently to the Washington Post, Mystery Scene and is a member of ITW’s 2015-16 class of Debut Authors. 

To order Art Taylor’s novel, On the Road With Del and Louise, click the cover below:

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