Interview: Curtis Ellett, Editor of Swords & Sorcery Magazine

In what we hope to be the first of a new occasional series, Thews You Can Use asked author Christopher Rowe, who created as an outgrowth of his ever-growing interest in S&S, to sit down with editor Curtis Ellett. Curtis is the wizard behind the curtain at one of the longest-running periodicals in the genre, Swords and Sorcery Magazine.

Christopher Rowe: Many sword and sorcery fans are, rightfully, wary of prescriptive definitions of the genre. At the same time, in order for the term to be useful at all, at least a broad strokes understanding of what we talk about when we talk about sword and sorcery seems to be required. Scholar Brian Murphy offered seven characteristics in his history of the genre, Flame and Crimson, and author and editor Howard Andrew Jones has likewise produced a four-point list. What characteristics do you think must be present to be considered sword and sorcery for your magazine? Are there any characteristics that make a story, in your view, definitely not sword and sorcery?

Curtis Ellett: This isn’t a question I have given much thought to, partly because stories don’t have to be sword and sorcery stories to find a home in Swords & Sorcery Magazine. For that, they must be fantasy and be set in a pseudo-historical setting before 1800, or in a secondary world without advanced technology. All sword and sorcery stories would fit these requirements, but so would many other tales. For me, sword and sorcery suggests a heroic protagonist (or two) who must overcome supernatural opponents. Magic is generally alien and often dangerous to the user in some way. The heroes generally do not use magic themselves, though if they do it is used to combat supernatural enemies or overcome magical obstacles. Sword and sorcery stories often have horror elements. Worlds where magic is common and used to solve mundane problems aren’t sword and sorcery worlds. Neither are worlds populated by elves, dwarves, and talking animals.

CR: Along the same lines, what are some of your favorite sword and sorcery stories, and who are some of your favorite authors? Do you read much contemporary sword and sorcery short fiction beyond what you publish?

CE: I grew up on the classics—Howard, Leiber, Moorcock. Two Conan stories are among my favorites, “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Queen of the Black Coast.” I have not read much contemporary sword and sorcery short fiction beyond what I publish, but I have been trying to change that recently. I’ve been catching up on Whetstone and read the first issue of New Edge Sword & Sorcery.

CR: Swords and Sorcery Magazine recently published its 130th monthly issue. In addition to great stories, the publication is well-known among fans for its rock-steady release schedule. At the same time, you’re a one-man shop. How have you managed such consistency during over ten years of publication?

CE: I made a commitment when I started to get an issue out every month and I managed to keep to it long enough for it to become a habit. I have missed a few months, but I have always doubled up the following month to get back on schedule. It helps that submissions are always open and that I don’t really get that many. A day or two each month is enough to read the ones in the queue. Not being regularly employed helps me find the time.

CR: What’s your workflow like? How many stories do you generally receive each month compared to the three you generally publish?

CE: I spend a day or two midmonth to read the submissions that I received the previous month, make selections, send acceptance letters and rejections, and write contracts. The rejection letters are the hard part and often get put off (which I am somewhat embarrassed about). A day in the last week of the month is devoted to prepping the stories for posting, posting them, promoting the issue on Facebook and Twitter, and paying the writers.

This month I have nine new stories in the queue. That’s within the typical range, maybe a bit above average. I also have some stories that were also rans last month that I might use if I don’t find enough gold in the new submissions.

CR: Do you consider yourself a hands-on editor? Do you do anything at the line-editing or developmental level or does enough sufficiently polished material come in over the transom that you can just do a copy-editing pass?

CE: I am a hands-off editor. Generally, I just do a light copy-edit when I prep for publication. If a story needs much more than that I am not interested. Occasionally, I find a story that is really good, but not ready for publication. Those stories get some comments in the rejection letter and an invitation to revise and resubmit. The reason could be anything from copy that needs to be cleaned up a lot to an obvious plot hole or weak ending that the author could easily fix. I don’t make any guarantees but most of the time if I get a story back, I find I publish it.

CR: I’m curious about your funding model. Unlike most online magazines, you have no Patreon, you run no Kickstarter campaigns, you don’t do any of the things most publications do to keep the lights on. Have you considered doing any of those things, or are you happy with what you’re doing now?

CE: S&SM has always been a hobby project. I pay for it out of pocket. I don’t keep rigorous accounts because it is not a business, but costs come to between five and six hundred dollars a year, including the token payments I give writers and the costs of the website. I know lots of people who spend more on their hobbies than that.

My wife would love for me to find a way for the hobby to pay for itself and I do plan to do a Patreon at some point. I feel like I need to step up my game with the website to do that and find some additional patrons-only content.

CR: There’s been a lot of buzz this year about “New Edge” sword and sorcery. How aware of that have you been? Are you interested in it at all? It seems to me that your editorial stance is sympathetic with much of what the people at the forefront of that movement are working towards; I’m thinking in particular here of your publication of the fantastic story of allyship “Isabeau’s New Name” by Michael Meyerhofer, but also other pieces that would have once been considered wildly transgressive.

CE: I am aware of the New Edge and I am sympathetic to what it stands for. Inclusiveness is important and making the genre more open to writers (and readers) who aren’t in sword and sorcery’s perceived traditional audience of straight white males can only help the genre stay fresh and relevant. My only real concerns when choosing stories are whether they are well written and I like them. If my readers find that a story has content that offends them, they should not read it. It’s not like they wasted their money. I won’t publish stories with content that offends me. I am not easily offended so there are few of those. The only ones I can think of were either attempts to get around the requirement that stories be set in pre-modern settings or takes on religious subjects that are disrespectful of people who don’t share the authors beliefs (or nonbelief).

I am proud of having published “Isabeau’s New Name.” Trans allyship is very important to me personally because I count several trans people among my close friends and family. That story deserves a wider audience than I can give it. I hope it finds a home in anthologies where more people will read it.

CR: Do you have any particular plans for the future of Swords and Sorcery Magazine? You seem to be running a very successful publication; do you see any need to make changes?

CE: The website needs some work. Actually, it needs to be replaced with something more up-to-date and customized. I’d love to be able to run more stories and pay writers more. I’d also love to be able to showcase some fantasy art, though that would take serious money.

I’ve also had an idea for quite some time to publish a best-of anthology.

I’m starting to think that for S&SM to grow at this point I need to get some help. I can’t afford to pay anyone, so I need to find some people willing to volunteer. I have a pretty good handle on the editing, and I don’t need a slush reader but I could use a hand with web development and with marketing should I make any changes that require funding beyond what I am currently putting in.

CR: Finally, tell us a little bit about yourself, if you don’t mind. Where you grew up, your educational background, any sort of biographical material you think might interest our readers.

CE: My childhood was mostly divided between Indianapolis, Indiana, and São Paulo, Brazil. I also spent a year and change in London, England. I’ve been an avid reader of fantasy of all kinds since I was small. I’ve also played role-playing games regularly since 1979, when I first encountered Dungeons & Dragons. I attended Cornell University, emerging after eight years with an MA in Archaeology. I’ve been a tour guide, a back-office drone for a bank, a newspaper ad designer, a bookseller, and a tech entrepreneur. Currently I am working on a novel. I live in Weymouth, Massachusetts (a little south of Boston) with my wonderful and understanding wife Jennifer and our cat. I have a son currently in college.

CR: Thank you, Curtis!

Christopher Rowe’s stories and novels have been printed, reprinted, and translated around the world and he has been a finalist for every major genre award. His most recent book is These Prisoning Hills from Tordotcom Publishing. A second, The Navigating Fox, is forthcoming in 2023. Recent short fiction has appeared at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and The Sunday Morning Transport. His website is

Editor’s Note: If you’d like to see more interviews with folks from the sword & sorcery scene, or you want to suggest an interview subject, let us know at youngneedles (at) gmail (dot) com!


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