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Interview: Albert E. Cowdrey on "The Overseer"

Albert E. Cowdrey–author of “The Overseer” (our March 2008 issue‘s cover story)–said in an interview that the story grew out of his love of the great Victorian ghost story.

“[I’ve] always wanted to try my hand at the genre, and what a pleasure to find a way to do it at last!” Cowdrey said. “As a former historian I’ve spent much time and a lot of ink trying to weave history and fantasy together. An early version (which Gordon politely declined) had too much history, and it wasn’t until the Overseer came stalking out of the shadows that the fictional elements took charge and the story came to life. Where did he come from? No use asking, because I’ve really no idea. I never knew such a man, though somebody who looks remarkably like him appears in one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints advertising the Moulin Rouge—a rail-thin figure in top hat, with (like the Overseer) a Mardi Gras mask of a face. Why he stopped dancing with La Goulue long enough to run a plantation in Louisiana’s Red River country I’m not sure. But the Victorian ambiance is preserved.”

“The Overseer” is basically a Faustian tale, Cowdrey said. “My disabled protagonist, Nicholas Lerner—a tough and unscrupulous man, though not necessarily an evil one—slips under the dead Overseer’s control as he struggles to survive the chaos of the Civil War and Reconstruction,” he said. “The worse things get, the more opportunities for the Overseer to take over his life. The ending I hope will surprise the reader. Certainly it surprises the demon!”

The story wouldn’t have worked quite as well if Hurricane Katrina hadn’t come through New Orleans. “Seeing one New Orleans trauma helped me to imagine another,” Cowdrey said.

Although the story is full of historical detail, Cowdrey didn’t need to do much research, because the history was well known to him. “I did have to compress time and space for the story’s sake in a way that gave my historical conscience some pangs,” Cowdrey said. “And I did some fiddling with names—for instance, the chief terrorist organization in New Orleans during the Reconstruction was the elegantly titled Society of the White Camellia, which nobody except specialists has ever heard of, so I called it the Klan, which everybody has heard of. (Morally and politically the two were clones, so that particular adjustment gave me no pain.)”

The novella gave Cowdrey more pleasure and also more trouble than any other short fiction he’s ever done. “The fact that it was published on the fortieth (!) anniversary of my first appearance in F&SF was a kind of bonus,” he said. (Although most readers familiar with Cowdrey’s work only know of his more recent work, which first started appearing in F&SF in 1997, Cowdrey published his first story in the magazine in 1968, under the pseudonym Chet Arthur.)

Cowdrey said he’s currently working on a new story featuring a character that will be familiar to many of you reading this. “Among other things, sending my old friend Robert Rogers Kohn into space propelled by a different kind of dark energy than the Overseer used,” he said. “Hey, it’s a big universe. We need all kinds of energy to get around in it.”


3 Responses to “Interview: Albert E. Cowdrey on "The Overseer"”

  1. hamster king on January 30th, 2009

    You and Matthew Hughes are my two favorite writer in F&SF. :)

  2. Gregory Feeley on September 2nd, 2009

    This is embarrassing to admit, but I have never read a story by Albert Cordrey. He began publishing in F&SF during a period when I had no time to read any magazine, and a few years later, when I noticed that he was appearing in its pages a lot and wanted to read a story, they all seemed to be parts of an ongoing series.

    Which would be a good story to start with?

  3. Gordon Van Gelder on September 2nd, 2009

    Depends on your mood, Greg.

    If you’re looking for science fiction adventure of the sort that filled paperbacks in the ’50s and ’60s, I recommend stories like “Mosh” and “Crux” or the Robert Kohn adventures (“Tribes of Bela” and more recently, “Paradiso Lost” in the Jun/July 2009 issue).

    If you’re looking for light fare (especially with a New Orleans flavor), try “Animal Magnetism” or “The Private Eye.”

    Or if you want darker horror fiction, try “Twilight States” or “The Overseer” or his new one in the Oct/Nov issue, “Bandits of the Trace”.


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