Bryan Camp’s stunning, spellbinding debut novel, The City of Lost Fortunes, is a tale set in a post-Katrina New Orleans full of gods, monsters and magic. We asked Camp about the book’s inspiration, his thoughts on magic and what’s in store for its sequel.
You’ve said this book began as you and your family were evacuating before Hurricane Katrina hit. What was the initial seed of the idea? Was it an image? A wish? Something you lost that you were hoping could be magically found?
The initial seed for this book was a homework assignment, actually. I was in my last semester of undergrad at Southeastern Louisiana University, taking a fiction workshop with Bev Marshall. As a class exercise, she had us describe a room, and as we wrote, she called out senses to focus on, aspects of the room to incorporate. Since I was also taking a detective fiction class at the time, what came to my mind was a seedy backroom poker game, smoke in the air and the snap-shuffle of cards and a bunch of crooks. The last thing she said was to add something that didn’t belong, so I made one of the players a literal angel.
Our homework assignment was to take those few paragraphs of description and incorporate them into a short story. Mine was due the next week, and the storm hit that weekend. Having grown up in Louisiana, I figured Katrina would be like all the other storms I’d experienced: Since we were fortunate enough to have the means to do so, we’d evacuate, be gone for a few days, and then come home. And since my story would be due when we came back, that’s what I was working on in the backseat of my parents’ car as we drove to stay with my aunt and uncle in Florida.
That card-room description stayed exactly the same through every draft and revision of the novel except the last one, when it got rearranged. But the core idea and the wording is basically the same as what I wrote in a feverish 10-minute writing exercise all the way back in 2005.
New Orleans is a city that’s already been heavily mythologized in fantasy fiction of all kinds. In creating your version of it, what did you learn about this beloved American city that you cherish most when you look back on the book?
I don’t think New Orleans is only a myth in fantasy fiction, I think it’s a myth in the popular imagination as well. From the reasoning behind placing a city in this particular crescent-shaped bend in the river, to the “French” Quarter (which burned down and was rebuilt by the Spanish), to the lies Iberville told the English at English Turn, to the narrative that slavery was somehow “better” here, to the images of brass bands and gumbo and Mardi Gras, everything about New Orleans is some kind of myth, be it a story or a con or a full-on lie. Sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.
And that’s what I love most about this place, that I am—just like everyone else who lives here, who visits here, who reads about it in a book—constantly creating my own version of this city, one that’s simultaneously “the real” New Orleans and also nothing like the one you picture in your head when you think of it.
What aspects of New Orleans, whether real or fantasy, were you most excited to introduce to readers that you felt other writers hadn’t highlighted?
There’s a scene in [the TV show] “Treme” where one of the characters runs into a handful of tourists who have obviously been drinking all night in the Quarter, and he tells them that if they go a couple of blocks over, they’ll find the Clover Grill, this really great greasy spoon kind of diner. As they walk off, thanking him, he mutters, “Well [expletive deleted] now where am I gonna have breakfast?”
That’s such a quintessentially New Orleanian moment, because the things you want to show people when they come here are usually not the things they came here for, and then once you share them, you almost wish you’d kept them to yourself. Everywhere my characters eat and drink, for instance, isn’t just a real place, it’s a real place where you might run into me if the timing was right.
I’m certainly not the first writer to try to capture this side of New Orleans, but it was important to me to show parts of the city that weren’t just the Quarter and the cemetery and the mansions on St. Charles.
Jude is a fascinating character, simultaneously embodying certain aspects of the reluctant fantasy hero and subverting other aspects. Was the book always so firmly rooted in his journey through this world he thought he’d left behind, or did he take the story over in the writing of it?
The book was definitely always centered on a demigod with the magical ability to find lost things, but the core of the character shifted and changed throughout the various drafts of the book. That was partly me growing as a writer, but mostly me becoming more aware as a person. I still struggle to overcome the toxic aspects of my masculinity, and the earliest versions of the character, written in my 20s, were filtered through the lens of aggression and misogyny through which I saw the world. It took me a while to realize that not only was that not the way I really wanted to interact with the world, it also wasn’t the kind of hero I wanted to embody in my fiction.
Jude’s still a bastard, in every sense of the word, but those subversions you mention are deliberate, my way of actively turning my back on the kinds of violent, impervious, morally superior “heroes” I was taught by popular culture that I ought to emulate.
The particular assemblage of gods at the poker game that jump-starts the novel is an intriguing and somewhat surprising group, though their individual reasons for being at the table become clear as the novel progresses. Was there ever a version of that game featuring other various deities? Did another Egyptian god sit in Thoth’s seat at any point, for example?
Well, without getting into the spoiler territory of explaining why this particular group of gods is at a game like this, I can say with certainty that no, Thoth was always Thoth from the very beginning. It could only have been him.
In terms of different characters inhabiting chairs at the game meant for other deities, the seat filled by the Fortune God of New Orleans, Dodge, was once occupied by Coyote from the folklore of various Native traditions. I don’t think I even made it through the first draft before I swapped him and Dodge, though. For one, I was finding it difficult to separate my first attempt at this novel from the work of Charles de Lint, whose work loomed large in my mind, and who wrote Coyote better than I ever could. Mostly, though, I moved away from using that figure because I simply didn’t know enough about the traditions—the active faith of living people—to feel comfortable that I wouldn’t cause harm. I’ve read the stories, but that’s not the same thing as knowing the culture, and to just take something I didn’t feel like I understood is basically the definition of appropriation, which I did my best to avoid.
Also, there was once another player at the table, a faerie, who was removed and not replaced.
You wrote a fantasy novel set in New Orleans and made one of your major characters a vampire. Vampire stories set in New Orleans have been dominated for decades by the work of Anne Rice. Was that ever something you worried about, and what in particular did you find fascinating about your portrayal of this powerful New Orleans blood-drinker?
Yeah, to be completely honest, I originally wanted to write a novel without vampires at all, and because it was New Orleans I just couldn’t do it. Remember, a lot of the foundational thought for this book happened in 2005, so it wasn’t just Anne Rice I was up against, mentally, but also Stephenie Meyer and Laurell K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris. All those brooding, glittering, sex-god vampires. I don’t say that in a derogatory sense, just in a sense that there was a well-trodden path that I hoped to avoid.
And yet, I kept coming up against the folklore of New Orleans. The Casket Girls. Jacque St. Germain. All those stories that inspired Anne Rice to create Lestat in the first place. As much as I didn’t want to write the popular-culture vampire, I couldn’t ignore that the myth was woven into the larger myth of the city.
So I turned to the folklore. I wrote the monstrous, demonic avatars of hunger and lust that humans of every culture have imagined through their fears of death and their own vulnerability. I think the fascinating thing about Umberto Scarpelli is that he absolutely loves being what he is. There’s no remorse, no hesitation. He’s a monster who likes to play with his food. It was the only way for me to address the well-deserved shadow that Anne Rice casts over New Orleans fantasy fiction without pretending I didn’t notice it.
In your world, particularly as Jude explains it, magic is a somewhat mutable force, and magical texts are often viewed as guidelines rather than rigid systems, while much of fantasy fiction is dominated by extremely structured frameworks for the use of magic. What inspirations did you draw from in crafting the magic in your novel, and what, in your mind, is the secret to effectively and believably using magic in fiction?
This is a hard question for me to answer succinctly. I think that what you consider “magic” says a whole lot about you as a person, about where you come from and how you see the world. I was raised Catholic, for example. I was taught that in the middle of the mass, the bread and wine on the altar are literally transubstantiated into the flesh and blood of a man who died 2,000 years ago. When you’re kneeling in the pews, that’s a matter of faith. But to someone not raised in that tradition, that sounds like magic. And then you look at things like quantum entanglement or the fact that time works differently depending on gravity, and those things sound like magic to me, too.
So when I was thinking about gods and myth and the way we interact with our world, instead of making magic a kind of science the way some fantasy writers (myself included, in other settings) do, I considered magic to be simply an imposition of one’s will upon the world. The world just listens to some people more than others.
In terms of having magic be believable, whether it’s a structured, pseudo-scientific magical “system,” or just “he snapped his fingers and the door opened,” the trick is to always be consistent. What I mean by that is that magic should never solve your problems as a writer. If you’ve established a world where magic is on about the level of our current technology, say, and you realize that you’ve written yourself into a corner where you need a character at point A to be at point B, you can’t just say, “oh, well, there are teleportation spells now.” That’s violating the contract you’ve made with your reader to solve your own problem. Fantasy readers are great—they’ll follow you down any road you want to go down, so long as you play the game straight from the beginning.
You’re already at work on a second novel in the same “Crescent City” universe. What can you tell us about that, and what inspirations are you drawing from the second time around that you didn’t the first time?
Well, I’m still waiting to hear back from my editor on it, so I can’t go into too much detail, but it follows one of the characters from The City of Lost Fortunes. She’s a psychopomp (one of the spirits who guides the recently dead through the Underworld) who shows up to collect a soul only to find that he’s not there. She pretty quickly learns that he’s not just missing, but is part of a bigger plot that involves storm deities and destruction gods, the guardians of the seven gates of the Underworld, and the delicate balance between the living and the dead. Searching for this lost soul leads her to the depths of the Underworld and then to the worlds of the Afterlife beyond.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The City of Lost Fortunes.