'The City of Lost Fortunes' and How Writing Goes from the "Goo in a Cocoon" Stage to a Fully-Realized Tale
Bryan Camp read academic works, self-published occult-y stuff, and primary sources to help craft his beautifully-realized tale of a New Orleans in which "the fantastical is possible."
The City of Lost Fortunes, as Saturday Night Live's Stefon would say, "has everything": bewitched poker games, trickster gods, sinister vampires, magic powers, elaborate spell-casting rituals, sexual tension, intertwined mythologies, dramatic betrayals, and a good dash of humor, all wrapped up in the mystery of the city of New Orleans. The short summary goes like this: street magician (and reluctant former sorcerer) Jude Dubuisson is invited to a poker game and gets much more than he could have bargained for (or gambled away), leading him on a madcap adventure to solve a murder and learn the truth about his past.
And yet there's more to Bryan Camp's charismatic debut than an entertaining urban fantasy yarn: the specter of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hangs over the narrative with heavy, painful purpose, ultimately imbuing Jude's story with a sharp poignancy. While the monsters and magic in The City of Lost Fortunes are hiding just out of view, the imbalance of society's scales are all too real. I caught up with Camp over email, and picked his brain about developing the story, the relationship between luck and fate, and who would play the characters in a Hollywood adaption.
This conversation contains spoilers.
The City of Lost Fortunes is as much about the city of New Orleans and its character as it is about Jude and his journey. What's your relationship to the city, and how did you make it come to life in the story? (I've never been to New Orleans, but the specific way you described the streets and geography and people made it feel familiar.)
My relationship with the city, simply put, is that it's the only place I really know. I've lived in the area my whole life. I grew up in the suburbs just across Lake Pontchartrain, which to anyone anywhere but here is the same as New Orleans, but to people who grew up in the city proper, the Northshore might as well be in another state. I've lived in the city itself for the past ten years, first in an apartment in Uptown, then a tiny condo in the Warehouse District, and now in a house in Lakeview, so I've lived all over the city.
If I succeeded at all in making the city come to life, I did so by treating the place more like a character than a setting. People are complicated and messy and contradictory and somewhat unknowable. Settings are represented as concrete, distinct, and often only as extremes. A poor neighborhood is only squalor and despair and crime, while a wealthy one is only shallow and corrupt and petty. Or it's viewed through rose-colored glasses, a magnificent example of culture and history and charm.
But the truth is that places, cities especially, are full of contradictions. The French Quarter is a wonderful, evocative place, but it also smells like piss more often than not. You and your family can have a wonderful, relaxing, joyous memory of walking down a street where, 200 years ago, slaves were sold. When you want to create a clear image of a place, it's tempting to focus in on one element, but with New Orleans I embraced the contradictions, and allowed it to be somewhat undefined at times.
How did you develop the plot and characters of the novel? I especially loved the dynamic between Jude and Regal, and when Sal came into the mix I was pretty much giggling at every other page. (Upon reading The City of Lost Fortunes a second time, I appreciated the small bits of foreshadowing about Regal's true identity.)
There were three completely different versions of this book before the final draft, so the plot is such a written and rewritten and rewritten thing that I can't really accurately pinpoint any aspects of that process. It started with the poker room scene, a writing exercise in an undergraduate fiction class. That led me to writing a supernatural murder mystery, which gave me a list of suspects.
From there, I developed a structure where I would start with one suspect, who would lead the main character to another one, and so on. When I got to the last suspect, revelation after revelation would lead backwards through the list. I thought it was pretty clever, until I learned that my idea wasn't so much unique as cringingly artificial. So I abandoned that structure and just started moving things around until things felt right.
There were huge changes between drafts, too. At one point, there was another player at the card game, another suspect for Jude (and the reader) to keep track of. At one point, the fact that Jude's father was a god was a mid-book revelation, instead of something the reader knows about the character right on page one. So yeah, it's safe to say the plot "developed". Kind of like the way a caterpillar develops into a butterfly: by wrapping itself in a cocoon and turning into incoherent goo for a while.
I'm glad the Jude and Regal dynamic worked for you! That was one of the things that just felt right the first time I imagined them, and they stayed pretty much the same from the beginning. Regal was originally two separate characters that got combined into one, but I can't really talk about that without dropping some major spoilers, I'm afraid.
Sal's easy to explain. He's total authorial intrusion. In the same way that I bet Tyrion Lannister is just a way for George R. R. Martin to slap his own characters around and tell them they're idiots, Sal is the way I tell my characters when they've really screwed up. Just like me, he's happy to let 'em screw up anyway.
What's your writing process, both in general and for this book specifically? Did you decide on the themes you wanted to address first, and then craft a narrative and characters, or did the plot and characters come first? What was the hardest part to get right?
I'm a fairly linear writer. I really only need a few things to get started: a beginning, a character, and an ending. Once I've got those, I try to get the character from the beginning to the end in a way that feels satisfying. I used to figure it all out in the writing, but I've got real deadlines now, so I've become more of an outline kind of writer. Which mostly just means I write out my "ooo, but what if ..." kind of thoughts ahead of time, to see if it all fits together instead of writing myself into a corner because it seems cool and then spending weeks trying to figure out a way out.
For me, theme grows out of the characters and the conflicts. Subconsciously, I'm sure, it's all there at the beginning. The stuff I'm angry about or frustrated about or confused about or geeking out over, those things inform the kinds of characters that spring to mind and the sorts of conflicts that I drop down on their heads, but it's definitely not something I start out from. I will say, though, that if I don't know what the story is "about" by the middle, it starts to feel like the wheels are coming off. I only got halfway through the very first version of this novel before I had to scrap it, because I knew that I was writing the wrong story.
That first attempt was set in the months before the storm with all this ominous foreshadowing stuff leading up to some deity plotting to destroy the city by summoning a storm that would be narrowly averted. In hindsight, that sounds awful to even say now, but you have to remember that for my whole life up until Katrina, the line "it always turns at the last minute" was part of the vernacular. It was a joke, a superstition. So the story I envisioned, the one I began as we were evacuating for a storm that I had every reason to believe would turn away from the city like every other storm I could remember, that story wasn't as horribly insensitive and callous and exploitive as the one that I was writing in the aftermath. I was trying to write about a city that didn't exist anymore, and I just couldn't do it, both intellectually and morally.
That, really, was the hardest part to get right in this book, just figuring out what it was about. Even though he changed pretty significantly between drafts, I had a fairly good grasp of Jude as a character in each iteration of him. I also found that the plot of a murdered Fortune God at a poker game was flexible enough to stretch into whatever kinds of stories I wanted to tell without too much fighting. But figuring out how to write about this new version of New Orleans, and what story was mine to tell, that took a number of failures before I, hopefully, got it right.
How much of the mythos in The City of Lost Fortunes—the gods, the angels, the loa, and how they are translated and repurposed by different cultures and societies—is your own creation versus adaptations of other mythologies? What kind of research did you do with regards to world-building and establishing the rules and rituals of the magic used in the story? Were you inspired in any way by urban fantasy/sci-fi works like American Gods or Good Omens? (The irreverent aspects of the tone also made me think of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series, albeit in a more adult-oriented way.)
In terms of figures from myth, I think the only real change I made was to take the actual phenomenon of syncretic myth and apply it to all mythology everywhere. To say, essentially, that if practitioners of voodoo could knowingly venerate St. Peter and Papa Legba as the same being, then Baron Samedi might also be Anubis, just without our knowledge. Some characters are my own creation, like the vampire named Scarpelli, for instance, but I did my best to have those characters adhere to the "rules" taken from folklore, instead of making up my own or using the ones from popular culture. A vampire that rises at noon and sleeps at midnight, for instance, rather than one who is burned by daylight or turns to ash when stabbed with a stake. Even the idea of objects having four qualities of being is taken from (admittedly, poorly understood) modern philosophy. If any of the characters don't jive with the actual myths, in other words, it's probably a mistake, not an intentional twisting. I'm not a mythology scholar, after all. Just a nerd.
Which brings me to the research, which I've basically been doing all my life. I read all the Greco-Roman and Norse books in my elementary school library in about a month, and since then I've basically tried to read it all. One of the books that really guided my thoughts toward The City of Lost Fortunes was Lewis Hyde's Trickster Makes This World. That connected the ideas of Trickster and syncretic myth in a way that opened things up for me. In terms of some of the magic and rituals I looked at everything from academic works breaking down the symbolism or the historical influences, to self-published occult-y stuff that sometimes reads like those late-night psychic hotline commercials, to primary sources like The Key of Solomon and The Egyptian Book of the Dead. None of this was deliberate, guided research, for the record. One thing leads to another and the next thing you know you're asking some poor bookstore clerk if they really don't have anything on Quetzlcoatl in this place.
I've certainly read a lot of urban fantasy through the years I was writing this book, everything from the first few Laurell K. Hamilton Anita Blake books to Daniel Jose Older's Bone Street Rumba series. Ben Aaronvitch's Rivers of London books. The Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey. Kate Griffin's Matthew Swift novels. I'm a big Neil Gaiman fan, too, so of course I've read American Gods and as large as it looms in the field, I certainly knew The City of Lost Fortunes would draw comparisons to it, but I swear, I had the idea for all these mythological beings existing simultaneously before I read it. (In fact, when I did read it, it was the closest I came to giving up on this book, since it was so close to what I had envisioned.)
Before I started writing my own urban fantasy, in fact, just about everything I'd read in the genre had either created its own supernatural beings or drawn mostly from one source. The only thing I'd read that drew on a bunch of different cultures and myths was Esther Freisner's Gnome Man's Land, so I thought my own take of scrambling all these myths together was pretty unique. Turns out I just hadn't read enough of the genre yet. But it was enough to get the story lodged firmly enough in my head that I had to let it out. (Don't make an Athena joke, don't make an Athena joke ...)
Photo of Bryan Camp by Zack Smith (courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
One of the aspects of The City of Lost Fortunes that intrigued me was the degree to which elements like luck and fate were negotiated over the course of the narrative. But I did want to ask: how do systemic racism and discrimination, and the treatment of New Orleans (especially post-Katrina), fit into the world-building of The City of Lost Fortunes, which seems more grounded in magic and myth? Jude largely attributes the direction his life has taken to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but how does the larger history of racism in New Orleans (and the country at large) factor into his choice to essentially go into hiding before the novel starts?
In fact, I kind of got the impression that Jude's realization that the poker game (and the larger game of the gods) was rigged as an acknowledgment that for people of color (like Jude), the system is indeed rigged for them to fail. How do you personally see the balance among luck, fate, and larger societal forces as they work in people's lives, and how did you aim to portray that balance in the novel?
The most significant way the issues you've named impacted the world-building, honestly, is the simple fact that I didn't start out with a fantasy world that looks like New Orleans, but a New Orleans in which the fantastical is possible. Which means that all the systemic oppression and discrimination that exists in the real world exists in the New Orleans of my novel. That said, I'm wary of claiming any kind of expertise on these issues. As I was writing, I tried to be aware of how privilege (especially my own) and inequality and the violence done to people of color in this city and this country would affect my characters, but I also tried to avoid writing a story centered on those concerns. Not because they're invalid, but because they're not my story to tell. Those issues come up naturally in my novel because New Orleans is an ethnically diverse city, and I wrote it in a way that reflects that reality. To depict it any other way would be its own kind of statement.
That said, I'm definitely qualified to talk about privilege, since I've got just about every kind of it a person can have. Personally, I think that luck and fate are basically the same thing. They're an energy source. Your ability to impact the world around you. Magic, if you will. Sometimes things happen unexpectedly. You get the job even though you were sure you fumbled the interview. You find cash in a coat pocket on the very day you needed it. A routine checkup reveals a health issue that saves your life. If you grew up poor, or even on the paycheck-to-paycheck edge of middle class, or if you lost your job and found yourself financially desperate, or had one of any number of experiences that forced you to examine the imbalances of power in the world around you, it's pretty easy to see these things as pure luck. Nothing you deserved or earned, just the chaos of the world lifting you up instead of slapping you down.
The ease of some people's lives can fool them, though. It's easier to get the job when your uncle owns the company, when the person doing the hiring doesn't think you're so attractive that you're going to be sexually harassed. Easier to lose cash in the first place when twenty bucks isn't a substantial amount of money. Easier to have routine checkups when you've got health insurance, when your ailments aren't minimized because you're fat, or black, or a woman. Or all three. When good things happen to you more often than not, it's easier to see these things as being your right. Something you deserve. Not luck, but destiny.
I don't see it as a balance at all. One bad break isn't going to destroy a privileged person's life, just like one good day won't change the trajectory of someone whose family has been systematically oppressed for generations. It's not about effort or merit or character or culture or anything else. Some of us walk through life with gold coins spilling out of our pockets, and some of us only ever get one coin to spend. That imbalance is at the core of everything evil and wrong and broken in the world.
One of the roles that Trickster plays in myth is to correct this imbalance. So I guess if I had any aim in portraying this imbalance, it was hoping to inspire people to be a little bit more like Trickster in that respect. To see luck and not destiny, to share their good fortune with those who have less.
Since I also write a lot about film and television, I have to ask: have you ever cast the cinematic adaption of The City of Lost Fortunes in your head (even as a joke)? I actually did think it would be a very interesting limited series in the vein of American Gods…
Oh, no. Not at all. The nerve to even suggest such a thing. I'm engaged in serious literary pursuits. I don't have time to make a list where Wentworth Miller plays Jude, John Goodman is Dodge, and Leslie Odom, Jr. plays Mourning and ... I .. I certainly didn't put it all in an Evernote file just in case I was ever stuck in an elevator with a David Simon and Eric Overmeyer, the creators of Treme. Next question.
What are you currently working on? What are your plans for your next novel? (Based on the cover, which says "A Crescent City Novel", are there plans for a direct sequel or follow-up in this particular universe?)
The next book is indeed another Crescent City novel, though not a true sequel, as it's focused on one of the side characters who shows up in the first book. The main character of this next one, (we haven't quite settled on a title) is a psychopomp—one of the spirits who guides the recently deceased through the Underworld—who goes to her appointed collection, only to find that the soul she's there to collect is missing, body and soul. It's full of death and storm and destruction gods, some familiar faces and some new ones, and it's all written, but I'm in the revision stage now.
The thing that's still in a first draft place is something new, full of pirates and spies and betrayal and revolution set in a version of French and Spanish colonial New Orleans, on the northern edge of a magically advanced, centuries old Mayan empire.