For a guy whose novel is titled “The City of Lost Fortunes,” Bryan Camp is quick to count the ways his own have mounted up. His conversation is sprinkled with expressions of gratitude and “here’s another time good fortune was heaped upon me,” as he grins, talking about the luck and hard work of his writing life.
It’s quite a story, the writing of this novel, which was begun in the back seat of his parents’ car as they evacuated their Slidell home for Katrina. Little brother on one side, little sister on the other, mom holding the computer charger into the car adapter, Camp just kept typing, determined to fulfill an assignment for novelist Bev Marshall’s creative writing class at Southeastern Louisiana University.
Now, all these years later, that early effort has evolved into an amazing fantasy novel, “The City of Lost Fortunes.” In it, a magician of mixed race named Jude Dubuisson works his magic in Jackson Square every day, helping tourists and locals find things they’ve lost, from cellphones to pieces of themselves. He takes part in an epic poker game, playing for the soul of the city where so many have lost so much. The stakes are high indeed. Part murder mystery, part vision quest, it’s a complex story that seduces the reader into a Crescent City filled with beauty and danger, loss and hope.
Camp creates a new New Orleans, populating it with angels, vampires, magicians, zombies and gods of fortune. His supernatural world is ecumenical, to say the least, an urban playground of syncretic mythology. “People get into one kind of mythology,” Camp said, “But all these things overlap really.”
At first, he thought he’d create a character who was like “a chosen one, who would protect the city from the coming storm. But that was just wrong.” His focus shifted to “this thing happened, so how do we survive it? But so many people I knew had lost everything, and I lived here but I didn’t lose everything, so that wasn’t my story to tell. I think it wasn’t until 10 years after that people started letting out the breath they’d been holding for 10 years.” So he set his novel in 2011 and moved on, rewriting again and again.
“Jude is a figure that links both to before and after. What better gift to give to the city than a person who can find all these lost things?” Camp mused.
Camp has a true old-fashioned writer’s resume. He’s worked in a flag-printing factory, as an office worker in an oil refinery, as a waiter in a steakhouse. In the years since that evacuation, Camp honed his craft. After leaving Southeastern, he attended the University of New Orleans MFA program. “My thesis committee was Amanda Boyden, Joseph Boyden and Jim Grimsley — here’s another time I was blessed with good fortune, the dream team,” he said.
Along the way, he also taught at Delgado, and Dominican, and one landmark summer in 2012, he was accepted to the Clarion West Writers Workshop.
That was even more good fortune, according to Camp. “As a reader, you know, there are these writers who have 'effing' as their middle name, you know, Kelly effing Link. Chuck effing Palahniuk. And here I was going to a workshop with those people: Mary Rosenblum, Stephen Graham Jones, Connie Willis, Gavin Grant, Chuck Palahniuk, Kelly Link and George R.R. Martin.” Yes, that George R.R. Martin.
Two more rewrites followed, the quest for an agent, a quick sale — in a week — in a two-book deal. Camp, a gentle giant of a man, marvels at his good luck. But years of hard work and determination factored in. That and a sense of making New Orleans his own.
“I grew up near here, but I was an adult when I became a New Orleanian,” he said. “So I’ve gotten to know the city in parts. One part of the city that stands out to me, that I actually used, is a building on Perdido Street that was really there. But it wasn’t a cultural signifier. And because I didn’t see it through the eyes of Richard Campanella or a visiting tourist, I was able to make it my own and construct my own narrative about it.”
That kind of freedom — seeking New Orleans and finding his own secret city — is Camp’s true magic as a writer. This is a New Orleans riddled with loss and possibility, a city at a crossroads, new and recognizable at the same time. Like his magician protagonist says, “Guidance is what you give tourists looking for a good place to get gumbo. I’m looking for a little truth.”
Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO.
When: 6 p.m., Tuesday, April 17
Where: Garden District Book Shop