Rowan Darling, the protagonist of Andy Abramowitz’s third novel, Darling at the Campsite, is a 33-year-old record shop owner (and Talking Heads fanatic) with a past he has done his best to leave behind. But when the death of his older brother occasions a trip to his hometown of Maybee, Illinois for the funeral, he is forced to face the places and people he left behind. Particularly his one-time best friend Skid Hall, now married to Rowan’s old girlfriend, Margot Beckett.
Born and raised in Baltimore, Abramowitz now lives in Philadelphia. We connected with him to talk about his new novel, and the influences of his hometown on his work.
Rowan’s record store, Metaphysical Graffiti — does it have a real-life inspiration?
Soundgarden in Fells Point, of course! It’s one of my favorite places in the universe. It’s such a touchstone for me in terms of record stores that I couldn’t help but picture it as I was writing. One major difference though is that Soundgarden has customers, whereas Metaphysical Graffiti is populated almost exclusively by the people who work there. Soundgarden is also not nearly as dingy as the Graffiti.
Music plays such a big role in your novels. Are you a musician?
Music has always been a huge part of my life, dating back to the Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and 5thDimension records my parents played when I was very young. I spent a lot of time with my dad at Record Theatre on Liberty Road and Music Machine on Reisterstown Road. In my early teens, I started writing songs and convinced myself I was the next Phil Collins. In my late teens, I convinced myself I was the next Tom Petty. I must’ve known deep down that I was really just the next associate at some law firm, because I covered my bases and went to law school. True artists don’t have backup plans.
Over the years, I realized that my real musical talent is being a fan. I listen to everything (as I write this, an English band from the early 70s called Heron is playing in the background), and I derive immense enjoyment from talking and writing about music and musicians. That’s why my first novel, Thank You, Goodnight, is about a one-hit-wonder and the main character in Darling at the Campsite runs a record store.
Talk about the role of the Talking Heads in Darling at the Campsite.
Talking Heads is the band over which Rowan, the main character, and his older brother bonded when they were teenagers. The brothers have been distant for years, and so for Rowan, those albums have been a substitute for his brother’s company. He puts on “Once in a Lifetime” or “Psycho Killer” and is instantly transported back to the days when they would noise up the house together with those songs.
I picked Talking Heads for two reasons. First, despite being incredibly popular, they’re not for everyone, so Rowan could genuinely feel as though this band was something special he and his brother shared while everyone else was out there listening to Springsteen. Second, Talking Heads is the actual band over which I bonded with my actual brother. Happily, we’re in no way estranged, so the similarities end there, but we both fell hard for Talking Heads at the same time. We bought the cassettes of Little Creatures and True Stories at Sam Goody (RIP) at the Owings Mills Mall (RIP). We went to a showing of the concert film Stop Making Sense at the old Senator theater – a great memory for me which makes its way into the book.
The character names are so distinctive. How do you come up with them?
Early on, as the characters and story are developing for me, I jot down every name that might potentially fit for a particular character. I let that list sit on the page until I just naturally start calling that person by one of the names. Sometimes it takes a while for it to feel right. For instance, when I was writing Darling, Daisy wasn’t Daisy until I was nearly finished the book. I knew she needed a quirky sounding name, but not so quirky as to be a punchline. And then one day it hit me: “She’s Daisy, not this other name I’ve been calling her for over a year.”
Other times, a name works so well that it almost helps me construct the character. Skid Hall sounded to me like the high school quarterback, a guy who’d walk across burning coals for his buddies (although occasionally steal their girlfriends too). Skid felt very strongly about being named Skid.
Rowan, on the other hand, worked for me because I find it difficult to say that name without sounding a little bit downbeat. For me, the name reinforces his personality. Rowan sounds like someone in a funk. My voice drops an octave when I say it. (I happen to know a very upbeat Rowan in real life, so I know this isn’t an absolute. But it worked for Rowan Darling.)
One of the themes of the book is the way relationships change over time. Are there any autobiographical elements to the plot?
I think it’s inevitable and healthy for our relationships with our parents to change as we move through life. Both camps – the parents and the children – root for a scaling back of the child’s dependency on the parent. And part of that seems to be developing the ability to identify what your parents got right and what they got wrong. And of course, not letting either affect how much you love them. I think I’ve always had a terrific relationship with my parents (maybe that will end when they read this), but I probably appreciate them more now that I don’t view them as perfect.
I wanted Rowan to be softer toward his mother as the book develops because I wanted him to appreciate the fact that she’d experienced just as much loss as he had – a good deal more, in fact. Rowan had stayed away from his hometown because it hurt too much to be back there. But that necessarily meant he’d stayed away from her, which felt unfair. If the lasting message of this book is that distance can be a form of cruelty, I sure hope my daughters pick up on it. (I’ll remind them.)
This book is set in Philadelphia and in the Midwest. Have you left your Baltimore background behind in your fiction?
On an emotional level, when Rowan goes home to Illinois, he doesn’t realize it, but he’s actually going to the Baltimore of my youth – to Owings Mills and Pikesville. I had a terrific upbringing in the suburbs there, and I drew heavily upon those years – both for scenes inside the Darling home (ours was a very loud house, with WGRX, the classic rock station, competing for attention over my parents’ recordings of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra) and out in the neighborhood (all the kids on our street would convene for baseball games in the court or “running bases” in our backyard).
Do you consider yourself a Baltimore novelist? What is the influence of Baltimore on your writing career?
I certainly feel like a Baltimore novelist. Even though I have lived in Philadelphia for nearly half my life – my wife and I have raised our daughters in Philly, and we love the town and the friends we’ve made here – Baltimore is definitely the spiritual home. It’s where I was born and raised, where my parents and grandparents were born and raised, where our extended families and many of our friends live. I find that whenever I’m writing, it’s Baltimore that seeps through the pores and helps me describe, for instance, the air on a Saturday morning in spring, or the lack of air on a sticky July evening. As a writer, it’s basically my palette on a very visceral and automatic level.
My second novel, A Beginner’s Guide to Free Fall, is about a Baltimore family and is set almost entirely in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Writing that book felt very comfortable and natural to me. I gave my characters old houses in Mt. Washington, brownstones in Federal Hill, jobs at a television station on TV Hill. I sent them on daytrips to Ocean City for a bucket of Thrasher’s fries. One character had a habit of reciting the roster of the 1983 Orioles every time he felt like he was about to cry.
Events for Darling at the Campsite:
Tuesday, June 8: Virtual launchWednesday, June 16: Conversation with Andy Abramowitz and Camille Pagan https://www.bluestoop.org/events/2021/wednesdays-on-the-stoop-ozma-82zg4-z5hj3-4k4n7-fyztw-24xza-6ezfs-mmpbh-kzxtg