The protagonist of Matt Norman’s upbeat fifth novel, “Charm City Rocks,” is the deeply endearing Billy Perkins, a cardigan-wearing Baltimore piano teacher who lives above a record store in Fells Point. (Sound like anyplace you know?) As the novel opens, his teenage son Caleb accidentally eats some weed gummies and cooks up a crazy plan to have his dad meet the woman of his dreams, a now-retired rock-n-roll drummer named Margot Hammer.
The scheme succeeds in getting Margot to Baltimore before it blows up in their faces, and despite her annoyance at being duped, Margot falls for Billy anyway. Of course it can’t be that easy — and it isn’t. There are exes, there are careers, there are misunderstandings… but when Matt Norman’s running the show, you can be pretty hopeful that somehow, everything’s gonna be all right in the end. As authors go, Norman is a benevolent god.
The reviews are calling Charm City Rocks a love letter to the City of Baltimore, and it’s full of references to all things Smalltimorean — from Natty Boh at The Horse You Came In On to the kiss-cam at Camden Yards to the crab mallets at Phillips Seafood in the Inner Harbor. Baltimore is Norman country, as we discussed when we talked to Matt in 2020 about “Last Couple Standing.” We tracked him down to ask some questions about the latest addition to the Normanverse, which is picking up steam fast… 191 raves on Goodreads and a People magazine “pick” and it’s not even out yet.
Beloved former Baltimorean Jessica Anya Blau is coming to town Thursday to join Matt for his launch at the Ivy… the literary event of the summer, no doubt. Details below.
Baltimore Fishbowl: Billy Perkins’ fashion signature is the cardigan he wears — it’s as much a part of his identity as his grand piano. What does the male cardigan signify? Do you wear a cardigan?
Matt Norman: Right from the beginning, I wanted to show the reader that Billy is a gentle, disarming sort of guy, and it’s difficult to imagine a gentler, more disarming piece of clothing than a cardigan. Like I say somewhere in chapter one, we can probably thank Mr. Rogers for that. A cardigan by itself signifies warmth and comfort. A cardigan on a guy, though, takes on a more complicated meaning. Not to sound overly ambitious, but Billy Perkins wearing a cardigan and patiently teaching kids to play the piano is my way of rewriting some of the tired, outdated rules of traditional masculinity. And yeah…I may own a cardigan or two.
BFB: The book is filled with behind-the-scenes drama about managers, publicists, recording sessions and such. How do you know so much about the music business?
MN: Although I don’t know how to make music, I’m in love with it, and I’m absolutely obsessed with my favorite bands and artists. This obsession has led to me consuming countless articles and documentaries about rock and roll over the years. I ended up having to do almost no formal research to write CHARM CITY ROCKS because I’ve been casually doing research about the music industry and the lives of musicians as a hobby since I was about ten years old. Thanks, MTV News…and may you rest in peace.
BFB: Is Margot Hammer — or her band Burnt Flowers — inspired by a real person or band?
MN: In the history of rock music, as far as I know, there really isn’t a perfect model for Burnt Flowers. The Go-Go’s and The Bangles come to mind—in the sense that they were both all-female bands—but I imagined BF being edgier and, frankly, bigger. Consequently, I got to create the band from scratch, which was a blast. For Margot, though, there’s definitely some Meg White from The White Stripes in there. Meg White has this quiet, unassuming quality about her, but when she starts playing…damn, look out.
BFB: One of the characters, Margot’s ex-husband, is a very hot Black British actor who feels he could have been British Denzel if he hadn’t started doing alien movies. He’s apparently a very, very good kisser. Talk a little about the inspiration for Lawson.
MN: Hand downs, Lawson Daniels is the most fun I’ve ever had writing a character. He shows up nearly halfway through the book and casually flips the plot upside down. I wanted him to be an antagonist, because books need those, but I also wanted him to be charming, likeable, and even downright loveable. I’ve never been good at attaching real-life actors to my characters, but, in my head, Lawson has always been played by a heightened, maybe-slightly-over-the-top version of the actor Idris Elba. Man, he would kill in that role.
BFB: People magazine called your book “the rare romance novel written by a guy.” Do you think of Charm City Rocks as a romance novel?
MN: I realized about fifty pages into the first draft that I’d introduced two single characters and that the main plot of the book would be seeing if those two characters can figure out how to be together. So, I thought, “Okay, well, this is a love story then, right?” Immediately upon the book entering the world, however, people started using the word “romance.” I was thrown at first, because romance novels seem like something different than what I wrote—steamier, sexier, more shirtlessness on the cover. At a certain point, though, I accepted that it’s not really up to me. Contemporary fiction? A love story? A romance novel? Who knows? I’m cool with it being whatever readers want to call it.
BFB: Talk about the Normanverse and the continuing characters and locations from your five novels.
MN: One day while writing my second novel, WE’RE ALL DAMAGED, I referenced a character from my first novel, DOMESTIC VIOLETS. This wasn’t a logistical stretch. The character from DV was a novelist who was household-name famous, so the characters in WAD would’ve known who he was. Regardless, I was thrilled by what I’d done. Since then, I’ve been committed to the idea that all my books exist in the same universe, and surviving characters live on. I’ve been careful, however, to make this as unobtrusive as possible. If you’ve read all my books, you’ll recognize certain people and certain locations. If you haven’t, no big deal, because each book stands on its own.
BFB: Are some of these characters calling to you for your next novel?
MN: Yep. The book I’m currently writing, which is also set here in Baltimore, features a psychiatrist who readers will recognize from my third novel, LAST COUPLE STANDING. It was good to see Jessica again. I’ve missed her.
BFB: Do you feel there’s a special pleasure in reading novels with familiar settings?
MN: I like when stories are set in familiar, specific locations. Not only does it ground the characters in time, space, and reality, but it also gives the writer tangible, visceral things to draw from. In Chapter 11 of CHARM CITY ROCKS, a nervous Margot Hammer gets called to the stage at a music bar called The Horse You Came In On. Is that scene better because The Horse exists and because I’ve been there and I know what it looks, sounds, and smells like? Absolutely.
BFB: And many of us have too! Billy’s teenage son Caleb is worried about his dad. It seems the whole reason he’s so hot to get Billy a girlfriend is that he’s afraid his dad will be lonely when he goes to college. Your own kids are much younger than Caleb, right? Do they already try to take care of you?
MN: My daughters are 13 and 11 years old. As wonderful and increasingly sophisticated as they are, they haven’t quite reached the age yet where they see their mom and me as individual people with specific problems and vulnerabilities. It’s only a matter of time, though. I’m pretty sure the older one is starting to pick up on the fact that I, her father, has no idea how to do even the most basic math.
Baltimore Launch for Charm City Rocks
June 15, 6 pm, Ivy Bookshop, with Jessica Anya Blau
More info here.