Dennis Palumbo, M.A., MFT is a writer and licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues. His acclaimed series of mystery thrillers–Mirror Image, Fever Dream, Night Terrors, Phantom Limb, Head Wounds and the upcoming Panic Attack (Sourcebooks/Poisoned Pen Press) features psychologist and trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi. He’s also the author of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley), as well as a collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press).
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, Palumbo’s credits include the feature film My Favorite Year, for which he was nominated for a WGA Award for Best Screenplay. He was also a staff writer for the ABC-TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, and has written numerous series episodes and pilots.
His first novel, City Wars (Bantam Books) is currently in development as a feature film, and his short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere. He provides articles and reviews for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Lancet, and many others.
His column, “The Writer’s Life,” appeared monthly for six years in Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America. He’s also done commentary for NPR’s “All Things Considered” and blogs regularly for The Huffington Post.
Dennis conducts workshops throughout the country. Recent appearances include the Family Therapy Network Annual Symposium, the Association for Humanistic Psychology, Cal State Northridge, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, PEN West, the Writers Guild Foundation, the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, Screenwriting Expo, USC, the Romance Writers of America, the Nieman Foundation, the Directors Guild, and UCLA.
His work helping writers has been profiled in The New York Times, Premiere Magazine, Fade In, Angeleno, GQ, The Los Angeles Times and other publications, as well as on NPR and CNN.
A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Pepperdine University, he serves on the faculty of UCLA Extension, where he was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year.
Interview with Dennis Palumbo
Norm Goldman, publisher and editor of Bookpleasures.com is pleased to have as our guest Dennis Palumbo, author of From Crime to Crime: Mind-Boggling Tales of Mystery and Murder, Writing From the Inside Out and Mirror Image. Dennis was formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), and is now a licensed psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles. He specializes in helping new and established screenwriters, directors, and novelists address creative issues, as well as those involving mid-life and career transition.
NORM: Good day Dennis and thanks for participating in our interview. How did you get started in writing? What inspired you to write your first book? What keeps you going?
DENNIS: I wrote a lot in college, for the school newspaper. Then, after graduation, I worked in advertising, writing copy. It wasn’t until I moved from the east coast to LA that I began writing commercially. I tried my hand at everything–spec TV scripts, short stories, whatever–and, strangely enough, when I finally started to sell things, it all happened at once. The same year I started work on the ABC-TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, I also sold my first mystery short story to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and my first novel (City Wars, a sci-fi thriller) to Bantam. So I think that early success was just a combination of hard work and pure, dumb luck.
The inspiration for my first book, City Wars, came, believe it or not, from watching football. Since the competing teams represented different cities, the announcer would say, for example, “It’s Pittsburgh versus Cleveland,” and I thought, “What if cities actually warred against each other?” So I worked up the idea of a distant future when the country was made up of city-states, like Sparta and Athens, and fought against each other. In City Wars, Chicago and New York are at war.
What keeps me going, after all these years? I just love writing. Actually sitting there, putting words down, seeing where the characters and situations are going. I’m sort of curious to see what my imagination will come up with.
NORM: Do you write from your own experiences? Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
DENNIS: I write a great deal from my own experience. For example, in From Crime to Crime, my collection of mystery short stories, most of the stories feature a group of guys–what I like to think of as “Desperate Husbands”–who meet every Sunday afternoon to eat deli, discuss politics and, through a strange set of circumstances, find themselves caught up in solving crimes. The guys call themselves “The Smart Guys Marching Society.” Well, I was actually part of a group of guys who did in fact meet every Sunday for many years, and called ourselves by that name. Of course, the only mystery we ever tried to solve involved a missing tub of artichoke dip, but I used the basic reality of our friendship and those weekly meetings as the foundation for my whodunnits.
As you might suspect, I also use my experiences over the past 20 years as a licensed psychotherapist to inform and inspire story ideas. My novel, Mirror Image, has a therapist narrator, which allows me to use many of these experiences to enrich the story. It also takes place in Pittsburgh, where I was born and raised, so I get to re-visit some of my favorite haunts from when I was a kid, and then later a student at the University of Pittsburgh.
NORM: What’s the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?
DENNIS: Two things, I guess. The first is just finding the time. I have a full-time private therapy practice, as well as a family, so finding the time to write is difficult. It was much easier in my former career, when I was a screenwriter. All I had to do all day was write. The other difficult thing, which has remained constant over the years, is the demands I put on myself to grow in craft and relevance as a writer, to push myself to try different things. Since I was a kid, I was admonished to “live up to my potential,” whatever the hell that means…and I’m always struggling in terms of whether I’m actually doing that or not.
NORM: What do you see as the influences on your writing? Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
DENNIS: Since most of my fiction-writing is in the mystery genre, I have many wonderful influences, from Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke to Elmore Leonard and Richard Price. I was a college student when I first read Chandler and Hammett, and still regard them with a kind of awe. I also liked Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels.
For me, the most challenging aspect of crime or mystery writing is the plotting. Making sure there are enough twists and turns. I so enjoy creating characters and writing their dialogue–probably a left-over from my TV and film-writing days–that it never feels like work. Plotting, on the other hand, always feels like work to me.
In terms of my nonfiction writing–for newspaper Op-Eds, the Huffington Post, book reviews in The Lancet, etc.–my influences range all over the map, from Adam Gopnik and Lewis Menand to David Foster Wallace and Annie Dillard. Too many to name, really.
NORM: Do you feel that writers, regardless of genre, owe something to readers? If not, why not?; if so, why and what would that be?
DENNIS: I feel that writers, first of all, have a responsibility to their own talent. A duty to hone their craft, to grow and explore and try things. And, yes, I do think that, regardless of genre, writers owe their readers something: to do their best, to write with integrity and sincerity, to never talk down to the reader or write “beneath their gifts,” as an old writing teacher of mine once said.
NORM: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
DENNIS: I’m very excited about my upcoming novel, Mirror Image. It’s the first in a new series featuring Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, a psychologist who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. He specializes in treating the victims of violent crime–those who’ve survived the armed robbery or kidnapping, but are left traumatized. When one of his own patients is brutally murdered, and it soon appears that he himself, not his patient, was the intended victim, Rinaldi becomes involved in the case. At the same time, he begins a stormy relationship with a beautiful Assistant DA, while possible suspects from both his personal and professional life continue to emerge. Until a second, completely unexpected murder throws the search for the killer into an entirely different direction.
What made the writing of the novel so engaging for me was that I was able to weave together aspects of my clinical training at a psychiatric facility, my current experience in private practice, and the police procedural details of a mystery thriller. I also enjoyed setting the story in Pittsburgh, my home town. It’s an amazing place, an amalgam of old and new, a shot-and-a-beer town that’s collided with the Information Age. The steel mills I used to work at in the summers between college semesters are all gone; in their place are sleek, modern buildings where software designers and MBA’s work. Blue collar turned to white collar–but with the vestiges of the old Pittsburgh I grew up in still felt around the edges, still apparent in the venerable turn-of-the-century buildings, the ethnic neighborhoods, the immigrant values and loyalties. It’s a fascinating place, and a great environment for a murder mystery.
NORM: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point. But how much is too much?
DENNIS: I think every astute reader can feel in his or her bones when a story or situation has so strayed from the possible or likely that the narrative suffers. As writers, we need to find that balance between reality and the demands of our imaginations, so that there’s always verisimilitude. For example, in Mirror Image, the clinical material I present conforms with our current understanding of psychological theory and practice, including how and when patients are institutionalized, or how medications can be used or abused. At the same time, I take advantage of the usual mystery convention–which is a huge liberty in terms of actual police work–which assumes that the two investigating officers working with Rinaldi only have this one case to solve! The real police detectives I’ve met often have to negotiate a dozen ongoing investigations.
NORM: Could you tell us a little about how you help established screenwriters, directors, and novelists address creative issues? What exactly is this all about?
DENNIS: That question is too big to answer briefly…so naturally, I’ll try. As a therapist with years of experience as a working writer, I think I bring a unique perspective to the issues my patients struggle with. And, on the whole, it’s become clear to me that most problems that writers deal with are inextricably bound up in their personal issues. A writer dealing with procrastination, for example, might in fact be using procrastination as a way to ward off fears of shameful self-exposure…fears which may likely be the result of early childhood experiences.
Or take writers’ block: being blocked creatively is a common occurrence among many writers, yet if you give the fact that you’re blocked a self-incriminating meaning, you make the pain and frustration even worse. You see the block not just as a fact in itself, but as a shaming comment on you, your abilities, your ambitions. Though, funnily enough, I actually believe that writers’ block is good news for a writer: it usually means the writer is about to undergo a growth spurt, to increase his or her skill level in craft and personal relevancy. In fact, I see blocks as positive and inevitable developmental steps in the maturation of a writer. Just as a toddler must struggle to master the developmental step of walking, so a writer must master the developmental step of working through a block. Maybe the writer’s blocked because he or she is changing genres, or writing something more autobiographical for the first time. Regardless of what’s blocking the writer, his or her growth as an artist depends upon navigating the block. I think the proof of this is simple: I’ve rarely met a writer who–having worked through a block–hasn’t considered him- or herself a better writer on the other side.
Lastly, in terms of my work with creative patients, there’s still a great deal of “regular” therapy involved. Artists of all stripes have to deal with anxiety, depression, relationship difficulties, career dilemmas. Often substance abuse as well. And as I mentioned, these personal issues are always bound up in whatever “creative” problems the patient is struggling with. My job as their therapist is to help them identify the underlying causes of these problems, and hopefully develelop with them some tools with which to address them.
Gee, it still turned out to be a long answer!
NORM: Does your writing career ever conflict with your career as a psychotherapist?
DENNIS: No, I think the two careers benefit each other. My own issues with writing help me relate to my patients, for one thing. Also, since most of my patients are in the entertainment industry–TV and film writers, directors, composers and actors–and I now write only prose, our respective fields of endeavor rarely intersect. With my novelist and journalist patients, I believe the occasional similarities between our writing worlds actually helps reinforce our therapeutic bond.
Moreover, since my therapy practice is my “day job,” I get to write only what–and when–I like. So rather than presenting a conflict, my writing life is a nice adjunct to my career as a therapist.
NORM: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
DENNIS: They can go to my website, dpalumbo.mystagingwebsite.com. I also invite them to check out my regular blogs on The Huffington Post, where I comment frequently about media, writing and psychotherapy.
NORM: Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?
DENNIS: Nothing I can think of at the moment. I just hope your readers found this interesting and informative. And I want to thank you for asking such informed, thoughtful questions. This was a real pleasure.
NORM: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.