Episode 33: Dennis Palumbo

phantomThe last time I saw Lisa Campbell, she was naked. It was almost thirty years ago, when I was in junior high and she was the latest Hot Young Thing, smiling invitingly at me — and thousands of other lonely guys — from the pages of Playboy Magazine… Now, as she stood in my office waiting room, cashmere sweater folded neatly over her arm, I had to admit that the years since had taken their toll…

— Dennis Palumbo, Phantom Limb

I had such a terrific, full conversation with Dennis, I almost don’t know where to start the show notes. First, make sure you check out his website, DennisPalumbo.com, where he has info on all of his books, not to mention news and links and even short stories to read

Speaking of short stories, you can read his wonderful Christmas mystery, “A Theory of Murder,” which features no less a detective than young patent clerk Albert Einstein, at Lorie Lewis Ham’s online magazine, Kings River Life. It appeared on Robert Lopresti’s list of 10 of the best mystery short stories he’s read. Check out the multi-author blog SleuthSayers.org (what an awesome blog title!)

I go all fan girl on “My Favorite Year,” one of my favorite movies ever. If you haven’t yet seen it, you are in for a treat. And if you have, well, it’s always a good time to re-watch it.

Here are Dennis’ Daniel Rinaldi books, in order:

1. Mirror Image

2. Fever Dream

3. Night Terrors

4. Phantom Limb

In addition, he’s written a sci-fi novel (City Wars), a nonfiction collection of essays (Writing from the Inside Out, which we discuss in the interview), and a collection of short stories (From Crime to Crime). His first Daniel Rinaldi short story will appear in February in an anthology from Poisoned Pen Press

And if you are as fascinated as I am by his combination of Hollywood experience and psychological insight, you can also check out his Psychology Today blog, Hollywood on the Couch.

Finally, we gave a shout out to Vicki Delany, who also wrote novels while holding down a full-time job. You can check out my interview with her right here.

As always, if you’d rather read than listen, the transcript is below. Enjoy!

— Laura

Transcript of Interview with Dennis Palumbo

Laura Brennan: Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, and the author of the Daniel Rinaldi mystery series. He also writes short stories and essays, blogs for the Huffington Post, and contributes a regular column to Psychology Today called “Hollywood on the Couch.” Dennis hasn’t just done it all, he makes it all look easy.

Dennis, thank you for joining me. 

Dennis Palumbo: It’s my pleasure, Laura.

LB: You have done so much, so well, let’s start at the beginning. Did you always want to be a writer?

DP: Pretty much from my youth, I would say from about 10 or 11 or 12. You know, reading comic books and comic strips and right around then I began reading The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood. I’ve just always loved storytelling. And particularly mysteries and thrillers. And, yeah, I’ve always liked writing and liked doing it. It was my favorite thing to do in high school and college, was writing essays or short stories.

I actually came to Hollywood and was still writing — the only writing I had done that had seen print was writing for the Pitt News, which was the newspaper of the University of Pittsburgh from which I graduated. And when I came to Hollywood, I was writing short stories and sending them all over the place and also writing scripts trying to break into television. It was very unusual, the same week my then-writing partner and I got our first writing job, which was the first episode of “Love Boat,” by the way. The same week that happened, I sold my first story, mystery short story, to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It was just amazing, that week, I’ll never forget that week. I was only like, 24, 25. That was a good week. I was very, very lucky.

In fact, my whole show business career really was luck, and I’m very, very grateful for it. I ended up on the writing staff of a show called “Welcome Back, Kotter,” which I’m sure you’re too young to remember. I wrote on a lot of TV series and then when my then-writing partner, Mark Evanier, and I amicably split up — he wanted to do other things and I wanted to write movies. And it was kind of a struggle, but I was very, very lucky. I ended up co-writing a movie called, “My Favorite Year,” with Peter O’Toole, and I’m very proud of that movie. And I wrote a couple of other features and I can’t complain. I had a pretty good show business career. At the same time, though, I was always writing short stories and in fact, my first novel, a science fiction novel called, City Wars, was published by Bantam Books while I was still writing television. So I’ve always had one foot in prose and television and film as well.

LB: Well, I won’t deny that luck can play a part, but I can’t really let that pass. It’s not just luck; there’s an awful lot of talent there. And in particular, let’s take a peek at “My Favorite Year,” because that is one of the best movies ever made.

DP: Well, that’s very nice of you, that’s very kind. But I have to tell you, I think the film’s okay. I think Peter O’Toole elevates that movie. The biggest thrill for me about that film was that I wrote it for Peter O’Toole. And the studio did not want Peter O’Toole, he was not a big star anymore. It had been many, many years since Lawrence of Arabia. And so this is where luck comes in: that year, he had been nominated for a film called “The Stunt Man,” and for about twenty minutes, he was considered ‘bankable.’ And so we were very lucky then, that the studio would go for him. Their actual first choice was Albert Finney, and then they wanted Michael Caine. I think those are both incredibly talented actors, but Peter O’Toole was perfect.

LB: He was, he was perfect for that part. Well, thank you for sharing that story, and I also wanted to talk to you about the characters in that. The characters and their relationships, how what they’re going through trickles into everything is just so fascinating to me. Were you already interested in the psychology of why we do what we do when you wrote that?

DP: Well, I think every writer is, to be honest with you. I mean, I don’t know any writer for whom the human condition isn’t interesting. And why we do what we do is part and parcel of good characterization in any story. One of the things that allows a reader or a viewer to relate to a character is you get the sense that the person writing that character knows what it means to be a human being. Knows what it means to have hopes and dreams and yearnings and to have reverses and set-backs and heartbreaks. One of the reasons I think my being a therapist as well as a writer complement each other so well is because they’re both aspects of the same investigation of the human condition.

LB: What was that thing, then, that made you say, okay, I want to change my life and become a therapist?

DP: I’ll give you and your listeners the two minute version, because it was actually quite a long journey that began when I was working on a screenplay for Robert Redford about a mountain climber named Willie Unsoeld. And it ended up with me living in the Himalayas in Nepal for three and a half months, which activated all of my interest in philosophy and psychology. But more importantly, I became a patient in therapy myself. My first marriage had ended and I was needing a lot of help. I was struggling with depression and anxiety. And just fell in love with the process.

So I didn’t exactly go, oh boy! I’m going to stop being a screenwriter and be a therapist, but instead, I started taking graduate classes. I figured, well, worse comes to worst, I’ll get a Master’s degree in Psychology and all that can do is help me as a writer, right? But at the same time, I started volunteering in psychiatric facilities in a low-fee family clinic and I began realizing, I loved doing therapy. I loved it a lot. And so I finally decided to commit to the six years, almost six and a half years it took for me to get licensed as a therapist. In California, you need 3000 intern hours, supervised intern hours, before you can even sit for the exam. So it’s quite a long process.

So during that entire process of schooling and being an intern, I was also still in show business. I was writing scripts by day and going to class by night. I felt like Batman. And nobody knew it except my best friend and the woman who would become my wife, my current wife, were the only ones who knew I was doing this. No one in show business knew that I was secretly training to be a psychotherapist while I was writing scripts.

And then finally, when I got licensed, I retired from film and television and went into my private practice, which specializes of course in creative people. My practice is primarily writers, actors, directors, composers, journalists, novelists… It’s a very interesting and compelling practice, and I guess I feel uniquely qualified to do it because I was in the business for so long, almost 17 years. And now I’ve been in private practice about 28.

LB: I have to say, the idea of you in the Himalayas, it’s such a Hollywood scene.

DP: (Laughter.) Yeah, it was a real “Razor’s Edge” experience. I was very lucky, because to train, to learn about mountain climbing for this movie, I ended up climbing mountains. I climbed the Grand Teton in Wyoming, I climbed Mount Rainier, and ultimately lived in the Himalayas for about three months, at base camp and a little bit above. So I’ve had very, very good experiences that my show business career allowed me and I’m very, very grateful for it.

LB: So I want to talk to you about your mysteries, but actually I want to talk about your other book, your nonfiction book, Writing from the Inside Out.

DP: It is based on a column, I did a monthly column for six and a half years for the Writers Guild magazine, called Written By. And the column was called The Writer’s Life, and I talked about procrastination, writer’s block, fear of failure, anxiety, depression, all the things that writers typically struggle with. And so, after I’d done about 90 of these columns, an editor said to me, you ought to collect them into a book. And so I expanded the columns and collected them and the book’s been out now for a number of years, Writing from the Inside Out. I’m very pleased to say it’s become required or recommended reading in about two hundred universities around the country. I just got an e-mail a couple of weeks ago from a professor at Oxford who’s using the book with her students. So it has a long shelf life for some reason.

LB: Well, I think it’s because it’s so useful. To have a way to practically be out helping people, that must be incredibly gratifying for you.

DP: It really is, particularly because it’s not a how-to book. There’s not one word of instruction in that book on how to write. The book is about how to survive and thrive in the writer’s life. How to cope with the emotional ups and downs, the career reverses, all the conflicts that being a creative person can create financially or in your relationships. And so, I think that there had never been a book that just addressed the psychological struggles of living the writer’s life. And that’s what makes it kind of different, I think. And that allows it to appeal to people who don’t even write. I mean, I’ve had e-mails from people all over the world, engineers and doctors and whatever, who say, well, yeah, but I struggle with the same kinds of issues, even though I’m not a writer, so I found the book helpful. And that really gratifies me as well.

LB: Let’s start talking about your wonderful series. So your first book in that series was Mirror Image. Did you know you wanted to write about Rinaldi, what prompted that?

DP: No, actually, what came first was, I had always wanted to create a series character. To be honest with you, ever since I read Chandler and Conan Doyle, and anyone who’s created a series character like Poirot, Agatha Christie’s character, I’ve always wanted to create a series character. And after having been a psychotherapist for many, many years, I thought, how about a therapist hero? I’m from Pittsburgh, and I think that it’s a city that is really beautifully situated for crime thrillers. Everybody knows New York and Chicago and L.A., but I thought, what about the mean streets of Pittsburgh, you know? And what makes the city so unique is, the Pittsburgh I grew up in was an industrial hub where there were steel mills where I worked when I was in college and the air was covered with soot and smoke. The conventional view that people have had throughout the whole middle of the 20th Century about Pittsburgh.

But in the last 20 or 30 years, the city’s gone through this renaissance. All the steel mills where I worked are gone. It has become a white-collar town, with some of the premiere medical facilities in the world, a leading technology pioneer, state-of-the-art on robotics and nanotechnology. And so, my character, I wanted to do a character like me that has a foot in both worlds, with cobblestone streets and street cars and smoke in the air, and yet now, a very modern, glittering kind of white collar city.

And so, what I did with Daniel Rinaldi is, like myself, I made him the child of blue-collar people, who was the first one to go to college, the first one to have a profession, the first one to wear a jacket and tie. He gets to represent that part of the experience of someone growing up in Pittsburgh. I also, like me, he’s Italian-American, he graduated from Pitt… I mean, I use a lot of my own background. Now, the difference between me and Daniel Rinaldi is, he’s a former amateur boxer, and he’s much more brave and resourceful than I am. And he gets into a lot of scrapes that would have me running for the hills. He’s a very intrepid guy. And I really enjoyed writing the series and have been just blown away by the critical response, which has been phenomenal, and the growing readership. I’m just really pleased.

LB: They’re well-written and at the same time, just a jolt of adrenaline flowing through them. They pace and they move. I see a lot of your screenwriting technique visible in the pacing of these books. Scene to scene, they just keep moving.

DP: Yeah, I think I owe my screenwriting background to the kind of snappy dialogue and the pacing of the scenes. Even though the books are crime thrillers and I want them to be suspenseful, I also am very much interested in the mental health field, in clinical work, in psychology. And so I tried to have the characters as three-dimensional and psychologically astute as possible.

I also like to inject a little humor. I try to use all the craft that was built for me in my Hollywood career and my experience in private practice as a psychologist for 28 years. I put the two of them together.

LB: Well, you also bring a little bit of Hollywood into your latest novel, Phantom Limb.

DP: Oh, yeah! As you’re aware, the story concerns a young girl from a small town in Pennsylvania who goes to Hollywood and becomes a starlet, and has such a terrible experience here over the years that she comes back to Pittsburgh. But she ends up marrying a tycoon in Pittsburgh. So she sort of becomes the hostess with the mostest: a former Hollywood starlet on the arm of a much older husband who’s a bigwig in Pittsburgh. The book is about what happens when she’s kidnapped. But if you recall the opening couple of chapters, where she’s in session with Daniel Rinaldi, I get to talk about Hollywood a little and have some fun with that.

The seed for Phantom Limb was based on something that actually happened to me when I was an intern. If you recall from the opening of Phantom Limb, Lisa, the former Hollywood starlet who’s now living in Pittsburgh and married to the tycoon. Lisa comes in and says, I have made all the preparations, I have the means at home, a bottle of pills, and I intend to commit suicide at 7:00 tonight. You have 45 minutes to talk me out of it. And that actually happened to me when I was an intern. Someone came in, it was around 4:30, 5:00, I forget when the session was. And it was a mature woman, like Lisa, who came in and said exactly those words: I have the means, everything’s settled, my financial stuff’s in order, and I’m going to kill myself at 7:00. How long are these sessions? And I said, they’re 50 minutes. And she said, that’s how long you have to talk me out of it.

And I just was so terrified and stressed like you could not believe. But luckily, I was able to convince her to come back the following day and do another session. Finally, she ended up just staying in therapy and her suicidal ideation faded.

LB: You were Scheherazade. It’s 1000 and 1 Nights.

DP: It was the only way for me to ensure that she wouldn’t do anything, because she was a prideful, intelligent woman. And so if she made the commitment to come back and see me the next day, she would come back and see me the next day. So that’s where the idea for that book came from.

When I was planning Phantom Limb, I knew I wanted it to be about the kidnapping of a patient. I thought, why don’t I have her kidnapped right outside the office, after she has come in and said that she is going to kill herself.

LB: Wow. That is a fantastic story. And it just shows that life is at least as strange as fiction.

DP: Oh, absolutely. In fact, in my 28 years here, working with patients, I’ve heard some stories that you could not use in a novel because they have no verisimilitude. You would not believe them.

LB: Now you’re writing, you’re still writing short stories, though, in addition to writing your novels?

DP: Yes, in fact I’m very pleased, I have, my first Daniel Rinaldi short story is going to appear in February. My publisher, Poison Pen Press, their 20th anniversary as a publisher is in 2017, and they’re releasing an anthology with some of their mystery authors writing short stories. And so I wrote a short story about Daniel Rinaldi that I really like and it will be appearing in the anthology.

But as you know, I’ve also written other short stories. In fact, “A Theory of Murder,” the one I sent you, and a lot of my short stories have been collected in a book called From Crime to Crime. It has about 12 of my short stories in it.

LB: And “A Theory of Murder” is in that one?

DP: Yes, “A Theory of Murder” is in that one. Also, “A Theory of Murder” was also published in Lorie Ham’s Kings River Magazine, this wonderful online magazine she has. She’s published about 12 of my short stories so far, I think.

LB: That’s fantastic. And I’m going to link to that because, just to plug it for a minute, it did make a list of one of the 10 Best Stories of this year.

DP: Yeah. I wasn’t going to say that, but thank you for saying it. Yes, “A Theory of Murder” made Robert Lopresti’s list of 10 Best Mystery Short Stories. I’m flabbergasted but very, very pleased.

LB: Well, I’ll have the link to that in the show notes, too. I want to ask: I guess I can see how being a therapist would inform your writing, but do you feel that your writing informs your therapy at all?

DP: Absolutely. Primarily because I’ve been writing over 45 years, professionally. And so, when a patient comes in and says, “Gee, I’m really anxious when I pitch ideas to a producer,” well, I’ve pitched a thousand ideas to producers over the years. I know exactly what that anxiety is like. I struggle with writer’s block, I’ve struggled with procrastination, I’ve struggled with anxiety, depression, fear of failure, all of those things. So, while each patient’s struggles are particular and unique to him or her, because primarily, most writers’ writing struggles are inextricably bound to their personal issues and family of origin issues and the dynamics in their childhood have so much to do with the writing struggles that they have. But while they’re each unique, the actual thing itself, whether it’s blocks or procrastination, I’ve gone through my own personal struggles with those things. So I can relate very clearly to what my patients are struggling with. And I think that’s how having been a writer for so many years, and still writing, I can relate to all the kinds of issues that my patients bring to me.

LB: So, what is next for you and for Danny?

DP: Well, I’m working on another Daniel Rinaldi book. You know, it’s funny. I’m a full-time therapist, I have a full practice and so I don’t have the kind of time I wish I had, so I could put out a Rinaldi book every year or something. My books are like 2 ½ years to 3 years apart because I just don’t have as much time to write. I wish I did, but I don’t. And so they’re spaced out about every 2 ½ – 3 years, so I’m hoping to have my next novel out either the end of 2017 or the beginning of 2018.

LB: I just, actually, did an interview with Vicki Delany, who has, at this point, 27 books out. But she started writing when she was a single mom with a full-time job.

DP: Wow.

LB: It took her four years to write her first book. Sunday afternoons, that was her writing time.

DP: Yeah, I write at lunch and on the weekends. It’s hard, especially, too, on the weekends because I’m a big NFL fan.

LB: Oh, no!

DP: That really cuts into my writing time. Especially the Steelers. If the Steelers don’t win, that Sunday is shot for me.

LB: Anyone who wants to learn more about you and your work and your books can do so on your website, which is DennisPalumbo.com, correct?

DP: That’s right.

LB: And I guess, while we’re waiting for your next book, we will just have to make do with the four wonderful ones currently in the series.

DP: And the short story coming up in February.

LB: And the short story coming up in February. Excellent. Thank you for being here. It was a great joy.

DP: Well, thank you so much, Laura. And I really, really appreciate your having me on the show.