Once again, I’ve found myself acquainted with a very famous writer.
Dennis Palumbo has been a screenwriter, a teacher and a writer of non-fiction articles. He is a blogger, a mystery writer and a writer of thrillers, plus he writes a column for Psychology Today and contributes to other publications. He conducts seminars. He is a psychologist with a private practice. Yet, with all of this going on, he still takes time to comment with me on FB and we’ve had conversations on Messenger. (Does the man ever sleep?)
Once again, my guest is a gentleman from Pittsburgh.
(They raise them right in Pennsylvania.)
While I could go all Fan-Girl on Dennis, I’ll try to keep it to a minimum. I found myself talking more than usual for this post. All of you, please bear with me.
Q: Do you still teach in a class setting?
A: Not anymore. As you may know, I taught screenwriting for many years at UCLA Extension here in Los Angeles. But as my therapy practice grew (as well as my family), and I began my series of mystery novels, there simply wasn’t enough time to give my writing students the care and attention they deserved.
Q: Will you tell us about a little your home life, (assuming you have time for one)?
A: Well, it’s changed a bit since our son went off to college (and now grad school) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before that, it was my wife and I raising him, along with various dogs, cats and twenty or thirty quail (long story!). We were also active in his school events. We’re weren’t exactly helicopter parents, but certainly calling us at least fly-by types wouldn’t be off the mark. Now, after struggling a bit with empty nest syndrome, we’ve leveled off. Sort of.
Q: Your Daniel Rinaldi Mysteries are about an Italian-American psychologist who works with the Pittsburgh police, (talk about writing what you know!)
A: Tell me about it! Like his author, Dr. Rinaldi was born and raised in a blue-collar, Italian-American family in Pittsburgh. Also like his author, he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, wears a beard and glasses, and loves classic jazz. On the other hand, unlike his author, Rinaldi is a former amateur boxer and often inclined to find himself in the middle of some high-profile police investigation. Truthfully, the stuff my protagonist gets involved in would have me running for the hills!
Q: From Crime to Crime is a compilation of short stories which were originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand, and other prestigious publications. Dennis, how do you do the research for the police and medical details for your works?
A: Pretty much the way most mystery writers do—I watch a lot of Law and Order reruns. Seriously, I do a fair amount of research into police procedures online, and by running a question or two past a former police detective I know. In terms of the clinical details in my Daniel Rinaldi novels, not only have I been in private practice for almost 30 years, but I did internships at both a psychiatric hospital and a family clinic. I’m also a voracious reader of the current clinical literature.
One of the defining characteristics of my Rinaldi books is the behind-the-curtain look at what goes on in a therapist’s mind as he or she works with a patient. I also use the novels as a vehicle to explore the current state of the mental health system. Though the accent in my series is on mystery and suspense, the day job of my psychologist hero affords me a lot of opportunity to explore these areas.
Q: When did you decide to do a full mystery novel? Had you intended to write a series from the start, or did Daniel ask for more?
A: From the time I first discovered Sherlock Holmes, at the tender age of twelve, I knew I wanted to create a series character someday. Though it took many, many years to finally do it. In my case, it was after a long career as a TV and film writer, and nearly twenty years into my current job as a therapist. Though I’d written and published a fair number of short stories, and even a science fiction novel (City Wars, Bantam Books), the debut Daniel Rinaldi novel, Mirror Image, was my first mystery novel. There have been four additional books so far, the most recent being Head Wounds. All from Poisoned Pen Press.
Q: What made you decide to formally study psychology?
A: Here’s the condensed version: while still a working screenwriter I began psychotherapy as a patient and instantly fell in love with the process. As a result, I started taking graduate courses in clinical treatment. At the time, I just figured it couldn’t hurt for a writer to have a better grasp of psychological issues, in terms of character motivation, emotional trauma, etc. But as time went on, I took more and more classes. Meanwhile, I’d begun working as a clinical intern and became even more invested in the work. After six years of study and internship (all while still working as a Hollywood writer), I received my graduate degree and passed the clinical tests. Frankly, it wasn’t until then that I finally had to admit to myself that I wanted to leave screenwriting and begin a new career as a licensed psychotherapist.
Q: Was there any defining moment that made you leave screenwriting to concentrate on your psychotherapy practice?
A: As a matter of fact, there was. I was having lunch with a Hollywood producer at this restaurant on Sunset Boulevard (now there’s a cliched sentence!) and he was pitching me a film he wanted me to write. During which I kept glancing at my watch, afraid that I’d be late for my duties at the private psychiatric hospital where I was interning. (He, like everyone else during that time, knew nothing about this.) Finally, when lunch was over, and I was driving down La Cienega Boulevard like a madman, I had my “Road to Damascus” experience: I realized I couldn’t wait to get to the hospital and see the patients. At that precise moment, I knew I wanted to completely change my life. To retire from film and TV writing to become a full-time therapist. Which is what I did.
Q: Dennis, I was surprised when I learned that you co-wrote (with Norman Steinberg) the screenplay of the wonderful movie, My Favorite Year. [Fan-Girl Squeal! The writing, (which was nominated for a Writers’ Guild of America award, congratulations, Sir!), Joe Bologna, Mark-Linn Baker…and where do I even start on Peter O’Toole???] Did you tailor the script to suit the cast?
A: Well, when I was writing the first draft, I told the producer that I had Peter O’Toole in mind for the lead role. However, by the time Norman had come aboard and a different studio became involved, the script was offered to other actors. The truth is, O’Toole wasn’t what was considered “bankable” at the time. Luckily, he was subsequently nominated that year for an Oscar as Best Actor for his role in The Stunt Man, which meant he was now “bankable”…at least for a few months. (Hollywood has a short memory.) Anyway, he was more than perfect in the part. In my view, the film owes whatever merits it has to his performance.
Q: How did you get from Pittsburgh to your first break in Hollywood screenwriting for Welcome Back, Kotter?
A: Another long story which I’ll try to condense: soon after I first arrived in Los Angeles, I had the great good fortune to team up with another wannabe TV writer named Mark Evanier. We wrote a couple spec scripts (these are sample scripts of current TV series) and soon after got signed to a talent agency. At the same time, while we were hustling our work, I got hired by Kotter star Gabriel Kaplan to go on the road with him and write jokes. (He’d seen my stand-up act at the Comedy Store; afterwards, he said I was a funny writer but a terrible comic. He was certainly right about the second part.
Not long after, Mark and I had our first actual writing assignment as a team, working on the series debut episode of Love Boat (don’t laugh, I just got a 13-cent residual check for that episode from the Balkans). Then we were hired as Story Editors on Kotter. It was a great learning experience and a lot of fun.
Q: Since your column on the Psychology Today website is entitled “Hollywood on the Couch,” the bulk of your therapy patients are obviously ‘in The Business’. Most of those who read our blog are writers; we are all familiar with the pain of rejection, self-doubt and other creativity-related problems. I assume that those who seek your counsel have many of the same troubles which we ‘peasants’ experience, but can you tell us the ‘unique-to-Hollywood’ problems that you hear?
A: As you surmised, most of my writer patients struggle with those creative issues you’ve listed. Especially writers’ “blocks” and procrastination. In my experience, these and other issues of the creative life—anxiety, depression, substance use, etc.—are inextricably bound up in the writer’s personal life. Which means their childhood experiences, the dynamics of their family of origin, the state of their current relationships (or lack thereof), and the like.
What makes a Hollywood creative type somewhat unique are that his or her struggles are sometimes accompanied by the envy of other creatives’ success (which are loudly trumpeted in the media), the often precarious relationship with their agents, and the particular economics of the business. Your career rises and falls based on box office results and TV ratings. And your successes and failures (both personal and professional) happen in the glare of the spotlight.
Q: Dennis, your columns and writing book are definitely not ‘how-to’ or preachy. Please let our readers know what you offer and what you hope to help people to achieve.
A: Simply put, it’s that you—the writer—are enough just as you are to become the writer you want to be. You don’t have to be smarter, more connected in the business, or have an MFA from some fancy school. You—with your doubts and fears, hopes and insecurities—are enough. After thirty years in practice, working with some of the most esteemed Emmy- and Oscar-winning writers, I can say one thing with total assurance: all successful writers used to be struggling writers, and all the successful ones still struggle. In other words, keep giving them YOU, until YOU is what they want.
Q: Your observation that the fear of further rejection is related to procrastination has been very helpful to me. I understand so much more now that I commented on one post: “I accept you as my mentor”. Your advice has truly had a profound effect on my attitude toward my writing.
A: Thanks so much for the kind words. And, yes, in my experience most often procrastination is caused by a fear of shameful self-exposure. The concern that what you write will be critiqued in such a way as to reaffirm damaging self-concepts that you may be struggling to resist.
Q: Actually, all of your advice could have applied to most of my life. I was inspired by your book (Writing From the Inside Out, John Wiley & Sons) to bring to a relative’s attention that which I realized long ago and we had a break-through moment. I wish that I had addressed this long ago. Thanks for encouraging me to open the door.
A: I’m so glad you found it helpful.
(Everyone, read Dennis’s works! Trust me!)
Q: Do you consider your main calling to be that of helping others find their own way?
A: I believe everybody has within themselves the ability to challenge many of the self-defeating behavior patterns and self-recriminating meanings that cause so much pain. When therapy’s going well, the patient and I work together to find the tools to help him or her grow in awareness, self-compassion and courage.
Q: Because so many of your articles have helped me to help myself, I ordered your book, Writing from the Inside Out. [Friends, the foreword is by no one less than Larry Gelbart.] At the time of this interview, I have only had stolen moments to read, but find it hard to tear myself away.
Dennis, you tell people let themselves embrace their own lives and experiences to be the writer which only they can be.
A: That’s right. Once I had a screenwriter patient who’d won an Oscar, and his only comment was, “Yeah, well, I’m no Billy Wilder.” My response whenever writers compare themselves unfavorably to famed writers like Jane Austin, Phillip Roth or Robert Towne is to remind them that those jobs have already been taken. By those respective writers. Like it or not, in the end each writer has to go his or her own way. Tell his or her own truth. Use all the feelings within themselves—the pain, joy, grief, rage, etc.—to tell their stories in the way only they can tell it.
The paradox of writing is that the more personal or idiosyncratic a feeling or narrative detail is, the more it generalizes out to the reader. As Emerson said, “To know that what is true for you in your private heart is true for everyone—that is genius.”
Q: In your writing, you are very forthcoming about your own issues, which is generous of you. At what point in your life did you become comfortable being so frank about your personal struggles?
A: Pretty well into late middle age, and that was due to many years of therapy. Also, to be even more frank, I’m often not as frank as I’d like to be. This is a hold-over from the dynamics of my own childhood, which left a considerable tendency toward shame, and sometimes makes me less forthcoming than I might be. The simple truth is, it depends on how I’m feeling when asked!
I think it comes down to this simple maxim, which I learned from my first therapist: the goal of therapy is to be okay with yourself; and when you’re not okay with yourself, that’s okay, too.
Q: I truly appreciate you taking the time to be do this interview, Dennis. My (Pennsylvania-Italian) mother used to quote one of her favorite writers, Elbert Hubbard: “If you want something done, ask a busy man to do it.” In this case, he was right.
A: Thanks, it was my pleasure. You asked some fascinating questions.
For those interested in my series of Daniel Rinaldi mysteries, please visit www.dennispalumbo.com
You can also reach me by email via the website. (Please read his posts-T)
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is a licensed psychotherapist and author. His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime. His series of mystery thrillers (the latest of which, Head Wounds, was named a “Best of 2018” by SUSPENSE MAGAZINE) features Daniel Rinaldi, a psychologist and trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police.
For more info, visit www.dennispalumbo.com