Barbara Hodges: An Interview with Dennis Palumbo
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.” Currently he writes the “Hollywood on the Couch” column for the Psychology Today website.
Dennis conducts workshops throughout the country and overseas, at both clinical symposia and writing conference. (A list of recent appearances is available on request.)
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. He’s also appeared numerous times on Between the Lines, the PBS author interview show.
A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Pepperdine University, he served on the faculty of UCLA Extension, where he was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year.
BMH: What is something you wish someone would have told you before you became an author?
DP: That in today’s marketplace, the book author has to do an incredible amount of self-promotion. In my former writing career (as a Hollywood screenwriter), that was all handled by the TV networks and movie studios. The hard part was just getting the job and surviving the tortuous process of getting something on the air or in the movie theater.
BMH: Why did you become a writer?
DP: Hard to say. It felt more like a calling than a choice.
BMH: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
DP: By high school, I knew I wanted to write. However, until college (at the University of Pittsburgh), I’d never actually met a working writer, nor any peer who also wanted to be one. That’s why I started out as an engineering major (!), then switched over to the English Department.
BMH: Do you have a daily writing routine?
DP: Since I have a day job as a full-time licensed psychotherapist, it’s hard to keep to a firm schedule. Which is one of the reasons that, unlike my mystery writing colleagues, I only turn out a new Daniel Rinaldi thriller every three to four years.
BMH: Why crime fiction?
DP: Ever since my Dad bought me the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes when I was ten years old and home sick from school, I’ve been hooked on the genre. Maybe because I like strong characters in intense situations. I also like trying to figure out the puzzles.
BMH: Have you written in other genres?
DP: Yes. I was a Hollywood film and TV writer (MY FAVORITE YEAR; WELCOME BACK, KOTTER, etc.) for 17 years before retiring to go back to grad school and train to be a therapist. In those years I mostly wrote comedy. However, I also wrote a novel, CITY WARS (Bantam Books) that was my one and only foray into science fiction. I’ve also written a nonfiction book about dealing with the psychological aspects of the writer’s life, based on my 27 years working as a therapist specializing in treating writers. It’s called WRITING FROM THE INSIDE OUT (John Wiley & Sons).
BMH: What is something you’ve never written about, but hope to some day?
DP: I think I’d try to write a play at some point. I don’t know if I’d be any good at it, but I do think about it. Probably because I so enjoy writing dialogue.
BMH: What two words best describes your writing style?
DP: Maybe “visceral and propulsive,” but that’s only when it’s going well! Otherwise I’d have to go with “self-indulgent and hurried.”
BMH: What comes first for you, characters or plot?
DP: Characters, always. I believe in Henry James’ description of plot: that it’s characters under stress.
BMH: How do you create your characters?
DP: There’s no blueprint for it. I usually just see a particular person in a particular situation, start writing, and see how he or she got into that situation.
BMH: Outliner, seat-of-your-pants writer, or a mix of both?
DP: Total seat-of-my-pants writer. In my crime novels, I start with no idea who either the victim or the killer is going to be. I like to let my writing flow organically. Of course, this means I have to go back and re-write a lot, to make sure things line up. But that’s okay, I’d always rather write than think.
BMH: How much editing do you do as you write your first draft?
DP: Not much, since I’m essentially making it up as I go along. I’m a firm believer in the fact that you don’t actually know what book you’re writing until you finish the first draft. It tells you what needs to be done to the plot, what characters really pop (as opposed to the ones you THOUGHT would do so), where to tighten things up and where to loosen them, etc. I think that if you’re doing it right, you and the text sort of co-create the book. You respond to where it’s going, and then it responds to your editing. If that makes any sense.
BMH: What authors influenced you the most?
DP: Too many to mention. But the list would include Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, Patricia Highsmith. Non-genre favorites include Scott Fitzgerald, Joan Didion, Phillip Roth, and, in particular, John Fowles.
BMH: How do you handle research?
DP: I don’t do any until I’ve finished the first draft. Then I do the minimum necessary for accuracy and verisimilitude. As both an author and a psychotherapist, I always try to ensure that I’m depicting the reality of therapeutic treatment (and the state of the current mental health system) as accurately as possible.
BMH: How do you handle marketing?
DP: Certainly not as well as I should. For one thing, with a busy therapy practice, I don’t have much time. I must admit, however, I also haven’t investigated all the avenues for marketing available today. Part of my nature rebels against it, I guess.
BMH: You can go back in time, meet and chat with anyone, who would it be? What would you talk about?
DP: Again, too many to name. Emily Dickenson, Thoreau, Jane Austen, and Emerson come to mind quickly. Hawthorne and Melville. But especially Joseph Conrad. That covers the writers (with whom I’d talk about writing). Maybe some of the Continental philosophers (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein). Probably not a lot of laughs, but interesting as hell.
BMH: You are going to be alone on a desert island, what three things will you take with you?
DP: Assuming Internet access, my laptop, my paperback of Emerson’s Essays, and a flare gun to alert passing ships of my presence.
BMH: How big a part did your upbringing have on your writing?
DP: As a psychotherapist, I’m aware of the crucial role our childhood experiences and the communication dynamics in our family of origin have on our self-concept later in life. Since these experiences (and the meaning we give them) are inextricably bound up in our creative work, I believe our upbringing plays an enormous role in our desire to write, what we choose to write about, and how we write it. It also influences how we deal with the response to our writing, both positive and negative.
In terms of content, since my Daniel Rinaldi mysteries are set in Pittsburgh, and feature an Italian-American therapist with a beard and glasses who grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Pitt, I’d say my writing in that regard is quite influenced by my upbringing!
BMH: How about some hard-earned advice.
DP: Don’t follow trends. As a writer, keep giving them YOU until YOU is what they want.