"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
Welcome Back to Gotham City Interview with Dennis Palumbo
Dennis, you’re a Pittsburgh native but now have a psychotherapy practice in Los Angeles. I can understand why you’d want to place the Daniel Rinaldi thrillers in the Steel City. Are there any plans for sending Rinaldi to LA in the future?
Not at the moment, but you never know. The Eastern guy experiencing LA for the first time has been done to death, so I’d have to come up with a pretty compelling reason to send Daniel Rinaldi to the City of Angels.
Like you, Rinaldi’s a psychologist from Pittsburgh. But rather than merely grafting some of your experience onto your protagonist, you’re using your three decades of being a licensed psychotherapist to make you a better writer. Almost exactly two years ago, you’d written an article for The Strand Magazine saying how, precisely, being a psychologist has made you a better writer. It’s one thing to analyze a living human mind and another entirely to analyze one that you first have to create within yet outside your own. Which is more difficult for you?
Well, I find doing therapy and writing to be similar in that both are difficult but satisfying. In the clinical setting, one of the most crucial traits for a therapist is the ability not only to empathize with a patient but to relate to that patient. In other words, the therapist has to take ownership him- or herself of many of the same feeling states and core meanings that the patient exhibits. I believe the same is true when crafting characters. In my view, all writing (whether fictional or nonfictional, and regardless of genre or medium) is autobiographical. The characters in my Rinaldi mysteries are all birthed from within my own psyche, and represent my own experiences, prejudices, virtues and vices. Even the bad guys! I sincerely believe that the more a writer mines his or her own feelings and beliefs, the more personally relevant the writing becomes, which translates to the narrative being more compelling to the reader. As Emerson said, “To believe that what is true in your own heart is true for everyone---that is genius.”
Every hero has a weakness. What’s Rinaldi’s demon, his nemesis?
He has several. In general, he certainly drinks too much and can be a real smartass when dealing with authority figures, both among his clinical colleagues and with the Pittsburgh Police officials with whom he works. He’s very stubborn, can be quick to anger, and sometimes resorts to fairly unconventional means as a therapist in pursuit of helping his patients. Many of his professional colleagues view him as a maverick, which doesn’t bother him one bit.
At a deeper level, he still struggles with survival guilt, having survived a murderous assault that killed his wife but left him alive. Having been an amateur boxer in his youth, Rinaldi feels he should have been able to stop the assailant. But, more to the point, having survived at all has fed his survival guilt to such an extent that friends and colleagues fear he has a “hero complex” or “death wish.” So besides his clinical specialty of treating victims of violent crime---who often struggle with the classic symptoms of PTSD---he tends to see his work as a kind of “mission” that results in his getting involved in high-profile criminal cases, despite the protest of the Pittsburgh PD.
Have any of your patients ever made their way into one of your novels?
Not directly, no. However, the issues that patients with whom I’ve worked have had to address---both in my private practice and my internship at a private psychiatric clinic---
show up in all of my novels. From depression and anxiety to substance use and relationship crises, emotional and psychological issues underlie the themes of all of my stories. Because I write mystery thrillers, these issues are enhanced or exaggerated for dramatic effect, and to sharpen the edges of my characters, but I try not to stray too far from reality. In other words, when I portray a narcissist or sociopath, I make the portrait as accurate as I can, just as I try to describe the trauma symptoms (PTSD, etc.) that arise from horrific personal events as realistically as possible.
Your career arc is almost a complete circle. You started out as a TV and screenwriter, then you became a psychotherapist before deciding to take up novel writing. Was this a deliberate circular route or did you just fall back into the writing game?
None of my career path was planned, though it does have the circularity you mentioned. In college, my goal was to be a novelist. However, when I also discovered a love for film and TV, I moved to Los Angeles to pursue those goals. I was very lucky in my Hollywood career, and when I retired to go back to grad school and become a licensed therapist, I thought my writing days were behind me. But the bug never went away, and after building up my private practice, I started writing short stories and essays, until finally getting the opportunity to do what I’d originally intended, which was to write novels. Since I’d loved mysteries since my Dad bought me “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” when I was home sick from school, I figured why not create a series character? And that’s how Daniel Rinaldi came to be. Perhaps most gratifying is that doing the series allows me to write about two things that I love: my hometown of Pittsburgh and the profession of psychology. They both provide (to me, at least!) a fascinating world from which to fashion suspenseful, complex thrillers.
Put yourself on the couch for a moment. You’d written an essay explaining how being a psychologist has made you a better novelist. But is the reverse true? Has being a novelist made you a better psychotherapist dealing with other creative types?
It’s hard to say, since most of my patients are in the entertainment industry, and so I tend to think that it’s my own seventeen-year experience in Hollywood that offers me a unique perspective when dealing with these patients. But I’m sure that in ways too difficult to quantify, my dozen years as a series novelist has given me an even deeper appreciation of the struggles all creative types go through. Including me.
In an earlier interview, you mentioned a pivotal “Road to Damascus” epiphany after a talk with a Hollywood producer and it led you to abandon your TV and film work and devote yourself exclusively to your patients. So was there a similar turning point that led you to get back into writing or did you know you were temporarily lying fallow?
As I mentioned above, I did think that after attaining my clinical license and going into private practice my writing life was behind me. But after being asked to contribute an article about writing to WRITTEN BY (the magazine of the Writers Guild of America), I realized my love for putting one word after the other had never gone away. That article led to a monthly column in the magazine (called “The Writer’s Life”) which addressed the issues most writers struggle with: blocks, procrastination, rejection, fears of failure, etc. Then the column led to a book called WRITING FROM THE INSIDE OUT. By now, I’d returned to submitting mystery short stories to various magazines, something I’d done even throughout my show business career. So I think it was a natural leap to the idea of writing books, particularly a mystery series.
You co-wrote My Favorite Year (a nominee for a Writers’ Guild of America award). As a young screenwriter, how did it feel hearing Joseph Bologna and Peter O’Toole speaking your dialogue for the first time?
Pretty amazing, though it’s important to remember a film is a group effort. Not only was the script co-written by Norman Steinberg, but there was the usual amount of ad-libbing and other creative bursts while the film was being shot.
Was O’Toole’s character Alan Swann based on a specific actor you knew in Hollywood, was he an amalgam of several or was he pure fiction?
That’s an easy one. The character is wholly based on Errol Flynn, my Dad’s favorite movie star. I remember watching the Late Show on TV with him, where he’d introduced me to The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood. I wrote the first draft of the script specifically for Peter O’Toole, an actor I’d always loved. There were, of course, many fictional aspects woven into the script. For example, while the film explores what happens when an Errol Flynn-like character is booked to appear on a TV show modeled on Your Show of Shows, in reality Flynn was never a guest on the actual real-life program.
I know you’re juggling a psychotherapy career with running your personal life and several other commitments but what’s your typical writing day like? Do you set word goals, use a notebook, laptop or a combination of both?
I’m afraid I’m not that organized! Given the weight of a full therapy practice, I write whenever I can squeeze in an hour or two, which is why so many years go by between Daniel Rinaldi novels. I know my crime-writing colleagues often turn out a book a year (and sometimes two!), a situation I can only dream about. On the other hand, I like the balance that I have to maintain between my two careers. Especially, as I’ve alluded to above, I believe one feeds the other. In terms of writing tools, I write directly on my laptop.
Is Daniel Rinaldi the only series on the horizon or are you mulling/planning another?
Believe me, I’m amazed that I’ve turned out five books in the Rinaldi series so far. The thought of considering another series gives me a headache. But if I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that my crystal ball has a lot of cracks in it, so my predictions about the future aren’t to be trusted.
I already know the answer to this since I’ve read your old interviews but for the readers at home, are you a plotter, pantser or plantser?
Definitely a pantser. I literally have no idea what each Rinaldi book is going to be about when I start. I tend to pick a murder victim about fifty-sixty pages in, and then figure out the culprit by about page 200. Then, of course, I have to go back and seed in all the clues, red herrings, etc. It’s funny, because often readers tell me they love the twists and turns in my narratives, the unexpected surprises, etc. What they don’t know is that these twists and turns come as a surprise to me, too! They just announce themselves to me as I’m writing. Obviously, this approach isn’t for everyone, since it’s clumsy and requires a lot of re-writing. But I don’t mind, since I’d rather write than think.
Since the first entry in the Rinaldi series, Mirror Image, debuted a decade ago, you’ve gotten plaudits from luminaries in the mystery-writing community such as John Lescroart, Thomas Perry, Stephen J. Cannell, T. Jefferson Parker and Ridley Pearson, to name just a few. You’ve been with Poisoned Pen Press the whole time. But if a Big Fiver comes calling, what do you think you’d do?
Tough question, since Poisoned Pen Press has become an imprint of SourceBooks, a much bigger publishing entity. In terms of publisher, I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I remain a huge fan of the people at PPP who’ve remained since the changeover and hope it will continue to be a good fit.
If Daniel Rinaldi had you on the couch, what do you think he’d first ask you?
“Some of the crimes and situations in your stories are so horrific, Mr. Palumbo, I’m worried about you. Are you all right?” If I were to guess, I’d suspect that further therapeutic investigation would suggest that my intense, suspenseful books are a way to explore and expiate my own darkest impulses in a safe, contained way.
What’s next for Doctors Palumbo and Rinaldi?
I’ll have to ask Dr. Rinaldi and get back to you. As you can imagine, he’s a very busy man and not so easy to reach.