"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

Donis Casey Tell Me Your Story: Dennis Palumbo

Nobody can write psychological thrillers like Dennis Palumbo. Of course it helps that Dennis is a licensed psychotherapist whose work with creative people has been featured on CNN, NPR, THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES and elsewhere.

 Neither does it hurt that he is formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (“My Favorite Year”; “Welcome Back, Kotter”, etc.) He’s also the author of the popular nonfiction book, WRITING FROM THE INSIDE OUT. 

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 award-winning mystery thrillers (the latest of which is Panic Attack) feature Daniel Rinaldi, a psychologist and trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. 

Recently, Dennis served as Consulting Producer on the Hulu TV series THE PATIENT. I love love love his work, especially when I’m in the mood to read something that makes my hair stand on end! Check out Dennis’ work at www.dennispalumbo.com

My Story 

by Dennis Palumbo

Years ago, I wrote an essay called “Therapist By Day, Crime Writer By Night.” And there’s no denying that I’ve had an interesting career journey. For many years I was a Hollywood screenwriter, after which I became a licensed psychotherapist specializing in treating creative types in the entertainment community. Now, in addition to my private practice, some years back I fulfilled a life-long dream and published a series of crime novels.

I owe my love for mysteries to two things: my father and the mumps. You hardly hear about

the latter nowadays, but when I was a kid back in the late 1950’s it was all the rage. You had your sore throat, fever and, if you were like me, pretty intense self-pity. I hated being confined to bed, even if it meant getting to skip a week at St. Joseph’s Catholic School. Who were the nuns supposed to express their disappointment with if I weren’t there?

Then my father, a huge fan of Basil Rathbone’s screen depiction of the Great Detective, got me a hardcover, illustrated version of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I don’t think I’ve ever devoured a book so quickly. I became an instant fan of Holmes and Watson, and to this day the phrase “The game’s afoot!” gets my heart beating.

That was the beginning of a life-long love of mystery novels and short stories, as well as an adult fascination with film noir. Especially the rare great adaptations. I love both the book and film versions of THE MALTESE FALCON, DOUBLE INDEMNITY and (the original) THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE.

When it came time to go to college and declare a major, there were four careers acceptable to my Italian-American family: doctor, lawyer, engineer or—as a fall-back position—priest. Though by then I’d had dreams of becoming a writer, I was such a “good boy” that I dutifully entered the University of Pittsburgh as an engineering major. Unfortunately, I soon learned that there was math involved in that particular occupation, so—at the cost of much familial conflict—I switched majors to English.

After graduating, and a three-year stint in advertising, I convinced my first wife to move to Los Angeles so I could break into TV and film writing. I won’t recount that initial struggle, since it’s a pretty familiar story: odd jobs, unread spec scripts, money worries. But after teaming up with a much funnier writer named Mark Evanier, I ended up as a sitcom writer, initially on the ABC series WELCOME BACK, KOTTER. My marriage and my partnership with Mark both ended, amicably, at about the same time. After which I did some more TV work and then eventually got lucky enough to have my first feature, MY FAVORITE YEAR, produced. (Based on my original story, I share screenplay credit with the late Norman Steinberg.)

Now here’s where things get a bit weird. I’d been hired to write a screenplay for Robert Redford’s company, in which the actor would play a famous mountain climber. As part of the research, I lived in Nepal for many months, much of which I spent trekking in the Himalayas with a guide and two Sherpas. I must admit—and corny as it sounds—it was kind of a “Razor’s Edge” experience. Weary and depressed about the ups and downs of my show business career, constitutionally unsuited for the amount of hustling required, and disheartened by the overall bullshit, this research trip inspired me to contemplate making a change in my life.

Not that it was an easy decision. For one thing, on paper my Hollywood career was humming along nicely. There was no lack of writing assignments. Plus, to the few friends who knew I was considering a career change, I seemed to have lost my mind. Especially when they learned what I intended to do: become a licensed psychotherapist.

My own experience as a patient in therapy had prompted this decision, coupled with an interest in psychology and philosophy as life-long as my love of crime fiction. (A love that gave back. I’ll never forget the week I learned that Mark and I had been hired to write on staff for WELCOME BACK, KOTTER. It was the same week that I found out I’d sold my first short story to ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE.)

Anyway, things somewhat barreled along after that: graduate studies, years-long internships at therapy clinics and psych hospitals, a second marriage and fatherhood. I’ve been in private practice over thirty years now. But throughout all this, I continued writing and publishing mystery short stories, as well as a nonfiction book about the psychological issues that authors routinely contend with, called WRITING FROM THE INSIDE OUT.

Which brings me to my series of mystery thrillers featuring psychologist and police consultant Daniel Rinaldi. In my heart, I’ve remained that kid who fell in love with Sherlock Holmes and dreamed of creating a series character of my own. With the Rinaldi series, I got to write about the things that continue to engage me: the evolving city of Pittsburgh, where the series is set; the state of the mental health industry in modern times; the extent and types of psychological trauma that crime victims experience; and the opportunity to create mysteries with unexpected twists and turns. (For those taking notes, the first book in the series is MIRROR IMAGE; the most recent is called PANIC ATTACK.)

Anyway, if you’ve read this far, I thank you for your patience and indulgence. I consider myself to be extremely lucky in terms of my career journey. I’m so grateful to my former colleagues in Hollywood as well as my clinical colleagues today. And, most of all, I’m thankful for the hundreds of therapy patients, past and present, with whom I’m privileged to work every day.

Via Donis Casey - Write Errant

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