Dennis Palumbo’s love of writing took him to Hollywood, where he enjoyed a successful career as a screenwriter, with credits that include the feature film MY FAVORITE YEAR. He was also a staff writer on the television series WELCOME BACK, KOTTER and wrote episodes and pilots for other series.
Eventually, his interest turned to psychotherapy, and after training he developed a private practice specializing in helping show business clients deal with creative issues. He never stopped writing, though. His first novel, CITY WARS, was published by Bantam, and his short fiction has appeared in ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, THE STRAND and elsewhere. He contributes articles and reviews to national publications, and his popular Hollywood on the Couch column for writers and other creative artists appears on the PSYCHOLOGY TODAY website. He is also the author of WRITING FROM THE INSIDE OUT and the mystery short story collection FROM CRIME TO CRIME.
With MIRROR IMAGE (2010), Palumbo began his popular and critically praised thriller series featuring psychologist Daniel Rinaldi and set in the author’s hometown, Pittsburgh. BOOKLIST called the second in the series, FEVER DREAM, “a smart, strong read” and KIRKUS REVIEWS described Rinaldi as “Jack Reacher with a psychology degree.”
In NIGHT TERRORS, Palumbo delivers another compelling tale, as Rinaldi works with two difficult clients who couldn’t be more different: one is a former FBI profiler who is tormented by grisly memories and pursued by a murderer bent on revenge; the other is a loathsome confessed killer whose mother believes he is innocent and wants Rinaldi to prove it. PUBLISHERS WEEKLY calls NIGHT TERRORS “riveting” and KIRKUS REVIEWS notes, “Some thrillers are beach reads. Palumbo’s are strictly for late at night and for readers who have no pressing engagements early the next day.”
In a recent interview, Palumbo talked about NIGHT TERRORS, his protagonist, and his writing life.
First, the inevitable question: Is Daniel Rinaldi a fictional version of Dennis Palumbo? What qualities does he share with you, and how do the two of you differ? Does he have attributes that you envy?
Rinaldi both is and isn’t a fictional version of me. We certainly share biographical data—both Italian-American, born and raised in Pittsburgh, and graduates of the University of Pittsburgh. As therapists, we also share theoretical beliefs and treatment techniques, along with a fair amount of skepticism about much in the psychotherapy field. Particularly when it comes to the pervasive use of diagnostic categories to label people: to try to define, limit or explain away every idiosyncratic or contrary response of individuals. As if anyone has a clue as to what constitutes “normal.”
But there, my similarity with Daniel ends. He’s a former amateur boxer, for one thing.
He’s also a lot more brave and resourceful than I am. Most of the things he encounters would have me running for the hills! So I guess I envy his courage, even though, in the books, his friends and colleagues consider some of his actions merely foolhardy.
When you decided to write a crime fiction series about a therapist, did you consider using Hollywood as your setting? Why did you rule it out and place Rinaldi’s practice in gritty Pittsburgh instead?
I never considered using Hollywood, because—much like the rest of Southern California—it’s been over-used as an arena for crime fiction. On the other hand, I feel that mid-Atlantic states like Pennsylvania, and mid-sized cities like Pittsburgh, haven’t been exploited as much as they could be. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I love Pittsburgh, and have fond memories of the kind of childhood a kid could have in a tight-knit, ethnically-diverse community like that.
Moreover, there’s the wonderful dichotomy of the “old” Pittsburgh—steel mills, smokestacks, coal barges gliding along the Three Rivers at night—in contrast to the new, gentrified Pittsburgh, with its world-class hospitals and universities, its pioneering role in organ transplants and nanotechnology. As I like to say, it’s a shot-and-a-beer town colliding with the Information Age. Blue collars being exchanged for white ones, with all the unease and uncertainty that implies. It’s a rich, complex, vibrant setting for a contemporary crime series.
I assume you don’t have a lot of serial killers and outright psychopaths as patients in your Hollywood practice. How did you develop and deepen your understanding of such people and the crimes they commit?
Well, the joke answer is, after twenty years as a Hollywood screenwriter, dealing regularly with movie producers and network executives, I already had plenty of experience dealing with psychopaths. Seriously, I guess I’ve done a fair amount of research on the topic. Though I’ve always maintained that every type of character, no matter how heinous or irrational, that a writer can imagine is already inside him or her. Within every writer, I believe, is a nun and a serial killer, a hermit and a vampire, a faithful spouse and a callous infidel. Everything encompassed by the human condition is available to the writer, is something to be acknowledged and explored. A good writer, to borrow a phrase, “contains multitudes.”
In NIGHT TERRORS, you explore a topic that many people probably wonder about: How do criminal profilers, who crawl into the minds of the world’s most repugnant killers, live with the things they’ve seen and heard? How did you learn about the emotional burdens of their work? What do you think sets them apart from other law enforcement personnel?
I’ve read interviews with profilers, and also read memoirs that a few have written.
There’s no question that the work comes with its full share of emotional burden, and burn-out is a significant issue. But curiosity about the human condition, as well as a desire to excavate evil to its very roots, tends to be the overarching motivation for those called to this work. Of course, as is also true about therapists, it would be a mistake to overlook whatever unique, perhaps dysfunctional childhood dynamics fed this desire to explore the darkest corners of the human mind. I won’t presume here to discuss what these dynamics might be, and I’m sure they are as different as each profiler is different from one another. But I feel pretty confident they’re there. As to what sets them apart from other law enforcement personnel, that’s a tough question. The simple answer is: cops and Feds want to catch the bad guy, profilers want to understand them.
You construct complex plots – all those twists and turns that readers love — without sacrificing a satisfying psychological depth. How does a story take shape for you? Do you spend a lot of time on pre-writing planning? Are you ever surprised by unexpected developments or revelations that crop up in the course of writing?
I have to confess—I never plan or outline a novel. I start with characters who seem to come to me, people with significant issues, for whom large things are at stake. Which means I’m not only surprised a lot by unexpected developments and revelations, but I also go down blind alleys and make wrong turns. But I don’t mind this. I like the discovery inherent in that kind of writing.
The truth is, I rarely know who the victim is when I start a new novel, and never know the identity of the killer or killers until far into the book. Then I have to go back and plant the appropriate seeds, red herrings, and misleading conversations. So there’s a lot of groping when I write, if you know what I mean. But I suppose I’m used to it. I also like something the novelist E.L. Doctorow once said about writing a book. He said it was like driving down a dark, twisting road at night. Your headlights only show you ten feet ahead at a time, but sooner or later you get home.
Readers have grown used to seeing corrupt cops and psychopathic psychiatrists in novels, movies, and TV dramas. Do you think writers are playing on the reader’s natural fear of being betrayed by someone they trust? Or do these characters reflect a genuinely negative public opinion of police officers and therapists?
I think both notions have some truth in them. We’re certainly a more cynical culture now, with pretty low expectations of our authority figures. Especially of the male persuasion. The days of unquestioned patriarchal authority are over. We don’t much trust male politicians, doctors, shrinks, and—let’s face it— priests. But as women assume greater positions of authority, they’re also being routinely looked at with suspicion. Take bankers and hedge fund managers, for example. Whether male or female, we don’t trust them. So, for a writer, detailing how people in positions of power betray the trust of those around them is a sure-fire way to engage the reader’s interest and understanding.
One interesting side note: When it comes to the police, as well as firefighters and other first responders, I believe there’s been a renewed respect and appreciation for their efforts. Certainly with regards traumatic events like terrorist attacks and mass killings.
Unlike almost every other governmental or civil authority, we’re glad they’re there.
Your novels are complex, atmospheric and richly descriptive – very different from screenplays. But do you use some screenwriting techniques in your book-length fiction? Can you give an example of how screenwriting has influenced your books?
First of all, thanks for the kind words about my work. As to using techniques I learned as a Hollywood screenwriter, the two aspects of that form that come to mind are a respect for pacing, and a love of good, realistic dialogue. I hear from readers all the time that one of the things they like about my books is the verbal jousting that often occurs between my characters, and particularly the use of humor. I owe much of that skill, such as it is, to my years in television and film.
How do you manage a full-time practice, personal appearances, and a prodigious writing output of both fiction and nonfiction? What is your schedule like? If you had to give up one thing for the sake of your personal life, what would you sacrifice?
Who says I manage it all? Ten minutes after I wake up in the morning, I already feel like I’m three hours behind. To be candid, my life is a real balancing act, one that I don’t always handle with aplomb. But I like being busy, even a tad over-committed.
In terms of schedule, I have a full-time private therapy practice, seeing patients every day from 8 AM till 6 PM. But I also write every day, usually at lunch, and, very occasionally, in the evenings and on weekends. Which is why, unlike most other series novelists who churn out a book (or two!) a year, each new Daniel Rinaldi book takes at least a couple years. Somehow, I also manage to sneak in the occasional blog for THE HUFFINGTON POST and the PSYCHOLOGY TODAY website.
And while I do book signings and whatever media I can get when I have a new book coming out, I only attend a few writing conferences a year. I’d like to attend more, but my life doesn’t make much room for them. My personal life includes a wife, a teenage son, a neurotic though loving Doberman, three cats, and an addiction to watching depressing documentaries on PBS.
Finally, as to what I’d give up for the sake of my personal life, I’d probably just try to cut back a bit on everything. I love being a therapist, so I guess I’d see fewer patients. I love writing, so I guess I’d just do less of it. I suppose I’d also be willing to skip a depressing documentary or two, but only as a last-ditch measure
What writing projects do you have in the works now?
At the moment, in addition to providing some blogs for mystery sites and doing Q&A sessions like this one—all in support of NIGHT TERRORS—I’m also noodling ideas for the fourth Rinaldi book. As I mentioned, I don’t start until I get a sense of some of the characters, and how they might intersect with Rinaldi’s world.
Plus I always like to explore certain issues in the psychology field. Schizophrenia, suicide, sleep disorders, the current state of mental health treatment. These issues, and what I think about them, provide the background for whatever story I want to tell. Who kills who, and why, all comes later.
Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter, Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. He is the author of a mystery collection, FROM CRIME TO CRIME. His short fiction has appeared in ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE, THE STRAND, and elsewhere. Dennis Palumbo is also the author of two previous releases in the Daniel Rinaldi series, MIRROR IMAGE and FEVER DREAM.
To learn more about Dennis, please visit his website.