Dennis Palumbo, M.A., MFT is a writer and licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues. His newest crime novel, PHANTOM LIMB, is on sale now from Poisoned Pen Press. The book is the fourth in the series featuring psychologist and trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi.
The first Rinaldi mystery was MIRROR IMAGE, to be followed by FEVER DREAM and NIGHT TERRORS. Palumbo is also the author of WRITING FROM THE INSIDE OUT (John Wiley), as well as a collection of mystery short stories, FROM CRIME TO CRIME (Tallfellow Press).
He also blogs regularly for the Huffington Post, and writes the popular “Hollywood on the Couch” column for the PSYCHOLOGY TODAY website.
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.”
Dennis conducts workshops throughout the country. Recent appearances include the Family Therapy Network Annual Symposium, the Association for Humanistic Psychology, Cal State Northridge, the American Society of Journalists and Authors, PEN West, the Writers Guild Foundation, the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, Screenwriting Expo, USC, the Romance Writers of America, the Nieman Foundation, the Directors Guild, and UCLA.
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.
A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Pepperdine University, he serves on the faculty of UCLA Extension, where he was named Outstanding Teacher of the Year.
Omnimystery News interview
Dennis Palumbo: Please introduce us to Daniel Rinaldi.
Dennis Palumbo: My series character is Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, a psychologist and trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. His specialty is treating the victims of violent crime: those who’ve survived the kidnapping, the rape, or home invasion, but still suffer from the traumatic after-effects. Rinaldi himself suffered such a trauma when his wife was murdered during a mugging. Though he himself was also shot, Rinaldi lived and struggled with survivor guilt. Now his mission is to help others deal with their own trauma symptoms. However, he also manages to get involved in some of the crimes himself, much to the consternation of his police colleagues. There have been four books in the series so far: Mirror Image, Fever Dream, Night Terrors, and the latest, Phantom Limb.
OMN: How has the characters changed over the course of these four books?
DP: I’ve had my characters age and change, and plan to continue to do so. People get married, fall off the wagon, get romantically involved with other characters in the series, etc. In fact, if the comments I get from readers is any indication, they’re very interested in the lives of my supporting characters. Especially that of Noah Frye, a paranoid schizophrenic who also happens to be my lead character’s best friend; Sgt. Harry Polk, the detective who bumps heads with Daniel Rinaldi during each case, and Polk’s partner, Det. Eleanor Lowrey, with whom Rinaldi has an on-again/off-again romantic relationship.
OMN: Is Daniel Rinaldi based on anyone you know?
DP: Daniel Rinaldi bears a remarkable similarity to his author: both are Italian-American males, born and raised in Pittsburgh, and graduates of the University of Pittsburgh (the first in their respective families to go to college). We also share a beard and glasses, the same point of view about the mental health industry and how to conduct psychotherapy, and a love of jazz and the Steelers. However, Rinaldi is much cooler, braver and more resourceful than his author! He’s also a former amateur boxer, another aspect of his character where he and his creator part company.
OMN: Into which genre would you place this series?
DP: I would call them mystery thrillers, or crime thrillers.
OMN: Tell us something about Phantom Limb that isn’t mentioned in the publisher’s synopsis.
DP: Though the main story concerns a suicidal patient who is kidnapped right outside Rinaldi’s office, the subplot of the novel deals with a returned Afghan vet who lost a leg to an IED in combat. The younger brother of Charlene Hines, Noah Frye’s girlfriend, the vet suffers from “phantom limb” syndrome, the sense that his missing limb is still “there.” That it itches sometimes, or feels cold. As the novel progresses, I use the phantom limb syndrome as a metaphor for the felt sense of loss we all feel when something or someone is wrenched from our lives. The death of a loved one, perhaps, or a divorce. That experience we often have after such a significant loss that the person is still “here.” Still walking the earth. Having lost his wife to murder, and his cop father to alcoholism, Rinaldi can easily relate to the unhappy vet’s experience. Whether he can help him or not is another matter, especially when it seems the vet might be linked somehow to the kidnapping.
OMN: You mentioned that Daniel Rinaldi bears a remarkable similarity to yourself. How much more of your personal or professional experience have you included in your books?
DP: Certainly my twenty-seven years as a therapist in private practice, as well as my training at a psychiatric clinic, influence my characters: how they relate, the issues they confront. Especially how Rinaldi works with them as a therapist. Moreover, my childhood and college years in a heavily-industrial Pittsburgh serve as a vivid counter-point to contemporary Pittsburgh, whose steel mills and factories have been replaced by state-of-the-art technology firms and world-class medical facilities. I don’t base my plots on things that have actually happened to patients (who thankfully have few cases of murder, bank robbery and kidnapping in their backgrounds!), though I use what actually transpires emotionally in a therapy session to inform the way Daniel Rinaldi relates to his patients. Also, my five years of training with Dr. Robert Stolorow, one of the nation’s leading trauma experts, lends credibility (I hope) to those aspects of trauma and its treatment that are woven into the narratives.
OMN: Tell us more about your writing process.
DP: My writing process is completely open-ended. I neither write outlines nor character bios. I usually start with a character or situation in mind, and then just start typing. The truth is, I’d rather write than think! Of course, this means the first draft takes me down a lot of blind alleys and into assorted brick walls, but I don’t mind. For one thing, you never know what such a detour will produce: a nice exchange of dialogue or a vivid description that can make its way into the final manuscript. For another, even if I write myself into a corner, I always learn something that informs the rest of the book. Maybe a character does something surprising that gives me an idea of how to use him or her in a different manner later in the story. Whatever. This is a dangerous way to write, I must admit. Sort of a high-wire act without a net. In fact, I usually don’t know who the bad guy is until about halfway through the book. Then I have to go back and seed in the kinds of details that make the reveal of his or her identity credible. On the plus side, I figure that if I’m surprised, the reader will be, too.
OMN: How accurate are you to the setting of Pittsburgh in your books?
DP: I make every effort to be accurate as to setting. Though I’ve lived in Los Angeles for the past 40 years, I still visit Pittsburgh regularly. I also rely on maps, Google, and my family and friends still living in the Steel City to help me with certain details. While my memory of the Pittsburgh I grew up in is vivid and reliable, the new, “gentrified” Pittsburgh has changed so much that I need these resources to make sure my depiction of the city as it is now is accurate. But you bring up a funny point: whenever I hear from Pittsburgh residents about my books, it’s rarely to discuss the plot or the characters. Usually it’s to point out things like, “Hey, you have Rinaldi make a left on Second Avenue. You can’t do that during rush hour!” Or “Nobody crosses the river on the Fort Pitt Bridge to get to Mt. Washington! What’s wrong with you?” It keeps me humble, that’s for sure.
OMN: What is the best advice you’ve received as an author?
DP: The best advice I ever got about writing actually came from an acting class I took, over three decades ago, back when I was a working Hollywood screenwriter. The teacher was Darryl Hickman, and his advice about pursuing any kind of show business career was simple but profound: “Keep giving them YOU, until YOU is what they want.” In terms of writing, I think this means just write what you want, in your voice, in your own way, about things that interest you. Don’t chase trends in writing, trying to emulate the latest books on the best-seller lists. Just write from the core of your authentic self, and do your best to get the work out into the world. If it’s your karma, and the stars align, you’ll eventually find your audience. I also very much agree with famed golfer Ben Hogan, who was asked once, given his great success, if he considered himself lucky. He answered, “Yes. And the harder I work, the luckier I get.” I think that should be pasted up on every writer’s wall, right above where they write.
OMN: What’s next for you?
DP: As an author, I’m looking forward to writing the fifth book in the Rinaldi series. One of the pleasures of my writing process, as I mentioned previously, is how I get to surprise myself as the narrative unfolds. In other words, I can’t wait to see what kind of trouble Daniel Rinaldi is going to get into next. He and I will find out together! On the personal front, the big excitement around our house pertains to our son’s first year away at college, three thousand miles from home. Though our excitement is tempered by that gnawing “empty nest” syndrome that everyone warned my wife and me about. Luckily, we now have FaceBook, texts and Skype, and stay in pretty good contact with him. Which means that, to the relief of my friends and colleagues, I can point to something positive about all this new technology, instead of continuing to view it as evidence of the end of Western Civilization. (Though I think the jury’s still out…)