"Mirror Image" (Poisoned Pen Press) now at your bookseller's.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010



Here's nice new review of my crime novel, Mirror Image, by mystery author Mike Orenduff:

Dennis Palumbo is an established writer with a long line of impressive credits – staff writer for the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter; screenwriter for the film My Favorite Year; author of the fiction novel City Wars and the non-fiction book Writing from the Inside Out; and writer of numerous short stories, articles, and reviews for major newspapers, journals, and magazines. 

This impressive background is evident in his first Daniel Rinaldi Mystery, Mirror Image. Rinaldi is a character right out of central casting - tough, troubled, principled, and street smart. Sam Spade with a psychology degree. He may not have come from a script, but I'll wager he's headed for one. This is the stuff movies are made of. The plot is as twisted as the antagonist's mind. The book opens with Rinaldi in a therapy session with Kevin Merrick, a patient trying to deal with the after-affects of being a victim of armed assault who has started to dress like his therapist and copy his mannerisms.  As Rinaldi is walking to his car after the session, he hears someone dash away and finds his patient Kevin stabbed and bleeding. The police figure Rinaldi was the intended victim since he was dressing and acting like him. Then they discover that Kevin Merrick was actually an alias.  

These are just the first two in a stream of surprises that keep you turning the pages. Mystery readers will have already guessed that Rinaldi soon goes from intended victim to suspect, receives death threats, and has to hunt down the killer himself. Did I mention there is another murder? Yet all these traditional elements have a different twist. Palumbo sets a great scene in Pittsburgh and peoples it with great characters, including the mentally tormented Noah and the femme fatale Casey Walters, right out of an SM dream. 

Mirror Image is both thriller and mystery, reminiscent of Jonathan Kellerman but less artificially intellectual and more visceral. Perhaps along the lines of Andrew Vachss' Flood. Mirror Image is a solid, hard-hitting book, not recommended for the squeamish or faint of heart.

As always, I'm grateful to those who've taken the time to read and review my first crime novel.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Fun Photo of MIRROR IMAGE posted by CJ West

Some nice comments and a cool photo posted by CJ West.
Take care,

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Here's a review of Mirror Image just published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, the largest-circulation mystery magazine in the world. Since the first fiction I ever  published appeared in that magazine (in 1978!), it's a real thrill to have my first mystery novel reviewed there.
(***...highest ranking)
"A screenwriter turned psychotherapist draws on both areas of expertise  in the first novel about Pittsburgh police consultant Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, one of whose crime-victim patients is murdered while dressed in imitation of his psychologist. The short-chapter, multi-reversal thriller offers much better prose, dialogue and characterization than many bestsellers' products and concludes with well-clued and deftly-executed finishing twists."
---Jon Breen, Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine
Thanks to all of you for your support...and indulgence!

Friday, November 12, 2010


Here's a nice new review of my crime novel, Mirror Image.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


FYI, here's a link to an interview I did for the PBS show Between the Lines.
Just go to the page and you'll see my episode listed first. Just click where it says "View video" and you can watch it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Bouchercon Appearances This Weekend!

FYI, I'll be doing two events at this weekend's Bouchercon in San Francisco. Taking place at the Hyatt Regency, it's one of the premiere mystery conventions in the country. 
First, I'll be part of the Continuous Conversation on Saturday, Oct. 16th, from 11:30 AM till 12:30 PM, joining a group of terrific fellow mystery authors for spirited conversation about the field.
Later that day, at 3:30 PM, I'll be doing a "30 on the 30" mini-presentation called "Page Fright," addressing writers' block, procrastination, and other perils of the writer's life. As a licensed psychotherapist specializing in creative issues, I've worked with hundreds of writers over the years on such dilemmas.
Signings of my new crime novel, Mirror Image, follow both events.
It's my first Bouchercon, and I'm pretty excited! 

Monday, October 4, 2010


FYI, here's a new review of Mirror Image from BookList. (And I didn't pay the guy--honest!)
Mirror Image.
Palumbo, Dennis (Author)
Aug 2010. 334 p. Poisoned Pen, hardcover, $24.95. (9781590587508). Poisoned Pen, softcover, $14.95. (9781590587522).
This debut novel from psychotherapist Palumbo features a psychologist, Daniel Rinaldi, whose client, a college student, is murdered. But here's the twist: the victim, for therapeutic reasons, has lately been imitating Rinaldi's appearance and manner of dress. So naturally Rinaldi believes that he, and not his client, was the intended victim. Wracked with guilt over the incident—he believes his encouragement of the victim's behavior got him killed—Rinaldi sets out to find the killer.
Palumbo, a screenwriter with credits as varied as Welcome Back, Kotter and the classic film My Favorite Year, does an excellent job of building suspense, and Rinaldi, who comes off as likable if a bit self-absorbed, makes a complex protagonist. A solid first novel, especially recommendable to fans of Jonathan Kellerman, Keith Ablow, and Meg Gardiner.
— David Pitt

Saturday, September 18, 2010

FYI: My latest Huffington Post blog

To paraphrase Jack Nicholson in Terms of Endearment, "I don't know, something about the Tea Party brings out the devil in me..."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

FYI: My latest Huffington Post blog

Alert the media! Two Huffington Post blogs, only a week apart!
Seriously, I'm glad to be back in the swing of posting for Huff Po. Hope you like this one.
As always, if the mood strikes, please feel free to post a comment.

Monday, September 13, 2010

FYI: Another MIRROR IMAGE review

Here's another review, just posted, of my new crime novel. Let's hope it's part of a trend...
Take care...

Friday, September 10, 2010

FYI: NEW Huffington Post piece

I don't remember if I posted this here already (another sign of my rapidly dwindling brain cells!), but here's my latest Huff Po blog:

Sunday, September 5, 2010

FYI: Nice new review of MIRROR IMAGE

Just saw this new review of my crime novel, Mirror Image, posted on a very cool site called Bookpleasures.com. In the name of shameless self-promotion, I thought I'd pass it along...

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Here's my latest Huffington Post Blog

It's been a while, but here's my latest Huff Po piece...

Thursday, August 26, 2010

New Review of MIRROR IMAGE in Pittsburgh Magazine

I just got back from Pittsburgh, my home town and the setting of my new crime novel, Mirror Image. Had a great time, saw some old friends, and signed some books at four different area stores.
FYI, here's a nice review of the novel from Pittsburgh Magazine...

Thursday, August 12, 2010


I'll be the guest on PBS' Between the Lines author interview show this Saturday, Aug.14th, at 8 PM. It's on KLCS-TV (which is channel 3 on my cable outfit). You can check klcs.org for schedule info.
Here's the press release they sent out:



KLCS-TV – www.klcs.org

Saturday Night, August 14, at 8:00 PM

Dennis Palumbo - Writing from the Inside Out

Breaking through creative barriers is what this episode is all about.  Dennis Palumbo co-wrote the critically acclaimed, Oscar nominated film, My Favorite Year and just published his first mystery novel Mirror Image.  But it is his years as a psychotherapist, specializing in the creative process, which brings him to our program.


With his acclaimed book, Writing from the Inside Out, Dennis reveals that you already have everything you need within yourself to create your best work.  Keep in mind that this book is not just for writers, but for anyone from artists to teachers and from lawyers to plumbers, who may get caught up fighting emotional wedges no matter what career or journey they are on. 


In Writing from the Inside Out, Dennis shows how to transform those psychological blocks to free the creativity within us.



Also, here's some info from the show about another way to watch it:
Remember, you can catch us "On Demand" by visiting www.la36.org Once there, go to Ch. 200, the Arts & Culture Channel, then scroll down the right hand side until you find the Between the Lines episode you'd like to see. 


Hope you get a chance to see it (or Tivo it, or what-have-you).

Sunday, August 1, 2010

My Appearance on "Suspense Your Disbelief"

FYI, here's a short biographical essay I was asked to do for Jenny Milchman's website. Thanks to Jenny for giving me the forum!
Meanwhile, I'm gearing up for the release of my new crime novel, Mirror Image, next week...which includes books signings in Pittsburgh (my home town, and the setting of the novel) and a number of appearances at book stores and conferences here in Southern California.
As the blatant self-promoting PR machines chugs along...
All best,

Thursday, July 29, 2010

MIRROR IMAGE On Sale Next Week!

I've been so busy these past few weeks, I haven't had a chance to post anything on this pathetic excuse for a blog.
That said, I'm naturally doing so now in the name of shameless self-promotion!
My new crime novel, Mirror Image, goes on sale next week. It's the first in a new series featuring psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police.
The publisher is Poisoned Pen Press, and I think they've done a wonderful job with the book. It's available in hardcover, trade paperback and as an audio book.
Moreover, I've been extremely gratified by the advance blurbs the novel has received.
For example:

"Dennis Palumbo establishes himself as a master story-teller with his first crime novel, Mirror Image.  Using his background as a licensed psychotherapist to good advantage, Palumbo infuses his fast-moving, suspenseful story with fascinating texture, interesting characters, and the twists, turns and surprises of a mind-bending mystery. Very impressive."

---Stephen J. Cannell (writer/creator of The Rockford Files; New York Times best-selling mystery author)



"Mirror Image is a rich, complex thriller, built around a sizzling love affair. A compelling read, with surprising twists and characters that leap off the page."

---Bobby Moresco (Oscar-winning writer/producer of Crash and Million Dollar Baby)



"Mirror Image is a deviously plotted thriller with lots of shocks and surprises you won't see coming, and a smart, sympathetic hero-narrator who takes you along as he peels back layers of lies and wrong guesses to get closer to the truth."
---Thomas Perry (Edgar-winning, New York Times best-selling crime novelist)



"Dennis Palumbo's experience as a psychotherapist hasn't just helped him make his hero, therapist Dr. Daniel Rinaldi, authentic, human and a man in full, it's endowed him with the insight to craft a debut thriller filled with action, deduction and romance, expertly paced for maximum suspense." 

---Dick Lochte, award-winning author and critic



"Dennis Palumbo's novel is stark and disturbing but there's a humanity running through the core of it that makes this book special.  Maybe it's Palumbo's dual training – as a writer and as a psychotherapist – that allows him to plumb the depths and bring up not only darkness but those occasional diamonds of light that sparkle and illuminate and make a book worth reading."

 ---T. Jefferson Parker (Edgar-winning, New York Times best-selling author of The Renegades and Iron River)



"Mirror Image is a standout mind-bender! A wonderfully constructed novel that has you seeing double---and all through the eyes of an intriguingly fresh character: a psychologist.  Dennis Palumbo knows his craft.  This guy can write."

---Ridley Pearson (New York Times best-selling crime author)



"A gripping thriller, chock full of the desired twists and cliffhangers, with the added layer and intriguing access of a therapist  narrator/detective.  A page turner!"

---Aimee Bender (New York Times best-selling author of An Invisible Sign of My Own)

Again, the book launches next week. I hope you'll check it out---and if you do, please let me know what you think.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

My Latest Column for "In Cold Blog"

Been a while since I've posted, but I've been back-logged with work.
However, FYI, here's my latest column for the true-crime site "In Cold Blog."
Hope everyone's having a good summer. 

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Simple, But Not Easy

I know it's been a while since I've posted here on my blog, but I've been swamped.
My practice, writing deadlines, planning the PR push for my upcoming crime novel, Mirror Image. The usual suspects.
Anyway, FYI, here's my latest essay for the really cool true-crime site, In Cold Blog:
Hope you enjoy it!

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Writing is Easy!

FYI, here's the link to the first in a series of columns I'm doing for In Cold Blog, a terrific true-crime site:
Please feel free to forward to your friends, families, colleagues, mortal enemies, etc.
And, as always, love to hear your thoughts...  

Thursday, April 22, 2010

New Zealand Interview

To my pleasant surprise, I was invited to do an interview for Crime Watch, a fascinating mystery-oriented website out of New Zealand. I hope you find it interesting.
As always, I welcome your comments, questions, rants, etc.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Joke That Wouldn't Die!

FYI, here's my latest blog for the Huffington Post....

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Better Late Than Never!

When it first came out two years ago, I was gratified by the reviews my collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime, received at the time.

However, to my pleasant surprise, this review of the book just appeared. If anyone's interested, here's the link:

Click here: From Crime to Crime: Mind-boggling Tales of Mystery and Murder Reviewed By Lois Henderson of Bookpleasures.com

I also want to thank those of you who attended my mystery-writing workshop this past Saturday afternoon at Vroman's Bookstore. As always, I was struck by the thoughtful, perceptive questions the attendees asked. Really made it a great experience.

And,of course, I'll keep you posted about the next one...

Friday, April 9, 2010

Taking the Mystery Out of Writing Mysteries

As some of you may know, I'll be presenting a FREE WRITING WORKSHOP at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena next Saturday, April 17, at 3 PM. It's called "Taking the Mystery Out of Writing Mysteries."
In anticipation of that event, here's a link to an article of the same title that I did a few years back for The Writer's Store newsletter. Whether you're interested in classic whodunnits, crime thrillers or police procedurals, I hope you'll find it helpful.
BTW, if you'd like some info about the writing workshop, here's a link to the Vroman's Bookstore Events page, offering a description of the event, as well as the store's address and contact info:
Hope to see some of you there!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

My Favorite Quote

It's a growth industry--the hundreds of books, tapes and videos available on the craft of writing; the multitudes of conferences, seminars and workshops (some of which I've taught myself over the years); the teachers and coaches and gurus promising to reveal the secrets of the "can't-miss" premise, the "never-fails" plot structure, the "you-can't-help-but-love-'em" lead characters.

But in the cacophony of instruction and inspiration competing for the writer's ear, it seems to me a quote from Ray Bradbury emerges from the din. "There is only one type of story in the world--your story."

In all the writing classes I've ever taught, it was always the first quote I put on the blackboard. And now, as a therapist, the essence of that quote is what underlies my support for creative patients struggling to write out of the depths of their own particular truths, no matter how painful or contradictory.

I recall an incident, years ago, when I was Screenwriter-In-Residence at San Francisco State University. I was working with a group of young writers-to-be, one of whom had just read a scene from his script, a political thriller, to the rest of the class. Unfortunately, the scene--in which the hero is trapped by bad guys in a dingy back alley--was flat and uninvolving, though the writer clearly had talent. Moreover, the writing itself seemed tentative...careful, somehow.

I asked the writer what would happen if, instead of his hero, he himself were the guy trapped in that alley. 

"You mean, if that were me?" He suddenly became quite animated, as he described the sequence of scary, funny incidents that would befall him. A scene that was unique and particular to a very specific sort of individual--a guy like himself. A human being.

"But this guy's gotta be a hero," he said afterwards. "Like in the movies."

"He is," I replied. "Your hero."

The problem with this student's scene was his attempt to portray what a hero "should" be like. The writing seemed tentative as a result of the tension within him caused by the effort to exclude his own feelings, doubts, and impulses, as though they were inappropriate for a movie hero.

The irony--and the point of Bradbury's quote--is that all writing is autobiographical. Even the student's attempt to write a hero "like in the movies" revealed an aspect of his autobiography, namely, his belief about how a hero needed to behave.

Like it or not, our writing reveals who we are. The story doesn't matter. The genre doesn't matter. Even if you're writing a pirate movie, taking place two hundred years ago, your autobiography informs that script: your own attitude toward heroics, vague memories of some pirate movie you saw as a kid, your fantasies about the "freedom of the seas" or whatever. Even your concern about whether or not your pirate movie is commercial is part of your experience writing it.

On the plus side, it's one of the paradoxes of writing that the more particular and personal a detail in character or story, the more powerfully its impact generalizes out to the audience.

(The specifics of Rocky Balboa's life in the first Rocky film were shared by few in the audience, I'm sure, but everyone understood what he meant by "going the distance." Nor did the reader of Frank McCourt's memoir Angela's Ashes have to grow up in the slums of Dublin to relate to that family's struggle with poverty. Nor did the viewers of the recent film The Blind Side need to have had any life experiences similar to those of the young black athlete to identify with the yearning for someone to appear who believes in you, even when you don't.)

I repeat: All writing is autobiographical. The more you can accept and acknowledge this, the greater the extent to which you can mine your own feelings and experiences to give shape and texture to your work.

Of course, to write from this place, the core of who we are, is damned hard. Often the results are just painful, ambiguous, unformed. Maybe there's something wrong with me, the writer thinks. Maybe I'm not enough...

That's why writing seminars and workshops flourish; why "how-to" books on writing are perennial sellers. Intentionally or not, they validate our belief in some "key" or technique that ensures success; some thing outside of ourselves that we need to learn, or to become.

And, yes, every writer needs to learn story construction, needs to develop craft. But the most important thing a writer needs is the awareness that he or she is enough. That one's feelings, enthusiasms, regrets, hopes, doubts, yearnings, loves and hates are in fact, the raw materials of one's writing talent.

"There is only one type of story in the world--your story." Which means only you can tell it, no matter what form--thriller, romantic comedy, sci-fi adventure--it takes.

It reminds me of another quote I like, from Ralph Waldo Emerson, a pretty fair writer himself. He said, "To believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for everyone--that is genius."

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Fallen Redwoods

Years ago, upon hearing of the death of iconic film director Stanley Kubrick, a friend of mine commented, "Well, that's another fallen redwood in a rapidly dwindling forest."

I was thinking about his remark the other day, in the wake of the recent deaths of two iconic crime writers, Robert B. Parker and Dick Francis.

With his 37 novels featuring private eye Spenser, Parker created a vivid character whose adventures not only were in the best tradition of the genre but also presented a wry picture of contemporary Boston society. The character's popularity was cemented even among non-book readers with the long-running TV series Spenser: For Hire, which starred Robert Urich.

Parker, who died writing at his desk at age 77, received the coveted Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1977 for Promised Land. The same organization named him a Grand Master in 2002.

Well-known for his mysteries set in the world of horse racing, Dick Francis was a former jockey himself and one of the most honored crime writers of all time. He earned three Edgar Awards for Best Novel, and was also subsequently named a Grand Master by the MWA. The salient feature in his stories was the fact that his heroes--men like Sid Halley--were depicted as completely ordinary, maybe even down-on-their-luck men. As in the best films of Alfred Hitchcock, Francis told stories about ordinary men caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

Luckily, the current mystery and crime writing field still has plenty of redwoods standing--from Michael Connelly to Sara Paretsky, Dennis Lehane to Sue Grafton, James Lee Burke to George Pellacanos.

But make no mistake--with the passing of these two great writers, the forest is significantly thinner. (Though the genre is so resolutely healthy, among both writers and readers, that new shoots are popping up every day.)

By the way, if you're not familiar with either of these fine authors, you might want to pick up Parker's first Spenser novel, The Godwulf Manuscript, or Dick Francis' Whip Hand, to remedy that lamentable situation.  

Sunday, March 28, 2010

F. Scott Fitzgerald Was Wrong

The great American author F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said, "There are no second acts in the American life." I think he was wrong.

To that point, here's a piece that ran last year in Written By, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America. Though it's primarily about ageism in the entertainment industry, I think it speaks to the broader issue of ageism in general, especially in these difficult economic times.

What do you think?


"Now what?" says the 50-year-old TV writer, sitting opposite me in my therapy office. In the past two staffing seasons, she hasn't even gotten a meeting with a show-runner, let alone a job. As her bills mount up, and her teenager enters an expensive private school, this single mother feels she's beginning to run out of options.

"Now what?" says the 56-year-old screenwriter, whose phone has pretty much stopped ringing. His agent dodges his own phone calls and emails, and his network of contacts keeps dwindling, as former friends and colleagues either struggle with their own career problems or leave the business altogether.

"Now what?...a pretty constant question nowadays from veteran TV and film writers in my practice, sturdy craftsmen who've had the poor taste to get older in an industry that worships youth. Ageism, it seems, has joined death and taxes as an inevitability of Hollywood life. (Though it has spread, like a contagion, to most other careers as well: business, law, advertising, technology.)

Ageism. It's a pervasive issue among the writers that I treat. Wedded with the uncertainty wrought by changing technology and the nation-wide economic meltdown, ageism can seem like just another nail in the coffin of a veteran writer's career. The problem with complaining about ageism is that, like the weather, complaining about it and doing something about it are two different things. Perhaps, as our distinguished cover model Larry Gelbart once said, "The only way to defeat ageism is to die young."

Of course, everyone knows that the marketplace's preoccuptation with youth is ridiculous. Even a cursory look at who spends how much, on what, and where, reveals that catering solely to the young as consumers is financially short-sighted, artistically bankrupt, and morally suspect.

But aside from marketplace concerns, the really insidious aspect of ageism is that it's based on certain "givens" that rarely hold up under examination. To most people, "youth" implies a more imaginative, more subversive, less rule-bound approach to creative work. Yet the facts say otherwise. Most young (or new) artists are often quite conservative, retro, and derivative. The way an artist learns craft is by apprenticeship, by using earlier artists as models. We admire Neil Simon, so our first efforts are very Neil Simon-ish. We love Wilder and Diamond, so our early scripts reflect their same wry, dubious view of the human condition.

It's my belief that the more mature, confident and experienced a writer is, the more likely he or she is to break with convention, to explore more deeply the difficult and idiosyncratic nature of narrative and character. A brief overview of history's most accomplished artists reveals that the majority of their best work was done during their middle-age years.

That said, what can writers do about the reality of ageism in the current market atmosphere? My guess is, not much, at least in terms of affecting the way the powers-that-be operate. After all, myths die hard.

Do I wish things were different? Sure. But as philosopher Stephen Levine reminds us, "Suffering is caused by wanting things to be otherwise."

Do I yearn for a return to an earlier time, when creative artists weren't judged by how much hair (and how few wrinkles) they had, but instead by the depth and relevance of their work? You bet. But, as novelist John Fowles reminds us, "All pasts are like poems. You can derive a thousand things, but you can't live in them."

Am I outraged that studios, networks and production companies cravenly pander to what they think the young consumer wants, instead of promoting writing that takes advantage of a wide range of talents, ages and points of view--meanwhile, ignoring the incontrovertible fact that good stories, well told, appeal to a cross-section of audience types? Yes, I am. But as author and psychiatrist Thomas Szasz reminds us, "You can't build a big business on truth."

In other words, there's no cure for ageism. It's a fact of life. So then the question becomes: what can you do about it?

Right now, writers in my practice seem to be exploring three paths: in the first instance, he or she can accept the rigged rules of the game and write anyway. Truly. About the issues, people and events that inspire the writer. Maybe the marketplace will respond. Maybe it won't. Maybe the writer has to investigate markets that hadn't been considered before—the Internet, the theater, independent films. Maybe the writer tries a new medium: novels, short stories, even non-fiction. Or finds work developing video games, or writing gaming guides. Which suggests casting even a wider net, checking out things like desktop publishing, self-publishing, blogs and newsletters. Not exactly a development deal from Sony, granted, but some writers just need to have their work read. Seen. Communicated.

The second path is one that takes him or her away from writing, as they've usually understood it. They teach, or run workshops. They design software. They work for makers of industrial films, or educational foundations. One former TV writer/producer patient of mine now does videologues for a major hospital chain. One produces promotional material for a large charity. In these kinds of endeavors, they've found a way to use their narrative talents in the service of different forms of story-telling, albeit not in entertainment in the traditional sense.

The third path, much less common, is the path that angles the furthest away from a writer's prior career. In this case, the writer will simply choose to go into a totally different kind of work, unrelated to creative endeavor. The family retail business. The law. One writer joined his brother in a huge import-export concern. But even then, the creative itch can still demand to be scratched. "Maybe," this writer confided to me soon after making this decision, "I'll get to write the company brochure."

But whether writers choose to keep writing in the face of ageism, write in different forms because of it, or find other ways to survive and thrive, they'll manage to keep going. They will. I know. I've seen it, in my practice and elsewhere.

Despite conventional wisdom about the emotional fragility of the artist, most of the ones I know are made of pretty stern stuff, despite---if not because of---the difficulties they contend with daily. Not only do they wrestle with the demands of a fickle and arbitrary marketplace, they have to wrestle with their own demons as well, their own fears and doubts. Yet they do it every day. Scripts get written. TV shows and films get made. Mortgages get paid. Kids get sent to their orthodontists.

I was reminded of this fact recently, in a keynote address given by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Shultz to an audience of dispirited, increasingly-unemployed journalists, most of whom are reeling from the quickening collapse of newspapers and magazines. She urged her audience to remember that they were first and foremost story-tellers, and that society would always need them. Speaking of the journalism industry itself, she said, "The business model may be broken, but you are not broken."

I think her words are equally fitting for Hollywood writers, whether working in film, TV, or online. Story-tellers all, they may be working in an industry whose business model is changing, but they will survive.

Fitzgerald may have said "There are no second acts in the American life," but I believe he was wrong. Hell, this country was built on second acts. And so, by the way, is show business itself. As the country seeks to re-invent itself in the wake of our current economic crisis, so does--and will--the entertainment industry.

Let's face it, every other story we tell is a comeback story. Hopefully, in the end, the struggle to outwit ageism will be a comeback story, too.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

FYI: Today's blog

With the recent release of the film Shrink, starring Kevin Spacey as a troubled psychiatrist, a number of people have told me it reminded them of a Commentary I did for NPR's "All Things Considered" some years back. It concerned the villainous depiction of male therapists on TV and film.
For those who didn't hear it, or would like to hear it again, here's the link:
Feel free to weigh in on the subject, if the spirit moves you.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Practicing Therapy Without A License

In the recent book about writing creative nonfiction, Keep It Real (Norton; edited by Lee Gutkind and Harriet Fletcher), I provided an essay about the new prevalence among nonfiction writers and biographers to "play therapist" when describing their real-life subjects' inner thoughts and motivations.

I don't believe that a writer can't do this, but only that he or she needs to be extremely careful. For those of you who might be interested in this topic, here's a slightly revised version of that essay. As always, I'd love to have your thoughts.


In his nonfiction best-seller, The Devil in the White City, Eric Larson delves deeply and convincingly into the mind of the serial killer H.H. Holmes. In fact, making use of newspaper accounts, trial transcripts and other source material, he goes so far as to refute aspects of Holmes' own autobiography, written in prison before his execution.

Larsen even challenges many of the killer's descriptions of his feelings and motivations, inserting his own analysis of Holmes' state of mind.

In his notes at book's end, Larson makes a pretty compelling case for his justification in doing this. But this technique does raise a fascinating question for creative nonfiction writers.

What are the dangers of such "psychoanalyzing" when depicting the inner workings of a real person's mind? Is this not practicing therapy without a license?

It's a charge frequently leveled at nonfiction writers, especially those like Bob Woodward and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who specialize in "re-creating" the thoughts and feelings of historical figures. In the past two decades, biographers of famous individuals have been even more liberal--some would say audacious--in their attempts at psychoanalytic interpretation of their subjects. Hence, we've seen speculation that Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt were gay, famed child psychologist Bruno Bettleheim was a pathological liar and Adolf Hitler was sexually abused.

The point is, today's nonfiction writers delve more intimately than ever into the lives and subjective experiences of the real people they depict. And while this approach has always been a crucial component of the fiction writer's art, there's a specific danger involved when the people depicted actually exist: namely, that much of the authority behind the nonfiction writer's voice (and opinion) derives from the reader's belief that what's being described is "true."

Does this mean there are never circumstances when the thoughts, feelings and motivations of people you're writing about can't be creatively imagined?

Not necessarily. Narrative requires that people do things, and, in life as well as in fiction, people do things for a reason. Even if it's only a reason that makes sense to them. To be deprived of the opportunity to extrapolate what these reasons might be is to sacrifice much of what makes reading about these people interesting and compelling in the first place. 

The danger emerges when the nonfiction writer assumes a false sense of objective distance from the inner world of the person being depicted. Whether reading the person's journal, scouring contemporary accounts of the person's actions, or talking with family members and intimate friends about the person's character and habits, it's important that the writer remember that he or she also brings something to the table; i.e., a wealth of personal experiences, prejudices and intentions of one's own.

For example, if you're interviewing someone about the details of his failed marriage, your own relationship experiences create a filter through which you see, hear and draw conclusions about what the subject is saying.

In other words, whether doing research about events that happened before you were born, or as a result of spending the past two weeks living in almost continual contact with your subject, you're bringing so much of your own history and beliefs into the mix that it's presumptuous to assume you're "seeing" things in a completely objective way.

(To take an extreme example, it could be argued that Richard Pollack's biography of Bruno Bettelheim, mentioned above, is undeniably influenced by the fact that Pollack's younger brother was a patient who died in Bettelheim's care under suspicious circumstances!)

Is there a way for nonfiction writers to explore the possible feelings and motives of their characters that makes narrative sense, is psychologically astute and persuasive, yet still respects the limitations of what the writer can truly know? The answer is yes, if done with skill and a real awareness of these limitations.

Among recent examples, perhaps the best is Sebastian Junger's, The Perfect Storm. Without much real information about the ship captain's decision-making process, nor the manner in which the ship was lost, nor even a clue about one single event that actually transpired during the fishing trip, Junger managed to convey his understanding of the physical and psychological rigors of sword-fishing, as well as the various navigational choices available to the crew as the storm approached.

He also presented a moving and vivid depiction of what the experience of drowning might have felt like. This was all accomplished by clearly stating that what he was describing was based on conjecture, the experiences of other fishermen he'd interviewed, and the utilization of his own imagination.

This presentation invites the reader to go on a journey into Junger's created impression of what might have happened. What results has the ring of truth, rather than the solidity of fact and is perhaps the more powerful because of it.

In other words, rather than practicing therapy without a license, the task for the creative nonfiction writer becomes, as always, about simply practicing the art of good writing.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Recent (sort of) Q & A

In case you might be interested, here's a Q&A I did a couple years back with Wendy Burt, who runs a very nice site for writers. It was in conjunction with my PR efforts for my then-new collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime. But it serves as a nice intro to those of you who don't know me (and, probably, an irritating self-serving puff piece to those who do!).

Regardless, here it is:


Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), I'm now a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues. My patients are primarily TV and film writers, actors, directors, novelists, journalists and nonfiction book authors. My office is in Sherman Oaks, California, not far from where I live.

Currently, I write articles and reviews for such publications as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Lancet and others. I also blog on The Huffington Post, do Commentary for NPR's All Things Considered, and frequently guest on radio and TV interview shows.

My short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere. My latest book, From Crime to Crime (TallFellow Press), is a collection of such mystery stories. Prior to that, I published a nonfiction book, Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley), as well as a sci-fi novel, City Wars (Bantam Books).

1. Tell us about your latest book.

It's a collection of mystery short stories, as I said, but somewhat unique in that most of the stories feature a group of amateur sleuths based on real people—a California therapist (me) and three of my friends. I like to describe it as Desperate Husbands Meets Columbo. 

There are also three stand-alone stories in the collection, one of which features a female police psychologist as protagonist. There's also a story involving a serial killer in Switzerland in 1904, whose path crosses that of a penniless patent clerk named Albert Einstein…

2. How did you get started as a writer?

Many years ago, in the early 70s, soon after I arrived in LA from the East Coast, I started writing spec TV scripts with another, much funnier guy named Mark Evanier. I'd also been writing jokes for Gabe Kaplan's stand-up act, so when his show Welcome Back, Kotter was looking for a new, young (read "cheap ") writing team, we were lucky enough to get the gig. Mark and I split up amiably after a couple years, and I went on to work on other TV series, and also started writing films. 

After a good, successful run as a Hollywood writer, I went through a kind of mid-life crisis, which took me all the way to the Himilayas…yes, cliché that it is, I did the whole Razor's Edge thing and lived in Nepal for months, trekking with sherpas, staying in huts and temples…Really an amazing experience. When I returned to LA, I went back to grad school at night (while still writing TV and film scripts by day), until, six years later, I got licensed as a psychotherapist and retired from show biz. I've been in private practice ever since (about 19 years).

Funnily enough, I write as much (if not more) now than I ever did—books, articles, reviews, etc.—and enjoy it much more, too.

3. What does a typical day look like for you?

Simple. I see patients from 9 AM to 6 PM, but write every day at lunch. If I'm on deadline, I write for a few hours in the evening. But mostly it's a daily task, at lunch, so I don't have time for procrastination! And as the saying goes, if you just write a page a day, at the end of the year you have a book.

4. Describe your desk/workspace.

I write at the same desk I've written on since I started as a young TV writer. It's an old public school teacher's desk, which I bought at a used furniture store in the early 70's for $100. It used to be in my house, but when I went into private practice I had it moved to my therapy office. I'm pretty superstitious about it…everything from My Favorite Year to articles for The New York Times to my mystery short stories have been written on it.

My office itself overlooks the intersection of Ventura Boulevard and Sepulveda Boulevard (right across the street from the Sherman Oaks Galleria, made famous by such "Valley Girls" as Moon Unit Zappa). Four stories up, with a whole wall of picture windows, I have a great view of LA smog most days…though after a rain, I can see all the way to the mountains.

5. Favorite books (especially for writers)

So many, it's hard to pick any five (or ten, or a hundred). So I'll just stick with good books for writers. Off the top of my head, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, On Moral Fiction by John Gardner, and Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman. Plus Life Work by Donald Hall, Mastery by George Leonard, and The Courage to Create by Rollo May. I also think every writer should re-read The Great Gatsby once a year, for its clarity of language and exquisite tone. 60,000 perfect words, as far as I'm concerned.

6. Tell us 3 interesting/crazy things about you

1) Well, as I mentioned, I lived in the Nepal for a while…but prior to that I went to mountain-climbing school and ended up climbing Mt. Rainier and the Grand Tetons. Technical climbs, with ropes and pitons and the possibility of actually falling to my death. That's one.

2) I didn't know a soul in show biz when I got to LA, so I figured the only way to let people know I could write humorous material was to become a stand-up comic. Which I did. I became a regular performer at the famed Comedy Store, where I met, among others, Garry Shandling and David Letterman. (I don't know whatever happened to those two guys, though I hear they've gone on to do pretty well for themselves.) I was a lousy stand-up, by the way, but luckily Gabe Kaplan saw my act and hired me to go on the road and write material for him. He hired me with the encouraging words, "You're a crappy comic, but you write funny stuff." But, hey, it got me started…

3) The fact that I left a successful career as a TV and film writer to become a psychotherapist. It's either interesting or crazy, or maybe both, but  either way I'm glad I did.

7. Favorite quote

Novelist Peter DeVries: "I only write when I'm inspired, so I see to it that I'm inspired every morning at 9 AM."

8. Best and worst part of being a writer

Best? You get to communicate what's in your mind and heart to others. It's a way to combat the existential loneliness at the heart of the human condition.

Worst: The above-mentioned loneliness.

9. Advice for other writers

The same advice I was given by a veteran show business friend about any creative endeavor: Don't try to follow trends, or change what you write because you believe it will sell.  Just keep giving them you, until you is what they want.

10. Tell us a story about your writing experience. 

I went with my producer to a meeting, to pitch a film idea to a couple executives at a major Hollywood studio. It was a Friday afternoon, always a bad sign, but I gamely went ahead and started pitching to the two suits, one a male, one a female. After a few minutes, the woman excused herself to go to the ladies' room. I went on pitching. A few minutes later, the guy got up to return a phone call. Neither one ever came back.

Finally, after about 20 minutes of sitting anxiously and waiting, the producer and I got up and sort of wandered the now-abandoned hallways and cubicles (it was now after 5:30 PM). Turns out, we were literally the only ones left in the entire building.

Later, of course, we were told that each exec had just assumed the other would return and hear the rest of the pitch.  But at the time, the producer and I just figured they'd skipped out. As we drove out of the empty studio lot, I said to the producer, "Gee, they missed the best part of my pitch…" But I said it a lot more colorfully…

Where can people buy your book?

You can pick up my new book, From Crime to Crime, at most major bookstores, or by ordering it from TallFellowPress.com, or, of course, amazon.com.

For more info on me and my work, including my earlier book, Writing From the Inside Out, I invite you to visit my website, www.dennispalumbo.com. There you'll find blurbs about both books, numerous articles and interviews, and a link to my personal blog.

I also write a regular column for The Huffington Post, on issues relating to creativity, the media, and where both intersect with psychology. Just go to www.huffingtonpost.com and type in my name in the search box.



Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My Latest Huffington Post Blog

FYI, here's my latest blog from the Huffington Post:
Let me know what you think!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Envy: The Worst-kept Secret In Writing

Today I want to talk about envy. As I've found in my work with writers, it's probably the worst-kept secret in the writing life.

For those who are new to this blog, here's my one-line bio: Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (the film My Favorite Year; the TV series Welcome Back, Kotter, among others), I'm now a licensed psychotherapist in private practice, specializing in working with creative people.

But I also still write. My work has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere, and just last year a collection of my stories, From Crime to Crime, was published. My first mystery novel, Mirror Image, will be out in August from Poisoned Pen Press.

The point is, whatever creative concern you're struggling with, I guarantee I've been there, done that. I've been stymied by writers' block, grappled with procrastination and been brought low by rejection. As well as most other thorny issues writers deal with on a daily basis.

Take, as mentioned above, envy. I'm thinking about a patient of mine, a novelist, that I've been seeing for some months. Despite the gains he'd made in therapy, he felt his work was continually undermined by his envy of other writers.

He told me he had to stop reading his Author's Guild bulletin, as well as publishing websites, because seeing the deals being made by other writers angered and deflated him. He'd grown increasingly self-critical about his work habits--normally a source of pride and satisfaction--since hearing rumors about a best-selling author's penchant for "knocking out a new thriller" every six months. It had reached a point where learning of a friend's having lunch with a potential new agent could trigger a depression.

None of these feelings were unfamiliar to me. During my former career as a screenwriter, it seemed as though envy was the unspoken constant in almost every conversation with other writers. The dirty little secret of the writing life. And, as I said, the worst kept.

For some, of course, hearing of another's success can be a spur to greater efforts. For others, the result can be a crippling paralysis.

It took me a long time to understand, and to accept, that envy is a natural by-product of the achieving life. Throughout our childhood experiences in our families, and then our schools, and ultimately in the adult world, we strive to achieve in a matrix of others who strive to achieve--such that comparison is not only inevitable, but often the only standard by which to measure that achievement.

With time and maturity, we hopefully develop the self-awareness (and self-acceptance) to measure ourselves by more internal monitors; to enjoy the expression of our creative talents for their own sake.

But we also live in the real world and need the validation of that world. For a writer in a commercial marketplace, that means enduring intense competition and the almost daily spectacle of others enjoying extravagant rewards in fame and money, all while negotiating the often gut-wrenching peaks and valleys of one's own career.

In other words, that means living with envy.

The key to surviving envy, as is the case with all feelings, is to acknowledge it. By that, I'm not referring merely to the fact that you're envious, but also the meaning that you give to it.
For example, if a writer sees envy as a sign of some kind of moral weakness or character failing--a view possibly engendered and reinforced in childhood--the effect on his or her work can be quite debilitating.

Equally harmful is seeing your envy as a disparaging comment on your work, a confirmation of a lack of faith in your own writing. "If I let myself feel envy," one patient told me, "it means I don't believe in the possibility of my own success."

Another patient bravely insisted that "envy is counter-productive." So terrified of anything that might derail his firmly held belief in "positive thinking," the meaning he gave to envy--as well as any other "negative" emotion--was of an insidious obstacle on the tracks of his forward momentum.

Only by investigating what envy means to us can we risk acknowledging it. The plain fact is, it's just a feeling, like other feelings---which means it's simply information, data about what's going on inside of us.

If nothing else, envy informs us of how important our goals are. It reminds us of the reasons we undertook the creative life in the first place, and challenges us to commit once more to its rigors and rewards.

Moreover, in my own case, I find that I'm rarely troubled by envy if I'm writing well, if I'm truly engaged with my current project. When I'm fully "caught" by what I'm working on, intrusive thoughts about the creative and/or career triumphs of others usually don't enter my mind. Usually.

So the choice is yours. You can deny your envy, or use it to re-double your efforts. You can talk it to death among your friends (also a great procrastination ploy, by the way), or you can suffer in silence. Or, hopefully, you can accept it with humor and self-acknowledgment, and perhaps explore what its meaning is for you.

But one thing I know. For a writer, to coin a phrase, nothing's certain except death and taxes. And envy.

Then again, that's just my opinion. I'd love to hear yours.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Next Great TV Detective...?

For classic mystery fans, the TV landscape is looking particularly barren nowadays.
What do I mean by that?
Well, in my view, with the end of the series Monk, television is suddenly without any classic, clue-based mystery character. What I'm talking about is the kind of signature protagonist, long a cherished staple in mystery fiction, who approaches crime-solving with a unique personal style, and who eschews forensics and fisticuffs in favor of utilizing what Poirot called his "little gray cells."
You know the kinds of character I'm talking about. The legendary writers Levinson and Link created two of them: Columbo and Jessica Fletcher, the heroine of Murder, She Wrote.
In the late 1950's, all the way through the 70's and 80's, the most unique crime-solvers on TV were private detectives: from Richard Diamond and Honey West to Harry Orwell and Charlie's Angels; from Peter Gunn and Mike Hammer to Thomas Magnum and Jim Rockford.
And of course, thanks to PBS (and its importation of British series), we've been graced with such print-to-TV characters as Agatha Christie's Miss Marple and the above-mentioned Hercule Poirot, as well as Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse, and Inspector Barnaby of Midsummer Murders.
As these last two series demonstrate, even those who work in an official capacity (as police detectives) can possess the unique characteristics we associate with the best amateur or private sleuths. Think of Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect.
Or Michael Gambon as Inspector Maigret. Or Raymond Burr as Ironside.
But now, as we bid good-by to Adrian Monk, is there any detective, pro or amateur, to replace him? Maybe we should consider Thomas Jane, The Mentalist, or Brenda Johnson of The Closer. Possibly. But I'm on the fence.
In fact, the only character I can think of who meets the criteria we've been discussing isn't a detective at all: Dr. Gregory House. Though he does indeed solve medical mysteries, and his creator, David Shore, has tweaked the audience throughout the series with his misanthropic character's uncanny resemblance to Sherlock Holmes.
Where Holmes had Watson, House has Wilson. House's apartment address is 221 B
(same as Holmes' address on Baker Street). And on one episode, Wilson plays a prank on the hospital's young doctors by explaining that House once had his heart broken by a singular woman...named Irene Adler.
Regardless, are we witnessing the end of the era of TV detectives? Maybe not. HBO has a new series called Bored to Death, in which a struggling writer works part-time as a private detective. And David Shore is apparently developing a re-make of The Rockford Files (though it's hard to imagine anyone other than James Garner in the role.)
So. Do we need another new, 21st Century TV detective? And who should it be? Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch? Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta? Or someone
created specifically for the small screen?
What do you think? 

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Best Mystery Novels of 2009?

Well, it's awards season again---time for the Oscars, Emmys, and all the various guild awards in the entertainment industry.

However, for those of us who write and read mysteries, it's also an awards season. Most notably, there's the Mystery Writers of America's annual Edgar Awards dinner, which is just around the corner.

I was thinking about what a great year 2009 was for mystery and crime novels when the latest issue of The Strand Magazine appeared at my office. Not only is the editor, Andrew Gulli, a man of erudition and taste (he published two of my short stories, "Blood Lines" and "A Theory of Murder," didn't he?), he really seems to have his finger on the pulse of what's happening in the crime-writing world.

In fact, in his editorial in this latest issue, Andrew listed his choices for the best 12 mysteries of 2009. Here they are:

1. A Quiet Belief in Angels by R.J. Ellory
2. A Plague of Secrets by John Lescroart
3. The Fury by Jason Pinter
4. Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith
5. Roadside Crosses by Jeffrey Deaver
6. Nine Dragons by Michael Connelly
7. 206 Bones by Kathy Reichs
8. Look Again by Lisa Scottoline
9. The Magicians by Lev Grossman
10. Dexter By Design by Jeff Lindsay
11. The Girl Who Played with Fire by Steig Larsson
12. The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

Pretty impressive list, I'd say. But what do you think? Any novels you loved this past year that belong on a "Best Of" list?

Let me know and we'll add your choices to the list. And here's to more great crime (fictional, of course!) in 2010.