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

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.




NewsstandGreg said...

Dennis, thank you for all the good work you have and continue to do. One more book for writers I'd add to the list:

"Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life" by Anne Lamott. Keep on writing!

Debbie said...

I'm counting on a second act. Please don't tell me otherwise.