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Friday, August 08, 2008

Author, Psychotherapist Dennis Palumbo ~ Interviewed

"Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is now a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in counseling creative people. Currently, he contributes articles and reviews to The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Lancet and other publications. He's the author of the nonfiction book, Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley), and his fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, The Strand and elsewhere. His latest book is a collection of mystery short stories called From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). For more info, please visit his website."

To read a review of From Crime to Crime click here

What is your current project? Tell us about it.

A: It’s a collection of mystery short stories called From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). Most of the stories are new, though some have been previously published (in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and elsewhere). What makes the collection unique, I think, is that most of the stories feature a group of hapless amateur sleuths based on real people---a therapist (me) and three of my friends. I tried to put a humorous, modern-day spin on the classic whodunnit form, or, as Dick Lochte said in his gracious book blurb, I “added a touch of Neil Simon” to the mix.

The last three stories in the book are stand-alone mysteries, although two of these also feature amateur sleuths: one, a female police psychologist whose session with a troubled detective threatens to turn deadly; the other, a penniless patent clerk named Albert Einstein who gets caught up in the search for a turn-of-the-century serial killer.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long had you been writing before you got
the call you had a contract, how you heard and what went through your head?

A: Well, my journey’s a bit different, I guess. I published my mystery fiction in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine many years ago, then went on to become a screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.) during which time I was still writing and selling prose. Bantam Books published my sci-fi novel, City Wars, and, more recently (2000), John Wiley came out with my nonfiction book about the psychological issues that plague writers, called
Writing From the Inside Out.

That said, I must confess that I still felt that familiar thrill when I got the call from Claudia Sloan, my editor at Tallfellow Press, saying they’d decided to publish a collection of my short stories. I was even more elated when I saw the great job they did. It’s a beautiful hardcover edition.

Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you've discovered.

A: Oh, yes, I still struggle with self-doubts and insecurity. As I’ve learned after 19 years in my therapy practice counseling some of the most successful writers in Los Angeles, no writer is immune from the pragmatic and psychological difficulties of writing. The important thing to remember is that your struggles with you writing don’t indicate some failure or inadequacy on your part: they’re part and parcel of the effort involved in self-expression, in risking putting what’s in your mind and heart out there for readers to see.

Funny you should mention writer’s block, because I hold an unconventional view about it: namely, I think that writer’s block is good news for a writer! In my view, a “block” is merely a stage in your growth in craft as a writer, similar to the developmental stages we all go through as we mature in life.

Just as a toddler needs to struggle---risking and failing over and over, as he or she learns to walk---so too does a writer experiencing a “block” need to learn to navigate and master that particular developmental stage in his or her work. Perhaps the writer is trying to write a more complicated plot than usual, or is delving into difficult personal/sexual material for the first time. Whatever.

And I think the proof that a block is a necessary developmental step in a writer’s growth is that, in my experience, after writers have worked through a block, they report feeling that they’ve grown as writers, that they’re more confident about their craft, or that the work has become more personally relevant.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what's something you wish you'd known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

A: I wish I’d known how much you have to do after you’ve done the work of writing! Getting the word out about the book, promoting it online and in other media, building what publishers call a “platform” (your notoriety or renown with a particular audience)---all these are time-consuming and frequently disheartening, since there are a million other writers out there all doing the same thing. I guess I was spoiled by my experience in TV and film: the networks and studios did all the PR!

What's the best or worst advice (or both) you've heard on writing/publication?

A: Worst advice? Scan the trades and best-seller lists to see what people are buying. I can’t tell you how many people suggest this as a way to break in. It’s absolutely terrible advice. You can’t chase the trends.

Conversely, the best advice came from a colleague of mine. When it comes to writing, or any artistic endeavor in a competitive marketplace like ours: keep giving them you, until you is what they want.

You wear many different writing hats, which is your favorite and why? Or which is your most uncomfortable one and why?

A: Frankly, I like both hats, psychotherapist and writer. One seems to feed the other, in terms of gratification and a sense of making a contribution. Both jobs are hard, too!

With your psychology background and clinical experience you've likely heard and seen it all. Tell us...what is the most fascinating aspect of the human mind?

A: That, in the end, it resists easy categorization. As a clinician, I use diagnoses all the time, yet in my deepest self I know that psychological labels fall far short of describing the myriad states of the human mind, or the passions of the human heart. Diagnostic labels exist, after all, for the convenience of the labelers. But they don’t tell the whole story, which is too remarkable to ever get to the bottom of. Whether we hear stories of great violence and depravity, or of unstinting devotion and bravery, we still routinely marvel at what human beings are capable of. We’re a species that produced both Hitler and Gandhi, after all. (And, as writers, we’ve created characters as diverse as Hannibal Lecter and Peter Pan.) Shakespeare said it best: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Is there a particularly difficult set back that you've gone through in your writing career you are willing to share? Or have you ever been at the point where considered quitting writing altogether?

A: As a screenwriter, I went through a period of unemployment that lasted 18 months. Since this was some years after my success with My Favorite Year, I became convinced I wouldn’t work again.

Then my agent dumped me, with the comforting words, “Let’s face it, Dennis, you’re not a young comer anymore.” That was probably my lowest point as a working (or, more accurately, non-working writer). Luckily, some months later, I was improbably hired to do a third re-write on a film no one believed in. I did a good job, the film still didn’t get made, but I was perceived as “back in the business.” Suddenly I was “hot” again, and was busier than I’d been before. It can make you crazy, believe me. Hollywood, as they say, is a tough town.

Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?

A: How publishing has changed, mostly due to corporate consolidation and reading habits, such that new writers have a harder time finding a home. I guess that’s why God invented the Internet.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

A: Yes, I’d like to keep doing what I do, practicing therapy for its financial and emotional gratification, and writing for fun.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

A: Favorite part: the writing. Least favorite: the business end.

What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?

A: To be honest, a perfectionism that tended to make me over-edit or constrain my natural impulses. This was based on early childhood experiences (what a surprise!), and it took some good therapy and years of experience writing on deadlines to ease me out of it. Though it still crops up sometimes: a typo or grammatical mistake can still whisk me back, as though in a time machine, to my elementary school years, when the nuns would rap your knuckles with a ruler if you made an error. I figure there’s always a nun with a ruler waiting out there somewhere.

What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?

A: Similar to when I wrote screenplays, in which the second act is the hardest, I still struggle to make the middle of anything I’m writing carry the same intensity and surprise as the beginning, and then to lead logically to the end. And since I don’t outline in the conventional sense, I range all over the map in my first drafts. After which, I try to be pretty ruthless with editing, to pare things down to the essentials: i.e., what either motivates the characters or furthers the plot---or, hopefully, does both.

Have you received a particularly memorable reader response? Please share.

A: As I mentioned, most of the stories in my new collection feature a group of characters based on me and three friends. After reading the book, one of these friends, Mark, said that while he enjoyed the stories he was unhappy that I’d neglected to mention that he’s a super-smooth ladies’ man. I answered that his reputation as a stud-muffin was in there, but it was very subtle; you had to read carefully between the lines. I don’t think he believes me.

Have you had a particularly memorable peer honor? Please share.

A: Yes, I was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Best Screenplay Award for co-writing the feature film My Favorite Year. Also, my monthly column for the Writers Guild Magazine, called “The Writer’s Life,” was one of five nationally recognized nominated columns for the Maggie Award in magazine journalism.

How much marketing/publicity do you do? Any advice in this area?

A: Not enough! As a full-time therapist with a busy practice and active family life, I just squeeze in the stuff I can (like this interview). My advice: Don’t forget the value of word-of-mouth when it comes to building readership. So take the trouble to send comp copies of your book everywhere---local and national newspapers, websites, TV and radio stations, and magazines that seem appropriate. Believe me, it’s a pain, but it pays off.

Parting words? Anything you wish we would've asked because you've got the perfect answer?

A: Just a wonderful quote about writing, from screenwriter/novelist Frederick Raphael. He said, “For a writer, there is only one definition of work: pages that are there in the evening that weren’t there in the morning.” I couldn’t agree more.

Thanks for having me as a guest, and for asking such pertinent, interesting questions. If your readers want more info about me and my work, they can visit my website.


  1. Thanks for dropping by, Dennis. You gave us lots of good stuff to chew on.

  2. "Conversely, the best advice came from a colleague of mine. When it comes to writing, or any artistic endeavor in a competitive marketplace like ours: keep giving them you, until you is what they want."

    Wow. Just wow. Profound.


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