Dennis Palumbo: Therapist by Day, Novelist by Night

I’m thrilled to have on today, Dennis Palumbo, M.A., MFT. He is a novelist and licensed psycho-therapist in private practice, specializing in creative issues.

Therapist by Day, Novelist by Night
By Dennis Palumbo

Dennis Palumbo

I must admit, I’ve had an interesting career journey. For many years I was a Hollywood screenwriter, after which I became a licensed psychotherapist specializing in treating creative types in the entertainment community. Now, after 24 years listening to hundreds of people’s most intimate stories, I’ve fulfilled a life-long dream and begun a series of crime novels. The first, Mirror Image, featuring psychologist and trauma expert Daniel Rinaldi, appeared in 2010 from Poisoned Pen Press.  The sequel, Fever Dream, came out in November, 2011. I’m currently working on the third, Night Terrors.

Which begs the question: what, if anything, does a Hollywood psychotherapist and a suspense novelist have in common? Actually, quite a bit.

For both a therapist and a crime novelist, it’s the mystery of character itself that intrigues, puzzles, and continually surprises. As a therapist, I’ve borne witness to the awful suffering, painful revelations and admirable courage of my patients—many of whom have survived unbelievable abuse, neglect and loss. Not to mention those whose lives have been marred by substance use, violence, and severe mental illness.

How people cope with these issues and events, how well or poorly they meet these challenges, goes directly to the heart of the therapeutic experience. My job as their therapist is to help identify self-destructive patterns of behavior, and to empower them by providing tools to address these patterns and, hopefully, alter them. 

So much for my day job. Moonlighting as a suspense novelist, I find myself doing pretty much the same thing with my fictional characters. As a mystery writer, I believe  that crime stems from strong emotions, and strong emotions stem from conflict. Kind of like life. Which means the secret to crafting satisfying thrillers lies in exploring who  your characters are (as opposed to who they say they are), what it is they want (or think they need), and the lengths to which they’ll go to get it.  

Moreover, using my experience as a licensed psychotherapist, I’ve woven many of the situations and people I’ve encountered into my crime novels. People like a particularly interesting patient I once met at the psychiatric hospital where I did my clinical internship. Now, many years later, he’s the inspiration for my hero’s best friend, a paranoid schizophrenic named Noah Frye.  Much like this patient from long ago, the Noah of my novels is funny, combative, and achingly aware of the reality of his situation.

I’ve used other aspects of my life experience as well.  For example, although my practice is in Los Angeles, the novels take place in Pittsburgh, my home town. In addition, the series hero, a psychologist named Daniel Rinaldi who specializes in treating the victims of violent crime, shares a similar background to my own—from his Italian heritage to his love of jazz to his teenage years spent working in the SteelCity’s sprawling produce yards.

(Though, as each novel’s narrative hurtles Rinaldi into a vortex of murder and conspiracy, he reveals himself to be a lot braver and more resourceful than I am!) 

But there’s another connection between my role as a therapist and my role as a mystery writer. Like the therapist, the crime novelist swims in an ocean of envy, greed, regret, and desire.  As a therapist does, the crime novelist must relate to his or her characters. Must be able to understand and empathize with their wants and needs. Must, in fact, go inside their heads and think as they think, feel as they must feel.

Since most of my patients are in the entertainment industry—writers, actors, directors, etc.—they present a broad canvas of creative passions, lofty ambitions, wild yearnings and devastating defeats.  They love and hate deeply, with an artist’s fervor, and this extends beyond career considerations into the most intimate aspects of their personal lives.

So too the crime novelist must create and endow his or her characters with out-sized passions, hopes and dreams. How else can things go so awry in their lives? How else can things lead, as if inevitably, to treachery, blackmail, murder?

All the things, in other words, that make reading a crime novel so satisfying!

Formerly a Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter, etc.), Dennis Palumbo is the author of Writing From the Inside Out (John Wiley). His mystery fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Strand, Written By and elsewhere, and is collected in From Crime to Crime (Tallfellow Press). His debut crime novel, Mirror Image (Poisoned Pen Press), features psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults with the Pittsburgh Police. The sequel, Fever Dream, is available now.

The critics hail Dennis as a master storyteller. Bobby Moresco (Oscar-winning writer/producer of Crash and Million Dollar Baby) says “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.” Publisher’s Weekly raves that Fever Dream “Palumbo’s exciting second mystery featuring Pittsburgh psychologist Daniel Rinaldi…takes the reader into the seamy side of the Steel City, chock-full of corruption and crime, love and loss.”

Visit Dennis at:

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  1. Kathryn Craft says

    Such an interesting post, thanks Dennis and Donna! Given that Dennis perfectly describes my life here—”a broad canvas of creative passions, lofty ambitions, wild yearnings and devastating defeats”—I’m not sure if I should be grateful my life doesn’t read more like a crime novel, or head back into therapy, lol. Not surprised at all at the title of your book on writing, as you’ve so beautifully evoked writing from the inside out.

    • dgalanti says

      Kathryn, you make a good point! And it makes a writer pause to wonder if our creative passions can drive us into therapy ourselves – as so many artists do – that in doing so, perhaps we might find more fodder for our own books!

  2. Stephanie Ortiz says

    This interview sizzled, Donna! I can’t get enough of this guy. And, as for the awesome point that Kathryn brought up, I think you’re onto something, it’s just the case of the chicken and the egg. Does our writing drive us into therapy or does our therapy drive us into writing?

    • dgalanti says

      Hi Stephanie – thanks…it does indeed sizzle! I love the analogy – which comes first the therapy or the writing?! Perhaps its an ongoing creative cycle that allows for inspiration and self-awareness to drive our writing. :)

    • dgalanti says

      Thanks for stopping by Mina! I do freelance work for a small ad agency that has characters and juicy tales galore too and am now thinking they should creep into my next novel! Although, I bet Dennis has much more at his fingertips as a therapist.

  3. Kathryn Craft says

    Interesting debate springing up here! What Stephanie poses is interesting to think about, but I’m not so sure the chicken or egg thing is important. I think the best writing does spring from a deep, vulnerable place. Some people need therapy to unlock it, some don’t. But I think you do need to have the kind of probing personality that cares how/why things happen. My mother, for instance, is not that kind of person. Growing up, she’d say, “Your problem is you think too much!” Took me therapy to reframe that from “You are wrong” to “We are different.” Only then did I have the courage to unlock my true creativity. She is not the type of person who could write a book. I am.

  4. dgalanti says

    Kathryn, oh how I can relate to that! My mother was strong, sturdy Depression era stock. To combat any problems her answer was “Just get up and go do something, stop thinking about it!” Took me therapy as well to realize she is who she is, and I am who I am. And YES, she was not the type to write a book – but do many other amazing things. We were different. I think this knowledge of accepting our difference amongst people in our lives can come in handy in many instances to overcome battles – and maintain peace. And yes, the kind of people that end up in therapy may often be the kind that do probe, are seeking answers (such as writers!) and need help to do so. Perhaps we’re better off! I hope…..

    • Kathryn Craft says

      Catherine, I do too. All you need is a Kindle, with its automatic indications of which passages are highlighted, to know the way that readers seek life wisdom in the novels they read. Funny: Dennis first earned respect for his psychological insight through his degrees, whereas novelists can earn a similar respect through publication. As if: “Random House thinks she’s smart, so I do too.”

    • Donna Brennan says

      I agree Catherine. Their characters act more like people really act, and they don’t just do something to satisfy a plot point. They drive the plot by their emotions and actions, not the other way around.

      And I like what Dennis said about his characer being a braver, more resourceful version of himself. I find myself making my favortie characters (at least in part) into “the me I’d like to be.”

  5. Jenny Milchman says

    How well said, Dennis. I am ABD in psychology and whenever people ask if I regret either not finishing or going for the degree in the first place, I say that I did not find my voice in suspense fiction until I began studying psych. The authenticity of your characters is surely connected to your listening to so many voices.

  6. Dennis Palumbo says

    I want to thank all of you who’ve read and commented on my post. I really appreciate your kind words, and glad that so many of you found it helpful or illuminating. If any of you decide to check out my Daniel Rinaldi mysteries, I hope you’ll feel free to let me know what you think. Thanks again!

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