The CCN Interview: Dennis Palumbo

October 4, 2010


Writer Dennis Palumbo has many fans on the Central Coast, thanks to his regular appearances as a presenter at the Cuesta College Writers’ Conference.

Palumbo knows his craft on many levels. He started out in Hollywood back in the ’70s, cranking out scripts for “Welcome Back Kotter” and “The Love Boat.” He quickly jumped to movies with the 1981 classic “My Favorite Year.”

But something was missing and Palumbo soon found himself back in school, getting a graduate degree in psychology. He eventually set up shop in the Valley, working with writers and directors on creativity issues and becoming a much-in-demand speaker and columnist.

Thankfully, Palumbo has never strayed too far away from the keyboard. His most recent effort, the mystery novel “Mirror Image” came out in August to rave reviews.

We were able to grab Dennis Palumbo for a few minutes and find out more about the book.

Dave: Congrats on the success of “Mirror Image.” Talk about the origins of the book. How did you come up with the idea?

Dennis: Well, for years I’ve been intrigued by the concept of a therapy patient so identifying with his therapist that he starts acting and dressing like him. Then, notions about what might happen next just sort of naturally evolved. Years later, when I began thinking about starting a series of mystery novels, I remembered how gripping I’d found this concept, and decided to anchor the first novel with the idea. Things just took off from there.

Dave: Not many mysteries are set in Pittsburgh. How did that come to be and how does location influence story?

Dennis: You’re right about where mysteries are tradionally set—cities like New York, L.A., Chicago and Miami. Or else in stereotypical small towns. But I’d always wanted to write about Pittsburgh, my home town. Particularly now, as it’s one of those huge industrial cities that’s in transition, a shot-and-a-beer town colliding with the Information Age. Once solidly blue collar, home of 17 miles of steel mills, Pittsburgh is now shining and clean, the home of software companies and financial giants. All the steel mills—including the J&L plant I worked at as a college student—are gone. What new steel there is, embedded in the freshly-poured concrete of new buildings, is imported from Japan.

Location influences my novel greatly: the “feel” of the place, the vivid weather of a western Pennsylvania fall, the ethnic make-up, the uneasy marriage of blue collar and white collar—all these factors create a background against which a series of murders and a corporate conspiracy take place in Mirror Image.

With Pittsburgh, you have the classic noir-like elements of a cool mystery: the twisting cobblestone streets, rolling hills, old gothic-style buildings standing next to silver-spired new structures, the gentrification of once-poor ethnic neighborhoods, issues of race and class. Just terrific for a crime writer’s purposes, in my opinion.

Dave: Your protagonist is Dr. Daniel Rinaldi. How did he take shape and much of you is in him?

Dennis: As a long-time fan of crime fiction, and having published many a mystery short story over the years, I’ve always longed to write crime novels. I also wanted to create a strong series character, whose adventures the reader could follow from novel to novel.

In creating psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, a trauma expert who consults for the Pittsburgh Police, I was able to weave many autobiographical elements into his character. Like me, he’s an Italian-American therapist, the son of a blue-collar family, born and raised in Pittsburgh, and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh.

Like me, he’s among the first in his family to go to college, be in a profession. However, unlike me, he’s a former amateur boxer, and, in general, a lot braver and more resourceful than I am! Most of the situations he finds himself facing in Mirror Image would send me running in the opposite direction.

Dave: I couldn’t imagine trying to write in this genre – too many plot twists and turns are expected by the reader. It must be very challenging to try and connect those dots.

Dennis: I must admit, it’s the hardest part for me. I love creating characters and writing dialogue, but the mystery/thriller structure is pretty difficult. Still, I agree with Henry James, who said “Plot is characters under stress.” I find that if I keep the pressure on my characters, challenging them with new and unexpected dilemmas, then I force myself to contrive the origin of these dangers and the solutions to the problems they create. In simplest terms, I back myself into a corner and try to write my way out of it!

Dave: The obvious question: What mystery writers influence you and what are some of your favorite mystery novels?

Dennis: Too many wonderful writers to mention, but just off the top of my head: Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Raymond Chandler (of course!), Ross MacDonald, Dennis Lehane, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, T. Jefferson Parker, Elizabeth George. Not to mention all the wonderful Brits!

My favorite mystery novels run a similar electic gamut, from Connelly’s The Poet to Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; from Mystic River to The Maltese Falcon; from The Long Good-by to Neon Rain to Strangers on a Train. The list is endless!

Dave: Something tells me this manuscript underwent a lot of rewriting. That’s all part of the process, isn’t it?

Dennis: It is for me, especially since I don’t outline. I never know what’s going to happen when I start writing. I like being surprised. But that means I go down a lot of wrong roads, hit dead ends, etc. But since I’d rather write than think, I don’t want to try to plot it all out ahead of time. As E.L. Doctorow famously said, about the way he writes, “It’s like driving down a curving mountain at night. Your headlights only show you the road ten feet ahead, but sooner or later you get home.”

Dave: Did you know who the “bad guy” was going to be from the beginning or did he/she just emerge from writing?

Dennis: No, I didn’t know who the bad guy was when I started Mirror Image. (See above!) In all my fiction writing, the antagonist—even the plot—emerges as I write.

Dave: Fess up about these sex scenes. You’ve got a couple steamy passages in “Mirror Image,” including one I can’t describe on a family web site. How hard–excuse me—how difficult were those to write and make so plausible?

Dennis: They were pretty difficult, but I just kept reminding myself that they were happening to the characters and not to me! I’m too self-conscious to imagine myself in those situations (at least, not for public consumption!) so I was lucky they were happening to Daniel Rinaldi, and I was just taking notes.

Dave: One can only hope for more cases involving Dr. Rinaldi. Can we expect a series?

Dennis: I think it’s safe to say so. I’m already underway with the second Rinaldi adventure. It will be out in September of 2011.

Dave: Last question. In a previous life, you wrote for the “Welcome Back Kotter.” Hit us with a story about working with Gabe Kaplan and John Travolta.

Dennis: I’m so old now, I barely remember being on the show. But I must say, both guys were pretty easy to work with. I do remember one period, though, when John would come to script readings just exhausted from the night before…he’d been up late each night rehearsing his dance moves for some minor little film he’d gotten himself involved in.  It was Saturday Night Fever, and when he came in one day and showed us the movie poster, with John striking that iconic pose in his white suit, all of us writers made fun of him and predicted the movie would bomb. Shows how smart we were!

Dave: That’s the perfect story to end on, Dennis. Good luck with “Mirror Image.”

Dennis: Thanks for the interview. I appreciate it. Take care.