Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Q & A with Dennis Palumbo

I interviewed Dennis Palumbo, therapist an author of the Daniel Rinaldi series.

Q: What makes Daniel Rinaldi different from other (unofficial) PIs?
A: Even though he's a psychologist who consults with the Pittsburgh Police, he's not even unofficially involved in investigations. As a trauma expert, his job is to treat victims of violent crime---people who've been robbed, assaulted, raped, kidnapped, whatever---and for whom these experiences have left them with classic PTSD symptoms. By that, I mean anxiety, hyper-vigilance about potential dangers, nightmares, depression, etc. But, as often happens with series characters, even this tangential connection to the various cases soon gets Daniel in hot water. Which means constantly warring with homicide detectives, the District Attorney, and even his clinical colleagues as he doggedly tries to uncover the truth.

Q: How did you come up with the character?
A: A lot of Daniel's background is similar to my own: Italian-American, born and raised in Pittsburgh, and a Pitt grad. I've always wanted to create a series character, and one to whom I could really relate. So I made him a therapist, like me--though he's a lot braver and more resourceful than I am! Plus, as a former amateur boxer, he's able to survive the occasional physical scrape he finds himself in. (Kirkus Review calls him "Jack Reacher with a psychology degree.") Again, very unlike me!

But in terms of developing a psychologist character who could be the lead in a mystery series, I felt it important to create a unique specialty for Daniel. One that would give him reasonable access to the police and their investigations. I also wanted to use our shared Pittsburgh childhoods and experiences as a vehicle to talk about how the city has changed since I grew up there. How it's gone from being an industrial, shot-and-a-beer town to a modern, white-collar city. Gone are the steel mills and factories. Now it's all about medical breakthroughs at its world-class hospitals and cutting-edge research in nanotechnology. Yet, at the same time, Pittsburgh still boasts venerable old neighborhoods and broad-shouldered pride in its football team. Even with all the changes, it's a tale of two cities. As is true with me, Daniel's life spans both the old and the new Pittsburgh.

Q: How has your background as a therapist influenced your writing?
A: In the most obvious way, I suppose, it's in how Daniel Rinaldi sees the world, the particular way he understands and relates to the emotional experiences of both his patients and the other characters in the books. Since the novels are written in the first person, the reader gets to be inside the head of a therapist as he struggles to help traumatized crime victims. And, with a therapist's curiosity (and a stubborn streak all his own), he's apt to get more and more involved in the actual case.

As happens in MIRROR IMAGE, the first in the series, when the brutal murder of one of his patients plunges him into the investigation. Or in FEVER DREAM, the latest novel, in which Daniel is summoned by the cops to treat the sole hostage released from a deadly bank robbery in progress. The police need Daniel's help in getting the traumatized young woman to give them vital information about what's going on inside the bank. As one reviewer said, Daniel's like a psychological Columbo, using his understanding of feelings and motivations to unravel the mystery, to see things about the case from a different perspective than that of the police.

Q: What's next for you and Daniel?
A: In the third novel, called NIGHT TERRORS, Daniel is asked by the FBI to help a retired serial killer profiler who has become terrorized by nightmares relating to his twenty year career. Not only is he traumatized by his years living inside the heads of the worst kinds of murderers, but he's tormented by guilt when he realizes that one of the guys he put away, who has since died in prison, wasn't the real killer. And that the real killer is still out there, about to kill again.
Naturally, Daniel soon finds himself involved in bringing the bad guy down.

Q: How do you promote your work?
A: Poorly, I think! I mean, I try to give interviews like this one, I blog regularly for the Huffington Post, and I make the rounds of mystery-writing conferences.
I also have a website, and send out a mass email newsletter every three of four months. But I'm a licensed therapist with a full private practice, so my time for PR work is limited. However, I do radio interviews whenever I have the opportunity, and have been lucky enough to have appeared on CNN, NPR and PBS. I must admit, I envy the mystery writers who have hours every day to blog, to participate in blog tours, to contribute to dozens of genre websites and message boards.

Q: What's your idea about the psychotic sidekick in PI novels like Hawk and Joe Pike?
A: Parker and Crais are wonderful writers, and I enjoy both of their sidekick characters very much. With lesser writers, though, such "psychotic" characters are often used merely to provide mindless violence. This is particularly troublesome to me because, having worked with psychiatric populations for many years in a variety of settings, I can say that so-called psychotic patients are rarely violent. What injury they occasionally do cause is usually leveled at themselves.

Q: In the last century we've seen new waves of PI writers, first influenced by Hammett, then Chandler, Macdonald, Parker, later Lehane. Who do you think will influence the coming generation?
A: Good question, since so many of the best writers in the genre now are still using characters with official police status. Writers like Stephen Jay Schwartz, CJ Box, T. Jefferson Parker, and Michael Connelly. I guess you could point to Sue Grafton or Sara Paretsky, with their female private eyes. Or Kate Atkinson with Jackson Brody. Among the men, Robert Crais' Elvis Cole certainly stands out, I think. Not to mention the unofficial PI's, like Randy White's Doc Ford and, of course, Lee Child's Jack Reacher.

Q: Larry Block came up with the following question: How do you keep the series from running out of steam?
A: Luckily, I'm still early enough in my Daniel Rinaldi series not to have to deal with that issue. But I'm sure that, if I'm fortunate enough to be able to maintain the series through six or seven books, I'll bump up against the problem. I suppose then I'll just keep exploring new facets of the continuing characters, the changes coming about in their lives. As both a mystery reader and a mystery writer, it's well-rounded characters and how they deal with the stresses of life that keeps me coming back to series books.

Q: What question should we ask every PI writer we interview and what is your answer?
A: The question would be: what is it about those "mean streets" that make your character insist on going down them, regardless of what awaits? And the answer, borrowed from Mallory, is quite simple: Because they're there.


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jenny milchman said...

I love psychologist sleuths, and am a fan of Dennis' series. Looking forward to the third! Thanks for the interview.