In the early '70s, Dennis Palumbo left Pittsburgh on a road that took him to Hollywood, as a screenwriter. Among other credits, the Penn Hills native and Pitt grad became a staff writer for Welcome Back, Kotter and, perhaps most notably, co-scripted the acclaimed 1982 Peter O'Toole film comedy My Favorite Year.
Though he did well enough, like many in Hollywood, Palumbo found himself in therapy. Happy ending, though: "I fell in love with the process," says Palumbo. He discovered a new calling and, for two decades, has himself been a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. He specializes in creative types: writer, actors, directors.
One reason he can help them is that Palumbo, too, remains a creative type. He's the author of a guidebook, Writing From the Inside Out. And he writes articles (about TV and more) for outlets from The New York Times to The Lancet; does commentary on NPR's All Things Considered; and blogs for The Huffington Post. He's also published short fiction (much of it written at lunch, between therapy sessions).
Now Palumbo, 59, follows his long-ago first novel and numerous short stories with his first detective novel. Unsurprisingly, the hero of Mirror Image is a psychotherapist: Daniel Rinaldi, who treats victims of violent crime. Rinaldi's troubles begin when a patient who's begun dressing like Rinaldi is murdered just after a session.
Pertinent to Palumbo's upcoming appearances here, Mirror Image (Poisoned Pen Press) is set in Pittsburgh. It's more than a nominal homecoming: Palumbo visits family and friends here regularly, and is intrigued by this "shot-and-a-beer town that collides with the Information Age."
Rinaldi, for instance, "used to work with his uncle in the produce yard, down in the Strip," says Palumbo, by phone from in Sherman Oaks, Calif. "I tried to make him a combination -- a little bit of the past of Pittsburgh with the modern. He says somewhere, 'I'm the first to go to college, the first to wear a jacket and tie.'"
Palumbo's own Pittsburgh memories include college-student stints at J&L Steel. "I had this big, I guess you would call it an Italian afro, and my hard hat would just sit on top of my hair," he recalls. "It was very funny."
Mirror Image's supporting cast ranges from a bipolar pianist to the woman who refers Rinaldi's patients from the police, and who just happens to be a relative. "It's that thing, when I was a kid, from the real-estate guy to the insurance, [family service-providers] all had to be related ... or the friend of a relation," says Palumbo. "Very, very familial. ... My hero's accountant is his cousin Johnny. That's real Pittsburgh."
So is Rinaldi an alternate-universe Palumbo? "He's a handsomer, braver, resourceful, fantasy version of me," says Palumbo. "The clinical stuff [about psychotherapy] is all very accurate. But his resourcefulness, and his bravery -- I'd run from most of the situations he walks into."
Dennis Palumbo author appearances Sat., Aug. 21: 10 a.m. (Mystery Lovers' Bookstore, Oakmont; 412-828-4877); 3 p.m. (Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley; 412-741-3838); and 6 p.m. (free writing workshop, Borders Eastside, East Liberty; 412-441-1080) Sun., Aug. 22: 2 p.m. (Joseph-Beth Booksellers, South Side; 412-381-3600 x1940). All events are free.