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    Thursday, August 11, 2022

    Once a writer for TV series including ’Law & Order,’ Robert Palm of Stonington is now publishing his first novel

    Author/screenwriter Robert Palm at his Stonington home Monday, July 18, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
    Author/screenwriter Robert Palm at his Stonington home Monday, July 18, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

    When writer Robert Palm was in his mid-20s and still finding himself, he received a poster from his mother. It featured a quote from James Joyce.

    On the poster, his mother wrote: “Joyce wasn’t published till he was 40. Don’t give up.”

    Palm did become a writer of note. His early career as a reporter, starting out at the Hartford Times, was followed by decades as a writer for TV shows, from “Miami Vice” to “Law & Order.”

    But he had never published a book.

    Now, at age 73, he is. Palm, who grew up in West Hartford and now spends a good deal of time at his home in Stonington, will see his novel “Erasure” released by an Italian publisher in the spring.

    Saving a drowning woman

    When people are confronted by death, they often think about their own lives.

    In 2014, Palm’s brother Barry was dying. Robert had gone to say goodbye to him.

    Later, Palm wondered: what would be his one regret when he was at that point?

    “It immediately came to me that I had never even tried to write a novel, never even attempted one – it’s too big, I was too busy, for all those reasons. If I couldn’t be Fitzgerald, why bother? I had a million of ‘em,” he recalls.

    Palm was living in Noank at the time and, in a little gardening shed, he sat down and started writing with a magic marker on the plywood wall. It was a potential beginning for a novel.

    Of course, the question was: What story would he tell? The one that came to him was from an experience his cousin Eddie Odlum had.

    “We grew up together in West Hartford. There were five of them, five of us,” Palm says.

    They were as close as brothers.

    About five years before Palm started writing the book, Odlum had called him and was very emotional. His wife of 40-plus years had just died of breast cancer. Odlum was living in Malibu, Palm recalls, and “he was like a hippie surfer home builder. He was an awesome guy … St. Francis on a surfboard.”

    In his younger years, Odlum was a lifeguard at Groton Long Point, where his family had a place. (Palm jokes, “When some people say (to me), ‘You summered in Groton Long Point,’ I always correct them. I say, ‘We sponged off our cousins.’”)

    Odlum was walking his dog on the beach in California when the canine started barking. This was November, the surf was pounding, and the day was overcast and bleak, so the beach was empty. Odlum thought his dog might have seen a seal in the water. But then he realized it wasn’t a seal; it was a person.

    Odlum jumped into the water and swam out.

    He discovered the figure was a woman. She was fully clothed. He asked what happened.

    “She said, ‘I went out to kill myself.’ He said, ‘Well, yes or no? Let me know.’ She said, ‘OK,’” Palm says.

    Using his lifeguard training, Odlum brought her back to land.

    “He collapsed on the shore after a very arduous rescue,” Palm recalls. “He said there was nobody on the beach … It just wasn’t a beach day. A couple came from nowhere. He thought they had sort of German accents, but he was half unconscious himself, face down in the sand. They said, ‘We’ll take her, we’ll take her, we’ll make sure she’s OK.’ And they kind of whisked her away. He couldn’t even stand.”

    The next day, Odlum went to the police station to follow up, but there was no record of the event or the woman or what happened to her after Odlum rescued her.

    Palm says, “He called me up, and he was very emotional. ‘You’re a reporter — can you help me find her?’ I was living here (in Connecticut) at the time, but I was still going back and forth to L.A., doing my dog and pony show for television. He said, ‘I just want to know she’s OK. To think that I’ve saved someone’s life …,’ with the obvious reference to his wife. So I said, ‘I’ll see what I can do.’

    “A week or two later, he fell skiing and broke his neck and was paralyzed from the waist down. So his search for the woman, obviously, was over.”

    But years later, thinking back on all that, Palm decided to answer Odlum’s question in a novel.

    In the literary thriller, Palm even calls the main character Ed. (Odlum died in July of 2021.)

    Published in Italy

    Palm finished the first draft in about three months and sent it to Odlum to read. He also submitted the novel to agents in New York City and “got some very nice, very well-written rejection letters full of praise,” he says. His “Law & Order” jobs meant nothing in the world of fiction, he notes.

    Then, last winter, an old “Law & Order” friend of his, René Balcer, and Balcer’s wife, Carolyn, were visiting Palm in Stonington. Balcer asked Palm whatever happened to his novel, which Balcer had read and liked. Palm explained that he had submitted it to agents with no success. Carolyn said she had a friend in Milan who is an agent and suggested sending it to her.

    Palm did. The woman, Gabriella Ambrosioni, said she loved the manuscript. Last month, Palm went over to Italy to meet in person with her. She took him to lunch and dinner and introduced him to various publishers and editors.

    “Whatever happens with the book, (that trip was) my fantasy of what that world would be like,” Palm says. “I had a good long run in television, but … there’s no glamour, you just crank it out. And they pay you a lot of money, but it’s not really a good life for a writer, in my romantic fantasy life.”

    Ultimately, three publishers made offers on the novel. Palm went with Piemme, an imprint of Mondadori. Mondadori is the biggest publishing company in Italy. “Erasure” will be released in Italy in May for the company’s beach reading lineup.

    Getting into TV

    Becoming a TV writer isn’t an easy thing. Here’s how it happened for Palm.

    After his time as a young Hartford Times reporter, Palm moved to Los Angeles and got a job at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

    That paper had a small softball league, and one of players brought Brandon Tartikoff to a game. Tartikoff was then the head of NBC and was a very good athlete.

    Palm and Tartikoff spoke, and later on, Tartikoff called Palm a couple of times at the Herald-Examiner to say he really liked a piece that Palm had written. Palm says that Tartikoff really liked writers, which made him unusual in that business.

    As much as he loved reporting, Palm, who was making $350 a week, decided to give TV a try.

    He approached Tartikoff with an idea for an episode of the sitcom “The Last Precinct.”

    “He looked at me like, ‘What took you so long?’” Palm recalls.

    “He said, ‘Come to my office on Monday. I’ll open the door. If you can do it, you’re in. And if you can’t, I can’t help you,’” Palm says. “And that’s the line I always use for young writers or anybody.”

    Palm ended up becoming a writer for several cop shows despite the fact that, he says, “I knew nothing about cops, except I had an aversion to them.”

    His first job was on “Miami Vice.” He wasn’t yet on staff for the show when “Miami Vice” honcho Michael Mann asked him to write an episode in which Don Johnson’s character marries a rock star, played by Sheena Easton. (Johnson’s character was hired to protect Easton’s, they fell in love and wed, before, amid much crime and personal drama, she was murdered.)

    Mann’s reaction to Palm’s first draft was: “Really good script, but it’s not the one I wanted. Do you want to do it again?”

    “I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ He said, ‘OK, you have four days,’” Palm recalls.

    With that second version, Palm got hired by the show.

    Dick Wolf, who was a showrunner on “Miami Vice,” came into Palm’s office after the wedding episode aired and told him it had gotten a 30 share — meaning that 30 million people had watched it.

    “So I was in,” Palm says.

    Wolf was the connection later on to “Law & Order,” which Wolf created.

    Palm was a writer/producer on the original series, plus the “SVU” offshoot.

    He liked the work and enjoyed the research.

    “It was like being a reporter. It was really fun,” he says.

    “Law & Order” is known for taking real-life cases and transforming them into TV drama. Palm, for instance, was inspired for one episode by a newspaper article about a Connecticut case that went to the state Supreme Court. The court ultimately ruled in 1991 that, as the New York Times reported, “the possessions of a homeless man living under a highway bridge are protected by the same constitutional rights to privacy as the belongings of any house or apartment dweller, even though the man’s ‘home’ was technically a public place anyone could enter.’”

    Palm got to discuss his ideas with former assistant district attorney of New York City William Fordes, who worked as a legal consultant on the show.

    Opened interesting doors to Stonington

    “I had a good long run,” he says of his TV career. “I never really liked L.A. … but I was there for a long time. Then I came back here.”

    Palm has been involved in some locally based projects. He wrote someting for the Stonington Historical Society’s coffee-table book about renowned photographer Rollie McKenna, titled “A Village Love Affair: Rollie McKenna’s Stonington.”

    “It was a wonderful experience. I wrote the sort of bio/intro to the book and made some really good friends locally through it,” Palm says. “It kind of opened some interesting doors to Stonington in a way that I really liked.”

    He also wrote a script for a fundraiser for the Enders Island Recovery Center that was made into the short film “Floater” by Jake Metcalf, a young filmmaker from Stonington. Lamb was a co-producer on it.

    ‘Dream come true’

    As for “Erasure,” there are discussions with agents in the U.S. and England, but Palm says, “If it’s only published in Italian in Italy, and I get to see it in a bookstore in my little town (in Italy where he has a home) … it’s a dream come true.”

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