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‘Suspenseful, political, smart’

Brilliant native son Robin Yocum to release sixth novel in April with ‘The Sacrifice of Lester Yates’

ACCOMPLISHED AUTHOR — Robin Yocum lives in Galena, Ohio, where he divides his time between writing novels and as the principle at Yocum Communications, a public relations and marketing consulting firm he founded in 2001, but he has never forgotten his Brilliant roots. Come April, the 1974 graduate of Buckeye North High School will release his sixth novel — “The Sacrifice of Lester Yates.” -- Contributed

GALENA, Ohio — Jefferson County author Robin Yocum knows what’s on the last page of his books before he ever does the first.

And there’s “a road map” that connects the two as part of a writing style that works for the Brilliant native known for his fiction set in the Ohio River Valley.

His sixth novel — “The Sacrifice of Lester Yates” — will be released April 6 by Arcade CrimeWise, an imprint of New York-based Arcade Publishing.

“This book is Robin Yocum at his best: Suspenseful, political and smart,” comments Lilly Golden, a senior editor at Arcade, of the book that marks the return of Hutchinson Van Buren, the protagonist in Yocum’s 2011 novel, “Favorite Sons.”

Reads the book jacket: “Lester Yates is the notorious Egypt Valley Strangler, one of the country’s most prolific serial killers. Or, is he? Yates is two months from his date with the executioner when Ohio Attorney General Hutch Van Buren is presented with evidence that could exonerate him. But Yates is a political pawn, and forces exist that don’t want him exonerated, regardless of the evidence. To do so could derail presidential aspirations and change the national political landscape. Yates’ execution will clear a wide political path for many influential people, including Van Buren, who must battle both the clock and a political machine of which he is a part.”

It also notes Yocum “has been compared with E. Annie Proulx for his authenticity of place and Elmore Leonard for his well-laid plots and perfect pacing.”

Yocum is the author of five additional works of fiction: “A Perfect Shot” (2018 — Seventh Street Books); “A Welcome Murder” (2017 — Seventh Street Books); “A Brilliant Death” (2016 — Seventh Street Books); “The Essay” (2012 — Arcade Publishing); and “Favorite Sons” (2011 — Arcade Publishing).

The latter was named the 2011 Book of the Year for Mystery/Suspense by USA Book News. “A Brilliant Death” was a Barnes & Noble No. 1 bestseller and a finalist for both the 2017 Edgar Award and the Silver Falchion Award for best adult mystery.

He also has written two works of nonfiction: “Dead Before Deadline . . . and Other Tales from the Police Beat” (2004 — University of Akron Press) and “Insured for Murder” (1992 — Prometheus Books), which he co-authored with Cathy Candisky.

He also had a short story selected for inclusion in “Best American Mystery Stories 2020,” which came out in November. The story originally appeared in The Strand Magazine.”

Yocum divides his time between writing books and as the principle at Yocum Communications, a public relations and marketing consulting firm in Galena that he founded in 2001.

Through e-mailed questions and a phone interview, Yocum offered insight on his upbringing and passion for writing.

What was growing up in Brilliant like?

“My parents were Ronald Yocum and Carroll Yocum. Dad owned Yocum Sohio in Brilliant until 1965, when he went to work at Weirton Steel. Mom was a homemaker. I was the oldest of five children. (My father died in 2008; Mom lives near me in Westerville.) I graduated from Buckeye North High School in 1974.

Brilliant was a great place to be a kid in the ’50s and ’60s. This was a time when the steel mills were booming and everyone worked. We had gas stations, grocery stories, a lumber yard, hardware stores, a drug store and five churches. It was a very self-sufficient community. We had an American Legion fair, a fireman’s fair and Community Days.

I would leave the house in the morning with a ball glove on my handlebars with instructions to be home for dinner. My parents never worried about me running the hills with my buddies. It was a great place to be a kid. I have nothing but fond memories of Brilliant and the friendships I’ve maintained there over the decades. Also, I should note that when I was growing up, all I wanted in the world was to wear the uniform of the Brilliant Blue Devils. That was a big deal to me. I did, for one year, before we consolidated with Smithfield in 1972 and formed Buckeye North.

When did you develop an interest in writing?

People ask me if I always wanted to be a writer. I tell them, “No, I was a normal kid.” I didn’t want to write. I wanted to run the hills and play ball. My goal was to replace Bill Mazeroski as the second baseman for the Pirates.

We were playing Wintersville my senior year, and I broke my ankle sliding into second. The next week, I remember sitting on the bench with a cast on my leg and thinking, Maybe I should have a back-up plan. You know, find a profession where a mediocre throwing arm wasn’t going to be a deterrent to making a living. My junior year in high school, I took my first journalism class.

Bill McHugh, who also was my football coach, was my teacher. It was a different kind of writing from essays and book reports. I found that I could write and be creative, and I thought I had a talent for it. That was really where it began. OK, and I was a horrible math student, so accounting was out of the picture.

(Yocum earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University.)

How did you decide to pursue a journalism degree?

Coach McHugh encouraged me to be a writer. He thought I had the talent. Other than my dad, he had a big influence on my life. I can’t honestly say that a lot of other teachers saw my potential. In their defense, I was not the best student. I think a lot of teachers were amazed that I got out of high school, let alone into college. I didn’t really apply myself in high school. Mostly, it was a cool place with a lot of girls and sports. I think the pretty much sums up my high school experience — girls and sports.

I knew I had the talent, and I applied myself when I got to college at Bowling Green. My father had starting talking to me about college when I was really young. He said that a college education was a ticket out of the steel mill. There were days when he would come home from Weirton Steel and the only thing on him that was white were his teeth and the circles around his eyes where his suction goggles had been. If I’d been screwing up at school, he’d say, “Laugh it up, funny man, and someday you’ll be working beside me in the mill and come home looking like this.” I thought, no, thanks.

(Yocum joined the Columbus Dispatch in 1980. He worked at the paper for 11 years, including six years as the senior reporter on the investigative desk. He won more than 30 local, state and national journalism awards in categories ranging from investigative reporting to feature writing.)

What did you like most about working at a newspaper and writing for one?

I thought I wanted to be a sports writer. I worked in sports at the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette and the Martins Ferry Times Leader. I got on the Columbus Dispatch in early 1980. That is when I discovered that I liked covering news better than sports. I also learned that I had a knack for the investigative side of journalism.

I spent a little more than four years on the police beat and another six as the senior reporter on the investigative team. I enjoyed the newspaper business because no two days were the same. The police beat was an incredible experience, but not always a fun one. I figured that I covered more than 1,000 deaths during my four years on the beat. If a story had my byline, you didn’t want to find your name in it because you were most likely dead or in jail. It was a good job to have when you’re young. I don’t know if I could do that today. I’ve gotten soft in my old age.

How did you make the transition from newspaper writing to book writing?

I always wanted to write books. I remember reading some books in high school and thinking, I could do this. The newspaper and the books were independent. I wrote two non-fiction books. “Insured for Murder” was a book about a story I covered for the Dispatch. “Dead Before Deadline” was about my days covering the police beat. However, I always wanted to write fiction. When you’re a reporter, you’re writing about the deeds of others. Or, if you’re the police reporter, the misdeeds of others. I wanted to write fiction because I wanted to start with a blank sheet of paper and create a story that was uniquely mine — my ideas, my imagination, my words. That appealed to me. In fiction, you’re not constrained by the facts. You’re only constrained by your own imagination.

It took me a while to hit my stride as a novelist. I could paper an auditorium with rejection letters. I never let that bother me. I just kept grinding. That was my Ohio Valley upbringing. Eventually, I found my voice for fiction, and it’s gone well since.

How do you decide what to write a book about and how much of a process is that?

It’s difficult to explain the creative process because it’s largely about your imagination. But, let me give it a try. All my books start with what I call the launch point. That’s my term for it. It’s that germ of an idea that makes me think I can wrap a book around that idea.

In the upcoming book,” The Sacrifice of Lester Yates,” for example, it was a story about a wrongful conviction. I have an idea for a book about a prison guard. It’s that simple to start. Then, I spent weeks, sometimes months, doing what I call a brain dump. Essentially, I’m just thinking about the book. Over time, it starts to take shape. I’ll jot down ideas, but there’s no order to them. It’s like dropping a box of spaghetti on the floor. Noodles are going everywhere. Eventually, I start putting them into place. Before I put the first word on page one, I have to know what’s on the last page. I can draw a road map to the end of the book if I know how it ends. If I don’t know how it ends, I feel like I’m just spinning my wheels.

How long does it take you to write a book?

When I’m working on a book, I try to write 500 words a day. I’m pretty disciplined about that. If a book is 100,000 words, I can write it in 200 days. So, about six months to finish the first draft and another six to eight weeks to do the fine tuning. I’ve written the first draft of a few books in as little as a couple of months.

What brings you the greatest joy in writing books?

There are many aspects of writing that I enjoy. First of all, there’s no heavy lifting. If you’re making me pick one thing, it’s when a teacher tells me that she gave one of my books — usually “The Essay or A Brilliant Death” — to a student who had never before read a book, and they devoured it. I love that. It means that something I wrote had an impact on a young person’s life.

What is it you’d like to most get across to readers about who you are as an author?

I try not to overthink things. As an author, I want people to finish one of my books and think, that was time well spent.

I’d like for my readers to know that I’m from the Ohio Valley and very proud of that fact. I hope they see a blue-collar, steel-mill work ethic in my books. My books are set in the Ohio Valley for a reason, and it’s because I love the area and my roots.

When people ask me where I live, I tell them Galena, Ohio. When they ask me where I’m from, I tell them Brilliant. That will never change.

What’s your advice to other wanna-be authors?

Don’t give up. If you believe you can write, keep grinding. I know a lot of talented writers who will never write a book because they don’t possess the discipline to grind away. I had numerous books rejected before I finally got published. Work at your craft. It’s no different than playing a sport or learning to play an instrument. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.

(Kiaski can be contacted at jkiaski@heraldstaronline.com.)

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