A Welcome Murder, by Robin Yocum, is our MysteryPeople Pick of the Month for April. The novel follows the quirky denizens of an industrial town as they plot against each other, their actions resulting in unpredictable and unintended consequences. Our reviewer Meike Alana caught up with Robin Yocum to ask him a few questions about his latest.
- Interview by Essential MysteryPeople Contributor Meike Alana
Meike Alana: This book is both hilariously funny yet at times dark and depraved. Did you set out to hit both of those marks (which you did brilliantly, by the way!)? Or did the book start out one way, and then you added elements of the other?
Robin Yocum: When I start writing, I don’t necessarily have a direction in mind. Once I have a premise for a story, I create the characters and let them interact. When the interaction is good, it’s like taking dictation. There are lots of conversations going on in my head, and sometimes the conversations are funny. I am admittedly my own best friend, and I’ll be sitting at the computer laughing along with my characters. The humor seems to appear naturally in their conversations. But, there also is situational humor, too. For example, Johnny Earl gets a new cell mate in prison and it’s this hulking white supremacist. How can there not be humor in the ensuing interactions? Smoochie Xenakis, the town door mat, suddenly thinks he is Vito Corleone. The situation calls for humor. There certainly are dark aspects of the book, such as Dena Marie trying to set her husband up for murder, but the ridiculousness of the premise is funny. She hasn’t thought it out or planned it. Rather, she’s trying to take advantage of the situation. I don’t want to write a book that is so dark and serious that I can’t inject humor. To me, the mixture of the two makes for a much better read, especially if you can surprise the reader.
MA: I’d like to hear your thoughts on the setting and how it influenced your characters. I grew up in Erie, PA (dad was a steelworker) and I think it bears similarities to Steubenville–a once-thriving steel town, hit hard by economic issues. How did that impact your characters’ situations and their actions?
RY: I grew up in Brilliant, Ohio, a village about seven miles south of Steubenville. My dad worked at Weirton Steel in Weirton, West Virginia. It was a hard-working, blue-collar area of steel mills, coal mines, potteries, and glass factories. When I reference the Valley, I like to talk about “the grit and the grind.” It makes for a great backdrop—the hulking steel mills, molten steel being poured from ladles, fires in the furnaces, smoke spewing from the stacks. Nearly every man I knew went to work with a hard hat in one hand and a tin lunch pail in the other. Most of my books have been set in the Ohio River Valley, and I am always drawing from characters I knew growing up. The Valley has had a considerable influence on my writing. I tried writing a book a few years back that was set in Columbus, where I have lived since 1980. However, the backdrop was just too sterile, and I put it away. I might take another run at it someday, but I’ll move the story to the Ohio Valley.
MA: The characters in this book were so enjoyable. The alternating first-person narratives gave us great insight into their motivations and really contributed to the humor, because the humor often resided in the disparity between their actions and thoughts. Were any of the characters modeled after specific people? And how did you develop that narrative approach?
RY: When I start writing, I always assign people I know to play the characters in my book. This helps me visualize the scenes and makes it easier to write dialogue. I know their mannerisms, inflections, and habits. That doesn’t mean I steal their stories. Rather, they’re simply playing a part in my book as if they were a character in a community play. I don’t tell the individuals I select for roles that they are the models for my characters. Once the book is complete, I let them go home. But while I’m writing, they take up residence in my head. If I know someone is going to get killed in the book, I always assign that character to someone I don’t like. When I was a kid, I remember a man who would walk the streets of Steubenville talking into his hand as though it was a microphone, occasionally extending an arm to get a comment from a passerby. He was my inspiration for the jailhouse character, Fritz Hirsch, in A Welcome Murder. Johnny Earl is a bit of a composite of every former high school star athlete who never grew beyond his press clippings. We can probably all point to a few of them. I like to write in first-person. I seem to have an easier time writing when I can see the world through the narrator’s eyes. I cannot remember specifically how I came up with the idea of multiple points of view, but I remember that I liked the idea of everyone taking a turn telling the story. Five people can recall the same event, but they all see things from a different perspective.
RY: Which of the characters was your favorite to create and why?
MA: Tough question. I liked Johnny because I liked the transition he makes. He starts out as this cocky high school athlete, gets knocked down a couple of notches as a prison inmate, and becomes a pretty decent guy at the end of the book. However, as far as character creation is concerned, I would have to say Smoochie was my favorite. I loved creating his transition from class nerd to suspected murderer and watching how he takes advantage of the situation. (Johnny, by the way, makes a cameo in my next book).
RY: Without giving anything away, one of your characters undergoes a significant transformation with respect to others’ perceptions. That’s something that I think many people may fantasize about–changing yourself from someone who isn’t respected to someone who ends up commanding not just respect but also a little fear, or from someone who isn’t attractive to his spouse to someone who is somewhat irresistible. How did you hit upon that idea? And how much fun was that to explore?
MA: I think I just answered this one with my response above. But let me elaborate a little. Smoochie was not capable of understanding the transformation. He needed his brother to point out the opportunity. In some respects, isn’t this everyone’s dream? Here’s this poor sad sack of a guy who has allowed life to step all over him, but he is able to turn the tables both professionally and in his personal life. It was a blast to oversee his transformation. I’m very happy with Smoochie as a character in A Welcome Murder, but I probably could have wrapped an entire novel around him.
RY: You aren’t a full-time novelist–you’re also a business owner. How do you carve out time to write fiction? What’s your writing style?
MA: I always have a lot of balls in the air, so I write whenever I can find the time. Every once in a while, I’ll get caught up with work and have a complete day to write, but that is rare. Thus, I write when I can. When I’m working on a book, I try to do a minimum of 500 words a day. That may be words that I dictate into the voice-to-text app on my phone, or jot down ideas in a notebook, or write on the computer, but I work hard to move the ball every day. I have to be disciplined with my time. Suffice it to say I don’t spend a lot of time on the golf course. I’m okay with that. I enjoy running my business, and I enjoy the creative outlet of writing.
RY: We can’t wait for your next novel–what are you working on now?
MA: The book that is supposed to come out next year is set in the eastern Ohio community of Mingo Junction. (Trivia: Mingo Junction is the home of the famous funk rock band Wild Cherry, which had the mega hit, “Play That Funky Music”). It’s about a former high school basketball star who must make a life-changing decision that could cost him his treasured identity as a sports legend. I just started on another book with a newspaper reporter as a central character. I hope to have it completed by the end of the year.
You can find copies of A Welcome Murder on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.