Amanda Kyle Williams is a break-out star with a thrilling story to tell. Her first in a series novel, The Stranger You Seek, garnered her a 2012 nomination for the prestigious Townsend Prize for Fiction. Williams will appear at this summer’s Decatur Book Festival in support of her second book in the series, Stranger In The Room, which debuts August 21, 2012. On the eve of the award ceremony for the Townsend Prize, I offer a re-posting of my original interview from 2011.
This not-for-the-faint-of-heart crime thriller is set during a steamy Southern summer and is full of believable, interesting characters living in the Atlanta that I know and love. Don’t be fooled by the setting, this is not a sleepy Southern novel. It is terrifying and creepy, and often very funny. At times it will even make you hungry. Williams’ love of the South shows throughout the book as she takes the reader on ridealongs with lead character/former FBI profiler Keye Street. Williams’ skill at capturing particular time and place means you can almost feel the midsummer heat hitting your face from the passenger seat of Street’s ’69 convertible as she cruises Atlanta’s streets looking for the killer.
I was excited to interview Williams because her personal story is as fascinating as any of her characters’. According to her bio, she has contributed to short story collections, worked as a freelance writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, worked as a house painter, a property manager, a sales rep, a commercial embroiderer, a courier, a VP of manufacturing at a North Georgia textile mill, and owned Latch Key Pets, a pet sitting and dog walking business. She also worked with a PI firm in Atlanta on surveillance operations, and became a court-appointed process server. You will see a bit of all of these in her novel’s character developments. Williams signed on with the South’s oldest and largest feminist bookstore Charis Books as her signed bookdealer. So when you order from her website, you are doing good in more ways than one. She graciously allowed me an advanced read of her novel and then answered my very random blogger questions.
THE ART OF THE THRILL
AVJ: I freely admit to being brand new to reading crime thrillers. I’m at once horrified and fascinated at the human mind and how a perfectly nice individual such as yourself could dream up the most lurid and macabre scenes, not to mention the unexpected plot twists, that you have. One theory is that, if you write about crime, you can control it, and that creates less fear for the writer. Does this resonate with you at all? What drew you to this genre?
AKW: I’m fascinated with all things crime. Not just crime and criminals, but the people who spend their lives fighting it and dealing with the terrible repercussions of violence on family and community. Cops, field agents, profilers, the techies that are constantly working to make criminal databases more effective, medical examiners, grief counselors, forensic scientists from all disciplines. What makes these exceptionally dedicated people tick? What’s a day in the life? How do they handle the pressure and the darkness? My protagonist Keye Street, as you know, is a former FBI behavioral analyst. What drives my books are the needs that drive her. I’ve tried to educate myself about what her process might be. I’ve made contacts in law enforcement and forensics. I’ve ended up with some great consultants that inform my writing.
And I have an interest in the violent serial offender, too. Let’s face it, most criminals are not masterminds. They’re just thugs and opportunists. But someone smart enough to evade law enforcement efforts for years, like the Green River Killer or the Long Island Killer who is out there hunting right now, someone utterly egocentric who sees victims as fill-in-the-blank objects, now that interests me. What I mean by fill in the blank is, whatever his fantasy or desire, he’s just inserting a victim. He’s completely detached from their suffering. It’s about him, his need. Writers take a lot of criticism for writing books about serial offenders—rapists or murderers. But thrillers and mysteries keep selling. Cop shows and CSI type shows continue to have good ratings. I don’t think anyone wants to glorify these monsters, but we have a natural curiosity about that kind of psychopathy. I think we want to know what it’s like to look through the cold eyes of a killer from a safe distance. I do. I want to know what fantasy he’s acting out, what fuels it. I learned something really valuable when I was taking criminal profiling courses to prepare for this series. Homicide isn’t always the motive. It’s merely the result of behaviors manifested at the scene. That’s what draws me to the genre—a desire to understand those behaviors. I don’t know that it gives me a sense of control. I’m as fearful as anyone else of violent crime. That’s why we love crime fighters. They fight back. They protect us.
AVJ: I have read that your lead character, Keye Street, is “flawed and brilliant.” I call that human. She is unlike any female lead that I have ever read about or seen acted out on screen, particularly in a law enforcement setting. You painted a complex portrait and allowed your audience complete access to her struggles: alcoholism, career, relationships. Yet, for all her foibles, she never seems needy or weak, and we root for her all the way through. Who or what most inspired her character? What is her defining trait?
AKW: Keye’s a fighter, for one. She refuses to be a victim. She knows she’s a work in progress. She takes responsibility for her sometimes glaring failures and weaknesses and she laughs it off. What inspired her character originally was my niece Anna who was adopted as an infant from China. She learned her English in rural Georgia, where my brother and sister-in-law live. She’s now about ten. I’d been to see them one Thanksgiving when it really hit me just how deeply southern this kid was. The accent coming out of this gorgeous Asian child was unmistakably American South. On the drive back to Atlanta that night from the Dalton, Georgia area, I started thinking about what it would be like to grow up looking different in the south—that sort of foreigner in your own land feeling. I wanted to bring this to a character. Keye Street just kind of landed in my lap that night—Chinese, adopted by white southern parents, a gay, light-eyed African-American brother who had trouble fitting into any community in the South. But I wanted a character that talks about her life and her differentness in a funny and irreverent way. I pulled over that night and wrote the first lines of what would become The Stranger You Seek. “How I ended up here in the South, where I have the distinction of looking like what they still call a damn foreigner in most parts of Georgia and sounding like a hick everywhere else in the world, is a mystery Emily and Howard Street have never fully unraveled for me. … It didn’t take me long to understand that southerners are deeply secretive.”
AVJ: Set in Atlanta, there is a lot going on in your novel with identity as it relates to being Southern, but also with identity around being different and living in the South. You’ve created characters who, by race or gender or ethnicity or sexual orientation, somehow stand out. I like to think that the South is so populated by characters that none of us stand out. What in your own life brought this concept of outsider to your novel?
AKW: This was pretty much the theme in my life growing up. I have a learning disability that wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my twenties. I failed miserably in school and dropped out as soon as I was old enough. Educators and parents felt just as helpless, I think. They saw a kid that appeared to be intelligent, but was not performing. The assumption was that kids like me just weren’t trying. The information wasn’t out there for teachers back then either. I’m fifty-four now. No one knew what dyslexia was when I was in public school. So that feeling of being just outside the circle was very familiar. I think that’s true for a lot of us, though. We all have challenges and insecurities, we want acceptance, validation. We have a human desire to feel a part of something. And I think there are times when we feel terribly alone regardless. I want my characters to experience that range. I want them as real as possible even though I’m putting them in extraordinary circumstances.
AVJ: Your Southern upbringing is showing: You bring more food references into your story than any novel I’ve read, I think, ever. Tell me about using food to set the scene, and about your personal relationship with food.
AKW: During the line-edit process on The Stranger You Seek, one of the editors put a note in the margin that said “Yum” when I had described the Thanksgiving spread. I’ve had emails recently from people saying they were starving the whole time they were reading advance review copies. My mother was a fabulous southern cook and I’ve spent most of my life in the south. One of my favorite writers, Pat Conroy, writes about food in his books in a way that makes my knees a little weak. It’s a sensual experience. Plus, my main character Keye Street has only been sober four years and she’s a big believer in replacement therapy. She’s not drinking, she’s substituting. Doesn’t matter if she’s feeding her Krispy Kreme and Little Debbie habit or eating flounder with watermelon relish and asparagus cake at Bacchanalia, she loves food. When Random House (bless their hearts) hired me to write more books in the Keye Street series, I had to make a personal choice between cooking and writing, two of my passions. There’s just not time for both right now. So I’m living through my characters. Especially Keye’s mother, who loves to cook. Me, I’m living on sesame noodles from The Mercantile up on Dekalb Avenue while I’m trying to finish a revision on book 2. And Billy Allin’s off-the-charts amazing food at Cakes and Ale Restaurant in Decatur. I’m not complaining.
AVJ: White Trash, the cat living with your protagonist, Keye Street, is a low-key, yet compelling, character for me. I think that can be said about most cats. I love how you give her time on the page and develop her personality. How do you think writers choose to bring animal characters into their novels, and what purpose do they bring to yours?
AKW: Animals are a huge part of my life. I’m a founding director at a local no-kill shelter and non-profit animal welfare organization, Lifeline Animal Project. I have cats and dogs. All my friends have animals that they have to make arrangements for when they travel. Atlanta and Decatur are very animal friendly places. It didn’t seem real to me to have a character without an animal. White Trash was rescued from a trash bin off Peachtree Street. She’s bitchy and demanding with a deep sense of entitlement. She’s also a Reddi Whip addict. I have two Torties running around my house right now twitching their tails with the same kind of attitude, so this wasn’t really a stretch for me.
AVJ: Your novel debuts this month at the largest independent book festival in the country, the Decatur Book Festival, in your hometown of Decatur, GA. I know it’s been a long haul for you and it has worked out spectacularly. If you had one piece of advice for aspiring writers, what would it be?
AKW: Don’t wait for inspiration. Don’t wait for the big idea. You build your foundation brick-by-brick, word-by-word. That’s when the inspiration comes for me, after I’ve slogged through for a few hours and something has started to take shape. That’s when the big ideas hit. I’m always reminded of the great Somerset Maugham quote about writing. ‘I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.”
To keep up with Amanda Kyle Williams, and her Keye Street series, follow her on Facebook, on Twitter, or subscribe to her website. She supports both the Lifeline Animal Project and the Fugees Family, a non-profit organization devoted to working with child survivors of war. She hopes you will, too.