So you read Part One of my interview with crime fiction author Amanda Kyle Williams earlier in the week, and now you’d like to have breakfast with her, too. Here’s your chance: Amanda is currently on book tour to promote Stranger in the Room. On Saturday, September 15, she’ll be at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop in Oakmont, Pa. for a “Coffee & Crime” author breakfast at 10:00 a.m. The event is free, but a reservation is required. Visit Amanda’s events page to see if she’ll be in your town soon.
On to Part Two…
The main character in the Stranger books is a Chinese-American private investigator and former FBI behavioral analyst named Keye Street. Amanda knew she wanted to write a novel featuring a criminal profiler, but she had few other details and hadn’t been able to write Word One. That is until she spent one Thanksgiving with her family.
“I went to visit my brother and spent time with my Chinese niece, Anna,” Amanda recalls. “I was so charmed by this kid—how gorgeous she was and how deeply Southern and Chinese she was. She was about five then, and when she said something to me, she sounded like one of the Beverly Hillbillies.”
On the car ride back to Atlanta, Amanda started to worry about her niece, who—despite her strong Southern accent—was an Asian girl growing up in a rural part of Georgia with adoptive white parents. Aunt Amanda knew all too well what it was like to grow up in the South and feel like an outsider. Her imagination took over from there.
“One of the early lines—I think it’s on one of the first pages of The Stranger You Seek—came to mind,” Amanda says. “I pulled off the interstate and wrote that line.”
From chapter one of The Stranger You Seek, the line reads, “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.”
Amanda says that as soon as she heard Keye Street’s voice, she knew she had a protagonist who was strong enough to carry a series of books. The model for her first serial killer, Wishbone, showed up just a few short miles down the interstate when Amanda’s car purged its transmission and left her stranded on an exit ramp with her little dog, Bella. The tow truck operator offered to drive Amanda back to Atlanta, but her intuition told her to find another ride.
“I knew I was going to end up in a freezer bag if I rode with him,” she says. “It set the tone for some really creepy scenes in the first book. It really bothered me for days.”
While some shoppers where lining up for Black Friday sales, Amanda was beginning work on Keye Street’s story. She also incorporated her creepy encounter with the tow truck driver into some first person scenes told from the Wishbone killer’s point of view.
For the next four years, Amanda fought for writing time while running her successful dog walking business. She landed an agent who worked alongside her for two years to perfect the first novel and sell a three-part series to an imprint of Random House. Part of the deal was that Amanda had to give up her business to devote herself to writing on a full-time basis.
Amanda’s journey to becoming a full-time writer is even more remarkable when you consider that she dropped out of high school at age 16 because she couldn’t read or write. Tired of being told that she wasn’t trying hard enough, Amanda quit school and wandered around Colorado for a few years before legal troubles sent her back home to Atlanta. She started seeing a therapist who finally diagnosed Amanda with a learning disorder.
Amanda tells me, “The day that she [the therapist] said ‘You might be dyslexic, let’s do some tests’, it changed everything about my life. It changed how I felt about myself. It changed everything about how I felt about my chances in the world. I knew that I had a chance for the first time. That I wasn’t just on self-destruct.”
The therapist worked with Amanda to help her learn to read and write using puzzles and memory games. When she had the tools and techniques necessary to read, Amanda asked a local librarian to help her select her first book to read for pleasure. It was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
“Three months later, I was still only halfway through the book and thinking that the librarian was a total sadist,” Amanda says. “It was very hard for me. I’d sneak off to the library where people couldn’t see me using my finger to trace the lines of the book. Halfway through the book, I started to enjoy it. All this tension that she (Austen) had built around class, and the drama and romance. I got swept up in Jane Austen like most people do.”
Those elements of tension, drama and romance certainly star in Stranger in the Room. In addition to working two separate mysteries, Keye Street is still romantically pursuing Atlanta homicide detective Aaron Rauser and sleeping with a gun under her pillow after a near-death experience with a serial killer in Book One of the series. The reader also learns more about Keye Street’s family, including an adopted stray cat named White Trash and mother, Emily, who is auditioning to become the next Paula Deen. Keye Street says in the book that Southern food gets a bad rap, and her creator concurs.
“In the last decade, we’ve seen a culinary revolution in new Southern cooking,” Amanda says. “It’s a new take on old Southern recipes, and we have so many talented chefs here in Atlanta that just kick it up to another level. Chef Billy Allin takes me over the edge at Cakes & Ale.”
The names of several eateries and Atlanta establishments pepper the pages of Amanda’s books. She says mentioning the real names of places adds an air of authenticity, and gives her a way to thank the businesses that create wonderful experiences for her and the community. So it is with gratitude that Amanda and I put the bar stools back on the tables at the Georgian Terrace bar, and say goodbye to Keye Street until Book Three.