Interview with Amanda Kyle Williams, author of The Stranger You Seek

Article published on September 29, 2011.

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In Atlanta, Georgia, a vicious serial killer is at loose, luring victims with ease, killing them with a combination of precision and twisted brutality.

Keye Street is not happy. Formally a rising FBI star, with two university degrees and a brilliant track record in criminal profiling, she’s now working for herself as a bail recovery agent. It’s not exciting work, but it keeps her agency afloat.

So when her friend and mentor, Lieutenant Aaron Rauser, wants her on his case, Keye is reluctant to help him out. That way, obsession lies, and she knows her demons. But when he shows her a letter he’s received from the killer, Keye feels a familiar excitement. They’re being played with, the snare is set, and Keye just can’t resist picking up the bait…

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Amanda Kyle Williams has contributed to short story collections and worked as a freelance writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She 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. Her first novel, The Stranger You Seek, was recently published by Headline in the UK.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?

A few years ago a friend of mine told me that she would read my stuff if I’d just write like I talked − what I was giving her to read didn’t feel authentic. I thought this was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. I mean, clearly she was clueless about the process. You will find that this is the initial reaction most writers have to suggestions regarding their writing. We may smile and nod our heads but really we’re thinking what a dumbass. Later, the wisdom begins to sink in. I was reading Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series when it hit me that she might not be a complete idiot. The dialogue, the rhythm of it, was so real. I could hear Hawk and Spenser joking around. Writing real is harder than it sounds. You have to be brave. You can’t be self conscious. You have to just let it fly. It means reaching down deep for an honest voice. Regardless of the subject or the character, you want to find that authentic voice. It was an incredibly simple piece of advice and surprisingly difficult to accomplish. For me it took some growing up, aging a little; I’m not saying how much aging except that I’m working hard to get this whole series written before I fossilize completely. I think I need a nap right now.

Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?

Pat Conroy makes my knees weak. Seriously. This guy could write the telephone directory in a way that would make me want to lick it. First of all, he loves food and writing about food. And he has this amazing ability to pull you into a place. Doesn’t matter if you’ve never experienced South Carolina. Read Conroy and you’ll know the spiky palmettos and the salt air and the way the kitchens smell in genteel Charleston. Big crush on Conroy. We’ve never met but I’m sure I would be reduced to a babbling idiot. He’s kind of my rock star.

Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?

Both, really. I mean, you have to keep in mind that you are writing for an audience so as not to allow yourself to just spew out opinions or wind up writing technical manuals because you’re so impressed by your own research. Sure, I keep the reader in mind. I want them to be entertained. I don’t want to ask too much of their patience. But I also try to write in a way that feels truthful and organic. I want the characters to stay in character, likeable or not, flawed or not. I’m sure anyone who writes for the public has walked this tightrope. I’m actually amazed when writers say they just write for themselves. For me, that would be a journal or something. And who wants to read that?

Where do you write, and why?

I have a room at the back of my house that I converted into an office when I moved in. It was an old mud room with really dark paneling and funky, fake-brick sheet vinyl on the floor. Okay, so it still has funky, fake-brick sheet vinyl but I’ve painted the room a very light color. Three of the walls have windows. It looks out onto my backyard and beyond that there are seven acres of pine trees and oaks and maples and ivy running wild and blackberry vines. That’s why I work there. I forget I’m in the city. It’s rare to have this kind of green space and it’s gorgeous. Right now, as I’m chatting to you, all I can hear are birds chirping and the constant, almost electric hum of cicadas. Everything is so lush and green at this time of year – it just takes my breath away. Occasionally, a car flies through the neighborhood and intrudes on my little fantasy world. Or a plane flies over. I’m that person on the street with dogs and cats who yells at traffic when people are speeding. I don’t like the speeders. So that doesn’t look f-ing crazy at all, right? I’m sure my neighbors are convinced the weird writer-hermit with cats all over the porch is just a heartbeat away from wandering around pushing a grocery cart and muttering obscenities.

Tell us the book you most wish you had written.

Um . . . errr. Ok that’s just not fair. I really wish I had written every book that ever shocked me or made me cry or sold a bazillion copies or made me laugh out loud. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. The Russia House. The Prince Of Tides. Monster. The Silence Of The Lambs. Postmortem. The Body Farm. Seven Up. The Parsifal Mosaic. The Tiger’s Wife. Cat And Mouse.

Keye Street is a Chinese-American woman in a genre traditionally dominated by white men. Was there an attempt on your part to redress the balance of the genre, or were gender and ethnicity purely incidental?

Well, Keye was born before the story or any of the supporting cast. The killer came next and the title, but that’s another question, isn’t it? My brother adopted my niece Anna as an infant from China and took her home to his place in the textile mill region of the North Georgia Mountains. By the time this gorgeous Asian child was four years old she had a deeply Southern accent. I started to think about what it would be like to grow up in the American South looking different from the neighbors while also being a fully fledged Southerner. That’s when Keye Street came to me. I was on the way home from their house over the winter holidays one year and I pulled to the side of the road and wrote the first lines of the book. I was actually concerned about my chances of getting published with a wise-cracking, recovering alcoholic, doughnut-eating Chinese-American PI. I really had no idea how this would play out. And I didn’t start out to do anything but tell Keye’s story. To my delight, all kinds of people seem to find something familiar or likeable in Keye. I think it’s because she’s really screwed up. I mean, we’re all a little damaged and flawed, right? Most of us strive to be decent humans. We fail sometimes. So does Keye. She has stunning lapses. But we forgive her because she tries. One of my favorite quotes of all time is from May Sarton who said something like, “One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.” Keye gets this and she wants to come up higher. But she doesn’t always manage it.

You write with an evident fondness for Atlanta, but you’re also forced to have it as the setting for some fairly gruesome deeds. How do you manage to square the two?

(Laughing) I’m not sure forced is the correct word here. More like my two favorite things; Atlanta and murder. What’s not to love? And it’s so hot here today that just stepping outside gets your blood boiling a little. Atlanta is something like a beautiful midlife mistress in the midst of a hot flush – alluring and dangerous.

Judging by the advance reviews of Stranger (our own Mike Stafford’s included), you succeeded in throwing readers well and truly off the scent of the ending. Was this particularly important to you, or were you more concerned with establishing character, capturing place, etc?

Establishing character is hugely important and something that’s easy for me. I have Keye’s voice in my head. And a lot of other voices in my head too. I’m sure it will take years of therapy to work that out. And the American South, well, I’m as Southern as fried green tomatoes so, again, setting and place isn’t something I have to work at. But creating a mystery, now that’s a challenge. Readers are smart, increasingly sophisticated and hard as hell to throw off. It’s a big thrill for mystery and crime lovers to get fooled. I pity the writer who disappoints a mystery reader in the Internet age. You will find yourself well skewered on readers’ sites all over the world and your inbox full of descriptions of exactly where they would like you to put your book.

We’ve racked our brains and can’t think of another writer who marries such procedural accuracy with the work of a private investigator. Which writers in the genre do you look to for inspiration?

It’s so nice to hear that. I created Keye’s background in order to free her of some of the restrictions she might have if she were still at the FBI. I tried to learn something about how police departments might approach an investigation so that when she’s freelancing as a consultant, we can see through her eyes how the police work. For me it’s a win, win – combining a police procedural with a private detective opens up so many new and largely uncharted avenues. I love Jonathan Kellerman’s methodical and brilliant consultant Alex Delaware and his relationship with the police. And Patricia Cornwell’s super uptight, massively serious Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta. Janet Evanovich’s total mess of a laugh-out-loud bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. And Robert B. Parker’s PI Spenser. I suppose if you put all of them in a blender, something close to Keye Street might pop out.

For authenticity, you consult regularly with professionals from across the law enforcement spectrum. In your experience, how much of crime fighting is locking horns with masterminds, and how much is tracking down run-of-the-mill crooks?

Most criminals are just thugs and most crime is about opportunity: scam artists; rapists; people on the fringe looking for an open window or door or a computer set down at the coffee shop, a set of keys dropped, a credit card. But even the guys that evade law enforcement for years seem surprisingly ordinary – the guy next door. That’s always the interview you see, isn’t it? Some bewildered neighbor saying, “He was such a nice, quiet man” while the backyard’s being dug up in the background.

Additional questions by Mike Stafford

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