Amanda Kyle Williams: Creating Kick-Ass Women
Author: Collin Kelley
October 14, 2012
“I didn’t want to write a victim. I wanted Keye to have the kind of baggage that makes you wise and have a sense of humor so she could laugh at her fuck-ups. I was a practicing cocaine addict for many years, so I’m very familiar with the tricks of addiction. I wanted to talk about that in the series, so that the books are about more than just the cases but about Keye’s life and recovery.”
Atlanta mystery writer Amanda Kyle Williams first made her mark on the publishing world in the early 90s with the Madison McGuire novels (A Singular Spy, The Providence Files) from Naiad Press. Madison was Williams’ answer to The Avengers’ Emma Peel – a redheaded, kick-ass, deep cover operative, who happened to be a lesbian.
Twenty years later, Williams is now with Random House and her new kick-ass heroine is Keye Street, an Asian-American former FBI analyst tracking serial killers across the south, who happens to be straight. Keye made her first appearance in the bestselling The Stranger You Seek in 2011 (which was nominated for a Shamus Award and the Townsend Prize for Fiction) and is back in the newly published Stranger in the Room.
Like Clarice Starling before her, Keye Street is a complex, strong-willed character working through issues, including being tossed out of the FBI for being an alcoholic. She pays the bills working as a private eye and process server in Atlanta. Keye’s small stature, Southern accent (courtesy of being adopted by white parents and growing up in rural Georgia) and Lucy Liu-inspired looks are unlike anything in today’s contemporary mystery series. And Williams is justifiably proud of that.
Where did the idea of Keye Street come from? She’s quite a departure from Madison McGuire.
My brother adopted an Asian baby and took her to rural North Georgia and by the time she was 5 she sounded like Elly May Clampett. I went up there for a visit and was just charmed by her and, on my way home that night, I pulled over and wrote one of the first lines about her having Asian heritage and sounding like a hick. I’d never had an experience like that as a writer – the character just sort of appeared and I knew everything about Keye in an instant. That same night, my piece of shit Neon broke down on the highway. It was November and freezing cold. The tow truck came, hooked up my car and the driver leaned over and pushed open the door for me to get inside with him. I just got this vibe that if I got in the truck I was going to wind up in a freezer bag. Something was really off. It was one of the few times I felt like I was in real danger. I wouldn’t get in the truck and waited for a friend to come and drive me back. I almost immediately started working on The Stranger You Seek. That night set a very dark and creepy tone.
Keye has a lot of challenges and she could easily have become a victim of her circumstances, but she’s incredibly strong.
I didn’t want to write a victim. I wanted Keye to have the kind of baggage that makes you wise and have a sense of humor so she could laugh at her fuck-ups. I was a practicing cocaine addict for many years, so I’m very familiar with the tricks of addiction. I wanted to talk about that in the series, so that the books are about more than just the cases but about Keye’s life and recovery. I want the series to be a victim-free zone. I also wanted to write about the South, food and humor – all the things I’m passionate about.
Like Keye, you worked as a process server in Georgia. Was that a scary job?
I’d been working as a freelance writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, pet sitting and other odd jobs, but I was also starving to death. I had a friend who ran a private investigation firm, so I got registered and became a process server. A process server is the person who delivers subpoenas to people that the local sheriff’s department can’t track down. I learned to be creative in delivering subpoena. I put them in sweepstakes award announcements, delivered them in fruit cakes at Christmas, put them in pizza boxes, attached them to flowers. One time, I almost got run over trying to toss a subpoena inside the window of a moving truck. I used all these experiences to create Keye’s character, but I never carried a gun. I never got shot at, but had a coffee cup thrown at me once.
What influenced you to become a writer?
I didn’t start reading books until I was 23 because I’m dyslexic. Growing up, movies and television were my literature, so it’s no surprise that I created Madison McGuire because I was hooked on The Avengers and Emma Peel. Keye is also homage to Perry Mason’s secretary Della Street and the actor Keye Luke, who played Charlie Chan’s son in all the old mystery movies that I love.
Has your dyslexia affected the way you write?
Dyslexia never goes away. Sitting down to read is a problem because I’m excruciatingly slow. The hardest part of writing for me is the read-through during the editing process. It takes me forever. Part of my dyslexia is comprehension, so if I’m tired or nervous it gets worse. I still wait to hear the specials in restaurants so I won’t have to read the menu.
And yet your writing is fantastic – elegant and economic. Do you have any formal training as a writer?
I dropped out of school at 16 and have no formal education whatsoever. I could barely pick my way through a job application at the time, so I bluffed my way into some jobs. I tried to fit in by making trouble, doing drugs and being funny. If there’s a kid out there who is having trouble reading or a writer that doesn’t think they can make it because of their background, I want to tell them that it is possible. There is no time limit on your dreams. I’m 55 and my career is just starting.
Has your sexuality informed your writing?
For me, I don’t think my sexuality is relevant to my crime fiction. I don’t know if it’s important to the audience, but it’s not to me. I’ve been out since I was 15. Random House could give two hoots about my sexuality. They’ve been very supportive and they just want good storytellers. But I’m also proud of the Madison McGuire books. All these years later, I still get letters from women all over the world who say Madison helped them realize they weren’t alone and there were strong women like this. It’s so validating. Keye is heterosexual, but she has an adopted brother, Jimmy, who is gay and he’s becoming an integral part of the Stranger series. Gay men have written to tell me how much they love his character.
What’s in Keye’s future?
I’d like to write 10 or 12 Keye Street books. I’m working on the third book now and hope to renegotiate with Random House for three more. You hear all the time about mystery series where the main character has gone stale and the authors have run out of ideas, but Keye is a work in progress so that’s the way I’ll keep her fresh and entertaining.
For more about Amanda Kyle Williams and her books, visit www.AmandaKyleWilliams.com