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Interview with Amanda Kyle Williams 2013

Amanda Kyle Williams

They often call a musician’s second album a difficult process and the same can often be said to that of an author’s second novel. Not that anybody would think that about Amanda Kyle Williams’ second Keye Street outing, The Stranger in the Room (Headline), given that its lightening pace, diverse characters and deeply intriguing plot will keep readers spinning the pages over in a blur. Here the author speaks with Chris High about the writing of the novel and, also, on how writing what you  know – no matter how personal – really is the only way.

Keye Street is an intriguing character. An alcoholic of mixed race and adopted background. How do you balance the problems of her past with those of her present?

Honestly, I just think of Keye as a living, breathing human. She’s my imaginary friend, okay? And yes, I’m that crazy. But seriously, I think we are all a product of our past—our experiences—and when I have Keye in certain situations, I just try to keep it real. Really bugs me when characters over react or react in a way that’s not true to life. I need to be able to relate to a character on some level. Good guy, bad guy. Doesn’t matter. I want to find that humanness in them. Even in the monsters. I balance, or attempt to balance, Keye’s past with her present by reminding myself to just be real. How would I behave? How would a friend behave who has Keye’s baggage? How would a family member behave? And by the way, there is gold to be mined in family for a writer. Just sayin.

Yet she isn’t the only character with issues, although Miki has a very different personality to that of Keye. Was finding that balance between the two cousins a difficult process and how much experience do you have of those with addictive personalities?

One of the things I really wanted to talk about when I began the “Stranger” series was addiction. I wanted to be able to talk about it with some humor. I wanted a character with that little demon tapping on her shoulder. But I didn’t want to write a victim. I didn’t want to write someone falling into the gutter. I wanted someone who’d climbed out, who’d reeled herself in when her life came off the rails and found her inner survivor. That’s my Keye. She still wrestles with those old cravings but she knows where she wants her life to go and she’s not going back there. Cousin Miki is a different kind of addict. She’s still using, drinking, indulging the flesh. The book is about two addicts and two very different paths—the one who clibs out and the one who doesn’t. As for my experience with addicts and alcoholics, I have known many. I was a functioning cocaine addict for many years. Ultimately it tears away at your life and relationships and you have to make a choice. I decided to get clean. I went into rehab in 1995. I’ve been clean since. When Keye wants a drink, when she remembers they way it felt on her lips and in her throat, that’s the author reminding herself of the physical pull of addiction. It’s not just about whatever substance you’re using, but all the rituals around it. I didn’t know I was rehearsing to write about someone in recovery all those years when I was struggling myself. I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity now to talk about this. And to have some fun with it.

Is Keye based on anybody in particular or is she a conglomeration of people you’ve met, given that she is so vibrant, energetic and – frankly – likeable? Who would you like to see play Keye on screen?

To answer the last part first, I’ve always pictured Lucy Liu’s face and body when I write Keye Street. And I suppose Keye and all my characters are a compilation of everyone I know and like and maybe a little of myself. But the original inspiration for the character came from my Chinese niece Anna who learned her English in rural North Georgia after my brother adopted her from China, and already sounds like Scarlett O’Hara. I started thinking about what it would be like to grow up in the south looking different than the neighbour’s kids. And Keye came vividly to life for me. Anna is 11 now and completely unimpressed that she has a series dedicated to her.

You have had lot of varied occupations throughout your life, including that of PI, a freelance journalist and – of all things – an embroiderer. How important has your “life experience” been in developing your craft as a writer?
Ha, That’s a very nice way of saying I couldn’t hold a job. And I have used every little bit of my experience I can squeeze out--addiction, a general restlessness, the problem of money, a tendency toward inappropriate laughter—Keye got it all. I loaded her up with every wonderful, terrible, comfortable, uncomfortable moment I can remember in my life. I think all writers do this. You have to draw from somewhere. And working with a PI firm in Atlanta and as a court appointed process server informed my writing so much. Keye is doing now some of the jobs I did back then. People didn’t pull out guns in my world, thank god. But I learned a lot about the real life of a private detective. I learned the city. I learned how to watch people and anticipate.

How important is the research aspect of your work and do you know what you need to research before you start or do the areas appear as you write?
When I decided to write crime fiction I sought out an investigative analyst named Brent Turvey who gives classes to law enforcement on the basics of criminal profiling. I got in one of those and learned a lot about how a profiler approaches an investigation, interprets behavioural evidence, and how they work with local law enforcement. I also took a course called Practical Homicide Investigation so I could get a grip on how law enforcement might approach a murder scene and develop an investigation from there. Having never been in law enforcement myself, I needed some understanding of all this. I also have law enforcement professionals as well as forensic scientists who consult on the series and have been invaluable to me. A lot of stuff always pops up as I’m writing. I may be working with a general outline and know where the book is headed but I may not know until I’m in it that I need to drop in a line about the sex offender laws in Georgia or that I need to understand how a lab report might read from a forensic anthropologist on a body that has been in the woods for ten years. In the second book, I had to reach out several times concerning body fluids, what might fluoresce and when and under what circumstances—climate, lighting, etc. I tackle that stuff as I go. I’m careful with research. It’s extremely important. Readers are very savvy. They know when something’s off. But I’m also very careful about the way I use it.  I’m not writing technical manuals, after all, and I don’t know about you but when a writer goes off for too long on a certain subject, I bail out. We want to learn something. We want to feel like we’re part of the inner circle whether we’re reading about a police station or the inner sanctum of a corporate giant. What we don’t want is to be hit over the head with so many details that we’ve lost the thread and the point to the story. Research enhances your work. It gives you the confidence to write about something in a way your readers feel is real. But too much of it and it’s a weight around the neck of a story, in my opinion. I think Patricia Cornwell is an example of someone who does this very well. Because her character is a medical examiner, we’re going to hear a lot of words I can’t spell. She has learned how to balance this with keeping a story moving perfectly--a line of dialogue, and technical explanation, an action by a character, even if it’s just a blink. She has the formula. Much to be learned from successful writers in this area.   

Why crime fiction as a genre?
It’s what I enjoy reading so it seemed a natural place to go when I realized writing wasn’t going to leave me alone.

If you were cast away on a desert island, which three books would you hope were washed up with you and what, as a writer, would you like to think you’ve learned from each of them?
Oh. Really tough. Only three? First I suppose I’d go with The Prince Of Tides by Pat Conroy who reminds us that the most tangled, excruciating and beautiful and painful relationships in our lives are with family. And who can write about a place so tenderly that you taste it and smell it and miss it when it’s gone. Silence Of The Lambs by Thomas Harris because I am grateful to this book. It’s hard to explain, but when I finished it, I knew I could write crime fiction. Harris made it look easy in this little page turner, and it inspired me to consider writing a little of the creepy stuff myself. Lastly, um, this is really difficult because I’m one of those people who is still in love with the last book they liked—The Bone Bed, Gone Girl, Last To Die, A Wanted Man. I find it hard to move past my last book. Or remember what came before it. So I’m going to leave this open because it is subject to change.

This is the second novel you’ve had published. Does the feeling of seeing your books on the shelves diminish and how do you find the promotion process? Any sign of coming to the UK in the near future?

It’s just about the best feeling in the world for me. I want to see an entire shelf of my books. That’s the goal. I’m planning several books in the “Stranger” series. I need to write as fast as I can before I’m too damn old to enjoy it. As for the promotion process, it’s both gruelling and wonderful and nothing like I’ve ever experienced, even with my vast array of jobs. What I love is talking to people who read, people who pull themselves out of climate controlled homes and brave traffic to get to a bookstore to support an author. The hard part about touring is flying for hours and getting to a store and having no one show up. It is more and more difficult to draw people out even if they like the author. People are busy. I get it. Or the bookseller didn’t promote it properly or whatever. But it will flat break your heart on the road. And I hope I get to return to the UK soon. I was there last summer for Harrogate and it was a lot of fun. Loved the train ride from London. Beautiful country. Perhaps after the next release I can return.

What is the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Write the way you talk. It sounds easy. In fact when a friend told me this years ago I thought it was ridiculous. And then I began to see the simple brilliance in that and realize it meant stripping down all the pretences, being willing to write characters who struggle with selfishness, addiction, characters who are flawed. So writing like you talk for me meant writing with some honesty. When I first started writing twenty-five years ago, I was so self-conscious. I so wanted to impress. It really helped me when I just started to let it fly, whatever it was, whatever the characters told me about themselves.

And finally, what’s next?

Don’t Talk To Strangers, the 3rd book in the series. I’m finishing this month and soon it will be turned into my Random House editor in the States and then it will go to my UK editor at Headline. And I really hope y’all like it.



If you would like to comment on this interview with Amanda Kyle Williams in 2013, please feel free to contact me - GUESTBOOK

“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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