Getting to Know Amanda Kyle Williams
by Baxter Clare Trautman
Madison McGuire is a slim, cool, confident, Brit with a weakness for pretty women. A spy at the top of her game, American-born McGuire is driven by the adrenaline rush of the job and a passionate commitment to her country of origin.
Almost the antithesis of McGuire, Keye Street is a straight, white-knuckle alcoholic faster on a Krispy Kreme donut than a crackhead on a loose rock. After getting the boot from the FBI, Street scrapes by serving bonds and running private investigations. Street is a heroine who’s not a hero, but seems to stumble along like the rest of us trying to do the right thing.
I won a copy of The Stranger You Seek on Goodreads and as I read it the author’s name kept bugging me. I Googled her and remembered she’d written the McGuire novels, a series I hope to introduce new readers to here. And for those who enjoy a good read outside the lesfic box, the Stranger series will make an excellent addition to your “To-Read: list.
Q: Thanks, Amanda, for spending some time with us. For those who may not yet know you, how about a little bio?
A: Thank you so much for having me! It’s a pleasure to be here. And I’m excited about having an opportunity to talk about the new series with an audience who may not know about Keye Street. You know, I did a lot of things over the years to pay the bills. But I did find I tired quickly of the corporate world. Worked my up there and found out it wasn’t at all what I wanted. I was at home one weekend, a rare weekend off in weeks that were 60-80 hours long. I was sitting in my backyard and a line came into my head, one little sentence, and I knew instinctively it was the first line of a book. And even though I’d never thought of being a writer. Not ever. And despite a constant war with words that had begun as early as kindergarten because of a learning disability, I knew a writer was what I was going to be. I was 28. I knew also, or thought I knew, that given my past, my lack of formal education, my limited options, I had right then probably the best job I could hope for, and it was loaded with opportunity. And none of it mattered. I turned in my resignation and thirty days later I was unemployed and I’d started writing a little book called Club Twelve. I didn’t know anything about writing and publishing. I didn’t know how long it would take or how hard it was or how damn broke I was going to be. But that’s probably a good thing. If I’d known I might not have ever taken the leap.
I did a lot of things over the years to buy the groceries until the Random House contract. I worked as a freelance writer in the late 90s for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I started a dog walking and pet sitting business that helped support me for 13 years. I worked with a friend who had a commercial embroidery business. I became a court appointed process server and I worked with a PI firm in Atlanta. That’s when the bug really bit to write crime fiction. That’s the bare bones. There’s a lot more that packed into those years. It got murky for a while. I don’t have skeletons in my closet; I have whole bodies hiding in there.
Q: Keye Street, the protagonist of your Stranger series, has a background in criminal profiling. How did you get interested in profiling and what research did you do to create Keye?
A: I really got hooked on crime fiction and on spy fiction when I started reading regularly. I came to reading late in life, but I came to it with a kind of hunger, I suppose. Perhaps because it was a late discovery for me. When I read Silence Of The Lambs and went on a Robert Parker binge, I knew I wanted to make the move to crime fic. I had so many stops and starts. For years. I wasn’t getting it right—the right story, the right character. It just wasn’t happening. And my writing wasn’t there either. I guess I’m a slow learner because it took me a very long time to have any comfort at all with the quality of my writing. Then, when I was working with a PI firm and as a process server, I started to learn a little about watching, about human nature, about where people hide and why. And I started to think about writing a profiler, as they are called on television. But I didn’t know a heck of a lot about how a criminal investigative analyst worked, how they might approach a crime scene, how they might infer certain characteristics on a violent offender because of the physical elements of the scene, and I didn’t know how they might work with local law enforcement. I started to look around for ways to figure this out. Because if there’s one thing I learned about readers when I wrote the first series, they’re pretty savvy. They know when you’ve done your homework and they want you to get it right. And I wanted to get it right too. I used some contacts and I was introduced via email to a profiler who was teaching courses geared to law enforcement about criminal profiling. I got into one of those courses, essentially Criminal Profiling 101. It was absolutely invaluable. It kicked a lot of myths about profiling in the butt, and cemented for me that I was heading in the right direction. I couldn’t get enough of the stuff. I later took a course in practical homicide investigation so my protagonist could work alongside law enforcement as a consultant in a realistic way.
Q: Keye is my kind of girl – sober, scrappy, sarcastic, and just a tetch edgy. How much of Keye Street is Amanda Kyle Williams?
A: (laughing) How about 3 out of 4? Do I have to say which three? I can tell you one thing I don’t have in common with my potty mouth detective, she has a metabolism like a buzz saw. She’s quite capable of using replacement therapy and sneaking a couple of Krispy Kremes instead of a vodka soda and looking just fine. Of course, she’s a hell of a lot younger than I am. And by the 3rd book in the series she has returned to running at about 35 years old.
Q: Then you have Madison McGuire, the hero of your lesbian espionage novels. An elegant, globe-hopping, American-born Brit, she is the antithesis of Keye. How much was Madison a part of you when you wrote her?
A: Good lord. I wish. Madison was, well, all those things, controlled, buttoned-down. I’m much more like Keye—flawed, wrestling a few demons, a tendency toward inappropriate humor, a slave to cravings, a rollercoaster life, a few regrets. Madison would have never behaved as badly as Keye and I have. But I have mentioned Madison in the new series, as a tip of the hat to the old fans. The backstory is Madison made the move from the CIA to the FBI after her cover was blown in the last book in that series. She wasn’t happy training recruits and the Bureau was happy to have her in the counter-intelligence unit. Madison and Keye met and became friends, and according to Keye, Madison is her only friend left at the Bureau. That gig ended badly for Keye.
Q: There’s a gap between the last McGuire and first Street novels. How come no writing in that time and why the switch when you did write from a lesbian main character to a straight one?
A: For one, I was trying to find my voice as a writer, that real voice, the one that’s unique, that’s not self-conscious. Took me a long time to be willing write someone who tries damn hard to be a decent person and still comes up short sometimes, who struggles with self-esteem, selfishness, addiction. And secondly, I needed to relearn writing after I got clean in 1995. I’d been a functioning addict for many years. It’s like someone who learns to write with a cigarette in their hand. New pathways have to be carved out. Suddenly life is really coming at you and you’re feeling it, you know, feeling everything. I wasn’t numb anymore. I think I’d been numb for most of my adult life. It takes a minute to start over. But it’s a beautiful thing.
As for Keye’s sexuality, all I can say is when Keye came to me, I knew she was straight. And I didn’t want to be locked into writing lesbian characters. I wanted the freedom to imagine my characters straight or gay or lesbian or trans or whatever. It’s why I never went back to lesfic.
Q: You mentioned you are dyslexic. I would think that would make you want to run as far and fast as you can from letters, yet obviously you’ve embraced them. How have you overcome this challenge?
A: Right!? You would think. But, you probably know as well as I that writing has a way of choosing you. It just kept tapping on my shoulder. I haven’t overcome the challenges that come with being dyslexic, but I live with them. I understand them now. I know not to panic. I know if I take my time I can do it—reading, writing. I was 23 when I read my first book cover-to-cover. I could barely pick my way through a job application when I dropped out of school. I still have trouble with long text. The editing process on my novels is slow because of this. Fortunately my agent and my editor understand and they are very patient. My iPhone is packed with unabridged audio versions of novels. This is how I read most of the time. Dyslexia is challenging, but it doesn’t have to limit you. Ok so maybe it will slow you down a little, maybe you have to try harder, maybe you have to walk through a different door to get there, but you can get there like everyone else. And this is the main reason I’ve talked a lot about dyslexia and addiction in many interviews. These mountains are climbable. And I want people who struggle to know that, to know you can get to the other side.
Q: I love the men of the Stranger series. Who are they based on?
A: Well thank you for saying that. Well let’s see, there’s Neil, who has to smoke a joint in the morning just to take on the day. That’s half my friends right there. I didn’t have to go far for inspiration. Lieutenant Rauser, Keye’s friend and love interest, is a big tough guy who is as much a feminist as Keye is and who freely admits to being a bottom. Kind of the perfect guy in a burly non-perfect way. Her dad, Howard, the quiet type, dyslexic, puts LEON up in lights on the roof every Christmas to his wife’s horror. Really, I guess all the guys, all the characters, are a compilation of everyone I’ve known, of my family, of my experiences, of myself. It’s a really fun series to write. I’m dealing with some very dark themes so it was important to be to put a few laughs in the book. Actually, I think Keye’s southern adoptive, passive-aggressive mother is the most fun to write. Nice-nasty can really be a blast. You just let it fly. And my own southern mama influenced that character very much.
Q: You write very realistically about alcoholism. Where does that expertise come from?
A: Ha! That’s such a nice way of asking if I’m an alcoholic. I’m not. But addiction is part of my story. It was something I wanted to be able to talk about in this series, not only in a realistic way but with some humor, from a survivor’s point of view. Not a victim. Keye is the perfect vehicle for that. She enjoys poking fun at herself and others.
Q: I read you left school at 16 to become the Vice-President of a textile company by 28. How did that odyssey come about and where along the way did you realize you wanted to write novels?
A: Textiles worked for me. My father was big in the carpet business. I grew up going to his carpet mill with him. On Saturdays I was climbing all over the huge rolls of carpet in the warehouse while he worked in his office. Loved the forklift. Did a lot of sitting on it. One thing you learn how to do when you grow up with a learning disability is pay attention. I listened to my brilliant, well-read siblings in order to develop a vocabulary I wasn’t able to get reading. Television and movies were my literature. I listened to my dad talk about developing new lines of carpeting, going to the labs with him and designing color lines, etc. I absorbed everything. It’s how you get through. It’s how you bluff your way through school and into jobs. It was a no brainer for me to get into a business I already understood. I started out in sales. I went to Dalton, Georgia, which is the carpet capital and wall-to-wall textiles mills and began working with a manufacturer, first in sales and later in R&D. I worked my way up. It was a great fit. Until the writing bug hit me and I’d spend the next twenty years scratching out a living.
Q: It seems from the McGuire series that you like to travel yet the Stranger books are deeply rooted in Georgia clay. Why the settling down to one location?
A: So many reasons for doing this. One, great crime fiction gives you a sense of place, the setting is hugely important. Steamy Atlanta in summer with all its history and all its boiling heat is the perfect for murder. My childhood was split between Georgia and Colorado because my parents split, but I remember coming here the first time at about five years old. It was spring and when we left Colorado everything was still brown and stark. But Georgia was on fire. Everything was blooming. I’d never seen English ivy or kudzu or towering pine forests. It was about the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. A love affair was born with the South way back then. Keye Street is passionate about the South too. My American Chinese detective with the southern accent loves the soft air as much as I do. It changes your writing when you really do take that old advice and write what you know. Atlanta and Georgia are important characters in this series.
Q: I’ve found after writing a popular first novel that an author’s second novel is often harder to write. Was that true for you and if so how?
A: Oh my God yes! Misery. I was suddenly a full time writer. And I didn’t know how to do that. I’d had so many jobs. Most of my life I’d had two or three at a time. I didn’t know how to just settle down and be still and get it done. Very challenging. Keye’s voice was still as strong as ever. I had a story I wanted to tell. Doing it was the problem. And there was some fear to overcome. The first book had been a big one for me—great reviews, tons of publicity, short-listed for the Townsend Prize For Fiction and the Shamus Award. I had to find the discipline and I had to write it knowing that second books aren’t always well received, that I didn’t have a newbie pass anymore in mainstream publishing. Fortunately, my fears were mostly unfounded. The book was well received. But I went through some changes getting it out there.
Q: I’m anticipating Don’t Talk to Strangers, the third Keye Street novel. Is it still on track to be released September 2013?
A: The mass market edition of the second book, Stranger In The Room will hit sometime this winter. It’s currently in hardcover. I will write a short story (still untitled) just for ebook to hit around Christmas. It will be a quick look at Keye early in her career with the Behavioral Analysis Unit and it will lead into book 3 in the series Don’t Talk To Strangers, which is scheduled for February 7, 2014.
Q: Madison McGuire was a dynamic lesbian character. Any chance we’ll ever see her older and wiser?
A: Like I said earlier, I have given her a mention or two in the new series. I’d like to bring her in for a scene with Keye in an upcoming book, maybe book 4 or 5. I like the idea of them working together. But I currently have no plans to put the old series back into print or write more Madison McGuire novels.
Q: Which was your favorite book to write and why? Which was the hardest?
A: The hardest was definitely the 2nd book in the Stranger series, Stranger In The Room. For all the reasons I outlined already. Now I’m in the groove and book 3 has been a blast. Favorite book is probably the one I’m finishing now that will be released in February. I’ve pulled Keye out of Atlanta, away from her supporting cast and sort of cut her loose to work with a local sheriff in central Georgia on a string of murders. It’s a creepy little town called Whisper. The Native Americans who used to inhabit this area used a word for it that translated into Mean People. Some bad stuff happening down there and we’ll have a chance to see Keye work and investigation on her own without the Atlanta Police Department and her homicide cop, Rauser. And I loved the first book in the series, The Stranger You Seek, because it’s scary as hell and because I wrote it over a period of years while working other jobs. It was a product of pure love and determination. So this book will always be close to my heart.
As for the old Madison series, the 3rd book titled A Singular Spy was my favorite. It was the book where I started to really hear Madison’s voice and where I began to trust myself a little as a writer. Plus, it’s an old fashion Cold War spy novel. And I do love spy fic.
If you want to learn more about Amanda Kyle Williams, check out her website HERE. Or send her a friend request on facebook HERE. Be sure to suggest that we’d love to see Madison McGuire in print again.