Amanda Kyle Williams has contributed to numerous short story collections, has written some small press novels and worked as a freelance writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. In order to research this book, she studied criminal profiling and took law enforcement courses in Atlanta. THE STRANGER YOU SEEK is her first serial killer novel, and she is currently working on her second, also featuring Keye Street. Laura Harman caught up with Amanda to discuss this debut.
This is the first book in the Keye Street series. How did you find the process of developing a character from inception?
Developing Keye was a completely different experience from developing the supporting cast. Aaron Rauser, Neil, Diane, Charlie, Rauser’s detectives – Keye’s family of choice – and her adoptive family, her clients, they all took shape gradually. I tried not to push this. I wanted it to be organic. I didn’t want them to be any different from the people I know: friends and family and law enforcement. I’m putting them in extraordinary situations but I want to keep them real. I try to hear their voices and when I can do that, their dialogue sets them apart. They begin to have a story, lives of their own. With Keye Street, it was quite the opposite. She arrived like a special delivery, fully formed: tormented, wrestling down the demons, dealing with the mess she’d made of a marriage and career, piecing life back together. But Keye’s not a victim. She’s tough as nails. She has a sense of humor that carries her through the rough spots. She’s a work in progress as far as becoming a really decent human. She wants to be. She fails occasionally at meeting that goal. But she’s trying.
Did she change much from your initial plan for her?
Not much. The details of her life were filled in but Keye kind of landed on my doorstep. I really don’t know a better way to explain it. I’d been to my brother’s house for a holiday one November. He had adopted my niece Anna as an infant from China and taken her to his North Georgia home two hours from Atlanta, the largest city in the area. She’d learned her English in the Georgia Mountains and you could hear it. This gorgeous Asian child opened her mouth and sounded like one of the Beverly Hillbillies. She was about four or five then. I started thinking about what it would be like growing up looking different in the American South. I’d grown up with a feeling of differentness because of difficulty learning, not because of my ethnicity. And so Keye Street was born that night on the drive back to Atlanta. I pulled to the side of the road and wrote a section of the first chapter while my dog watched from the passenger’s seat.
Do you know where she is headed over the next two books in the series?
Yes! The second book is finished and in the revision process and I have a general outline for book three. There will be many more than three Keye Street books, I hope, but my brain seems to only be able to hold ideas for a couple of books at a time.
There is a thread of romance running through the books. Was it important to you to have this cross-over between work and play, public and private lives?
Sssshh! No, you did not say romance in a thriller! I’m laughing as I say this. But seriously, it was important. I mean, all of us, no matter what we do for a living or where we live, are enormously complicated: our lives, our relationships, where we’re pulled and why. Keye feels real to me. And let’s face it, the flesh is weak. She has a sex drive, she craves doughnuts and she wants to experience love. This while she manages the rest of her life: work, family obligations, a fiercely independent spirit. She’s not so different from most of us. Except perhaps that she carries a 10 mm Glock and will flat-out kick your ass if you get in her way.
You used to work in a PI firm, as well as having taken courses in criminal profiling and practical homicide investigation. How important do you think accuracy is with regards to procedures in crime fiction novels?
Working with a PI firm was great. They were also a courier/delivery company, which made serving subpoenas a bit easier. People have trouble turning away things in packages and a courier with a log. This was great experience and I’ve based my fiction around a lot of my real life experiences during this time – now they belong to Keye Street. I took the profiling and homicide investigation courses once Keye’s story fully came to life for me. I wanted to make sure I could feel confident discussing her past and that I could also bring her back into the world of behavioral analysis or criminal profiling as a consultant. I needed to make sure I understood what a criminal profiler did apart from the silliness you see on TV. Not that I don’t love silly TV. I do. I watch those shows too. I understand that they have to boil it down into an hour show with a resolution. But I wanted to be as true as I could to the profession. I was lucky enough to have an email introduction to a respected profiler in the US and to be able to get into a couple of his courses. It helped me get a better idea of what a day in the life of Keye Street would have been like when she was still with the Bureau – what kind of cases she would have seen and how she would have approached them professionally. It was invaluable and helped her feel even more real to me.
There is a good balance between male and female characters in this novel. Do you think that the landscape of law enforcement is changing to allow more women in positions of power?
Well thank you for saying that. I want it to be balanced. I want different perspectives. Some of these are inevitably a result of socialization or gender construction. I do hope the landscape is becoming friendlier towards women. But I don’t know that it is. Two of the important consultants that work with me on this series are women, a GBI Special Agent and a homicide sergeant with the Atlanta Police Department. My sense is that it’s better than it was but not yet where it should be.
The book is written in the first person. Did this allow you to more readily access Keye's inner thoughts, or does it help the readers to feel more connected to a world beyond our everyday lives? Or both, of course.
Both, I think. Absolutely. And because Keye came to me as a whole person with a face and a voice and a story, I never felt like I had a lot of choice in this. She was always the narrator from the beginning, when I pulled off the highway to write that night. I’d read other writers who said that first person was too restrictive but for me it was the opposite. When you’re speaking through a character you can say anything. You don’t have to be perfect or correct or sensitive. All you have to be is your character.
I love the Street family dynamic, in which two religious, deeply Southern parents could be so ahead of their time as to adopt a Chinese daughter and an African American son, who turns out to be gay. How do you feel towards the family? I feel there is a lot of love in it, despite their obvious differences.
Well because of real-life people like Emily and Howard Street, the Street family doesn’t look so different from a lot of families now, with openly gay or transgendered kids, adopted children of all colors. Families with secrets locked in their vaults: complications, crazy aunts, depression, addiction and tons of laughter. I love Keye’s family too. They are made up of a lot of families I’ve known and maybe a little of my own.
At one point, Keye reflects on her lack of feeling towards her heritage because she does not feel like a foreigner. Is this a reflection of your view on the wider issue of what makes a home, a family?
What makes a family? Love, I suppose, and trust. Orientation, gender, ethnicity, they’re just not part of the equation with family. I know my family has loved me and accepted me unconditionally. I never have to question their motives. Keye grew up feeling more like a Southerner than anything else. I don’t think exploring her Chinese heritage ever really occurred to her. Law enforcement, chasing the bad guys, setting straight her biological grandparent’s murder; that was the focus of life. Well, that and kissing boys. And later, drinking. But I can tell you that this will change for Keye. She’s starting over. She’s sober. The Bureau is behind her. Something just may happen early in the series that will inspire her to stick a toe in the water a bit and begin to look at the culture she knows nothing about.
The novel is quite graphic in places. How was this for you to write? And do you enjoy the shock value of such violent crimes?
I’ll answer the second part of your question first. What I like is taking the reader from something that has just made them laugh out loud to the unthinkable. Perhaps there’s a bit of a sadist in me, but I love thinking about taking someone on a rollercoaster. That said a couple of scenes were hard to write, to be honest. But not because of graphic violence. It’s more about perspective. I think the most difficult part – for writers, profilers, law enforcement or anyone imagining the interaction between victim and offender – is really understanding what the victim experiences. Or trying to. It’s much easier to look through the eyes of a sadist or a psychopath or someone that isn’t experiencing grief or pain in the same way a healthy person processes it. But spending time with a victim, allowing yourself to feel their terror, now that’s hard. I have to stop now and then when I’m doing that and just leash up my dogs and hit the street for a nice walk.
Living in the area you write about obviously allows you to create scenes, characters and situations that are believable. Do you ever find yourself, though, being suspicious of people because of ideas you've had for Keye? Or are you able to fully separate yourself from her life?
I’m alert, I’ll say that. I pay attention to where my car is parked or if a lot is empty, the lighting, a stranger on the street. I pay attention to my own routines. When I took the first criminal profiling course, one of our assignments was to go through our own garbage for the purpose of putting together a risk assessment report. How much risk would an offender have to take to acquire us and what would our own trash tell them about our lives? How at risk was I? I was frankly stunned at how easily I could be traced just through what was in my waste basket – where I shopped, bought fuel, ate out. Receipts have date and time stamps. I looked at my routine through the eyes of a predator and saw how easy it would be. I shred things now. I make sure the house is secure and my vehicle doors are locked, things like that. I’m not exactly paranoid, but I have new awareness.
Charlie, who is brain damaged by an accident, is central to Keye's life. What is your opinion on our treatment of people with learning disabilities?
Disabilities of all kinds tend to push people outside their comfort zone for whatever reason. And I think the reasons are often personal and fear based. I have a friend who is quite lovely and had a bad break on a leg a few years back, which required a wheelchair. She talks about not being looked at for six months while she was in this chair. This from someone who’d been admired for her beauty most of her life. Her story of disappearing in the eyes of the world really touched me.
But back to learning disabilities, I have personal experience with this. I’m dyslexic. When I was in school, dyslexia and learning disabilities were not really understood. I didn’t know until I was in my twenties why I hadn’t been able to perform in school, why I’d struggled; I’d never been able to take on long text like a book. I read my first book cover-to-cover at twenty-three. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. Damn thing took me three months but I did it. And it changed my life. The idea that people read for pleasure was amazing because I’d always wrestled with words. I still do. I’m an excruciatingly slow reader. I am incapable of proof reading. But I love words and books. I hope that it’s easier for young people with some special challenge now because learning disabilities are better understood. I’m fifty-three. I’d never heard the word dyslexia when someone said it to me at twenty-two years old and offered to test me. It turned out to be about the most beautiful word I’d ever heard. Not only was there a name for what I was, there were tools for learning. For the first time I knew I could learn as much as anyone else. Until then I’d simply bluffed my way through life in order to get jobs and support myself. Parents, if you have a child that you know is bright and they’re failing miserably don’t assume they’re not trying. There could be another explanation.
Could you tell us more about Fugees Family and how you got involved in this charity?
My neighbor for years was the founder of Fugees Family and The Fugees Soccer, Luma Mufleh. This was before she founded Fugees, but even then she was working with this most under-served segment of our population, refugees. I was working in property management at the time and she came to me and the property owner several times with families who needed a decent place to live, something clean and affordable, a way to put down new roots and start over. Most of the time she put her name on the lease or guaranteed them as a way to circumvent the credit check process, of which they would have failed. No credit, no language skills, no work experience in the US. So Luma put her neck on the line for them. She then started a cleaning service that employed only refugee mothers. And then I started seeing kids at her place all the time; refugee children, survivors of war. She helped them with their homework and started The Fugees soccer, which gave them a sense of community and healing and kinship, and a connection to other children who’d been through the horrors they’d been through. I put the link to Fugees Family on my website because Luma is the real deal and I’ve seen her sacrifice and hard work and I’ve seen children learn to laugh and trust because of her dedication. I’m proud to have the link there and I hope people will want to learn more about these amazing children and coach Luma. YouTube is full of Fugees videos, by the way.
Could you please tell us more about the Lifeline Animal Project as well?
Lifeline Animal Project (LAP) is near and dear to my heart, which is why I put their link on my website. Two of my three rescue dogs were rescued by LAP volunteers and saved from horrible situations. I’m one of the founding directors at LAP, though I’m not able to do any of the day-to-day work. I ran the feral and stray cat assistance program, a program called Catlanta, for the first 18 months after inception. Besides offering the local community low-cost sterilization and vaccination programs from two clinics in Atlanta, Lifeline works on a broader scale to change legislation regarding animal welfare and is constantly pushing toward a more humane society. We have a physical no-kill shelter full of cats and dogs, but we also have a sizeable virtual shelter, which pulls together pets from rescue organizations and shelters offering them maximum exposure so they can find a forever home. The great thing, or one of the great things about this organization, is the effort to educate: to help people rethink their relationship with their animals; to offer support for people who love their animals but are having trouble supporting them – building fences, offering services, donating food. We want people to be able to keep the pets they love. We had a housing crisis here in the US. The economy collapsed and when it did, the shelters were overrun with pets who’d lost their homes too. Lifeline was needed. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Lifeline was down there bringing back homeless animals. When animals’ lives are in danger at kill shelters because of medical requirements or space, LAP steps in and evaluates. If we can repair and rehabilitate, we will exhaust every resource to do that and then place the animal in a loving home. I like supporting organizations I trust, where I know the people and where I know the money is being used appropriately. I’ve never seen the kind of dedication in my life I see from volunteers and staff at Lifeline. It’s staggering what these people go through, the kind of cruelty they have to see directed at animals each day and the kind of love they give so generously. My hat is off to them all. There’s a reason I don’t do the day-to-day. I don’t have the stomach for it. These people are heroes in my book.
Let me say lastly that I’ve enjoyed this so much. Thank you for the wonderful, thoughtful questions and for the opportunity to discuss The Stranger You Seek.
Publisher: Headline (4 Aug 2011)