Amanda Kyle Williams typically begins writing her acclaimed mystery novels with a first scene and then a last scene.
“And then about 110,000 words in between,” she says.
Years after writing lesbian mysteries for Naiad, a small press, Williams has found mainstream success with a series set in Atlanta.
Conceived as a trilogy, the series centers around Keye Street, a Chinese-American former FBI profiler who was fired from her job due to alcoholism. Street now runs her own detective agency and does odd jobs while also consulting with the Atlanta Police Department on some of the more heinous crimes to hit the city.
The first two books in the series, “The Stranger You Seek” and the recently released “Stranger in the Room,” garnered strong reviews; the third and final installment, “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” is set to be released late this year. All are published by Random House.
For Williams, finding her true voice — and widespread acclaim — took many years of work and struggle. And, of course, a lot of writing.
“It took me a good long time to get mainstream attention,” Williams says. “And I’m nowhere near what I want and need to do. I want to make sure I do it before I get too old to enjoy it.”
Talking to Williams, you hear the love she has for her protagonist, Keye Street. The voice of this character rules in Williams’ mind as she writes about Street’s struggle with booze, her love of Krispy Kreme, the tension and love she has with her adoptive parents, the bail jumpers she must hunt down as a private investigator, and also the dark places she must go within herself to get inside the head of a killer stalking Atlanta’s streets.
“I tried to hone the craft where the character is strong enough, which I found in Keye Street. And I don’t mean that in a schizophrenic way,” Williams says. “People find something really authentic in Keye’s voice.”
Growing up ‘different’
Focusing on an Asian-American lead character came to Williams after her brother adopted a Chinese baby.
Years ago, her niece, Anna, said something during Thanksgiving with such a heavy Southern accent that the contrast intrigued Williams. She decided to honor her niece by having a strong Chinese-American female protagonist, and her first three Keye Street novels are dedicated to Anna.
Her niece is now 11 and knows the books are dedicated to her, Williams explains. Her interest in the books went as far as, “Do they have pictures and can I read them?”
“Of course, the answer was no to both,” Williams says, noting Anna’s interest in the books then quickly dissipated.
Growing up “different” in the South was something Williams wanted to explore in her books, while also having law enforcement chase down sadistic serial killers.
“I’m white and privileged,” Williams says, noting how the South, along with the rest of the nation, continues to struggle with issues of race and ethnicity.
But Williams also understands being an outsider and feeling different.
Williams quit high school when she was 16 after being “at war” with her teachers and fellow students who believed she was too dumb to learn.
“School was hell. I was constantly told, ‘You’re stupid,’” Williams recalls. “My response to that was learning to be funny.”
At 22, she was finally diagnosed as dyslexic and given tools to help her overcome the learning disability.
“I didn’t start reading until I was 23 and today I’m still a very slow reader,” she says. “Just being able to read a book was incredible. That people actually read for pleasure … and the idea of fiction was to build this whole world with words. I loved it.”
Williams, now 55, is a self-educated reader and writer. Her first mainstream book, “The Stranger You Seek,” was a 2012 Townsend Award finalist in Georgia and a 2012 Shamus finalist by the Private Eye Writers of America for Best First Private Investigator Novel.
Fear, humor and community
Out as a lesbian since age 15, Williams says her sexual orientation has played no role in her novels getting picked up by a major publisher.
“My publisher has no problem with it. It’s not relevant to my books. It’s never been a stumbling block,” she says. “I’ve been very lucky to have never had a problem. I’ve been accepted my whole life.”
Williams’ success continues to grow and there are already talks of adapting her Keye Street novels to movies or television. But she continues to honor her roots, especially at Charis Books & More, where she’ll hold a book signing on Nov. 1.
“As indies are folding, no one has been hit harder than feminist book stores,” Williams says. “Charis has supported me from the beginning. I had my very first book signing there in 1990.”
Charis is also the signed stock dealer for Williams, meaning when a fan orders an autographed copy of one of Williams’ books, it comes from the small purple house in Little Five Points.
“I want to support them the way they have supported me and the community,” she says.
Besides putting people on the edge of their seats, Williams says she also tries to inject humor in her books.
“They’re thrillers and very much about Keye, but there is a lot of humor in them,” she says. “People have told me they found themselves laughing out loud. And nothing could make me happier.
“I like being able to make people laugh while they are locking their doors and windows,” Williams says. “Maybe that’s the sadist in me.”
Top photo: Amanda Kyle Williams, a lesbian writer from Decatur, Ga., is slaying audiences and critics with her Keye Street detective series, which is set in Atlanta. (Photo by Robin Henson Photographs)