Amanda Kyle Williams burst onto the thriller scene in 2010 with her first crime novel, The Stranger You Seek, which Publishers Weekly called an “explosive, unpredictable and psychologically complex thriller that turns crime fiction cliches inside out.” Stranger in the Room, the second book in the Keye Street series, arrived in 2012. Book 3 came out earlier this month and it’s already being called the strongest, most exciting book in a series that keeps getting better. Alison Law, a member of the She Reads blog network, interviewed Amanda about Don’t Talk to Strangers.
Amanda’s latest book, Don’t Talk to Strangers, is the third novel in her Keye Street series. If you are new to Amanda’s work, you should scoop up all of her books at your local indie bookstore, then cancel your plans because you are in for one long thrill ride. We’re giving away one copy of all three books in the Keye Street series–The Stranger You Seek, Stranger in the Room and Don’t Talk to Strangers. See the link below for contest entry details. Sorry this contest is open to U.S. residents only.
1. For those members of our She Reads community who are new to your writing, will you introduce us to your protagonist Keye Street?
AKW: Of course. What writer says no to that? I should mention this right off because it’s one of those foundation-building things. My Chinese American detective was raised by white southern parents, and she has the accent to prove it. “I have the distinction of looking like what they still call a damn foreigner in most parts of Georgia, and sounding like a hick everywhere else in the world.” That’s Keye’s voice—irreverent, slightly damaged. She’s searching, balancing love, life and work, trying to keep her head above water, rebuilding her life. I think we root for her because she’s trying to find her footing like we all are. In Don’t Talk to Strangers, Keye introduces herself this way. “My name is Keye Street. I am a detective, private, a bail recovery agent, a process server and a former criminal investigative analyst for the FBI. And when I say former, I mean fired. Capital F. The Bureau likes their profilers sober.”
2. In the first two books, Keye Street operates out of her home based in Atlanta, Georgia. She is surrounded by her normal support system, including her adoptive family, her business partner Neil and her close friend, Atlanta Police Lt. Aaron Rauser. In the third book, you move Keye to the small town of Whisper, Georgia, where she finds out she is less than welcome. She’s working around the clock to help the sheriff’s department solve two murders, so other than some scattered phone calls and emails, she’s on her own and without good coffee. Why was it important to shift the setting and introduce a new set of characters in the third book?
AKW: It felt like the natural progression of the series. I think something we’ve come to understand about Keye is that she desperately misses the work she was doing with the FBI, the work she was educated and trained for. More and more, we see her dipping a toe in the water as a police consultant on repeat violent offender cases. It’s as close as she’ll ever get to what she did with the Bureau. It nourishes her, and feels more meaningful. So, when a county sheriff in central Georgia calls to say he has two dead girls and a tiny, clueless criminal investigations unit, there’s no question she’s going to take the job. Keye’s supporting cast is hugely popular with readers. I love that. And as a writer, I’d much rather you miss them now and then, and the city that has become a kind of character than get sick of the formula. Sometimes we need to pull the safety net out from under our characters. That’s what I did with Keye in this book. It was great fun. And challenging. She had to carry the book. That interaction with her pot-smoking business partner, her crazy family, and her boyfriend—all the things that have really informed us about who she is—were absent. On the other hand, I think we gained confidence in the character by watching her work outside her element, interact with strangers, and hunt a killer, fearlessly and obsessively. When the series comes back home to Atlanta, we’ll all be glad to see the gang again. I predict the next book will take place inside the Perimeter.
3. Readers of your books experience some pretty creepy things, as told to them by Keye, but also as narrated by the criminals. Why do you include scenes and chapters from the killer’s point of view?
AKW: It’s the only time I step out of Keye’s POV. I do it selectively. It’s something you have to be careful not to overuse. But I believe brief glimpses into the mind of a killer—how they justify it and reconcile it with the person they’re presenting to the world—is very effective. The psychopaths scare me, the ones who watch and don’t feel. So that’s why I do it. I want to scare the hell out of you, too.
4. Like Keye Street, you spent some time as a process server and developed a fascination with criminals and how they think. How did you learn to think and write like a profiler?
AKW: When I decided I wanted to write crime fiction, I immersed myself in that world. I took a couple of courses in the fundamentals of criminal profiling. Since my background is not in law enforcement or behavioral analysis, I needed to learn something about how a criminal analyst might approach a crime scene, how they infer personality characteristics on the offender based on the physical elements of the crime, and how they might work with local law enforcement on a consulting basis. I also took a course in homicide investigation from a seasoned old New York detective. So all that was a big help with language. I’m not writing technical manuals; I just want my investigator to have internal and external dialogue that feels real—especially when she’s at a scene or on a case.
5. Although your novels are thrillers and deal with some grim subject matter, you also make your characters say and do some outrageously funny things. How do you balance the scary stuff with the funny stuff?
AKW: Well, it helps if you’re basically a silly person. I wanted Keye and her gang to be funny. I like the little break in stress a good laugh gives you in a thriller. And this is a southern series. I mean, come on. We’re funny down here. It’s hard not to be inspired by the South. Humor is like switching POVs in that it can be a little bit of a tight rope. I want to give you a crime thriller that keeps you turning pages. The humor can break the tension for a second, endear the character to the reader, and give the reader a breather, but it should never slow the pace of the novel. I have a brilliant editor who has good instincts for this and stops me when I’ve gone too far. Mostly. Some might argue the missing cow in The Stranger You Seek, the booger bandit in Stranger in the Room, and Hank the poodle’s erection in Don’t Talk To Strangers were going too far.
6. After years of struggling as a student, being told that you were “lazy,” and ultimately dropping out of high school, you learned in your 20s that you were dyslexic. What is it like to look back on that time in your life—when you realized that you had a learning disorder, that you weren’t lazy or dumb, and that you could learn how to read and enjoy reading? Do you think your 20-year-old self would have believed that one day you would be a full-time writer whose words are read and enjoyed by so many people?
AKW: My 20-year-old self didn’t see a future at all. I hadn’t been diagnosed. I was working and struggling to hide the fact that I had trouble reading. I didn’t know there would be an answer for me, that I’d be diagnosed, told I could learn as much as anyone else. I promise you, I never imagined a future where I continued to wrestle with words all day. I mean, go figure. Early diagnosis is so important for kids with learning difficulties. Knowing there’s an answer, a way to learn, that you’re not stupid and slow, it changes your life. It gives you a chance.
7. As a series writer, you purposely leave loose ends in your books—things that keep your readers wanting to know, “How is this situation going to resolve itself and what is going to happen next to Keye?” Have you already mapped out the entire Keye Street series or do you approach each book like its own standalone story?
AKW: Oh lord, to be one of those writers who can map out an entire series and write long, beautiful, intricate outlines for their editors. Not me. Though, I do know generally where the series is headed and where Keye is headed. I have a plan for Book 5 and I’ve begun Book 4, A Complete Stranger. Someone told me a couple of days ago on Facebook that she and her boyfriend had decided Keye will be in a mental institution by Book 5. Not true. But I’m not sure about the author.
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Hailed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as “one of the most addictive new series heroines,” Keye Street is the brilliant, brash heart of a sizzling thriller full of fear and temptation, judgments and secrets, infidelity and murder.
In the woods of Whisper, Georgia, two bodies are found: one recently dead, the other decayed from a decade of exposure to the elements. The sheriff is going to need help to track down an experienced predator—one who abducts girls and holds them for months before ending their lives. Enter ex–FBI profiler and private investigator Keye Street.
After a few weeks, Keye is finally used to sharing her downtown Atlanta loft with her boyfriend, A.P.D. Lieutenant Aaron Rauser. Along with their pets (his dog, her cat) they seem almost like a family. But when Rauser plunks a few ice cubes in a tumbler and pours a whiskey, Keye tenses. Her addiction recovery is tenuous at best.
Though reluctant to head out into the country, Keye agrees to assist Sheriff Ken Meltzer. Once in Whisper, where the locals have no love for outsiders, Keye starts to piece together a psychological profile: The killer is someone who stalks and plans and waits. But why does the sociopath hold the victims for so long, and what horrible things must they endure? When a third girl goes missing, Keye races against time to connect the scant bits of evidence. All the while, she cannot shake the chilling feeling: Something dark and disturbing lives in these woods—and it is watching her every move.