Decatur crime writer Amanda Kyle Williams is still learning
By Dyana Bagby, contributor
Amanda Kyle Williams pushes the chili around with her spoon. It’s a busy afternoon at Pallookaville restaurant in Avondale Estates, and while the bowl of food tastes like chili, she says, the color and texture is suspect.
“Good lord, this is going to kill me,” she says, only half-joking. A bite of a jalepeño forces her to reach for her milk shake.
Williams, the much heralded crime writer who lives in Decatur, is in the midst of writing another thriller starring private eye Keye Street, the complicated, funny and tough-as-nails protagonist in the books, “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” “Stranger in the Room,” and “The Stranger You Seek.”
The fourth installment of the popular Keye Street series is in the works with a deadline of February and a planned release date of fall 2016. Williams bases her books in Atlanta, Decatur and Georgia.
Williams says the character of Keye Street came to her in a flash of inspiration after a Thanksgiving dinner in North Georgia with her brother and sister-in-law and their adopted Chinese daughter. The little girl, now 13, spoke with a soft, easy Southern accent — a stark contrast to how she appeared.
“It was the oddest experience I’ve ever had developing a character. She dropped in my lap fully formed. I heard her voice, damaged and snarky,” Williams says.
Street herself sums up the contrast in the first novel, “The Stranger You Seek,” with this observation: “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.”
Keye Street’s past to come to light
Street’s snarky, smart and Southern character appeals to many readers. In 2012, she was shortlisted for the Townsend Prize for Fiction for “A Stranger You Seek” and, also in 2012, she was shortlisted for the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award for Best first PI novel.
The awards and accolades are no surprise to local readers and booksellers.
“I do enjoy a good mystery,” says Angela Gabriel, co-owner of Charis Books & More in Little Five Points, where people can go to buy autographed copies of Williams’ books.
Reading about characters driving on streets and eating at restaurants familiar to her makes the story “become more alive and vivid,” for Gabriel, she says.
Getting to know Street better and better in each book helps create a bond with readers, too, Gabriel says.
“In every book, Amanda reveals a little more about Keye,” Gabriel says. “She lets us get to know her, her strengths and even her vulnerabilities. She’s created a character that we could have as a friend or neighbor.”
Williams is a good neighbor herself, stopping into Charis to sign books and always bringing doughnuts for the staff to enjoy, Gabriel adds.
The next book will of course key readers into more of Street’s history, something fans are always looking for, says Williams.
Before the novel is released, though, an e-book, or novella, will come out that tells the story of Street’s last days as an FBI analyst before she was fired for, among other things, being an alcoholic.
Williams, 58, who is open about her own past drug addiction, said writing this part of Street’s life was not easy or cathartic.
“I never wanted to go there. I chose to put her where she was [in the novels] because she was not a victim,” Williams says. “I’m uncomfortable when people are in the gutter. It’s her past. It’s my past. I wanted to leave it there.”
Overcoming addiction and now helping others
Williams’ own story of addiction began with experimenting with drugs, including pot and a lot of cocaine, as a teenager and young adult.
Years of abuse led to hitting rock bottom one weekend while living in Marietta. A friend in Decatur helped her check into the now defunct Decatur Hospital in 1995 located on the downtown square where, on the sixth floor, there was a rehab facility specifically for gay and lesbian patients.
“One weekend I checked myself in and got myself got clean. I found an apartment on the same street of the hospital and just stayed. When I could afford to move I just moved down the street; it’s a quirky street with a lot of feral animals that need to be cared for,” she says.
Her love for animals began as a child while growing up on a ranch. In 2000, she lost someone very close to her to cancer and she and her friends wanted to do something in her name. They founded Lifeline, an umbrella animal rescue agency that now runs the Fulton and DeKalb County animal shelters. Lifeline also has its own shelter in Avondale Estates.
“We were all reeling [after their friend’s death] and wanted to do something. We were all animal lovers,” she says. “There were so many rescue groups then, but it was clear Lifeline had to be an umbrella group for saving as many animals as possible from death.”
The agency was founded in 2002 and Williams ran “Catlanta,” the feral cat program in which she would feed and trap as many feral cats as possible to keep down the population.
“I’m proud of Lifeline. They’re still doing the hard work,” she says. And Williams is still feeding a colony of some two-dozen feral cats living on her street. “This is a lifelong commitment. I was doing that before there were humane traps. I would try to get them into carriers. That’s why I have a few of these,” she says, rolling up her sleeves to show scars.
Williams has another passion — supporting those who help refugees, especially The Fugees, an organization founded by her friend and former neighbor, Luma Mufleh.
Williams said she watched Mufleh coach the refugee children in soccer every day then tutor them every night, trying to help them keep pace after being thrown into a school system where they didn’t even know the language.
“She’s a hero,” Williams says.
While Keye Street is the character that put Williams on the crime thriller map of must-reads, she actually put out a series of books in the 1990s starring another tough woman protagonist — Madison McGuire, a lesbian CIA agent.
Williams says she wishes she could redact those books like a CIA file if only because the writing was so poor. However, the series holds a dear spot for many fans because the character was the first lesbian spy protagonist.
“The quality wasn’t there. It’s a blessing and a curse when your first is published,” she says. “Writing is a craft and it takes time to get good at it. It’s taken me 15 years to get there.”
And she’s the first to admit she still has more to learn.
“Maybe one day I’ll become a great writer. That’s a long way away,” she says.