True confessions of a crime writer

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Author Amanda Kyle Williams reveals the secrets of her past life. AJC editor Ken Foskett recounts her improbable journey to literary success.

Amanda Kyle Williams put the North Georgia mountains in her rearview mirror and pointed her banged-up Dodge Neon toward the lights of Atlanta. It was Thanksgiving, 2004, and her heart was joyful from a sumptuous turkey dinner with older brother Scott and his family.

As she chugged south on I-75, the tiny Neon's engine coughing like a lawnmower, she thought about her niece Anna, Scott's 4-year-old daughter, who'd been adopted from China. The girl looked Chinese but already drawled like Elly May Clampett of the "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Appearances, the 47-year-old aspiring writer knew, were deceiving.

Soon, the words started dancing around her head and, in a moment of unexplained clarity, crystallized into a sentence. She pulled off the highway and wrote it down: "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."

The words breathed life into a character that she knew she could write, a woman who physically clashed with her surroundings but thought, felt and acted Southern.

She'd name her Keye Street, a ballsy private investigator from Atlanta. She'd make her a recovering alcoholic and former FBI profiler who hunted serial killers for a living and battled the demons of addiction and self-loathing to stay alive; a character who lived on the margins, "outside the circle," as she'd write.
In short, a character not unlike herself.

But there would be one big difference between Keye Street and the future author. Keye Street would be a voracious reader who discovered the world through books.

Amanda Kyle Williams never learned to read as a child, or as a student, for that matter, dropping out of school in Gwinnett County at age 16. In her young mind, books were the enemy. Words, they were weapons of humiliation.

Amanda Williams walked gingerly to the reference desk at the Gwinnett County Library. She was 23, a tall, slender woman with brown hair. Nervously, she asked the older woman behind the desk what she might recommend for someone who wasn't much of a reader.

She was prepared for raised eyebrows, a question perhaps, but instead the librarian didn't hesitate: Jane Austen, "Pride and Prejudice."

She found the thick, 19th century volume of social class and aristocratic love and looked for a quiet corner where she wouldn't be seen. She was used to hiding.

In school, libraries knotted her stomach and filled her with dread. Reading and most aspects of learning were just war, there was no other way to describe it; and the battles started from the moment she entered kindergarten.

She lived with her parents and older siblings on a ranch outside Denver, where her father, Fred, was a national sales executive for a Georgia carpet company. In kindergarten, she sensed something was wrong with her from the get go. She just didn't seem to pick up things the way other kids did, and she felt immediately out of place.

That first year, her most vivid memory was busting out of the school building after her mother dropped her off and racing down the street after her, screaming at the top of her lungs. She can still remember the taillights of the car pulling away, leaving her there, crying and alone.

When she moved to a 160-acre farm outside Snellville with her family at the age of 7 and enrolled in elementary school there in the mid-1960s, her struggles only got worse.

She couldn't complete assignments or follow written instructions. Haltingly, she learned to recognize individual words and could even make sense of them in a short sentence. But put those sentences into paragraphs and she was lost. The words and their meaning just seemed to bounce off her brain.
In middle school, she played the guitar, sang Melanie songs and scribbled song lyrics in notebooks. But her handwriting was inscrutable and writing music was impossible.

Her mother, a beauty who grew up poor in rural Virginia, tried helping her daughter decipher assignments at home. Her sister, Ginger, stayed up late helping her memorize passages that she could deliver rote in class.

Her brother Scott just thought she was dumb. And her father was largely ignorant of his daughter's travails, having separated from her mother when Amanda was 11.

Teachers told her mother she seemed smart, but just didn't want to learn. A long line of counselors concluded Amanda was an anxious child and prescribed anti-anxiety drugs. They didn't help her read.

She didn't win many allies with her attitude, either. She acted out in class, talked back to teachers and drew blood with a biting tongue and sassy demeanor.

The last psychologist she saw in middle school examined her record and diagnosed her with "school phobia." He got that right. Amanda dropped out after ninth grade at South Gwinnett High.

Seven years later, she opened "Pride and Prejudice." She held the book in her hands, felt the weight of it.

The year before she'd concluded that she couldn't run from her disability any longer. One job after another ended when she faced tasks that demanded reading or record keeping.
Desperate, she called a psychologist she knew. Amanda had always treated the shrinks and counselors who came into her life as enemies to be parried. This time was different.
She told the psychologist about her life-long battle with learning, the humiliation she'd felt most of her life, how stupid she felt compared to peers and siblings.

Help me, she said.

On her next visit, the psychologist asked her to read something. Then she had her look at a board with round and square holes and asked her to find the shapes that matched.

After she was finished, the psychologist looked at Amanda and uttered a word she'd never heard before: dyslexia.

You can learn to read, she told her. It may take you longer, but dyslexics can learn to read.

Amanda called her mother and father the same day. Dad, I'm not stupid! she practically shouted. There's a reason why I couldn't learn! There's a reason I was such a screw up in school!
Over the next six months, the psychologist played word games with Amanda and showed her how to sound words out. Reading comprehension had always been a giant jigsaw puzzle. The psychologist helped her learn how to put the puzzle pieces together.

She began reading "Pride and Prejudice," using the technique she'd practiced. She put a finger on each word, pausing long enough to sound each one out before moving on to the next. Line after line after line.

In an hour, she'd read two, maybe three pages. She began thinking that the reference librarian was playing a cruel joke. The book and its contents seemed impenetrable.

But Amanda returned to the library each afternoon, when she was supposed to be on calls with a sales job. Soon, she was transported to a world of English manors and horse-drawn carriages. She felt the longing of young Elizabeth Bennett and the tension of class in British society.

It was exhilarating. Previously, she'd found escape in television, watching old movies and courtroom dramas like "Perry Mason," a favorite. Now, she saw the worlds that could open to her in novels and stories. She might not have considered that she could one day write a book, but she knew going forward that books and stories and narrative and characters were going to be a part of her life.

Dyslexia: It was the most beautiful word she'd ever heard.

Amanda wandered around the parking lot in Atlanta, stoned. She was 12 or 13 and she'd just smoked pot for the first time at a Melanie concert with some older teens.

On the ride home, the older kids told her how to act in front of her parents. Be cool. Just be cool.

It wasn't her first deception. After a half dozen years bluffing her way through school, she'd learned how to keep secrets. Not even her friends knew she couldn't read.

Drugs were both a way out and a way in. She wanted to be accepted, to be liked. So she hung with the cool kids who did drugs and inhaled the exhaust of the hippie culture that was sweeping the country in the early 1970s.

By 14, she'd already experimented with LSD. Drugs more or less became the center of her life after she quit school and returned to Colorado with her mother and sister. To brother Scott, she seemed stoned just about all the time.

By 18, she'd snorted her first cocaine. It was love at first sight. Soon, she learned she could support the expense of drugs if she also sold some on the side. She became her own best customer.
One night, she met a guy in a suburban Denver park who wanted a pound of pot. She got in his car and went somewhere to do the deal. Suddenly, they were surrounded: flashing lights, bullhorns, cops everywhere.

Her buyer was an undercover narcotics agent. She was arrested, fingerprinted and thrown in the local jail.

Fred Williams, Amanda's father, was back in Atlanta working for the carpet company when he got the call his daughter was in trouble. He dropped his work and boarded a plane for Denver.
Fred Williams always had a soft spot for his youngest child. As a little girl at the ranch she made him laugh when she pulled on his cowboy hat, the wide brim covering her eyes so she'd have to cock her head back to see.

He bought her a pony and held her while she rode. She was Daddy's little girl. The only problem was daddy wasn't around that much. At one time, his job required traveling the entire Rocky Mountain territory from Canada to New Mexico. Amanda hardly saw him.

Privately, he felt guiltiest about Amanda when he divorced her mother. Even though the separation was amicable, she seemed the most vulnerable.

I want my Daddy! That's all I've ever wanted! Amanda once blurted out when she was having so many problems in school. It cut him to the quick.

Dressed in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffed to other inmates, Amanda was led into the courtroom for her bond hearing.
Fred Williams looked at his daughter, cuffed like a common criminal. Somehow, all he could think about was that little girl peering out from underneath his cowboy hat. Where did she go? He put his head in his hands and cried.

Amanda read the disappointment in his face, saw it in his blue eyes. She'd never felt so worthless in all her life.

Williams bailed his daughter out of jail and the lawyer he hired got her a probated sentence that required her to leave Colorado and return to Georgia.

It wasn't the last time he bailed her out of personal problems. He used his connections in the carpet industry to land her jobs. When he went into business for himself in 1980, opening a carpet distribution business in Norcross, he hired her to run the store. Then he put her to work at a mill he owned in Resaca, near Dalton.

But Williams knew there was something terribly wrong with his daughter when he took a call from a man at the carpet store in Norcross. In a menacing voice, the caller said Amanda owed him money. It was a warning sign. But Amanda was a sweet talker and she could convince her father of anything.
Especially when she needed money. She always had a reason why she needed some: car trouble, repairs, a new business venture. But Williams drew the line when he found out Amanda took a payroll check for the Resaca carpet mill and cashed it.
No more, he told her. You can go to jail. You can go to prison. You'll get nothing more from me. He hoped it would lead her to come clean, remove the crutch that would force her to face her addiction.

It didn't. In truth, no one in her family knew the extent of the double life she was leading. Her addiction ebbed and flowed, and there were years when she was mostly clean. But cocaine had a hold on her life and she always came back to it.

Williams' tough talk did have one consequence. Cut off from her father's aid, the 28-year-old announced to her family a new career for herself. She planned to pen a spy novel and become a writer.

To her brother Scott, Amanda the writer was as likely as Amanda the songwriter, or Amanda the photographer, two other career paths she'd enthusiastically announced only to abandon later.

The novel grew out of her infatuation with spy fiction — John Le Carre was a favorite author — and satisfied the creative itch she'd first felt as a teenager trying to scratch out song lyrics.
She wrote the slender novel on a manual typewriter and mailed it to every publisher she could find. The rejection letters piled up. But then a small feminist press told her they'd publish the book if she made the lead character a lesbian.

So she did and wrote three more books with the same character for the same publisher.

The writing was shallow and not very good. It didn't pay her bills, and it didn't lead to an offer to write anymore. So, like so many other things she tried, writing, too, went by the wayside.
The emptiness she felt after the effort sent her back to the only constant in her life: cocaine.

Her dealer had a wife and kids and lived in a large house in metro Atlanta. She visited him regularly. By her late 30s, she was putting three and a half grams a day up her nose and was selling small quantities to friends to support her $250 a day habit.

The end came over a weekend in 1995. She was living in Decatur in a small duplex. She and three friends binged for 48 hours straight. They snorted to get high, and then drank to come down, with heavy doses of Xanax in between. Up and down. Up and down.


By Sunday morning, she lay in bed empty and alone. I'm going to die, she thought to herself. If I keep going like this, I'm going to die.

Then another thought came into her head more strongly than the first: I don't want to die. I want to live.

That afternoon, Amanda rode an elevator to the sixth floor of a medical office tower in Decatur and presented herself to the intake desk. I'm an addict, she said, and if I don't get help I'm going to kill myself.

She went downstairs with the orderly for one last cigarette before starting the painful process of detox. They gave her drugs to ease her cravings. She felt like a caged animal.

She skipped out twice, but came back. A nurse rode with her in the elevator after her second escape. Well, if ain't Steve McQueen, she said, smiling.

The first weeks were the hardest. A friend had given her a silver and turquoise cross before she went in. Amanda wasn't religious. But she kept the talisman close to her, rubbing it in her hands when she felt weak.

After four weeks, the hospital sent her home. She was clean, but anxious. She'd never really faced life without drugs or mood stabilizers or anti-anxiety pills. She'd even given up cigarettes. She was terrified.

Slowly, she noticed changes. She had more energy. She woke up in the morning with a clear head. She took joy in simple pleasures, like the morning breeze on her skin. For the first time, perhaps, she began to feel things.

But she also faced some harsh realities. She was thousands of dollars in debt and her credit was in tatters. She'd sold everything she owned to support her drug habit, her cameras and photography equipment, guitars and jewelry. She didn't have enough money to eat.

Some accountant friends helped her establish payment plans for her debts and gave her food. Another friend put her to work in her small embroidery business. Her confidence grew.

She began thinking about running her own dog walking and pet sitting business. She'd grown up with horses, dogs and cats on her father's ranch in Colorado and had always connected with animals in a way that sometimes eluded her with people.

She asked her father for $10,000 to start a dog-walking business in Decatur, where intown bungalows were suddenly filled with young singles and working couples with dogs at home. He gave her $3,000. She put fliers up in her neighborhood and handed out business cards to strangers.
Hi, I'm Amanda. I'm great with animals. I'm someone you can trust in your home.

Her business expanded to over 100 clients and she was walking 15 miles a day on her routes.

To supplement her income, she managed the apartment complex where she lived. The owner allowed her to feed and water more than 60 feral cats that lived in the woods behind the units, provided Amanda arranged for them to be sterilized.
In 2002, she helped found LifeLine Animal Project and ran its feral cat program, spaying and neutering stray cats.

The animals gave her something to care for and became an important part of her recovery. She felt joyful with the animals, an emotion she realized she had rarely experienced when she was numb on cocaine.

Slowly, she climbed out from her hole. Still, some days she felt she was chipping away at a plaster wall with a tooth pick.

She took a job as a courier for a private investigator and learned how to serve subpoenas and lawsuits. Process serving came naturally; she understood people who hid — and knew where to find them.

She snared subpoena dodgers by planting the documents in pizza boxes, flower arrangements — even sweepstakes prize packages.

But process serving wore her down. The people she served were targets, not human, and she didn't like how that felt.

Yet almost without realizing it, her work was providing inspiration for crime fiction. She learned about people who ran from the law. She traveled Atlanta's worst neighborhoods and saw quirky places that could become backdrops for her characters. And dog walking gave her plenty of time to think.

She started writing her first crime novel, literally, in her head, as she walked Decatur neighborhoods with her pets, turning over the plot, characters and action in her mind. She took a course in criminology to supplement her knowledge of crime scenes and forensic evidence.

The turning point came that Thanksgiving Day in 2004 when she could suddenly see, hear and feel Keye Street, her central character. She wrote the novel a scene at a time.

When she was done, she researched literary agents who'd had success with crime writers and found Victoria Sanders in New York, who represented Karin Slaughter, another Atlanta crime writer.

Sanders liked the book and told Amanda she thought it would sell. But did she want to write just one book, or did she want to make a living at it? With a little more work, Sanders said, she could help Amanda turn the book into a work that might fetch a six-figure contract.

The proposition was a no-brainer. She already had six years in the book. What was a few more?

In fall 2009, her agent sent the finished manuscript to a half a dozen publishers in New York City.

Back in Decatur one afternoon in November, Amanda was just outside her house, preparing to walk her own dogs, when her agent called. Kate Miciak, the doyenne of crime fiction at Random House, loved the book and wanted to know: Would Amanda give up her dog-walking business and develop Keye Street into three books of crime fiction? The contract promised more than $1 million if she hit sales targets.

Amanda hung up the phone and crumpled onto her front porch, sobbing. A neighbor saw her and called out, Are you all right?
She looked up, the tears washing down her face. Yes, she said, yes, I'm fine.

Amanda opens the door to her home in Decatur amid a cacophony of barking dogs. She has an open face and warm eyes. The long brown hair of her youth has been replaced by salt and pepper gray.

There is a weathered quality to her bronze skin that suggests a woman who'd be at home on a ranch surrounded by cattle and horses.

The brown dog barking at her feet was a puppy chained to a stake in a muddy backyard when she spotted him on one of her dog-walking routes five years ago.

"The next thing I knew I was at the hardware store buying bolt cutters," she says, smiling. She named him Brando for his big brown Marlon Brando eyes.

Amanda lives alone in a rented two-bedroom, one-bathroom home on a quiet street. At one end of the street are two little libraries she erected for the neighborhood and filled with books free for the taking; at the other is the low-slung apartment complex where she once lived and where she now tends to a stable population of feral cats.

Amanda doesn't like clutter and her living room is sparse. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway peer into the room from an old "Chinatown" poster.

There is a leather sofa and an armchair, the latter given to her by a friend who insisted she simply had to have another piece of furniture to fill the room.

Bookshelves take up one corner and include hardcovers of some of her favorite authors: John Le Carre, Pat Conroy, Flannery O'Conner and Pat Cornwell.

In the dining room, the manuscript for her third Keye Street novel, "Don't Talk to Strangers," due out in February, lies neatly on the dining room table. Amanda's first novel, "The Stranger You Seek," was published in 2011 and received critical acclaim, with subsequent translations in seven languages. "Stranger in the Room" followed in 2012 and solidified Amanda's stature as bona fide crime fiction writer.

A tiny kitchen opens off the dining room, made tighter by the washer and dryer in the corner. There is a calendar of daily affirmations above the sink. "When you lose yourself in negative thoughts, you begin to identify with them," reads the day's maxim.

Amanda writes in a converted sunroom in the back of her house, with a view of the garden and woods behind. Spartan like everything else, there's a tall filing cabinet, a simple desk and beds for her three dogs. Five cats join the pack, and come and go through the pet gate in the door leading to the back yard.

A bulletin board holds several crime stories torn from the newspaper, and a copy of "Medicolegal Death Investigator Training Manual" sits on the desk. A large target silhouette hangs on the wall — a keepsake from her 55th birthday party at a shooting range where she unloaded a 10 mm Glock (Keye Street's weapon of choice).

"Most awesome birthday ever!" gushes Amanda, now 56.
Amanda writes in the mornings after her second or third cup of French roast and has learned to be disciplined about her craft. After her first book came out to glowing reviews, she spent six months doing everything but writing. She cleaned her house, washed the windows, worked in the yard. Her home was spotless, but she'd barely written a word.

She learned that she had to force herself to sit down at the keyboard, that she couldn't wait for inspiration. She'd have to dig to find it.

She regularly joins metro Atlanta book clubs reading her novels to talk about her work, and she tests Keye Street's tart dialogue on Twitter.

Speaking openly and honestly about the trials of her life was part of the bargain she made with herself when she went into drug rehabilitation. If the powers of the universe helped her get through it, she vowed to lead her life differently.

No more lies. No more bluffing. No more deception. She promised that the words that came out of her mouth would match what she felt in her heart.

In the last year or two, she has also been speaking more publicly about her battles with dyslexia and the havoc it wrecked on her life. Still, she carries the burden of shame, and she peers into the dark corners of her life reluctantly.

"Addicts like being in pain. That's all you talk about. You are naturally self absorbed," she says. "Drugs were a bad thing for me. I just went more inside me."

Her life changed utterly when she became clean 18 years ago.

"Rehabilitation was kind of a spiritual awakening," she says. "It was the first time I felt I needed to answer for some things I'd done, that I needed to be a part of a larger plan, that my life wasn't just about waking up and getting through the day."

In a surprising way, getting clean also made her a better writer. A muscular, evocative voice replaced the shallow one that made her spy fiction feel inauthentic.

"I was able to dig down a little bit — there was something to dig down to and feel," she says.

So, too, did her experience as a dyslexic help her writing.

"I came to reading as a study, not a pleasure," she says. "I learned to write from reading and studying other writers."

She pulls a dog-eared copy of Pat Conroy's "Prince of Tides" from the bookshelf. "I can open that book to any page and find something beautiful, and it reminds me why I like to write," she says.

Amanda's novels are also characterized by strong and frequent use of dialogue. This, too, she credits to her disability. Because she couldn't read, she listened closely to what people said, and learned to copy speech patterns.

"I hear the tone and rhythm of language," she says. "It's a kind of music. That's a direct result of the way I grew up."

Still, the disability hovers in the background. A skilled cook, Amanda cannot read cookbook instructions if she is tired or stressed.

She always reads from lecterns when she speaks in public so that listeners won't notice that she uses her finger to follow the words. If she's anxious or upset, the words "literally start jumping off the page.

"I absolutely go back to that terrified kid in school," she says.
There was a time when that terror would send Amanda into the arms of her dealer and down the hole of her addiction.

She smiles. "I get out all my evil thoughts writing crime fiction."

I met Amanda Kyle Williams last year at a warm-up event for the AJC Decatur Book Festival. She was sweating a Random House deadline on her third "Stranger" novel and looked utterly panicked. I'd seen that look before and knew how she felt. She spoke to the crowd of authors about what the book festival had done for her career, then gathered herself to make a startling revelation: Because of a learning disability she had not read her first book until age 23. She agreed to tell her story after she'd finished writing "Don't Talk to Strangers," due out in February. I spent about six hours with her, in and around Decatur and in her home. I interviewed her father and stepmother in North Carolina, and her brother and family in Dalton. She also put me in touch with classmates from South Gwinnett High. I like stories about people who write their own ending or, like Amanda, write themselves a new beginning. Enjoy this one.

Ken Foskett
Assistant Managing Editor

About the reporter

Ken Foskett is an assistant managing editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the author of "Judging Thomas: The Life and Times of Clarence Thomas" (William Morrow, 2004). He joined the AJC in 1989 as a reporter in Gwinnett County and served as the newspaper's Washington correspondent from 1996 to 2001. He was named Cox Writer of the Year in 2002 for his profile of Justice Thomas, which became the basis for his full-length biography. In his current role, he supervises the newspaper's business and features coverage, including Personal Journeys.

About the photographer

Hyosub Shin was born and raised in Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States about 10 years ago to study photography. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream's Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves' National League Division Series.