For Immediate Release
Sometimes, writing inspiration comes from the mouths of babes. For Amanda Kyle Williams, it was the flat-out Southern twang that came out of her adopted Chinese’s niece’s mouth that made her start developing the character Keye Street, the Asian American protagonist in William’s debut thriller, “The Stranger You Seek.” The novel is up for a 2012 Townsend Prize for Fiction this month.
Created in 1981, the biennial prize was named for Jim Townsend, the founding editor of “Atlanta” magazine and an early mentor to Georgia writers Pat Conroy, Terry Kay, Bill Diehl and Anne Rivers Siddons. Previous winners of the Townsend include Kathryn Stockett for “The Help” and Alice Walker for “The Color Purple.”
This year’s event honors 10 Georgia writers, including Williams, and will be from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, April 26, at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Reservations are available through April 11 at giving.gpc.edu/townsend.
“I’m just thrilled to be on the Townsend list. It surprises me every time I think about it,” Williams said.
For the Decatur author, the road to the Townsend was anything but golden. “I dropped out of school when I was 16—I was a really poor performer,” she said. It wasn’t until she was 22 years old that Williams discovered she was dyslexic. For years she made a living as a pet sitter and dog walker in Decatur, as well as other odd jobs that have helped form a foundation for her novel.
“The jobs informed my writing in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated,” she said. (Decaturites will recognize many of the settings in “Stranger.” For example, Williams turned the Winnona Park Elementary School playground into a crime scene—and Keye’s parents live on Derrydown Road. “You never know what your dogwalker is thinking,” she said.)
“I’m going to be 55 this year, but when I was growing up, I guess no one knew what the term learning disability meant—it just wasn’t on their radar,” Williams said. “I knew my ABCs, but didn’t read my first book until I was 23 years old.” When she was finally given some learning tools to help her read, the world opened up to her, she said.
“I went to a librarian and asked her, ‘what would you start reading, if you just started today?’ She recommended “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen. I think she was a little bit of a sadist,’’ Williams said with a laugh. “But that book was life-changing for me—it was hard, but a love affair with books was born."
Writing, “Stranger” was a long process as well. She knew she wanted to write crime fiction, but didn’t have the “voice” of the protagonist. “I took some courses in criminal profiling, and tried to understand how profilers handle an investigation. But I didn’t have a main character.” That was until she heard her then six-year-old niece say something to her at Thanksgiving. “Bells started ringing,” she said. “Here was this gorgeous Asian child, but when she opened her mouth, she sounded like Ellie Mae Clampett. I was so charmed by this kid. Driving home that night, I pulled over the interstate and wrote the very first lines to ‘The Stranger You Seek.’”
Her publisher was equally charmed. When she finally finished the book in 2010, Random House offered her a six-figure deal for a series. Her next book, “Stranger in the Room,” featuring Keye Street, will be released in late August during the Decatur Book Festival, and there is a some “talk” about a television series” but she could not reveal the details.
Williams will be on a book tour in July, and will be a featured writer during Thriller Fest in New York and the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in the United Kingdom. She will sign books during the Townsend event. Book club members are encouraged to bring five or more members to the event, for an opportunity to have one of the authors speak at their club during the year.
For more information about the Townsend Prize for Fiction, and to get tickets, go to giving.gpc.edu/townsend, or call The Southern Academy for Literary Arts & Scholarly Research at Georgia Perimeter College at 678-891-3275. Tickets are $40 and include entrance to the Atlanta Botanical Garden, dinner and program.
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Georgia Perimeter College, the third largest institution of the University System of Georgia, serves approximately 27 ,000 students through four campuses and several sites in metro Atlanta. For additional information, visit www.gpc.edu.