Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Through a Different Door - Amanda Kyle Williams on Dyslexia

Every year there are a few mystery debuts that seem blessed. The book roars out of the gate on its pub date, critics throw roses at it, the crime fiction community crowns it with laurels. Amanda Kyle Williams' The Stranger You Seek is one of those books. Of Keye Street, former FBI profiler-turned-process server, Publisher's Weekly says, "Those looking for a strong female protagonist not a sexpot and as intelligent, tough, and flawed as any male thriller hero will be richly rewarded." Booklist raved, “This is a character-driven, nonstop thriller with flashes of wit and romance that builds to a harrowing climax; fans of the genre will want to get in at the start.” And in case you're afraid things will get too gruesome, The New York Times assures us, "[Keye]'s terrific when going about her day job: listening to the whining of a crooked accountant, stuffing herself with home cooking on a trip to the country to find a missing cow or just dreaming up clever ways to serve a summons."

With her writing career taking off like a rocket, you'd assume Amanda has a lifelong, easy relationship with words. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like an estimated 15 to 31 million other Americans, Amanda lives with dyslexia. Today, she tells us about her path to publication - a path that starts with being different.

It was 1980. I was sitting at an empty table in the back of a Georgia library, using my finger to trace the lines so the words wouldn’t jump off the page at me. No one seemed to notice me there. Or judge me. I had walked in and asked the librarian where she would begin if she’d just started reading. I was about to read my first book; just sit down and go for it, cover-to-cover. I was twenty-three years old. Entering that library, a place that had filled me with terror for so many years, I felt like I’d cracked some secret code; like the vault door had swung open; like I’d finally been accepted in the mainstream of life. I’d been tested for and diagnosed with dyslexia a year earlier. I didn’t know what it was before that. No one did back then. But it was just about the most beautiful word I’d ever heard. It explained everything. It explained me.

I had dropped out of school at sixteen, as soon as it was legal. I could barely pick my way through a job application. But school was far worse than the real world for me. I mean, why hang around a hornet’s nest after you’ve been stung a few times? I left with a long list of diagnoses that had trickled in over the years—anxiety related mostly. And phenobarbital. Lots of that was prescribed, beginning at age five. The final diagnosis, which came from yet another psychiatrist when I was fifteen in 1972: School Phobia. Capital “P.”

No one, at least not in the general public, had heard the term “learning disability” back then. In my family, it would have brought on doubled-over laughter. Educators and parents must have been pulling their hair out trying to figure out what was up with dyslexic children. You can’t blame them. The information just wasn’t out there. The choices were basic: stupid or lazy. My parents and teachers saw a kid who appeared reasonably intelligent but was not performing. The logical explanation was simply that I was not trying. I remember a classmate early on, who’d gotten in trouble on more than one occasion for spelling her name Damn instead of Dawn. Damn Phillips, she used to write in the big loopy handwriting of a fifth grade girl, with little hearts dotting her i’s. Damn Phillips couldn’t deal with the letters m or w; 3s and s’ also posed a challenge.

When I was told there was a word to explain me, that I’d been wired differently but could learn as much as anyone else, in my small world it felt like I’d reached the summit of Mount Everest. It changed everything. I guess I was a little pissed at the librarian who recommended Pride and Prejudice. Damn thing took me three months. But I fell in love with the story, with the tension around class and family, with the humor and romance, with fiction and writers, with the incredible idea that people actually read for pleasure and with words and books.

Thankfully, a lot has changed for kids with learning disabilities. Parents and educators now know better where to look when a child isn’t performing. I still have trouble reading. It’s slow going. And I still have to trace the lines with my finger sometimes. I like to joke with my wonderful and patient editor at Bantam that I’m a slow learner, but a goddamn thorough one. Now I look down at a menu or a newspaper or a column of numbers or a line-edited manuscript, and I know I can do it. I don’t panic anymore. I take my time. It can be learned. It can all be learned.

A friend who has a child with disabilities tells her little girl something I’d like to repeat to any child struggling with reading. “You can get there like everyone else. You just walk through a different door.”

Amanda Kyle Williams is the author of The Stranger You Seek, the first book in the Keye Street thriller series. You can read an excerpt at Amanda's website, chat with her on Facebook, or catch her on Twitter as AKyleWilliams.


  1. Amanda, what a story! Would love to hear more about how you got from reading your first book to writing one! Is writing easier than reading? And how did things change with the diagnosis?

    Congratulations on all your hard work and big success!

  2. Hi Amanda--I so enjoyed our panel at Bouchercon, and meeting you. But I had no idea you were dyslexic--as am I. It's the disability no one sees.

    You've told such an inspiring story here. I, too, grew up with "She's just lazy," when I didn't do well in school, because they knew I was smart. I did learn to read very early, although I transpose letters. But I absolutely could not do math.

    I'm very interested to know if you had any kind of therapy or were taught a reading technique that helped you overcome this.

    And congratulations on the great reviews for the book! It sounds wonderful and I can't wait to read it.

  3. Wow! What a story!

    It's interesting to me that your first book was PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. I don't think there could be a better book for a writer to study -- and going very slowly as you did, you probably absorbed the lessons of composition thoroughly.

    Having read STRANGER, I would say that you learned your lesson well. Big Congratulations on all the terrific reviews!

  4. Hi Lucy! Everything changed with that diagnosis. It brought hope. Not only was there a word for what I was, there were tools, I was told. And I wouldn’t have to hide anymore and fake it. That’s what kids do when they aren’t performing like everyone else. You bluff your way through. You clown your way through. I found ways to gain peer acceptance at the great distress of my poor confused teachers. I made people laugh. I caused some trouble. When I was diagnosed, I called my parents so excited. “See, there’s a reason I failed in school.” But I couldn’t share it with anyone else because I’d never admitted I was having difficulty reading. There’s a lot of shame around not performing up to expectations for kids.
    I’m not sure how you get from reading your first book late in life to having your first major market book released at 54. I’m obviously a late bloomer. The urge to write hit me very soon after I read that first book cover-to-cover but it took another twenty years to find my voice as a writer, to find something genuine. Is writing easier than reading? No! It’s maddening. I’m not one of those writers who whistle while I work and fifteen thousand words a day come spilling out. At the same time, I’m completely bewitched by it. When it works, when I’m able to wrestle it into submission, it’s like reading. It’s incredibly rewarding. I’m incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to do this for a living. It still seems a little unreal... Amanda

  5. That's an amazing story. I loved the book and have urged it on family and friends. I think it would be great if it could be used to encourage others with dyslexia.

  6. Deb, it was so nice to meet you! I had no idea. There are a lot of us out there loving and fighting with words each day. It’s funny, when I was diagnosed at 22, the problem was so new everyone seemed to be struggling with how to deal.I was given tools like Mahjong, the tile puzzle game. (I still use it on my smart phone and I still suck at it) The theory was that it would help with recognition, force me to see things as they are. Later Tetris came along and worked the same way and also helped with distance and shape issues. They tried vision therapy, something like what happens at the eye doctor. They flashed a lot of letters at me. And phonics. Thank God for phonics and the idea of breaking words into smaller units of sound. All of it had me reading within a year. That and believing for the first time it could be conquered, changed everything.

    Vicki, that librarian was a sadist!

  7. Janet, thank you so much! I'm so glad you enjoyed the book.

  8. Amanda, you are a hero to dyslexics everywhere. Congratulations on your hard-fought, hard-won success, and I wish you much more success to come.

    My heart breaks, though, for people like my brother, who went through first grade twice, and then second grade twice, as well. He was dyslexic, but no one understood that in the early 60's, and it informed the course of his entire life. He dropped out of school when he was an ashamed 18-year old sophomore in high school, and joined the service. Luckily, the Army helped him get his GED, but he was still way behind in his development.

    There is still so much we don't understand about how individuals perceive the world, but thank goodness for good teachers who recognize and help students with this disability.

  9. Amanda, you make me burst into tears! Thank you for this...and congratulations on our book. Cannot wait to read it.

    When you get a chance, can you describe what the page looks like to you?

  10. Karen, I'm so sorry your brother had to go through that. Our stories are not unusual, unfortunately, but fewer and fewer, I hope. Yes, hooray for great teachers. I think I had them back in the day--teachers who cared. They simply weren't armed with the information they have now.
    A side note. In order to post this comment I have to go through a word verification process. I almost never get it right the first time. Cruel trick. ;)
    Thanks for your comment, Karen!

  11. Hi Hank,
    Thank you for saying that. I've been really blessed with great reviews for The Stranger You Seek. And by people like Julia Spencer-Fleming and Vicki Lane reading it and giving me great reviews for the cover of my first mainstream effort. When Julia invited me to visit Reds, she wanted me to consider talking about dyslexia but left it up to me. I'm no expert. I have no experience other than my very personal story. I worried the point of view would be much too narrow. I'm very glad to hear someone took something from it.
    About your question. Do you mean what does a printed page look like to me? It depends on a lot of things, font being one, my level of stress or exhaustion, size and distance from word-to-word. Sometimes in the morning when I start the daily wrestling match with the newspaper, it just looks like rows of colums. I have to get calm and focus in order to see and understand sentences rather than just seeing words and patterns. Good lord, this is really hard to describe. Deb's a great writer. I bet she can do a better job at explaining it. Though I've heard dyslexia manifest differently ind ifferent individuals.

  12. Amanda, congratulations on all you have achieved. No wonder so many kids grew up angry and frustrated at that time.
    I have a grandson with dislexia. He's very bright but simply can't spell easy words because the letters don't stay in one place for him.
    But these days he's allowed to write on the computer, use the spell checker and is doing really well.
    Good luck with the book

  13. It's hard enough to be a writer without having to struggle so with the words. What an amazing story! Congratulations, Amanda! Looking forward to reading your book.

  14. Rhys, best news of the day about your grandson and that someone recognized he simply walks through a different door. Fantastic!

    Hallie, thank you. It's great to be here today with writers like you and all the amazing Reds I admire so much. Thanks for having me!

  15. Hi Amanda,

    My best friend all the way through childhood and college suffers from dyslexia and so I know some of the struggle you went through.

    What an amazing accomplishment! Congratulations on all your success and best wishes for your bright future in words!


  16. Thanks, Becky. And thanks for taking the time to send a note.

  17. Congratulations on the book and thanks for sharing your wonderful story. I just retired from teaching elementary school (31 years) and there is always a way for a child to read. Educators and parents just have to open every door and every window until they find the right one for THAT child. What works for one does not always work for another. I look forward to reading your book and all the others to come.

  18. Bless you, Gail. And all the teachers like you.

  19. My 11-year old granddaughter is not dyslexic but cannot read well -in 6th grade but reads on a 2nd grade level. She makes honor roll and has an above average vocabulary but must have an aide in her classes and tests must be read to her. She also has some good teachers who are working with her. She gets frustrated but, bless her, she keeps trying. Thank you for sharing your story.

  20. Gayle, thoughts and prayers with your granddaughter. She's obviously very bright and she has lots of time to get it right. Sounds like she has the right people in her corner. :)

  21. Amanda,
    I teach Sp.Ed; smart elementary age kiddos with an obstacle or two. Normally ADD, Asperger's, Dyslexia etc. Any way you cut the mustard, your's is a success story; success well and truly earned. If a single parent or student takes heart from your story, then, in my humble view from the trenches, it is well worth the telling. Thank you for your courage in relating your journey to authorship. Every story like yours spreads hope far and wide in this digital age. Wishing you the very best with the talent you were born with...
    Su amigo, Rodrigo

  22. Thank you so much!

    And thanks to everyone for your kind comments and for sharing your stories with me.

    To all the glorious Reds, thanks for inviting me to hang out today. I had a blast!