Author, The Bullet
NPR and BBC Reporter
Pentagon Press Pool
I'm very interested in the theme of how well we really know ourselves and what we may be capable of when pushed into an unimaginable, extreme situation.
Interview by Heidi Legg
When she was flying into Iraq with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, her phone went off in the Black Hawk helicopter. It was her children’s school nurse telling her that one of her sons was having difficulty breathing. And then the line dropped. Mary Louise Kelly writes about that moment as the point when she hit the wall as a woman balancing a hard-won career and children. She decided to leave her role as the NPR Pentagon press reporter and take on a more manageable schedule and write a novel. Now she has written two.
Fast-forward to her kid’s soccer practice when a mother next to her told her she had just found out she had a bullet in her hand. That was the inspiration for her new book released this week, The Bullet.
I sat down with Mary Louise Kelly to talk about interviewing spies, sipping tea inside the legendary ISI agency in Pakistan, finding her stories along the hallways of the Pentagon and trading her power heels for the solitude of novel writing. We cover motherhood in America and what can change and why the CIA having a Twitter account is indicative of how dramatically the way we digest and deliver news has changed in the past five years.
What was is like covering the CIA?
On the off chance they actually wanted to say something, they would issue a press release at five o' clock Friday night and hope that not that many people would pay attention. The only way the public would know about it is that journalists like I would report it and put it on air. Now, The CIA tweets about it on their CIA twitter account. If the Pentagon wants to release something, they do it their own way in their own words and there is no filter. You have to re-examine as a reporter and ask what am I bringing to this, either in Washington or overseas? When people are on YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and able to communicate directly with citizens and the audience, 'what am I, as a reporter, adding to this?'
Do you know spies and do you acknowledge they're spies when you see them?
Yes. I covered the Intelligence beat at NPR for years and, if you're going to cover the CIA, you're going to meet a lot of spies. Most of the people who work at the CIA or the National Security Agency or the Defense Intelligence Agency or any of the other organizations that make up the US intelligence community, are not spies. Most of them are analysts or technocrats or bureaucrats. They are able to tell you freely, 'I work at the CIA.' They may not be able to tell you exactly what they're working on that day but they can give you an aspect of it. They're not undercover. They communicate openly. The people who are working in the Director of Operations, which was what it was called for years, the National Clandestine Service at the CIA are the spies.
Do they reveal that they're spies or do you guess?
It depends on the person. If their cover is still intact, sometimes you're able to say who they are by name. Other times, not. It's interesting for me to learn: if you want to keep a secret, don't tell it to anybody. Even within the CIA, people are operating under cover within the halls at Langley. If you're a spy in a sensitive situation in Beirut, it is to your advantage the fewer the people who know your real identity and you keep that circle very small.
Is the Pentagon press pool high security?
You don't even make it to the first door unless you're coming in as the official NPR reporter or New York Times reporter or whatever. They fingerprint you. They do background checks. There's a wait of a few weeks to get your official ID but once you get your Pentagon ID, you can walk right in twenty four hours a day. You can't obviously just walk into the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff's office and sit down and interrupt his morning meeting and say, 'what do you think about this?' but you can wait outside the men’s room. Same with Capitol Hill, pigeonhole anybody but it doesn't mean they'll necessarily answer your question but you have incredible access once you get your Hill pass.
The CIA is a different beast. You cannot go into Langley. It doesn't matter if you've been covering the intelligence beat for a million years, you can't go. They don't invite you to travel with them. They don't tell you where they're traveling. It's a very different beat from covering the Pentagon or the White House or the Supreme Court
You, yourself, are a protagonist that draws awe in your generation: Harvard College, Cambridge University, NPR intelligence correspondent, successful novelist and mother. Would you share a few turning points in your life and how you made your decisions?
I guess I would start with saying I feel very lucky in that I have not gone through a lot of angst. I see my equally talented, hard-working, fabulous friends trying to figure out what to do with their lives. I never felt that. I was always going to be a reporter.
I wrote my first newspaper when I was ten. I made my dad photocopy it at his office and I sold it for twenty-five cents a copy. It was called The Lemons Ridge Bugle because I lived on Lemons Ridge in Atlanta and I loved it. Then I wrote for my high school paper and for the Harvard Crimson. It was the first thing I did when I came to Harvard. You had to try out and weren't taken on as a staff writer until your first twenty bylines and I loved it. These are people who would otherwise not have taken my call. They're not taking Mary Louise Kelly's call but they're taking the call of the news organization I represent. The idea that I could get paid to travel around the world and talk with fascinating people and then write about it? And someone would pay me to do that? I really felt this sense of wonder about that from a very early age.
Were there any memorable forks in the road?
My dad wrote me a very heartfelt letter my senior year of Harvard basically saying, 'please think about what you're going to do with your life and how you will earn a living.' He wanted me to do something that had some financial stability to it. He asked me take the LSATs and I did but I could not get excited about it for a minute.
In London, I was finishing graduate school at Cambridge, and the same day I had back-to-back interviews at McKinsey and at the BBC. McKinsey meant a job in a swanky London neighborhood and swanky offices and a great starting salary. You're coming out of grad school and you see the power suits and you think, 'yeah, I'd like a secretary and a nice office,’ but then I went to the BBC. There was some big Middle East story breaking and the newsroom was going nuts. It was two hours before the guy I was meeting got to me. I remember watching people run around and do what they do and thinking, 'this is it. To me, this is where the action is. This is home.' I still feel that when I walk into a newsroom today.
But there have been many forks in the road: print or radio or TV? Should I be based overseas or should I stay in the US? Since I live in Washington, should I be covering Capital Hill or do more domestic politics? There are a million choices and try to balance that with motherhood and all the crazy demands that breaking news puts on you. I found a new path into fiction, not least because the hours are a lot friendlier than covering the Pentagon beat.
Do you have anything to say about the US woman's balancing act?
Am I in favor of better and longer maternity leave? Absolutely. I had two weeks paid maternity leave. That's crazy.
In Canada, you get a year.
In many European countries you get much longer and it's more balanced between the father and the mother. In the US some men are lucky and take a few weeks but that's pretty much it. There is certainly no federal policy in place in the US.
Would I like to see better maternity leave? Yes. Would I like to see better day care facilities in large companies? Yes. Would I like to see more sensitivity toward flexible working arrangements? Yes. It is astonishing to me how many media companies want you body and soul because you can't predict when news is going to break. Working from home isn't going to cut it if they need you on the air.
I realize I speak from a position of privilege with the education and background I've had but I feel real hope as I look at my girlfriends in their forties. I have some girlfriends who are still doing the traditional, high-powered thing. But most of us, for one reason or the other, have carved out ways to have a better balance where we have more control over our time and how we distribute it. I'm still working full time but I'm able to do it in a way that I see a lot more of my kids than I did before.
I feel lucky that I was able to put in the hours and pay my dues in my twenties and early thirties and build up a certain expertise that has allowed me to develop my career in ways where I feel stimulated and like I'm making a contribution while I'm still around for my family. I look at my girlfriends who have also found creative ways to do things that they love. I'm quite hopeful about it. We're making choices that just weren't there for my mother or your mother. They just weren't possible. Technology enables that. All kinds of things enable that.
When you talked about your friends earlier who have angst about careers, do you think the mistake of Generation X is that many of us didn’t lean in hard enough before having babies?
I wouldn't say it's a mistake. My strategy was to lean in really hard, including when I was pregnant, including when I had little kids. My kids are now nine and eleven and I don't feel like I'm leaning out so much as taking charge. I insist on having more say over how I lean in and when I lean in but other people do it a different way. Some stay home for ten years when the kids are little and then they go gangbusters in a much more traditional way than I'm doing right now – More power to them. I think that's great too.
Describe your protagonist Caroline Cashion in The Bullet and how she represents today's woman.
Caroline Cashion is thirty-seven years old. She's a professor of French literature at Georgetown and in a split second everything she ever new proves to be a lie. I think what I liked about her is that she’s introverted. She's a homebody. And she's a specialist in 19th Century French literature: Flaubert, Zola, Balzac are her life, which I studied in college. I had great fun going back and rereading as I was imagining what Caroline would be doing with her time. I liked that she was not your typical protagonist of a thriller. She's not a big personality.
I liked the idea that she wasn't some huge, ballsy, in your face reporter like Alex James, the protagonist of my first book where you could imagine her running out and chasing the bad guys and being fearless. Caroline's a very different beast and it was really fun to watch her evolve.
Do you see yourself in her?
Totally – In both of them. I ask the same thing when I talk to fellow fiction writers, ‘how much of this character is you? How much is autobiographical?’ Both of my protagonists are different sides of me. Alex James is the fearless reporter who thinks nothing of hopping on a plane and going to a foreign capitol and chasing spies around. That was my job for years. But I am also quite an introvert and a homebody and I could relate to Caroline in that way as well.
She's thrown into this unthinkable, unimaginable situation and to me that's what the book is about. It's about watching Caroline wake up and over the course of 350 pages do things she would never have thought she was capable of doing. That spoke to me. I'm very interested in that theme of how well we really know ourselves and what we may be capable of when pushed into an unimaginable, extreme situation. I liked the idea that she wasn't some huge, ballsy, in your face reporter like Alex James, the protagonist of my first book where you could imagine her running out and chasing the bad guys and being fearless. Caroline's a very different beast and it was really fun to watch her evolve.
Describe Fridays at NPR on Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
What I do right is my power suit and heels. I had many mornings on a busy news day at NPR where I could hear my name getting paged in the elevator before I’d made it fully out of the parking garage. If there's a big breaking news story on your beat you’re on Morning Edition and then you're straight off to file for the newscast, trying to make calls and report. Then there is the midday show and All Things Considered at four o’clock and then you’re starting to think about your piece for Morning Edition the next day. You're constantly on Twitter and constantly trying to make calls and move the story forward for the next feed. Sometimes you have time to write out a script and sometimes you just go on and you wing it. It's fun and it can be crazy.
Describe Fridays as the stay-at-home parent/novelist?
Drop the kids at school. Come home. Try to write. The biggest difference is it's just so solitary. In broadcast news, you are on the phone all the time or out interviewing sources but there is also an anchor interviewing you: there are production assistants, producers, editors and sound engineers. There's a whole team involved in every aspect of getting a story on the air. It can be frustrating to get everybody moving in the same direction but it's a real sense of support. You're not in this alone.
As a novelist, you're in it alone. It's just you and your laptop, and for better or worse, you're making it up and when you're in the middle of it, it's really hard to know if it's any good. Is anybody going to care about this? With two books under my belt, I'm starting to figure it out and find my way but it's still a very different experience. It's so quiet!
More journalists are writing books about their beat. Is this about expanding craft, making money or something else?
Definitely the first two. The way that you cover a full-time beat has changed so much in the past four years. The amount that you have to engage on social media in order to get your story out there is so different. Five years ago the goal was file your story, get it on air and you're done. You've done your job. Now the deadlines are more relentless. At first it felt like, “Oh God, here’s even more work.’ In fact, it's just a different way of telling the story. It changed really fast. It's changed the way we get our news.
What does book writing do for journalist today?
The deadlines are faster and more frequent and they're basically nonstop now and reporters can potentially be filing around the clock. That is liberating in some ways because every day it's a new story and chance to get it right. It's supercharged. But it's ephemeral because by the time you finish composing that tweet or have filed, people are onto the next thing and what lasts?
Traditionally journalists have thought, 'I'm going to take all I cover and write a really thoughtful New Yorker piece or New York Times Magazine piece.' A book is an extension of that. Whether it's fiction or nonfiction, it's a different challenge to try to hold somebody's attention for two or three hours. It is not something you can do with a daily news story and it's fascinating to get to try to do that.
I'm kicking around ideas for book three. I think it'll be a new protagonist. That's probably a stupid approach because as one much more experienced writer said to me, 'God, you spend so much time getting to know your characters. That's half of the work. Why not reuse them?’
I do see the wisdom of that but I also like the idea of inventing someone new every time because they're going to have a different adventure and find new trails. I miss the daily buzz of the newsroom and I keep finding my way back into doing that. My hope is that doing daily news provides me with inspirational stories that can find their way into fiction.
The Bullet was released yesterday.