3:08am

Tue June 18, 2013
Author Interviews

Spy Reporter Works Her 'Sources' To Write A Thriller

Originally published on Tue June 18, 2013 1:52 pm

Mary Louise Kelly used to cover the national security beat for NPR, but lately she's turned her attention to teaching and writing fiction. Her new novel, Anonymous Sources, follows rookie journalist Alexandra James as she investigates a shady banana shipment and a clandestine nuclear plot. The tale is fiction, but it draws on Kelly's own experiences reporting on the spy beat, including things she couldn't say when she was a journalist.

"The things you find yourself telling your friends [and] family are sometimes very different from the things that make it onto the air," Kelly tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "The crazy details like, 'I was up on the Khyber Pass and saw traffic stopped for goats and then got involved in a conversation with a smuggler and then this that and the other.' That's some of the fun stuff and that doesn't make it into the daily hard news reports."

Kelly tells NPR about capturing real-world details, getting busted in the CIA parking lot and why high-level intelligence operatives think there will likely be another attack on the U.S.


Interview Highlights

On getting the novel's real-life settings right

"I found I was comfortable writing about places that I had visited, that I knew. So I went back to all the places that I wrote about in the book. The book opens, for example, with the murder of one of my characters, Thom Carlyle. He has climbed up to the top of the Eliot House bell tower — this is one of the dorms at Harvard — and he falls to his death. But I went up and climbed the bell tower and looked around — and I had started writing the scene before I went up there and looked around — and thought, 'Oh, shoot. The window that I had him falling out of does not actually open.' And, you know, on the one hand, it's fiction. I mean, I could make it up, you know. This window doesn't have to be nailed shut in my version of events, but I thought, you know, I might as well get it right. So I had to crawl around, find another window, kick it open for a while, and he falls out the other side.

"... I had some of the most fun, though, going around in all of the places where I set a scene and trying to figure out exactly how something would unfold, or trying to find the one detail that would make this come to life for somebody who actually knew the place. "

On running into trouble with the CIA while researching the novel

"There's a scene set at CIA headquarters at Langley. So I was out at a CIA Christmas party — they do a big holiday party every year. They, needless to say, will not let you whip out your phone and take pictures when you're out there, but afterward in the parking lot, [I] raced back out, got out my reporter's notebook and started sketching. And this is late at night. I'm out in the parking lot and I suddenly feel this blinding light in my face and I look up and it's CIA security, who reach down and say, 'Can we ask what you're doing, ma'am?' and looked down, and I'm drawing this very detailed drawing of all the entrances and exits to the headquarters. So that took a phone call or two to sort out."

On how her real CIA contacts inspired a particularly cynical CIA character

"A few of my old sources at [the] CIA who I asked to read early copies of this, one of them told me that there was a little betting game going at Langley over which real-life CIA spook that character might be based on. He ventured a couple of guesses and I said I would be a fool to confirm or deny any of those. So it's a bit of a composite.

"By definition, a life in the CIA — in the clandestine service in particular — is a very strange one. You're being asked to go out in the world; you're being asked, by definition, to break laws in the country you serve in; you're being asked to lie, sometimes even to the closest members of your family. I think it's hard to maintain a great sense of optimism after decades and decades of doing that."

On the widespread belief that an attack on the U.S. is coming

"In my years covering national security, every time you actually sit down and have a longer conversation with people who are involved in counterterrorism and national security and you ask them, 'What keeps you awake at night?' ... the answer I got over and over and over through the years was the idea that some radical group could get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction.

"... In my experience, the higher [the] level of security clearance of the people you're talking to, the more worried they are about this. One of the characters who I have in the book, who works at [the] CIA, at one point tells my heroine, 'Look, Pakistan is a country with more terrorists per square mile than another country on earth, and it's a country that is increasing its nuclear weapons stockpile faster than any nation on earth.' And he kind of laughs and says, 'What could possibly go wrong?' "

On whether she worried about the depiction of Muslims in her novel

"I did, but I would also say that many of the non-Muslims in this book come across pretty bad. There's very few — in fact I can't think of any — sincerely and 100 percent positive, nice [people] in this book. Everyone has their complexities."

On why she made her main character a rookie

"I thought it would be kind of fun to follow her as she learns how to do this. I mean, this is a path I had trod. Nobody's born knowing how to report on national security, and I certainly had covered the diplomatic beat and done some foreign news reporting, but that is actually a very different thing from covering the intelligence beat. When you switch over to covering the CIA, they don't do press releases, you can't wander around Langley, they don't tell you when they're traveling — even if you happen to find out, you're certainly not invited to travel on the plane as a reporter. There's no directory that you can access and find out what anybody's phone number is, or title. So it was really learning to do a very, very different type of reporting, and I had fun watching Alex James evolve along that path as she figures out: How do you make any progress in this world? You're chasing a huge story. You have a feeling something is out there, but it is really feeling around in the dark."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

OK, a new novel begins with the focus on a young man on the campus of Harvard University. He's high in a tower at Harvard, a tower from which he tumbles down. Alexandra James, the reporter who's called upon to cover that story, gradually discovers the young man's connections to the White House and to a mysterious man from Pakistan, who in turn is connected to a nuclear bomb plot.

The red-haired reporter uncovering the story is the creation of Mary Louise Kelly, who's a familiar name to many NPR listeners. She was an NPR correspondent covering intelligence agencies and the Pentagon. She left her job to say in fiction the things she could not say as a journalist.

MARY LOUIS KELLY: The things that you find yourself telling your friends, your family, are sometimes very different from the things that make it onto the air. And the crazy detail like, you know, I was up on the Khyber Pass and saw this, you know, traffic stopped for goats and then got involved in a conversation with a smuggler and then this, that and the other - that's some of the fun stuff and that doesn't make it into the daily hard news reports.

So that was kind of fun to go back through all my old reporter's notebooks and find some of the crazy details.

INSKEEP: Well, you're going back through your whole life - if I'm not mistaken here. Because you're talking about journalism, the main character of this novel is a reporter. You're talking about Washington. You're talking about the intelligence beat. You also set parts of this novel, however, at Harvard University, where you went, and Cambridge.

KELLY: Where I went, yup.

INSKEEP: So you pretty much put your biography here in twisted form...

KELLY: Well, this is the advice you get: Write what you know. Right?

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: It was also, I found I was comfortable writing about places that I had visited, that I knew. So I went back to all the places that I wrote about in the book. The book opens, for example, with the murder of one of my characters, Thom Carlyle. He has climbed up to the top of the Eliot House bell tower - this is one of the dorms at Harvard - and he falls to his death.

But I went up and climbed the bell tower and looked around. And I had started writing the scene before I went up there and looked around and thought, oh shoot, the window that I had him falling out of does not actually open.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: And, you know, on the one hand its fiction. I mean I could make it up. You know, this window doesn't have to be nailed shut in my version of events, but I thought, you know, I might as well get it right. So I had to crawl around, find another window, kick it open for a while, and he falls out the other side.

INSKEEP: You knew about this bell tower before, though...

KELLY: I did. I did. I had some of the most fun, though, going around in all of the places where I set a scene, and trying to figure out just how exactly something would unfold; or trying to find the one detail that would make this come to life for somebody who actually knew the place.

I had one - probably my closest to scrape with the law researching the book was out - there's a scene set at CIA headquarters at Langley. So I was out at a CIA Christmas party - they do a big holiday party every year. They, needless to say, will not let you whip out your phone and take pictures when you're out there. But afterward in the parking lot raced back out, got out my reporter's notebook and start sketching.

And this is late at night. I'm out in the parking lot and I suddenly feel this blinding light in my face. And I look up and it's CIA security, who reach down and said: Can we ask what you're doing, ma'am? And looked down, and I'm drawing this very detailed drawing...

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: ...of all the entrances and exits to the headquarters. So that took a phone call or two to sort out.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask more about that, because - without getting into the detail that would give away the ending - we do end up meeting some CIA operatives, one in particular, and this guy is a cynical guy. He's got a dark view of the world. Is that a fair representation of the CIA types that you did meet on the intelligence beat?

KELLY: Hmm. Well, a fair representation? I don't know. I do know that of a - a few of my old sources at CIA who I asked to read early copies of this, one of them told me there was a little betting game going at Langley over which real-life CIA spook that character might be based on. He ventured a couple of guesses and I said I would be a fool to confirm or deny any of those. So it's a bit of a composite.

You know, by definition a life in the CIA - in the clandestine service in particular - is a very strange one. You're being asked to go out in the world. You're being asked, by definition, to break laws in the country you serve in. You're being asked to lie, sometimes even to the closest members of your family. I think it's hard to maintain a great sense of optimism after decades and decades of doing that. And that's what my character has done.

INSKEEP: He makes a statement in the novel that he thinks that a phenomenal attack, a nuclear attack, on the United States by al-Qaida or some other radical Islamist group is inevitable. Is that a view you heard a lot?

KELLY: Oh, yeah. And in my years covering national security, every time you actually sit down and have a longer conversation with people who are involved in counterterrorism and national security, and you ask them, what keeps you awake at night, this is the answer I got over and over and over through the years, was the idea that some radical group could get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction.

INSKEEP: But inevitable? Are there people who do this for a living who think that the best they can do is delay this?

KELLY: In my experience the higher level of security clearance of the people you're talking to, the more worried they are about this. One of the characters who I have in the book, who works at CIA, at one point tells my heroine: Look, Pakistan is a country with more terrorists per square mile than any other country on Earth. And it's a country that is increasing its nuclear weapons stockpile faster than any nation on Earth. And he kind of laughs and says: What could possibly go wrong?

INSKEEP: Do you worry at all about your depiction of Muslims in this novel?

KELLY: I did. But I would also say that many of the non-Muslims in this book come across pretty bad.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: There's very few - in fact I can't think of any sincerely and 100 percent positive nice person in this book. Everyone has their complexities.

INSKEEP: Even the main character, who's very likable...

KELLY: Even the main character.

INSKEEP: ...has a dark secret. You have decided to have a main character who begins by not really knowing what she's doing.

KELLY: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Why?

KELLY: I thought it would be kind of fun to follow her as she learns how to do this. I mean this is a path I had trod. You know, nobody is born knowing how to report on national security, and I certainly had covered the diplomatic beat and done some foreign news reporting. But that is actually a very different thing from covering the intelligence beat.

When you switch over to covering the CIA, they don't do press releases, you can't wander around Langley, they don't tell you when they're traveling - even if you happen to find out, you're certainly not invited to travel on the plane as a reporter. There's no directory that you can access and find out what anybody's phone number is, or title.

So it was really learning to do a very, very different type of reporting, And I had fun watching Alex James evolve along that path as she figures out: How do you make any progress in this world? You're chasing a huge story. You have a feeling something is out there, but it is really feeling around in the dark.

INSKEEP: Mary Louise Kelly's first novel is called "Anonymous Sources." Thanks for coming by.

KELLY: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Green Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.