Mary Louise Kelly

The NPR intell journalist pens a gripping debut thriller

Mary Louise Kelly's debut thriller, Anonymous Sources, features Alexandra James, "a beautiful, driven, yet troubled New England Chronicle reporter" who finds herself in the middle of--what else?-- a mysterious murder, international intrigue and terrorists.

She's a tough cookie, this Alex, a worldly journalist "who can get in anywhere, sleep with anyone, out-drink and out-shop her demons," as Kelly's two-fisted publicist put it.

No doubt Alex and Kelly share at least some of those attributes. A former BBC reporter and intelligence correspondent for NPR, Kelly has covered war and terrorism from Pakistan to Northern Ireland. She knows whereof she writes.

And she's connected.

"Mary Louise Kelly?blends?the worlds she knows so well--Harvard, Cambridge, Washington, the news room and the American intelligence community--into a fast paced thriller that is hard to put down," former CIA (and NSA) Director Michael Hayden writes in a bubbly blurb. "The atmosphere rings true on every page as she weaves a taut tale from?a young man's apparent suicide to a terrorist attempt at the highest seat of American power."

"Rings true"... "based on..." --these are the clich?s of publicists pumping spy thrillers. But it seemed a good place to start with Kelley, no matter how tongue-in-cheek.

SpyTalk: C'mon, this is based on a true story that you were afraid to write, isn't it?
Kelly: Actually, given that it deals with a ring of well-financed nuclear terrorists with their sights on a major American city, it's a story that I'm awfully glad I haven't had occasion to write in real life!

I covered the intelligence beat for years, and when you ask senior administration officials at the Pentagon or the White House or Langley what keeps them awake at night, they all give the same answer:?a nuclear bomb in the hands of terrorists. Privately they will also tell you that they believe it's not a question of if, but when. And they point to Pakistan as the place that they worry about the most. (I give one of my characters the line, "Pakistan has more terrorists per square mile?than any place else on earth. And it has a nuclear weapons program that is growing faster than any place on earth. What could possibly go wrong?")?So I took that starting point and ran with it in the book.?

SpyTalk: The HBO film "Manhunt" (based on the Peter L. Bergen book by the same name) highlights the key role several CIA female counterterrorism analysts, dubbed the "sisterhood," played in the liquidation of Osama bin Laden, and suggested that women make better intelligence analysts than men. Do you think gender is a factor in investigative reporting as well? Do you think that women might be better investigative reporters than men in some respects?
Kelly: Very timely question, given the recent appointment of Avril Haines as the first female deputy director of the CIA.?

Mike Scheuer, who headed the CIA's first unit dedicated to finding Bin Laden, just gave an interview to the Washington Post stating that the vast majority of his analysts were women, and that they were "very, very insightful in mapping out relationships." (He even joked that he considered hanging a sign outside his office that read "No men need apply.")

That's a good line, but I don't know that women make better intelligence analysts--or better investigative reporters--than men. I'm honored to know a number of outstanding female investigative reporters, and I know a few lousy ones, too. Same for the men. All you can do is work with whatever you bring to the table.

I remember one time when I had been trying, for weeks, to nail an interview with a senior Air Force general. He didn't return my calls. Then by chance I overheard a male colleague of mine on the phone to this same general, and by the time they finished talking they had set up a golf tee time for that weekend, at the course at Andrews Air Force Base. I was furious: ?this was an Old Boy's network that I had no idea how to penetrate. What was I supposed to do to compete, invite the general to join me at my next Pilates class??

But in the end being a younger woman reporting on national security has had its advantages. I don't mean in an icky, Paula Broadwell way. I mean that it allows me to ask basic questions that my male colleagues might be embarrassed to ask, and then to get answers in plain English. That's useful when you're writing for broadcast, and trying to avoid the impenetrable jargon of the military and intel worlds. After years spent reporting on those worlds, I can now reel off acronyms with the best of them, but I bite my tongue when I catch myself throwing them around on air.?

SpyTalk: What next for you now--another thriller? Or back to reporting, where you have to stick to the facts? Won't that be boring?
Kelly: Covering the intelligence beat is many things, but it ain't boring! I stepped away from my staff reporter job three years ago to write full-time, and I STILL climb the walls whenever a big story breaks on my beat. It kills me not to be in the newsroom. At the moment, for example, I'm riveted by this NSA leak story and all the other Justice Department leak investigations. I keep thinking that the news instinct in me will fade, but so far, no dice. I'm giving it another six months.

I say six months, because that's about how long I need to finish Book #2. I'm a probably a little more than halfway done writing it. This next one is more of a psychological suspense thriller, although you never know, spies might show up...

Mary Louise Kelly will be reading from Anonymous Sources at Washington, DC's Politics & Prose bookstore at 5pm Sunday, June 23.

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Updated Jan 2, 2019 12:28 PM EST | More details


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