Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Mary Louise Kelly. Mary Louise spent two decades travelling the world as a reporter for NPR and the BBC. Her assignments have taken her from grimy Belfast bars to the glittering ports of the Persian Gulf, and from mosques in Hamburg to the ruined deserts of Iraq. As an NPR correspondent covering the intelligence beat and the Pentagon, she reported on wars, terrorism, and rising nuclear powers. A Georgia native, her first job was working as a staff writer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Mary Louise has authored two books, The Bullet and Anonymous Sources. She was educated at Harvard University and at Cambridge University in England and lives in Washington, DC and Florence, Italy with her husband and their two children.
Norm: Good day Mary Louise and thanks for participating in our interview.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated? As a follow up, what, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
Mary Louise: I started a newspaper on my street when I was a girl, eleven or twelve years old. The Lemons Ridge Bugle profiled neighbors, interviewed new families and awarded a Yard of the Month (the "lucky" winner got a pink plastic flamingo planted on their lawn). I put my mother in charge of rounding up a monthly recipe, and my father in charge of the photocopying bill. Neighbors were pretty much obligated to buy a copy for 25 cents; I earned a reputation as a relentless journalist early on, pounding on front doors until someone finally emerged with a quarter. And I remember thinking then what I still think now: what a great life, to get to interview people and hear their stories and write them up to share with the world!
The elements of good writing? Original characters, unpredictable story lines, intriguing settings, an ear for an elegant turn of phrase. A sense of humor doesn't hurt, either.
Norm: What's the most difficult thing for you about being a writer?
Mary Louise: The hardest part is sitting down to begin. I love writing, obviously. And once I get started, I'll go for hours. But man, can I find ways to procrastinate writing that first sentence. Whenever my husband comes home to find the house sparkling, a nice dinner on the table and me actually wearing make-up and clothes of the non-pajama variety, he looks at me with pity and asks, "Tough day writing?"
Thank God for deadlines.
Norm: What helps you focus when you write?
Mary Louise: Again, once I get going, I have no trouble focusing. I can write just about anywhere. I do have one quirky habit, which is that I write best wearing an enormous pair of black leather Sony headphones. They're not plugged into anything, mind you, and they're not even noise-canceling. This is a habit engrained from years in broadcasting. When you work in a big, noisy newsroom, there's a constant buzz of chatter. We reporters like to think of this as a healthy cross-pollination of ideas; our editors are inclined to believe we're gossiping. Either way, when deadline presses down and it's time to crank out a story, you don your headphones to edit tape. When you see a reporter in the NPR newsroom scowling at the monitor, frantically typing, headphones clamped tight, you know to stay out of their way. And now, even when I'm typing in the quiet of my home study, I find pulling on the Sonys helps me think.
Norm: In fiction as well as in non-fiction, writers very often take liberties with their material to tell a good story or make a point, but how much is too much?
Mary Louise: Having worked for two decades as a journalist, and now having written two novels, I can say with confidence that the grass is always greener. Meaning: when I get stuck writing fiction, I find myself longing for FACTS. I mean, non-fiction writers don't have to invent characters or plot or anything -- they just tell what really happened, usually in chronological order. How easy is THAT? Of course, when I'm on deadline with a news story, I long for just the opposite. I'll be on deadline, and nobody's returning my calls, and I don't have any good quotes, and I find myself thinking: How nice would it be if I could just... make it all up?
Norm: How has your
environment/upbringing colored your writing and do you have a
specific writing style?
Mary Louise: I'm from Georgia, and I heartily believe that Southerners are the best storytellers. I don't know if it's the heat or the slower pace of life or a certain -- how to put this -- freedom with the facts. But just sitting around the dinner table with my family produces enough stories to fill a dozen novels.
It's surprisingly difficult to analyze one's own writing, but if I had to describe my style, I would call it lean. I don't throw surplus words or descriptions in there. Presumably this is also a legacy of years in broadcasting, where stories are assigned in minutes and seconds (a typical NPR news story, for example, runs three or four minutes). If you're assigned a four-minute story, and yours clocks in at four minutes and nine seconds, a grumpy producer will order you to lose the extra nine seconds. You learn fast to make every word count.
Norm: Are you a plot or character writer and did you work from an outline before writing your novels?
Mary Louise: Are you allowed to be just one or the other? Surely any decent novel has to have both a good plot and good characters. I write an outline before I begin, but then it falls by the wayside as I go along. The reason is that the characters evolve as the chapters stack up. They just refuse to do the things you were intending for them to do. Also, characters I initially planned as minor figures end up being great fun to write and demanding more scenes. And characters I initially found entrancing start getting on my nerves. (The nice thing about fiction is that you can kill them off when this happens. This is a bit trickier in real life...)
Norm: What inspired you to write your two books The Bullet and Anonymous Sources and what served as the primary inspirations for the books?
Mary Louise: I was in Baghdad on assignment for NPR, when I got a call from the nurse at my youngest son's school back in Washington. She told me he was sick -- really sick -- and they needed to get him a doctor. Before I could gather my wits to respond, the line went dead. I had to get in a helicopter and take off, and it was hours before I could get a phone signal again. It was one of those rare moments in the life of a working parent where my priorities were suddenly crystal clear, and I decided it was time for Career Plan B. On the plane home from that trip, I started writing what became Anonymous Sources. I named my protagonist Alexandra James, after my sons Alexander and James, to remind me why I was doing it.
Norm: Could you tell our readers a little about each of these books and what would be the best reason to read them?
Mary Louise: Alexandra James, heroine of Anonymous Sources, is a feisty reporter. She is quite like me, if you set aside her flaming red hair, her endless legs and her bad habit of shooting dead her sources. (Like I said, this is easier to get away with in fiction than real life.)
My latest novel, The Bullet, features a different sort of protagonist, a quietly elegant professor named Caroline Cashion. Ways that Caroline is like me: she lives in Georgetown, she loves 19th century French literature, she has a weakness for rye whiskey. Ways that she is not: she's a brown-eyed brunette, she hates coffee, and she's addicted to chorizo. Oh, and she has a bullet in her neck. Turns out there's a bit of a story there...
Norm: What did you enjoy most about writing these books?
Mary Louise: The challenge of holding a reader's attention for hours. It's such a privilege, for someone in today's crazy busy world to devote several hours to reading your novel. I wanted to make it worth their while. I love playing with how to open and end chapters, which details to include and which to leave to a reader's imagination.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your books?
Mary Louise: That one's
easy. I list all my upcoming signings, and provide links to reviews
of my books, as well as to my non-fiction writing, at MY WEBSITE:
Norm: What is next for Mary Louise Kelly?
Mary Louise: Another novel, I hope, but in the meantime I'm actually planning to return to full-time reporting. I have missed being part of a team working with a common purpose. I've missed the adrenalin of really tight deadlines. And I miss digging around, sniffing out stories that no one knows are there. The newsroom gets in your blood. I've found it impossible to shake.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Mary Louise: Hmm. How about, "May I offer you coffee and one of these warm, freshly baked chocolate chip cookies?" To which my answer would be, "I thought you'd never ask."
Norm: Thanks again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
Mary Louise: It's been a pleasure.