Trading The Spy Beat For Spy Fiction

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As an NPR reporter, Mary Louise Kelly covered the CIA and the intelligence beat, traveling around the world and interviewing some of the world's foremost spies. Now, she's used that experience in a new career as a spy novelist. Her thriller, Anonymous Sources, has just been published.


Now to a journalist turned novelist. The novel "Anonymous Sources" comes out this week, and its author is someone whose name you might recognize: Mary Louise Kelly. For years, she was NPR's intelligence correspondent. She covered the CIA, wars, terrorism. Then, Mary Louise decided to trade the spy beat in for spy fiction, and she discovered they are not very different.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: You do see strange things as a reporter. I had one source who used to turn up for meetings actually wearing a trench coat. Another source liked to meet at the dry cleaners inside the Pentagon and another one would talk only on Fridays and then only in the back room of a particular Irish pub on Capitol Hill. There was the time, traveling overseas, when I had a beautiful vase of flowers delivered to my hotel room only to discover it was bugged.

I never knew by whom. Somewhere along the way, it dawned on me. Buried in all these scribbles in my reporter's notebooks, I had the beginnings of an espionage thriller. Take this moment from a reporting trip to Islamabad.


KELLY: ...downtown Islamabad. We're just driving up now to the big sprawling compound in the middle of the city. Just pulled up to the gate.

Those gates concealed a manicured lawn and the headquarters of the ISI, Pakistan's powerful spy service. I'd been invited for a private briefing. I remember sweating in a stuffy, dark room as Pakistani generals lectured me and blew smoke rings over my head. And I remember thinking, this would make a heck of a scene in a novel. Thus, the seed was planted, but I was busy. I didn't have time to write a novel.

And then, one day, I found myself in Iraq.


SIEGEL: ...and she's on the line now from Camp Victory in Iraq. Mary Louise, it sounds like from what's...

KELLY: That's Robert Siegel interviewing me back in 2009. I was filing from one of Saddam Hussein's abandoned palaces, trying to sound authoritative while squatting under a blanket to muffle the echo.


KELLY: And interestingly, neither Secretary Gates nor the Iraqi defense minister would rule out that U.S. troops may well still be in Iraq past 2011.

SIEGEL: Just quickly, Mary Louise...

KELLY: So Robert and I kept talking, ticking through the day's news in Iraq. But may I confess now that I was distracted? That morning in Baghdad, I'd gotten a phone call from my children's school back in Washington. My 4-year-old was sick, as in really sick, barely breathing, and there I was in a war zone 6,000 miles away. I decided it was time to make a career change.

On the long flight home, I started sketching out a novel. For my protagonist, I cast a female reporter chasing a national security story. Write what you know, right? That was the thinking behind the title, too, "Anonymous Sources," because, boy, you cover the intelligence beat, you wrestle with anonymous sources.


KELLY: ...this official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, tells NPR - and FBI officials speaking on condition of anonymity says - U.S. counterterrorism official speaking on condition of anonymity - senior intelligence officials agree to sit down for an interview on condition they not be identified by name.

You see why "Anonymous Sources" seemed like a no-brainer for the title. Next, I got to work on plot twists. I drew on my reporting trips to Pakistan for the scenes set there. To write the British spies who show up in Chapter 38, I dug out notes from stories I'd filed from London on MI-6. I sprinkled in assassins and double agents, bombs and terrorists. But here we arrive at a question: How realistic does a thriller need to be?

On the one hand, it's fiction. On the other, I'm a reporter. I'm trained to check and double-check my facts. So do the details have to be accurate? Yeah, I decided. They do. The White House scenes, for example, there's a tense moment in the book when my heroine, Alexandra James, runs right past where I'm walking now, outside the Pennsylvania Avenue gate to the West Wing.

Before I wrote that scene, I came jogging here myself, armed with my camera and my notebook. I wanted to get the details right, down to what color uniforms the Secret Service guards at the gates wear. White, in case you're wondering. And here's how that scene turned out. Page 280: I was sprinting, says Alex James. My dress hiked up around my thighs, my lungs burning. I could hear noises behind me. More cars slamming on their brakes, footsteps pounding. Were they behind me?

Well, you'll have to read it to find out. Now, I will admit that some of Alexandra James' reporting techniques are a little unorthodox. A few pages before that White House chase scene, for example, she shoots dead one of her sources. I would like to state, for the record, that I have never shot any of my sources. Although, with a few of them, it was tempting. You know who you are.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's former intelligence correspondent, Mary Louise Kelly. Her new spy novel is titled "Anonymous Sources," and now you know why.

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