Outside the Gates: Journalist, Author and Former Lion Reporter, Mary Louise Kelly

Georgia Norton

“You see all kinds of crazy things covering the Pentagon or the CIA or the intelligence beat, a lot of which doesn’t make it into your daily deadline piece,” she said. 

This is the first in a series of articles we're calling "Outside the Gates," which will explore the lives of Lovett alumni.

Mary Louise Kelly is known today as the host of NPR’s All Things Considered, the former NPR National Security Correspondent, and the author of two spy novels, Anonymous Sources and The Bullet. She’s traveled to war zones, reported on spy agencies, and interviewed some of the most prominent figures in national and global politics. Before she was a household name, however, Kelly was a Lovett student, struggling to navigate her classes and finish calculus homework in the class of 1989.

Enrolled K-12--not quite a lifer, seeing as Lovett still offered preschool at the time--Kelly has “a million memories” of her time on the Riverbank, but she said “It’s a different world from the one I knew.” Her nephew is now a Lovett kindergartener, so she stays connected. About the new generation of Kellys on campus, she said it’s “just lovely for our family to have another kid in a Lovett Lions T-shirt running around the house.” The campus looks different, the student body is much more diverse, and, though she acknowledges that there is still change to be made, she believes Lovett has made a lot of progress.

In fact, it was here that she got her start with journalism, writing for and then editing the Lovett Lion her junior and senior years, respectively. Though she didn’t always know she wanted to pursue journalism, she distinctly remembers one moment where the idea began to play in her mind: it was her junior year, and she had an interview with Bill Conley--assistant principal, football coach, and disciplinarian.

“I can’t remember exactly what had us so fired up,” she said, but she recalled the general concern being about overly-strict, arbitrary uniform enforcement. She laughed; “I remember going down for a fairly confrontational interview, and we went at it!” After publishing the article, they got results: students gained dress code flexibility, and she remembers people being really excited about it. 

Kelly recalled noticing how it felt to have a platform from which she could “hold figures of authority to account and ask them to explain their decisions… try and affect some change, and actually succeed at it.” This was something she “never would have had the guts for” in her own right. Speaking on behalf of the students, she felt she had a real role to play. “They’re listening, and they want answers, and so I’m not going to back down until I get them. I felt empowered,” she said fondly, “and it was the first time I’d felt that.” This feeling, she explained, still propels her today.

Kelly brought her journalistic interest with her to college as the Harvard Crimson’s Senior Editor despite majoring in French literature and Government. She debated a career in law, teaching, and management consulting, but ultimately came back to the question “what brings me joy?” She loved to write, felt she was good at it (which she thanks her Lovett teachers for, as well), wanted to ask questions and see the world. And so, she came back to Atlanta and began working for the Atlanta Journal Constitution as her first job out of college.

Coming home and exploring the city under the aegis of the AJC, she rediscovered Atlanta in a “very different way,” realizing how little of it she’d really known. She covered night cops in Cobb County and the Dekalb County commission. “Crazy times,” she said, “nutty stuff happens!” It was also in this job that she learned important skills like earning people’s trust, making things right after mistakes, and calling people back, again and again.

After returning to school for her graduate degree at Cambridge, Kelly found herself once again at a professional fork in the road. She recalled one specific moment when this really came to light: she had two job interviews in one day, one for a management position at McKinsey and another for the BBC. 

“It was so stark,” she explained. After interviewing for McKinsey, she remembers thinking “‘that went well… I could do this.’” The job would pay what at the time “just seemed beyond my wildest dreams, and I would have a secretary and an office at, you know, 22, 23 years old.” She could live internationally, which was appealing, and she thought again, “Yeah, I could do this. This would be fine.” 

The BBC interview was a different experience. Kelly was kept waiting for at least two hours because “there was some huge story breaking in the Middle East, and editors were running around, and correspondents were running around, and the printers were like smoking as they spit the scripts out,” she laughed.

Amidst the chaos, she remembered thinking “Oh my god, this just feels like home. I could do this, and I would pay you to get to do this. I don’t need an office, I don’t need a secretary, I don’t need a big salary--and I certainly did not get it when I went to the BBC--but I loved it.” 

She said she was eternally grateful she paid attention to that feeling, something she urges every young person to do. Kelly debated the immediate prestige of her options, the salaries, and family pressures, but ultimately came back to that little tug in her heart. “You will be most successful in the thing that you actually love to do,” she said, “and I feel very, very lucky to have found that.”

Her advice to help others find their “thing?” “Just play,” she said. “I’m trying to think of a way to phrase this that isn’t totally cliché,” she laughed, but she really does believe in following your interests--all clichés are true anyways, it’s said. “Don’t waste your time,” she clarified, “but try things out that might not stick with you professionally but you’re curious about. Try any activity, a class, because you just don’t know what will give you that feeling.” 

Of course, no career, despite the presence or absence of passion, will be perfect all the time. “There is no career that you don’t take a million twists [in],” she said. “So many things will be out of your control. But you can control the work you put into it.” She kept this in mind as a young professional and lives by it to this day, focusing on what she can do, and doing her best at it.

One main challenge Kelly faces now is how to reconcile work and motherhood. In 2011, she took a break from her job as NPR’s senior pentagon correspondent after a traumatic day when she “hit the wall,” as explained in her Newsweek article Leaning Out

She’d been in a helicopter in Baghdad covering the U.S. Secretary of Defense when her phone went off--a call from the school nurse. Her four-year-old son was sick. She tried to explain that she wasn’t able to pick him up, yelling over helicopter blades, as the nurse informed her he needed hospitalization. Suddenly, her service went out as the helicopter gained altitude.

After this event, Kelly put a pause on her career at NPR and began to write fiction, an endeavour that would allow her more flexibility. Though this decision was of course difficult, Kelly explained being home “at that point in [my sons’] lives, and in my life, trumped everything else.” She still kept the door open to the newsroom and stayed open-minded, explaining that “what feels right to share one year might be different the next year.” 

Balancing family and work is an ongoing challenge; for Kelly, just like anyone else, “there are some days where you’re juggling a million balls and you just drop them all. But you get up the next morning and you pick them up and you start again. And that’s okay.” She feels that as more people who reach a certain point in their careers “are upfront about that, the more it allows other people to know that this isn’t easy.” Often, that acknowledgement and the realization that one is not alone make a big difference.

Before her first novel Anonymous Sources, Kelly had “never published so much as a short story or a poem,” so writing a novel was a major learning curve. The challenge of figuring out how to hold a reader’s attention for hour after hour is “immensely satisfying,” she said, and wildly different from the journalistic writing she was accustomed to.

As for content, though, she had plenty of experience to draw from. “You see all kinds of crazy things covering the Pentagon or the CIA or the intelligence beat, a lot of which doesn’t make it into your daily deadline piece,” she said. 

She cited an example: “I was in Pakistan at the headquarters of ISI, their main spy agency.” She was speaking with a few generals who were smoking cigars, reclined in their seats and blowing smoke rings over her head as a peacock walked by outside the window. She thought to herself, “This is like a scene from a movie, and it’s never going to make its way into my story that airs tonight… but this is a moment I’d love to tell someone about.” She had lots of these stories, and her husband told her she should turn them into something. So, she did.

“It’s funny,” she said, “whichever one I’m doing, [journalism or writing novels,] the other one seems way more appealing.” The freedom of writing a novel is exciting compared to the frustrations of needing pure, hard facts. “Sometimes I’m writing an article up against a deadline and I have no information and no one’s called me back, and I just think, ‘how nice if I could just make something up!’” she laughed, but the lack of structure can be equally overwhelming. 

“I was trying to write some last night,” she said, “and I was thinking, ‘I have no idea what happens next,’ and it’s so daunting... I think ‘is this plot twist plausible, is this character likeable?’ In journalism, you don’t have to worry about any of that because the person is who they are, and it doesn’t matter if they seem plausible. It is what it is!”

Right now, in a time when reality itself seems less than “plausible,” Kelly admits that these types of learning curves are becoming the new normal. In the throes of pandemic, Kelly is broadcasting a national news magazine from the second floor of her house, not having been able to go into the NPR newsroom since April. 

Covid has “required rethinking the way we do a lot of things, it has required reigning in a lot of the plans and dreams I had for this year,” she admitted. She’s cancelled a trip to Iran, to Russia. “I miss incredibly being out, roaming the world and seeing what’s happening outside this country and trying to explain that in a way that is valuable to an American audience…” she said. Though none of that is happening now, she’s finding new ways to tell a story and conduct impactful interviews that give people “information, or at least a little bit of hope.”

With all this talk of career, I naturally had to ask how Kelly disconnects from it all, to which she laughed, hesitantly, “good question.” After a moment of thought, Kelly told me she runs, though she “wouldn’t call herself a runner” (despite having run last year’s Atlanta Thanksgiving Day Half Marathon and, according to her Twitter, a casual 6 miles the morning before our interview) and has recently gotten more into cooking, though more out of necessity than passion (“we’ve eaten everything in the frozen food section of Trader Joes,” she laughed, “I thought it was time to branch out.”) She reads and sometimes walks with friends, but ultimately she concluded that between journalism, a demanding job, writing a novel and being a mom with two kids still at home, “Yeah… there’s not a lot of free time.”

Despite the fast pace of her life, Kelly is happy to reconnect with Lovett, where it all began. She loves coming back, loved delivering the commencement speech a few years back and even reversing her teenage journalistic role being a Lovett newspaper interviewee. “I just feel like Lovett launched me into the world having given me so much, and to be able to pay it forward a little bit feels incredibly rewarding,” she said, and in her voice, I could tell that she meant it. “I remember so clearly what it was like being a student journalist at the Lovett newspaper or trying to navigate my classes senior year… and you blink and you wake up and here you are.”

And then, in keeping with the theme of passing time, our 30 minutes were up. Just as quickly as Kelly had fallen into reminiscence, she was back in the real world. “As soon I get off the phone with you,” she explained, “I’m gonna go call the White House and try to line up the national security advisor for next week.” She added she still uses the same techniques she’d used at the Lovett Lion and the AJC in her work today. “It’s a bigger stage, but those lessons… I first learned here. And I’m still learning. I’m learning every day.”

I had to laugh to myself--it seemed too perfect a closing. As an expert herself in the written word, I’m sure the poetry of our conversation didn’t escape Kelly’s notice. Despite the come-and-go nature of the headlines in our ever-changing world, Kelly’s reflections on trusting, growing, and learning remind us that it all comes full-circle in the end and that taking a moment to reflect backwards can help us as we look to the future, realizing that, ultimately, it’s all connected.

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