Mary Louise Kelly knows a little something about secrets. She launched NPR’s intelligence beat in 2004, and is now their current national security correspondent and the guest host of NPR News from time to time. She reports on the CIA, other spy agencies, and terrorism, among other things, and has written a couple of novels (Anonymous Sources and The Bullet), where well-heeled heroines (by that I mean that they wear my kind of shoes) are forced to unravel tangled webs of lies and deception at great personal peril. But I admire my friend Mary Louise because she seems to have figured out the biggest secret of all, which is how to balance a brilliant career with a full and rich personal life.
Mary Louise and I were neighbors in Georgetown for a time, and our sons (my youngest and her eldest) have attended the same schools since they were in kindergarten. She is a loving and devoted mother and wife, a generous and warm hostess, and a thoughtful and loyal friend (fortunately for me, she overlooks my ignorance of just about every subject matter about which she and her other friends are experts, or at the very least, share some interest). She has a great sense of humor and an edge, although it wasn’t until she took a break from reporting to write her first book that I became fully aware of it.
Mary Louise didn’t just leave NPR and set up a home office to write. She and her husband packed up the entire family and moved to a villa in Italy (the hills outside of Florence, to be precise) for a year. Being a bit of a nomad myself, I completely understood, but I’m not sure that the more conservative members of our entourage did. Not only that, but she spun out a brilliant spy thriller of international dimensions, featuring a super-witty, shoe-obsessed main character. I was thrilled of course (and frankly, relieved, because she might have lost me in the first chapter if it had been a serious work), but this was probably not what the literary community was expecting from someone who has devoted most of her career to investigating and reporting grave foreign policy and military issues on and off the field.
In short, it turns out that Mary Louise is a bit of a rebel. She does things her way, sometimes in defiance of expectation and conventional wisdom. You would never guess this, of course, if you met her on the soccer field, at a school function, or even one of her speaking engagements. The Mary Louise you would meet would be cool, collected, and even a bit shy (she is a Southern Belle, after all). But then again, like I said, she does know a little something about secrets. Including how not to blow a cover.
Herewith, the answers to the Proust Questionnaire of Mary Louise Kelly, whom you had better not cut off in your car when she is on a coffee run…she knows how to find you.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? Sunday morning, a real newspaper inky in my fingers, coffee brewing, warm croissant from the fabulous Patisserie Poupon down the block from our house.
What is your greatest fear? Running out of coffee?
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Being too judgmental, of myself and others.
What is the trait you most deplore in others? Being boring.
Which living person do you most admire? My kids. They amaze me, every day.
What is your greatest extravagance? Ah, shoes. Especially: Ferragamo shoes. I’m weak. So shoot me.
What is your current state of mind? Energized.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Patience.
On what occasion do you lie? When the Ferragamo bill comes in.
What do you most dislike about your appearance? My crow’s feet. But I earned ‘em…
Which living person do you most despise? The guy who cut me off at 26th and Q Streets this morning. It’s called a STOP SIGN, bozo.
What is the quality you most like in a man? The ability to make me laugh.
What is the quality you most like in a woman? Warmth.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Not sure about words, but my sons tease me for using over-the-top hand gestures in any interaction with a waiter. It must be a legacy of our years in Italy.
What or who is the greatest love of your life? I’m lucky to be married to him.
When and where were you happiest? 2014, running down a hill outside Florence, with a view of the sunset over the Arno on my left and olive groves to my right, singing at the top of my lungs.
Which talent would you most like to have? A voice like Adele’s.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? My frizzy hair. Marcia Brady had it so, so good.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? Between two kids and the dog, most days I’d have to go with the mere achievement of making it out the door in the morning.
If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? A bird. I dream of flying.
Where would you most like to live? Tuscany.
What is your most treasured possession? My family. Well, either them, or this really great Kelly-green coat I picked up on a cobbled street in Sienna in 2011. I am in the process of wearing it down to the final threads.
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? See answer to second question.
What is your favorite occupation? Journalist. I get to travel the world, meet the most fascinating people, and then write about them – and someone actually PAYS me to do all this.
What is your most marked characteristic? I am relentless.
What do you most value in your friends? Honesty.
Who are your favorite writers? That’s like asking which of your children you like best. I’ll read anything by Ian McEwan, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ann Patchett, and Hilary Mantel.
Who is your hero of fiction? Scarlett O’Hara. I must have read Gone with the Wind a dozen times, as a girl growing up in Atlanta.
Which historical figure do you most identify with? Let’s go with Sacagawea. I played her in a school play at age 8, and I’ve liked her ever since.
Who are your heroes in real life? My colleagues who risk their lives to bring us news from war zones, and other most dangerous parts of the world.
What are your favorite names? James and Alexander. Those happen also to be my sons’ names.
What is it that you most dislike? Dishonesty.
What is your greatest regret? Regrets, I’ve had a few. Still figuring out how to spin them into plot twists in my next novel.
How would you like to die? Heart attack, running down that hill in Tuscany, singing. I don’t mind dying sweaty, but I do require that my hair be freshly highlighted and flat-ironed.
What is your motto? Never, ever give up. Did I mention that I’m relentless?