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Mary Louise Kelly Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Mary Louise Kelly

Mary Louise Kelly

An interview with Mary Louise Kelly

NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly discusses It. Goes. So. Fast., the story behind the year before her son went to college.

I've never read a book that attempts to capture a year in someone's life, written in real time, as the year unfolded. Why did you want to do this?

I'm not sure I realized that was what I was doing, until I was too far in to back out. And it was terrifying once it dawned on me, because… what if it turns out to be a boring year? What if nothing interesting happens from, say, April onwards? But I was turning 50, and I'd just lost my dad, and we were all emerging from a pandemic that had rendered our lives unrecognizable. And for me the biggest change afoot was that my oldest kid was starting his senior year of high school, so I was counting the months and then the weeks remaining that we were all living under the same roof, as a family. I wanted this particular year… to stick. I wanted to be intentional about the way I navigated it, and to reckon with my choices as I made them. Both the things I've gotten wrong (my kids would confidently assure you there's enough material there to fill a book by itself) and the things I was hoping I might get right.

When you say you wanted to reckon with your choices… What choices?

Here's an example: my sons love soccer. They live for it, have lived for it since they were tiny. Now they're teenagers, and they play varsity soccer at school, and their games are on weekdays at 4pm. Guess what else happens on weekdays at 4pm? The news program that I anchor, All Things Considered, goes on air. I can't be in the studio and in the bleachers at once, and for years, I kept rationalizing…Next year I'll figure this out. Next year I'll find a way to be there, jumping up and down on the sidelines, screaming my heart out for the Bulldogs. And then suddenly my oldest was a senior and there were no more next years. No more do-overs. And the accumulated choices of all those years—all the games I missed, all the times I didn't show up—they hit me hard.

I thought this whole parenting thing was supposed to get easier not harder as the kids get older?

You and me both! And it does, of course. My kids don't need me to bathe them or dress them or tie their shoes anymore. They grow into teenagers and they don't even need you to drive them anywhere; some days you wonder if the main reason they check in is to politely ask for money to support their Chipotle habit. What has changed, for me, is the opportunity cost of my choices. It didn't kill me to miss a soccer game when there was an endless stream of them, zillions still to come. But you hit senior year and the number dwindles from zillions to single digits, and suddenly I would rather cut off my right arm than miss a game.

So do you have regrets about your choices?

Of course. Who doesn't? And it cuts both ways: I once turned down an interview in Moscow with the head of the SVR, successor to the KGB and Russia's answer to the CIA, in order to make it to a long-planned family trip. It was a splendid vacation, and my 80-year-old self will bang her head on the table in frustration every time she thinks of it. I've now spent a whole year trying finally to get the work-life balance right and I still haven't nailed it. Has anyone? If so, could you please write the next book and enlighten the rest of us on how it's done? But then, there's this: I cornered my oldest son in the hall one day while I was writing this book and asked whether he could think of a time when he needed me and I didn't come, because I was working. He stared at the floor so long that I was sure he was about to really let me have it. Instead he looked up and said something like, "I'm sure there were, but I can't remember, and also can I have fifteen bucks for Chipotle?"

Tell the story about bumping into an old colleague, and how jealous you were, and what you learned about trying to have it all?

When my youngest was two, he still wasn't talking. No baby talk, no babbling, nothing. I took a year off work to oversee his speech therapy. One morning, we were strolling to our neighborhood playground, when I spotted a woman I knew—another reporter, from a rival news organization. I vaguely recalled that she'd been pregnant around the same time as me; she must have a toddler too. I called out hi and she took a moment to recognize me. Did I mention I was wearing a stretched-out sweatshirt and scuffed clogs and had applesauce matted in my hair? Did I mention she was wearing killer heels and an elegant suit and had no trace of applesauce in her hair? We chatted a bit and then she disappeared into a taxi, off to the White House for an interview. I would love to report that I proceeded to the park, blissfully at peace with my life choices. I did not. I spent the rest of the day beating myself up, convinced I had thrown away my career. But the next time I ran into her, months later, she confessed that she had wept after she left me on the sidewalk that morning. What? "Because you and your son looked so happy," she said. "It was this beautiful morning, and you two were off to the park to play. And there I was, stuffed into Spanx and off to interview some official who refused to be quoted by name, and paying a stranger at daycare to take my baby to the park. I spent the rest of the day thinking, What the hell am I doing?" I realized we were both beating ourselves up for failing to do what is in fact impossible, i.e. being in two places at once. And that the grass is always greener, and that we moms could all stand to be a little kinder with ourselves.

Did it give you pause to write about your children and your life in a way that is so personal?

Yes.

But you did it anyway?

The boys have read every chapter in which they feature prominently. They helped me fact check. They had veto power. And the thing I always circle back to is that in my day job as a journalist, I'm often asking people to take my questions on what may be the worst day of their lives. The day a hurricane swept their house away, or a gunman walked into their kids' school, or Russian tanks and troops invaded their country. And I'm there asking personal questions, in a way that is hopefully respectful but that seeks to bear witness, so that the world understands what happened and why it matters. It felt fair to turn the questions on myself.

You're deaf, or close to it. I had no idea. How's that work with your day job?

It's a challenge! I anchor a national news broadcast every evening wearing hearing aids, both ears. I got them in my early 40s and I'm in my early 50s now. I have severe to profound hearing loss at high frequencies, and while hearing aids help, I still struggle. But technology offers some amazing workarounds. And the irony is that a professional broadcast studio is about the friendliest environment you can imagine for those of us who are hearing impaired—sound-proofed, pin-drop silent and equipped with top-of-the-line headphones.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo famously asked you to find Ukraine on a map because he was unhappy with questions you asked him. You became part of the story—all over the front pages and late-night TV; President Trump made a remark about you. What was it like to come home and explain that to your kids?

My sons are used to me reporting the headlines, not making them. It was something to watch them take in a news clip of the President of the United States, at the White House, publicly praising his Secretary of State for doing "a good job" on me. But I've always explained to them that the job of a journalist boils down to asking lots of questions, doing your best to get the story, and then sharing with your audience what you know and how you know it. Other people are free to make up their own minds what they want to think about it. The boys had questions, but the dinner conversation in our house turned back pretty quickly to sports scores and whose turn it was to walk the dog.

What do you make of that moment now that three years have passed?

When the Secretary of State invites you to his private living room, orders his aides to bring him an unmarked map of the world, and demands that you point to Ukraine, it leaves an impression. As I've reflected on it, I've realized I took a few life lessons from the encounter. They felt worth sharing with my boys. One is about the importance of standing up to a bully. Another is about not giving up (in the context of a newsmaker interview, this means you don't let them dodge your questions).

To COMPLETELY change gears, you write about how guys don't wolf whistle at you the way they used to. And that you miss it. Say what? What happened to being a strong and independent woman in the #MeToo era?

Yeah. There is a part of me that can't believe I am admitting that out loud. But it's true: I do miss wolf whistles. I miss walking through a crowd and feeling seen. It has taken me by surprise how invisible a woman of 50 can suddenly feel. It's scary to write about this stuff, about the now-intimate relationship between my triceps and gravity, or about my inner debate over whether to stop dying my gray roots; you know the judgment that will rain down. But I've reached a point in life where I'm okay with letting people see me, warts and all. And I love the moment of supreme recognition, when I tell one of these stories to a girlfriend, and they burst out laughing, and they're like, "Oh my God, let me tell you what just happened to me…"

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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