Fiction as a Mythic Power: An Interview with John J. Miller
John J. Miller writes for National Review and he is the Dow Journalism Program Director for Hillsdale College. But he also writes fiction and a few years ago his National Review Online posts introduced me to Liberty Island, a webzine devoted to fiction.
I’m now a creator at Liberty Island and so I reached out to Mr. Miller. I asked him about fiction, culture, and a few other things. Here are my questions and his answers.
Paul Hair: You’re a writer at National Review but you also write fiction. Which do you enjoy doing more?
John J. Miller: That’s a little like asking which child you love the most! I’m probably a better writer of nonfiction than fiction, if only because I practice it more. Yet my novel, The First Assassin, has given me more satisfaction than anything else I’ve written. From the moment of conception to the composition of the final scene, it took 13 years. That’s a long time, even for someone who isn’t a deadline-driven journalist. Also, it was the hardest thing I’ve tried to write. It would have been easy to give up. During one 12-month stretch, shortly after one of my kids was born, I hardly touched it. Most of all, though, I’m pleased with how it turned out. I like to think it’s a pretty good story. In a generous cover blurb, the late Vince Flynn compared it to The Day of the Jackal, but set in 1861 Washington. That’s exactly what I was going for.
PH: How powerful is fiction and how does it affects culture?
JJM: Fiction has mythic power. We can learn a lot from actual history, of course. If you want to be a statesman, start with Thucydides and work your way to Winston Churchill. But the great stories of our culture share the same potential. So the education of a statesman also ought to include the study of remarkable characters, such as Achilles and Odysseus from Homer, Macbeth from Shakespeare, Satan from Paradise Lost, Bilbo and Frodo from The Lord of the Rings, and so on. From these works of fiction, we learn about human nature. Also, fiction is fun—and one of my favorite pastimes is to become lost in a potboiler.
PH: What is your involvement with Liberty Island and what successes has it seen? What can we expect from it in the future?
JJM: The founders of Liberty Island are good friends. Dave Bernstein helped recruit me out of college to become a writer in DC. He also led me to Linda Chavez, who became the most important mentor of my career. So I owe him a lot and often pay our bar tabs. Adam Bellow has had a hand in editing three of my books. He is one of the smartest people I know. I haven’t had much to do with Liberty Island except to encourage people to check it out, from National Review readers to my students. I love what Liberty Island aspires to do and wish it every success.
PH: What are you doing now and what work we can expect from you in the future?
JJM: My main job is running the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. This consumes most of my time, especially when school is in session. I remain a writer for National Review. My latest story is on the molecular biologist David Baltimore, the new gene-editing technique called CRISPR, and—at the risk of sounding grand—what it means for the future of the human species.* I’m also a podcaster, with a weekly author-interview show called The Bookmonger that posts on both NRO and Ricochet. I recently published a Kindle Single ebook via Amazon.com: The Polygamist King: A True Story of Murder, Lust, and Exotic Faith in America. It tells the tale of the 19th-century Mormon dissident called James Strang, who becomes a cult leader and tries to establish a theocracy on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan. It ends in conspiracy and violence. As Lord Byron said, in a line that’s so good it has become a cliché: the truth is stranger than fiction. As for the future, I’ve got a few ideas—but none I’m ready to discuss publicly.
(* See also my Feb. 8 BarbWire article, “Superhumans: Coming to a Military Force near You.” –PH)
PH: How often do people confuse you with the John J. Miller who contributed to the first volume of the Wild Cards series (edited by George R. R. Martin, author of the A Song of Fire and Ice series of novels, upon which the HBO TV series, Game of Thrones, is based)? Have people ever asked you what it is like to work with George R. R. Martin? (I almost did.)
JJM: It definitely happens. We could have a convention of John Millers. To deal with what amounts to a branding problem, I’ve used my middle initial. It provides a small distinction. Yet it turns out that so does another John J. Miller who occasionally collaborates with the author of Game of Thrones. I once podcasted with George R. R. Martin, and he commented that when I first reached out to him, he thought I was the other guy. In 2014, I wrote a short essay for National Review on the curse of a common name.
Thank you to Mr. Miller for taking the time to answer my questions. Fiction is an incredibly important—and fun—part of culture, and it’s why I’ve switched my focus to it.
Cross-posted at Liberate Liberty.
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