John J. Miller lives on a dirt road in rural Michigan. He is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College and writes for National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. His books include The First Assassin, a historical thriller set during the Civil War, The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, and The Polygamist King: A True Story of Murder, Lust, and Exotic Faith in America. He is the founder and executive director of the Student Free Press Association, a non-profit group best known for its news website, The College Fix. The Chronicle of Higher Education has called Miller “one of the best literary journalists in the country.” (Scroll down for more.)
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My early life is kind of like the line from that Journey song: “born and raised in south Detroit.” Except that I was born in east Detroit and raised on the west side. Near as I can tell, there’s no such thing as “south Detroit,” unless it’s Windsor, Ontario.
I went to high school in Florida because that’s where my dad’s job took the family for a few years. Then I headed back north, to the University of Michigan, apparently because my natural habitat involves eight months of winter. I majored in English, edited the Michigan Review, and became engaged to my girlfriend on the Diag. We were married a year later and now have three kids. The oldest is named after a former Detroit Red Wing.
Following graduation, I moved to Washington, D.C., and worked at The New Republic. Then I held a couple of think-tank jobs and wrote my first book, The Unmaking of Americans. In 1998, I joined the staff of National Review. As a journalist, I’ve interviewed the president in the Oval Office, visited NORAD headquarters in the heart of Cheyenne Mountain, and learned how to use a stone-age throwing weapon called an atlatl.
I wrote another book, Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France, co-authored by Mark Molesky, an old friend from the Michigan Review. The experience made me a proficient teller of French jokes. In truth, I love the French: They’re always there when they need us. Also, I’m one-quarter French Canadian.
Next came A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America–a book of enormous interest to a small number of influential people. It led to short stints as a consultant to a pair of foundations. As Saul Bellow reportedly once said, “Every writer needs something to do in the afternoon.” Today, I’m much more likely to write about foundations than to advise them: I’m a contributing editor of Philanthropy magazine.
Even before joining National Review, I was at work on my first novel, The First Assassin. For years, it was the project I kept putting aside as deadlines loomed and children were born. Yet hardly a day passed in which I didn’t give it at least a fleeting thought. The book is a historical thriller, set primarily in 1861 Washington. I published it on my own in 2009. As I had hoped, it caught the eye of an editor. AmazonEncore released a new edition in 2010. Houghton-Mifflin put out its own version in November 2011. On Kindle, the The First Assassin was a #2 bestseller–when it was sold for a day at the blue-light-special price of $1.99.
My latest book published the old-fashioned way is The Big Scrum: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of Football, published by Harper. My new book for the digital age is The Polygamist King: A True Story of Murder, Lust, and Exotic Faith in America. It’s a 17,000-word ebook, available exclusively on Kindle, and it tells a story of violence, fanaticism, and conspiracy.
In 2010, I founded the Student Free Press Association, which is best known for its higher-ed news website, The College Fix. We support excellence in college journalism, helping students tell stories that otherwise might not be told and assisting them as they launch careers in the media.
In 2011, I became director of the Herbert H. Dow II Journalism Program at Hillsdale College in Michigan. So the Miller family relocated to the land of its forefathers. We live a few miles west of town on wooded property, where we often see deer and wild turkeys from our windows. I bought a chainsaw and like to use it. At the college, I teach classes, oversee the school paper, administer scholarships and internships, and try to look professorial. Best of all, I remain a practicing journalist, still on the masthead of National Review. I have lots of ideas for books but not enough time.