Author Interview: John J. Miller

John J. Miller wears a lot of hats. I laid out his lengthy credentials in the post from Monday, so I won't repeat the whole thing. I will harp on two things. The first is  the tremendous book "The Big Scrum", about Theodore Roosevelt's quest to save football. To solidify its coolness, it contains a first person account about how TR beat the snot out of (and disarmed) a bully in a bar fight in the Dakotas. Glorious. Second is something I forgot to mention previously:  "Between The Covers", John's book-oriented podcast on The National Review Online. Additionally, he hosts the Q & A video segments for Hillsdale College's free American Heritage Online Course on American history and government. Thankfully, John took time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions. And, what the heck? Before we get started, check out his website and his twitter page.

[Standard disclaimer: I am not responsible for the author's thoughts and vice versa. I say this more out of protection for them than for me. The guests on the website might agree with me a lot or maybe only a little, but they definitely aren't to be held responsible for my writings and especially not for my wacky tweets.]

TFR: Tell us about yourself in a 3-5 sentences, anything personally and/or professionally you want prospective readers to know about you. 

John J. Miller:  I'm director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College in Michigan, a writer for National Review magazine, the author of five books, and an obsessive Detroit Tigers fan. I spend a lot of time worrying about who should be the fifth starter and who should make the team as a utility infielder.

TFR: Although it seems like you can play it straight when necessary, you seem to have a good sense of humor. Who influenced you comedically (writing or otherwise)? And in general, who are your favorite writers? 

JJM: I like to laugh, though lots of people are way funnier than me. Favorite writers? How long do you have? When I'm trying to impress people, I mention Ernest Hemingway, who I really do like a lot, especially his short stories. I'm also capable of geeking out on the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Important influences include Robert E. Howard, Louis L'Amour, J.R.R. Tolkien, and a creaking shelfload of science-fiction writers, probably starting with Arthur C. Clarke.

TFR: What kind of places did the research take you? Does was any one place more interesting than the others?

JJM: The research required trips to the archives at the Library of Congress, Harvard, Yale, and a few other places. Part of me wants to say that the most interesting person I met was TR. I didn't meet him of course, but I felt like I got to know him. I've made a point of visiting the sites associated with him: the birthplace in Manhattan, the home on Long Island, the church he attended in D.C., the statue on Roosevelt Island in the Potomac River, the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, and so on. The ranching sites in North Dakota remain on the to-do list. So does San Juan Hill, but that will have to wait until Cuba is free.

TFR: How did you decide to write a book about TR and football? 

JJM: An author friend of mine says that authors write the books they want to read but can't find. That's the basic genesis of "The Big Scrum"--I stumbled on the story, discovered to my amazement that it had not been told fully or properly, and set to work.

TFR: TR was pretty manly. Who do you think was our manliest president?

JJM: If we're going to rank presidents on the manliness scale, TR has to be near the top--though George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and U.S. Grant also come to mind. All had military backgrounds, of course. That helps. Gerald Ford was pretty manly, too, though most people don't think of him that way.

TFR: What was the most surprising or interesting thing you took away from your research on "The Big Scrum"?  Did you meet any interesting people?

JJM: Going into the book, I knew Roosevelt would be a colorful character--but I didn't realize how colorful. He was interesting as a kid, and stayed interesting to the end of his life. Among our presidents, he probably has the best pre-presidential biography, with the exception of a couple who were generals. He was a good writer and left behind a rich record of documents.

TFR: You went to the University of Michigan as an undergrad. Having grown up 30 minutes from campus, I know it's pretty liberal. Has it been a big change coming to a conservative school like Hillsdale? Or was it blunted since you didn't go directly from one to the other ? (Which, incidentally, would seem like a good way to get a case of the ideological bends.)

JJM: Ann Arbor was and is flamboyantly liberal, and as a student I edited the Michigan Review, the campus conservative/libertarian rag. Hillsdale College is another species of institution. Politics is a part of it, but the differences run much deeper. The Dante scholar John Ciardi once said that a university is a college that has stopped caring about its students. Hillsdale remains a college. That's it's great strength.

TFR: For such a small school, Hillsdale leaves a huge ideological footprint, thanks to writers like yourself and Paul Rahe, not too mention the "American Heritage" online course. Can you tell us what it is like to be at one of the bastions of conservative thought? No matter the cause, I would think it would be pretty interesting to be at an epicenter of something.

JJM: Before coming to Hillsdale, I worked at the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation and I've been on the staff of National Review for more then 15 years. You could say that I've jumped from one bastion of conservative thought to another. I've probably dumbed down each of them. Hillsdale is successful because it has a clear mission, a talented faculty that is dedicated to teaching, and an excellent collection of students. I really like the kids at Hillsdale--they're smart, which is helpful, but more importantly, they're good and decent people. I want my own children to be like them.

TFR: Are you working on a book right now? If so, can you tell us the subject? Is anything else on the horizon, besides you current duties at NRO and Hillsdale? 

JJM: I have a few book ideas, but nothing worth talking about just yet. Right now, I just need an article idea for NR!

Thanks to John for his time!