“When Lorenzo Smith heard the chugging of the train, he felt for the revolver at his side.” So begins The First Assassin, John J. Miller’s superlative thriller about an unyielding assassin prowling Washington, D.C. during the tumultuous, uncertain days immediately following Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration — and the disparate, unlikely individuals who unite in an attempt to thwart him.
Miller, National Review‘s national reporter and a frequent contributor to the culture pages of the Wall Street Journal, recently chatted with TAS about the book’s origins, what it’s like to cross the chasm between journalism and fiction, and how to defend oneself from a left-wing high-tech book burning.
TAS: What inspired you to write The First Assassin?
JOHN J. MILLER: I’m a fan of thrillers — historical, political, scientific, whatever — and I’d always had the notion of trying to write one. The direct inspiration for The First Assassin came on a driving trip through Texas, as I listened to a biography of Abraham Lincoln. This was back when people still listened to audiotapes. I learned about the so-called Baltimore Plot, the alleged conspiracy to murder Lincoln as his inaugural train passed through the city. Next came the harrowing early days of his administration, as rumors of abductions, invasions, and bomb plots swept through Washington. It struck me as an ideal backdrop for a thriller about an assassination conspiracy.
TAS: As a diehard fan of political thrillers what were some of your literary models for The First Assassin?
MILLER: The book in this genre that I admire above all others is The Day of the Jackal, by Frederick Forsyth. It’s a masterpiece. I haven’t just read it; I’ve studied it. When I asked Vince Flynn to blurb The First Assassin, he came back with this: “An excellent book — it’s like The Day of the Jackal set in 1861 Washington.” I was grateful for these words. By my lights, compliments don’t get much better. And, in truth, that’s exactly how I’d thought about The First Assassin all along. Going into this project, I had a lot of respect for the authors of outstanding thrillers. I gained even more during the writing. Literary snobs often denigrate popular fiction, but writing a novel with a page-turning plot is hard work.
TAS: As with all the very best historical thrillers, the meticulous detail and context of The First Assassin serves the narrative, but also left me feeling as if my understanding of the Civil War-era was broadened in subtle-yet-substantial ways.
MILLER: My primary goal was to write a thriller that would entertain readers. But I also wanted to bring the era to life and make 1861 Washington and its environs seem as authentic as possible. So I did a lot of research. This involved regular trips to the Library of Congress, where I hunted down old books and read newspapers on microfilm. Here’s an example: I wanted a few scenes to take place in an edgy, crime-ridden part of Washington. So where was this in 1861? It turns out that it was roughly around the area that today is called Federal Triangle, a few blocks from the White House. This shaped the narrative because it forced me to get several characters to this specific place at a certain time. And since this is a story about a plot to assassinate Lincoln, I had to track the president almost as if I was one of the conspirators. To the best of my knowledge, I always have Lincoln in the spot where he really was on that day, including the climactic scene, which takes place out of doors and in a public place.
TAS: You pull it off perfectly, but I’m curious if you were at all apprehensive about delving into such a seminal, well-mined time in American history?
MILLER: It was actually something of an advantage because I was able to rely on excellent source material. There’s a reference volume called Lincoln Day By Day. It’s organized chronologically and explains what Abraham Lincoln was doing and where he was doing it. I don’t think there’s a similar book about Millard Fillmore. The timeframe also raises the stakes. What would have happened to the United States if Lincoln had been shot dead a month after his inauguration?
TAS: One of the truly satisfying aspects of your book is how many various individual character perspectives interpret the collective action and plot. Were your years of experience as a journalist a boon to you as a fiction writer creating and nudging along these wonderfully developed characters?
MILLER: When I write a profile of a governor or a senator for National Review, I’m writing in some sense about a character, albeit a real one. I’m often on the lookout for colorful details that can serve as metaphors, reveal a facet of personality, or just stand out as memorable. In fiction, however, you can go a lot further. You can get inside a character’s head and report on an interior monologue without having it sound like speculative psychobabble. Journalism has taught me the importance of concision, too. You never want to waste the time of readers by telling them what they don’t need to know. With a novel, there may be more pages to fill and opportunities for worthwhile digressions, but concision remains a priority. One of my last major edits of The First Assassin involved cutting its length by about 15 percent — trimming the fat, so to speak.
TAS: As a corollary, I’m a big fan of your Between the Covers podcasts. As you toiled away at The First Assassin, did interviewing authors inspire or give you new ideas on how to advance the narrative?
MILLER: Thanks. I’ve used that platform to interview a number of writers whose work I admire. One time, we were recording with Michael Connelly, the crime novelist. He was a reporter before he became a professional fiction writer. I asked him whether journalism had enabled his writing of crime novels. I thought it was a good question for a general audience, but I also had a personal interest in hearing the answer. I’m always curious to learn how bestselling authors achieve their success.
TAS: I imagine there are somewhat fewer roadblocks in the way of an conservative writer publishing a political thriller than, say, getting a gig scripting 30 Rock, yet you still wound up in a little kerfuffle with reviewers on Amazon over your unrelated political beliefs.
MILLER: This was dispiriting but hardly unexpected. Shortly after The First Assassin was published, a left-wing blog encouraged its minions to trash the book in the customer comments section of Amazon.com. These online vandals had not read my novel, of course. They just wanted to engage in a kind of high-tech book burning. So now there are a bunch of fraudulent one-star reviews on my Amazon.com page. The good news is that many readers who have read the book have posted their own reviews, mainly positive. This has provided some balance against the smear artists.
TAS: The First Assassin was published on your own Woodbridge Press, but the book has nevertheless received much attention, great reviews, and seems to be selling well. It must be edifying to know you’ve built enough of a reputation in one world to have people take note of what you do in another, no?
MILLER: The initial burst of interest came from readers who know my work as a non-fiction writer. Their support has been indispensable. I’m more grateful than they probably know. The decision to publish The First Assassin under my own imprint would not have been possible without them. I’ve released non-fiction books with major publishers and had expected a similar kind of experience with The First Assassin. When I finished the manuscript, I turned it over to my agent. He wasn’t able to sell it. First-time novelists always face skepticism and the rotten economy made things worse. So I decided to experiment with self-publishing, which is completely different from what it was just a few years ago. I partnered with CreateSpace.com, a print-on-demand subsidiary of Amazon.com. I gathered blurbs from writers such as Vince Flynn and Brad Thor and hired a professional designer to help with the cover and interior. Self-publishing also means self-promotion, so I’ve tried to put out the word about The First Assassin without getting too tacky. I hope I’ve succeeded.