Q&A: ‘Assassin’ author takes on history


By Joshua Madden
A&E Editor

Scott Miller is the author of “The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century” and was a recent guest on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”. The book highlights the conflict between two very different men, one of whom was President of the United States. This will be part of an ongoing Q&A series with artists and authors interviewed by the Lariat.

Lariat: How did you initially get into writing?

Miller: Like a lot of people, I began on my high school newspaper. I recently came across an article I wrote back then, and it was pretty painful to read. But writing, like any skill, is something that gets better with practice. Reading also helps and I was, even back then, a big fan of narrative historians like Barbara Tuchman.

Lariat: What led you to write this book specifically?

Miller: I was interested in a story with which I could describe America’s rise as a global power. The period covered by the book – essentially the 1890s – marks a crucial turning point in American history on a number of levels. The economy was rapidly becoming more industrial and consumer driven. Average Americans were also becoming very patriotic and anxious to show the U.S. belonged in the club of great powers like Britain.

Lariat: You’ve mentioned in interviews previously that William McKinley is often not focused on in historical works as much as other assassinated presidents. What made you decide to focus a book on President McKinley?

Miller: McKinley was a natural vehicle to describe America’s coming of age as so much happened during the five years he spent in office. There was of course the Spanish-American War, but more important was all the new territory we acquired as a result – Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. McKinley also annexed Hawaii.

Lariat: Besides McKinley, who do you think is the most fascinating American president?

Miller: I’m not sure he’s the most fascinating, but I have always thought Herbert Hoover was interesting. He’s a true success story, going from being an orphan to becoming very wealthy, travelling the world, and then undertaking a number of admirable projects such as helping Europe recover from World War I. Sadly, he was ill-prepared to deal with the Great Depression and many of his accomplishments are now overshadowed by that failure.

The President...

Lariat: A large amount of your work and life has been in Europe. What made you write a book about an American president? Do you think your experiences with European politics shaped the book in any way?

Miller: One thing I heard some years ago that rings true for me is that you have to live outside your country to understand it. Living abroad as a reporter for “The Wall Street Journal” and “Reuters” as long as I did really gave me a fresh lens through which to view U.S. history. I think I have a greater appreciation for our country’s many strengths and some of its weaknesses than I did before spending so much time abroad.

Lariat: What interests do you have outside of history? Any plans to write works based on these interests?

Miller: I suffer from having too many interests. Skiing is a big deal in our household. I really enjoy fly fishing and mountain biking for exercise. I’m also a huge college football fan and haven’t missed seeing a University of Washington football game in years, either in person or on TV. I don’t have any plans to write about that stuff though.

Lariat: An increasing number of historical works, particularly about American presidents, are being adapted into film, like “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. You’ve cited the excitement of the McKinley era in interviews previously – do you think that the story told in your book would work as a film?

Miller: Yes, I think it would make a great film. With McKinley and his assassin, you have two compelling characters moving toward a dramatic conclusion. It’s also set in a colorful period of American history. So, Mr. Spielberg, I’m waiting!

Lariat: Your book is also selling in Kindle format. How has that affected the publishing process?

Miller: I don’t know specifics, but I think any technology that makes it easier to buy books or stimulates interest in them can’t be all bad.

..and the Assassin.

Lariat: A lot of non-fiction writers now look forward to an appearance on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” What do you think it was about your book that got you an appearance on the show?

Miller: You are right. Loads of writers send their books to “The Daily Show” every week. Jon, I think, simply liked this subject area and the fact that it related to today. I was impressed by his questions. It was clear that he really had read much of the book, if not the whole thing. It’s great that someone like that – who is so popular and can have any guest he wants – makes time to have authors on. There is probably no better way to promote a non-fiction book these days than on his show.

Lariat: What projects do you have planned for the future?

Miller: I’m working on a couple of ideas now. I’d like to stay in U.S. history, preferably focusing on foreign policy. The trick, though, is finding a really compelling story.

Additional information about “The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century” can be found at Scott Miller’s website, www.scottmillerbooks.com. The website also contains links to order the book and to other reviews and interviews with the author.