An Indies Introduce Q&A with John Milas

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John Milas is the author of The Militia House, a Summer/Fall 2023 Indies Introduce selection.

Milas enlisted in the US Marine Corps at age 19 and subsequently deployed to the Helmand Province of Afghanistan in support of OEF 10.1. He was honorably discharged from active service in 2012. After his discharge, he earned both his BA and MFA in creative writing. As a student, he studied with writers such as Marianne Boruch, Roxane Gay, Brian Leung, Robert Lopez, Terese Marie Mailhot, Julie Price Pinkerton, Donald Platt, Sharon Solwitz, and others.

He enjoys engaging with his local literary community by attending readings, hosting workshops at his hometown library, and judging creative writing contests, which he has done since 2015. He has also read submissions for literary magazines such as Sycamore Review and Ninth Letter and has completed various freelance assignments as a journalist and editor. He grew up in Illinois, where he currently reads, writes, and watches baseball.

Beth Shapiro of Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, Missouri, served on the panel that selected Milas’ debut for Indies Introduce. Of the experience, Shapiro said, “Let me put it out there: I don’t typically read war or horror books. But what Afghanistan veteran John Milas has accomplished by combining the two genres is chilling, enlightening, and so very sad. An amazing insight into the deployment experience as well as PTSD that has stuck with me.”

Here, Milas and Shapiro discuss the making of The Militia House

Beth Shapiro: To be honest, I'm not a reader of either military or horror writing, but this book grabbed me so completely.  What factors do you believe make your book special in that it possesses this wider appeal?

John Milas: In Afghanistan, I felt that both internal and external reality were being redefined daily not in a wholly dissimilar way to the set of expectations — or lack thereof — established chapter-by-chapter in a gothic horror novel. Maybe in getting to the root of this parallel there’s something appealing to readers who would normally not exclusively read a haunted house book or a book about war. It’s like mixing individual ingredients in a recipe to create a singular, unique flavor. Additionally, I wanted the voice of the book to feel plain-spoken and accessible beyond the jargon, as if a common person was talking to the reader. I hope that helps the reader feel invited.

BS: You were deployed to Afghanistan in 2010. How much of Loyette's story derives from your personal and direct experience there? More broadly, how does the story reflect the US’ presence in Afghanistan and its pull-out?

JM: In terms of my experience, I was not yet a corporal when I deployed, so the narrator’s subject position is largely fictional. I was in the position of characters like Blount or Vargas. My peers and I often didn’t know what was going on in a detailed sense, but many of the details in The Militia House, such as the setting and the mission at hand, are inspired by what I saw at the time rather than research I’ve done since. More specifically, the FOB where the story takes place and the Militia House itself are both real. We went inside as they do in the book, but in real life nothing strange happened. If my book reflects on the US’ presence and abrupt exit from Afghanistan in a broad sense, it’s really holding a magnifying glass up to an earlier point in the domino rally. My book does not directly explain the chaos that unfolded in Kabul in 2021, but it’s not completely unrelated to the big picture.

BS: Without revealing any spoilers, I found the ending of The Militia House incredibly moving and suggestive of a glimmer of hope.  Was this always your planned ending, and how does this ending comment on PTSD?

JM: Narratives told in the western tradition of storytelling ask two questions with their endings: Did the protagonist get what they wanted? How will that affect them? The ending of this book when it was my grad school thesis did not ask those questions, which shuts out the reader and renders the experience trivial if you’re working in a narrative tradition reliant on causality. The ending is much more character focused now rather than thematically focused, and the specific focus on a character who thinks about the choices he has made and the choices he can still make is a moment that can reflect on us as individuals in many ways, but also on the institutions that get us into wars if you want to see it the way I do. The ending now asks about the possibilities that new choices can lead us to, which is hopeful. There’s nothing resonant in an ending that closes the door to future possibility. If my ending comments on PTSD, it’s to say: PTSD does not have to be the end.

BS: Did you plan on this book being a horror novel initially, or did that decision evolve? What works influenced your writing of this book?

JM: The Militia House was always meant to be scary. I originally wrote it as a short story for my first fiction workshop in grad school before it later became my thesis. People used to tell me how much it creeped them out back then, which always satisfied me in a perverse way. Some of the most important works I relied on include the books The Turn of the Screw, The Haunting of Hill House, House of Leaves, The Grip of It, The Little Stranger, Redeployment, The Lieutenant Don’t Know, The Short-Timers, the graphic novel The White Donkey, the documentary Combat Obscura, the feature film The Blair Witch Project, and a mid-series episode of The X-Files called “Field Trip.” I never close myself off from the influence of other work regardless of the medium or whether it suits my personal taste. Most of my novel was written and revised while listening to portions of the scores for the film It Follows and the Chernobyl series on HBO which corralled me into the right headspace.

BS: Finally, do you feel compelled to write more about the military, or do you have other ideas percolating?

JM: The Marine Corps feels like my wedge in the pie chart of war writing, but I like the idea of moving on eventually. I’ve been working on a collection of short stories inspired by my time in and I would potentially write a follow up novel to The Militia House as I have a great deal of interest in sequels. The opportunity to answer old questions while asking new questions is intriguing. Additionally, the trope of the “former Marine” or “ex-Marine” is fascinating to me, so I would be curious to explore that. Otherwise, I have a couple of novels in my queue that are inspired by other unrelated life experiences, but I wouldn’t be surprised if something military-adjacent grabs me again in the future. Either way, I always need to be making art or something feels off. That’s how I’ve always been.

The Militia House by John Milas (Henry Holt and Co., 9781250857064, Hardcover Horror, $26.99) On Sale: 7/11/2023.

Find out more about the author on his website.

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