John Somerville is a professor of English. This interview was conducted and compiled by Tracy Wilson and has been edited for length and clarity.
What is one memory from your childhood that stands out to you? The event I recall took place during the South Korean student revolution in 1960. My brother, my friends, and I were coming home from school, which was on the other side of Seoul from our house. A Korean man we called Kimpsi was driving the Land Rover we were in. We were downtown near the city hall and suddenly we were surrounded by a large crowd of protestors, all young men, probably university students. Some had rocks in their hands. Many had tied cloths around their heads. Our driver told us to get down and he slowly, safely maneuvered through the crowd. We lived near the center of the city at that time, so I saw quite a few demonstrations and smelled a lot of tear gas. If you could pick a poet to write an epic about you, who would you choose? Homer. Which character from the Great Gatsby do you find the most interesting? Oh my goodness, they’re all troubled. I think Nick Carraway, the narrator, is the most interesting figure in the book. The focus, of course, is on Gatsby, but if we draw back for a moment, we find ourselves watching this narrator, a character who is equally the focus of the novel. When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? A major league baseball player. I wanted to be short-stop for the Los Angeles Dodgers. All I thought about was baseball. But I was in Korea. We didn’t have a baseball team at our missionary boarding school, but one year my dad decided he would coach. He’d been a great high school player. His team won the state championship in his senior year. He could pitch with either hand. We were all Americans, but we weren’t that good. Our first game, I think we lost 31 – 2 to a Korean high school team. They let us score at the end so we could save face. I think my father finally went out and said to their coach, “Stop it, get it over with.” What’s one life-changing experience you had that you’ll always remember? The most vivid memory is when our triplets were born ten weeks premature. They were vulnerable and fragile. Katherine in the first or second week had three major surgeries and almost died, and Elizabeth suffered cardiac arrest. The fact that they’re still around is miraculous. There are things in life that we learn pretty easily, and other things that we learn through suffering. God, I believe, is always in control, even in the hard times. One of my favorite verses is Ecclesiastes 7:14: “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other.” What’s the funniest prank you’ve ever pulled on someone? When I was a freshman in college, there was a thing we would do called “pennying in.” The dorm room doors would open into the room, so we would come to the door on the outside and someone would push really hard and we would put a stack of pennies between the door and the frame so that when you released it, the person inside couldn’t open the door. We did this to my friend, Bill, who had a room on the second floor. We pennied him in just before dinner. Maybe twenty minutes later, as we were eating, Bill came into the cafeteria looking disheveled and kind of wrecked. It turns out he’d jumped out of his second-floor window into the snow, then come on to dinner. He must’ve been hungry. I thought that was funny. Even after that, we were friends, and he ended up being best man at my wedding. Do you have any strange phobias? Bats. That’s not strange, that’s understandable. When we first came to Hillsdale, we were in a house that we didn’t realize at the time was infested with bats. I had some bad experiences with bats. I wrote about them, and that way I attained a kind of therapy. Have you ever met any celebrities? The Evangelist Billy Graham was my uncle. He was married to my mother’s sister. I was also once in a tent with Donald and Melania Trump, and Mike and Karen Pence. Rudy Giuliani was there too. That was a large tent, actually, at my uncle’s funeral. I’ve met some others. Have you heard of Larry Arnn? Did you go through any interesting fashion phases as a young adult? I used to have long hair. All my years growing up my hair was short, but when I went to Boy Scout camp after my eighth grade year, my hair got a little longer. My mom wanted to cut it. But I made a little jerk of myself and got upset with her, so she said “okay,” and it kept growing. I just liked it that way. Also, when I first came to Hillsdale, I would wear a tie. One day I was walking home from school, carrying a briefcase and wearing my tie. A group of boys were kneeling by the sidewalk, playing with what appeared to be a pile of dirt. They stopped and stared at me, then one of them said, “Hey Mister, are you a detective?” I also prefer to go barefoot in the summer. If you could ghostwrite for an author, who would it be? I wouldn’t want to ghostwrite, but if I could write like any modern writer, it would be either Joan Didion or John Jeremiah Sullivan. Which fictional city would you most like to live in? The town of Jefferson in William Faulkner’s fiction, in Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. A lot of weird, horrible things happened there. It would be kind of cool to walk through that town and see where it all happened. If you could only keep 3 books, what would they be? Of course, the Bible. Three other books that are indispensable are “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner, “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain. What is the most interesting thing you’ve ever written? My essay I wrote about visiting North Korea. Also, my essay on animal intruders. I prefer to write more personal, occasional essays. What’s one thing you wish more people knew about you? I wish my students, who sometimes suffer under me, knew that I truly do love them and want them to do well. I want to be friends, but that’s not what they’re paying me for. I’m never happy if I have to assign a grade to a student that I know they’ll get sad about, or even cry. That’s the hardest part of my job. After forty years, you’d think, “What does he care?” But still, the sting of that. I really do love them and want them to excel.