SHARE
Somerville at his parents’ home in the ’80s. Courtesy | John Somerville

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.