Take Five with Simeon Mills ’00

Simeon Mills_Credit Rajah Bose

Simeon Mills ’00

Photo by Rajah Bose

Simeon Mills ’00 is a graphic artist, writer and teacher. His new novel, The Obsoletes, follows two teenage brothers as they navigate high school while hiding their true identity: They are actually robots. Mills majored in architecture at the College and earned an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Montana. He now teaches middle school English in Spokane, Wash., where he lives with his wife and two children.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was shy and intimidated by Columbia’s reputation. Being from a small Michigan town, I knew no one who’d gone to an Ivy League school. But I’m proud of my younger self for taking the challenge, both academically and socially. It’s the sort of thing I’ve arranged my current life to avoid: relocating to a strange new city to embark on something unpredictable. Running track was the most familiar part of my early college experience, a continuation of my high school identity as a “jock,” though I quit the team midway through my sophomore year to dedicate myself to architecture and creative writing. It’s funny — having spent the last couple of decades writing graphic and prose novels, now the thing I miss most is daily physical exercise.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

Everything about my room on the sixth floor of Carman makes me feel claustrophobic now, but I’m thankful for that growth experience. My roommate and I were cordial, but never really clicked. I was the decidedly least cultured of my suitemates, though I loved getting to know their different backgrounds and interests. My girlfriend lived on the fifth floor of Carman, and we spent all our time together to the exclusion of forming other important friendships and to the complete annoyance of our roommates. I remember a lot of dust bunnies on the floor. I got ringworm. For such a small bedroom, my CD collection took up a ridiculous amount of space.

What class do you most remember and why?

During my first studio architecture class, fall of sophomore year, I learned two things: that I could hang academically and creatively with other Columbia students, and that I loved spending endless hours in the studio. It wasn’t about grades, necessarily, but feeling pride in my work and engaging in healthy competition with my classmates. I remember a model-building assignment where I taught myself to reshape strips of balsa wood by wetting them, letting them harden in curved positions and then gluing them together. The night before the critique, a student whose work I admired frowned at my model — a runaway rollercoaster of balsa wood — and asked, “Who told you to do that?” as if I had to have gotten help from someone, as if I’d cheated. It was the best compliment I got all semester.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

The architecture studio in the basement of Schermerhorn Hall. This is where the rivalries in architecture classes became genuine friendships. Not that we talked to each other all that much. It was simply infectious to be around all that creativity — the attempts, the failures, the revisions, the successes. I would throw 10 CDs into my backpack, head to the studio, listen to them all on my headphones and still be figuring out the same drawing or model. It was thrilling to enter the studio after taking a few hours off, seeing what had been created in my absence. We inspired, challenged and learned from each other. This community was vital to my development as an artist, fostering the growth mindset that would later become necessary to write a novel.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

Maybe force myself to be more outgoing that first year? Looking back, it’s easy to see that everyone was trying to meet people, and everyone felt anxious about it, but I hid in my dorm room and ate most meals alone. I did this because it was safe, not because I didn’t want the company. (I recall a bit of advice from my mother: “People will often mistake shyness for snobbery.”) I was jealous of how seemingly easy it was for others to form close friendships, while I had managed just one: an intense romantic relationship that began my second day on campus. A year later, when that relationship inevitably ran its course, I needed some good friends. Thankfully, I had some on the track team, and they would become great friends throughout the rest of college. So would I do that over? No. It all worked out for the best. But do I look back at my introverted, socially-awkward self and cringe? Yes.