Back in July 2005, on an otherwise forgettable Thursday morning, a writer by the name of Oronte Churm sprung onto the national literary scene. That day, he turned up as a new columnist on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the web headquarters of University of Illinois alum Dave Eggers’ indie publishing empire. The title of Mr. Churm’s column was “Dispatches From Adjunct Faculty at a Large State University,” and he introduced himself like this: “I teach in the English Department of what I’ll be calling Hinterland University, Inner Station campus. It’s a Big 10 school, with enough very polite (mostly white suburban) kids to form two or three infantry divisions in Iraq, which most will never have to consider.”
The article also included this disclaimer: “Oronte Churm in an obvious pseudonym.”
Nearly 31 months and 15 columns later, Mr. Churm has doffed the cloak of secrecy. This morning at 6 a.m., McSweeney’s Internet Tendency published Churm’s sixteenth dispatch, in which Oronte Churm is revealed as John Griswold, adjunct lecturer in English and creative writing at the University of Illinois. As Oronte Churm, Griswold also writes regularly for his blog at Inside Higher Ed (including an entry today on pen names in the digital age). As John Griswold, he’s published stories, poems and essays in Natural Bridge, Palo Alto Review, Mediphors and elsewhere.
Smile Politely’s Chris Maier caught up with Griswold to get the scoop on this Churm fellow.
Smile Politely: Is there a backstory for the fictional Oronte Churm? In other words, is he an alter ego or is he just a nom de plume?
John Griswold: There is no backstory; it’s my pen name, which I’ve used for two years at McSweeney’s, and for more than a year as a paid blogger at Inside Higher Ed, as well as other places around the web.
SP: How — or why — did Churm come into being?
JG: In 2005, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency’s John Warner (a University of Illinois graduate) asked me to write a column about teaching as a college lecturer. We decided to call it “Dispatches from Adjunct Faculty at a Large State University.” John asked if I wanted to use a pen name, since I don’t have the job protection of tenure, and neither of us were sure what I might have to say about the experience. I chose two characters’ names from a Henry James story I was teaching. As it turned out, I’ve tried to use the dispatches as what Montaigne meant when he more or less invented the term “essays”: Venturing out in search of meaning. My essays at McSweeney’s question what it means to be a teacher, writer, father, son and husband.
SP: Did the use of a pen name work? I mean, did it free you up to write things that you wouldn’t have otherwise written?
JG: Not in the sense of feeling so free that I ran around slandering everybody, or ranting on topics I knew nothing about. I don’t feel that good creative nonfiction does that anyway; it manages a personalized objectivity, if that makes any sense at all. The pen name did, maybe, free me a little from the writing voice I’d developed to that point in my fiction. Humor writing is hard, and I never thought I’d do any of it, until I worked out the Churm voice.
SP: Did it take time and effort for you to find that Churm voice or did it just come to you? And has it evolved over the past few years?
JG: The first dispatch, where I introduced myself to McSweeney’s readers as Churm, came easily. After that, they started getting more difficult, or at least time-intensive. I was uncertain I was doing anything at all until after the third one was posted. After that I felt I’d found a voice that could be sustained and might serve to do many things at once.
SP: All in all, you had fifteen dispatches on McSweeney’s, though you — as Churm, I mean — have been a little quiet over the past year. And Churm is about to go away altogether. So the question is: What’s happened to Oronte Churm? And why the public outing?
JG: Churm isn’t going away; I’m just uniting different aspects of my writing life by revealing my real name. I’ll still write as Churm for McSweeney’s and at my paid blog at Inside Higher Ed (InsideHigherEd.com/Churm). The blog took a lot of time last year. Because I want to make the most of any publishing platform, I ran it as what I call a “creative nonfiction superblog,” a kind of Sunday magazine at the larger IHE site. I’ve done interviews, memoir-ish essays, all sorts of things. This year’s contract will reduce the load a bit, so I can work on other projects.
SP: Oh, I see. I thought Churm was getting chopped, but that makes sense. So is it fair to assume that those initial concerns you had about linking Oronte Churm to John Griswold, University of Illinois lecturer, no longer exist?
JG: If you mean, by “initial concerns,” job security, the concern still exists, of course. The very idea in having adjunct labor is a “flexible” work force, which can be dismissed as the institution’s needs change. If you mean do I intend to write a Barbara Ehrenreich-style expose of contingent labor issues, then the answer is probably not, which is reflected, I think, in my later dispatches.
SP: So the merger of the writing names is about to occur. Just curious about how “secret” Churm’s identity really was. Did friends know about it? Colleagues? I know I didn’t — until very recently, that is.
JG: Those to whom it would probably be of interest knew I was writing as Oronte.
SP: Any regrets or reservations about outing Oronte Churm?
JG: My only regret in revealing that I’m Churm is leaving behind that delicious feeling of being neglected and ignored.