THE COLUMN:

OFFBEAT OREGON HISTORY: A weekly newspaper column that has evolved into a suite of public-history resources, including:

  • ... a daily podcast
  • ... a weekly RSS feed
  • ... a social-media community
  • ... talks and lectures
  • ... a browsable Web archive (465 columns, at last count)

It's accessed through a hub page, linked here.


 

THE BOOK:

WICKED PORTLAND: A book about the late-1800s underworld of Portland, Oregon, including ...

  • Rascally politicians
  • Saloons and gambling dens
  • Naughty ladies of every description
  • Shanghai artists and their victims (and would-be victims)
  • Corrupt cops and mayors
  • The world's dumbest-ever drug smugglers

Published by The History Press in June 2012. Here's a link to the "lost chapter" (cut from the book for lack of space); the main web site for the book is here.


 

THE PUBLISHING HOUSE:

PULP-LIT PRODUCTIONS is my trans-media publishing company, specializing in hardcover, softcover, e-book and audiobook editions of omnibus collections of classic pre-war pulp fiction stories by such authors as H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard. Full details and catalog can be found here, at pulp-lit.com.


 

ME:

ABOUT ME: Everything you need to know, and a bunch of extra stuff you don't, about Yours Truly is on the left side of this page. And if that's not enough ... here's a link to my most recent curriculum vitae (Interactive PDF; also available in e-book [EPUB or Kindle] and hardcover).

 

 

 

 

NOT-SO-BRIEF BIO

Introducing myself:

Finn John, writer and editor -- mugshot
Finn J.D. John photobombing a 1908 illustration of
"Futuristic Air Travel" by the great Harry Dart.

 

Updated: October 2017

Hello tigers! I'm Finn J.D. John. But, you knew that, so let's move on. And by that I do mean “move on.” As in “Nothing to see here.” You're not seriously interested in all this crap, right? Life is short! Those "I Dream of Jeannie" reruns aren't gonna watch themselves, you know! ... you're still here? OK, fine, let's do this.

I bill myself as a college teacher, author, publisher, audiobook narrator, and public historian. That's a mouthful and it's hard to deliver it without making it sound like so much dilletante-y mush. Trust me, it fits together. I'm not sure how, but it does.

I run three basic rackets. Two of them pay me money; the third doesn't yet, but I have high hopes.

Racket One provides health insurance: it's my day job as an instructor in the New Media Communications department at Oregon State University. It also provides intellectual oxygen -- teaching undergraduates keeps me constantly in touch with a whole community of brilliant people, both colleagues and students. I've learned probably more from my students than they've learned from me. That's the power of collective intelligence. I may be the most knowledgeable person in my classroom, but the knowledge of 30 undergraduates dwarfs mine like a monster truck looming over a Fiat Cinquecento.

Racket Two also makes money. It's Pulp-Lit Productions, a trans-media publishing house specializing in pumping out omnibus collections of classic pulp titles across multiple platforms. People like this, especially the audiobook part, and buy my books. It's nice. There is no way I could afford a $700-a-day cocaine habit on a college teacher's salary. Oops, did I say that out loud?

Racket Three is my original "side hustle," started way back in 2008 when I first bid the world of professional journalism a tearful goodbye and set out on my quest to get more educateder (details below). It's Offbeat Oregon History, "A Public-History Service for the State We Love," which despite its silly name has grown into a franchise of which I'm pretty proud. If I knew what was good for me I'd drop it and focus on the money-making rackets, but I guess I don't. Plus, I have to do something to keep myself entertained.

I live in a rustic tenement tucked deep in a soggy forest glen outside of Lewisburg, in a place that reminds me of H.P. Lovecraft's description of the hills outside Arkham in "The Colour out of Space," with my wife, Natalie, and our 17-year-old son, Nate, as well as two lazy and useless cats, two loud and obnoxious beagles, and 20,000 mice.

The early stuff

I was born in the Willamette Valley in the late 1960s, and grew up in a deep, primordial forest pretty similar to the one I live in now, located six miles outside the tiny timber town of Molalla, just down the road from Wilhoit Springs. That was during the “good times,” when good-paying jobs as a logger or mill worker were practically there for the asking. Of course, it couldn’t last. We were cutting trees way too fast; sooner or later we’d run out. We did before I entered the workforce, which is probably lucky for me or I'd probably have spent my whole life pulling green chain.

But before that could happen, my family moved to Beaverton, and a couple years later to southeast Portland — where I went to high school. So when you hear about the “urban-rural divide” in Oregon, well, I can tell you something about both sides. (I've never lived east of the Cascades, though, so you “dry-siders” are on yer own. You lucky schmucks. I especially love Lake County.)

I was furloughed — er, that is, I graduated from the University of Oregon in 1991, just after Ballot Measure 5 delivered the second installment of a one-two punch to the Oregon economy — the first was the virtual shutdown of the state’s independent timber cutting and processing outfits in the late 1980s. Big outfits like Weyerhaeuser and Willamette Industries were fine; they owned huge tracts of forestland; their supply was unaffected. But smaller “gyppo” operations, and even some large and mid-size operators like Bohemia Inc., Lane Plywood, WTD Industries and W.A. Woodard, couldn’t keep up without access to public timberlands. One by one, they sold out to the big dogs or simply shut down.

Newspaper career

After graduating, I went into the timber industry myself, after a fashion. I landed a gig as a reporter for the Silverton Appeal-Tribune — which was printed on paper made in Oregon City. Basically, I got the job because I was willing to do it for $6.93 an hour. It sure didn't feel like the start of a lucrative career ... and it wasn't. But it WAS the beginning of a career in newspapers, and I spent the next 17 years trying to figure out how to do it right — with a four-year interruption from '96 to 2000 during which I first launched a successful real-estate advertising magazine, then ditched it and bought and was financially ruined by an ultimately unsuccessful “regular” magazine, tried and failed to turn myself into a Volvo salesman, and finally came crawling back to newspaper journalism when a gig opened up in Cottage Grove. Over that 17 years I worked as a staff writer or editor at the Cottage Grove Sentinel, The Springfield News, the Corvallis Gazette-Times, the Albany Democrat-Herald and the (Orcas) Islands' Sounder, and as a correspondent for the Salem Statesman Journal, Eugene Register-Guard and New York Post.

By 2008, though, I knew I needed to make a change. Increasingly, I felt like the loggers had in the late 1980s. My industry was changing — and shrinking — fast. Also, I was feeling none too secure at work, where my longtime and much-admired boss, Rob Priewe, had been shot out on his ear and replaced with a fellow who, I knew, already thought of me as a loose cannon. He was wrong, but you can spend half your life trying to change other people's opinions about you and all you end up doing is hurting yourself; people's first impressions represent substantial investments of time and ego, and trying to convince someone to walk away from that investment is a losing game. I needed to leave before the door hit me on the taff rail, not after. So I started looking for grad-school options. I wanted to take my nonfiction writing to the next level — I wanted to get into writing books.

I ended up in the literary nonfiction program at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, headed by Professor Lauren Kessler (Dancing with Rose; Stubborn Twig; Clever Girl; Happy Bottom Riding Club; Full Court Press; After All These Years; When Words Collide). Lauren, in whose fan club I proudly claim membership and have for years, was doing exactly the kind of work I wanted to learn to do.

Offbeat Oregon: The Spawning

When I left the journalism racket, I felt the need to hang onto something from it. It had been 20 years since I'd lived a deadline-free life, and frankly, I didn't think I was ready for such a big step. So I went to my boss — the new guy who didn't trust me — and hit him with this pitch. I would contribute a column every week to the paper, which he could pay me for as a stringer. It would be on the subject of weird, funny stories from Oregon state history — stuff like the exploding whale in Florence. This was an idea I'd tumbled to on a weekend trip to the beach, and the more I'd thought about it, the better it seemed. After a couple years of cranking out a weekly column, I'd know more about Oregon history than anyone I knew, and at that point, by Godfrey, I could haul off and write a book!

Thus was born the "Historic Oregon" column, which in December turned into the Offbeat Oregon History franchise.

Offbeat Oregon turned out to be the source for my final project for my master's degree, too. While doing some research for a column in 2009, I learned that one of the U.S. presidents lived in Oregon once. Actually, he grew up here, from age 11 to 17. His name: Herbert Hoover.

Somewhat disappointed that it wasn’t a more glamorous ex-president, I followed up to find out more about Hoover’s time in Oregon — and stumbled onto one of the best kept secrets of American history. As it turns out, this “boring, stodgy” ex-president actually was personally responsible for saving more people’s lives than Hitler and Stalin took — most likely, five to seven times more.

The man himself estimated his "life toll" at 1.4 billion, in the course of two world wars and one massive war-induced famine. That may be high, but the actual number is certainly no lower than 500 million.

Then he went on to become the president who was driving the bus when the Great Depression broke out. He came to represent not the concrete facts of what he’d achieved, but the abstract blather of a political viewpoint — to become, in essence, the darling of the anti-Roosevelt folks. And that’s his popular image even today: People may not remember the rescue of Belgium, Germany, Austria and Russia from starvation, but they sure remember living in a Hooverville, eating Hoover Hogs (armadillos), riding in a Hoover Cart (car with no fuel in it, pulled by a donkey) and sleeping under a Hoover Blanket (newspaper).

Now, except for historical interest, I couldn’t give two hoots about the New Deal one way or the other. But I do recognize this as an unfair characterization of this man.

For my project, I produced a book proposal and two sample chapters of the project that I'm still working on today (late 2013): the story of Hoover’s first foray into life-saving, in German-occupied Belgium in 1914. Few people know it, but everyone should. Regardless of your politics, it has to make you a bit proud to know that the person who holds the world record for life-saving — throughout all of history — is an American.

Sigh. One of these days I'll get around to finishing up that project. It went onto hiatus in 2011 or so, in anticipation of the 100-year anniversary of the war (when a bunch more scholarship would come out) and I just got busy with other things.

Anyway, here's a link to the old project. It's tentatively titled America's Most Hated Hero. And if you'd like to see the state of my Mad Web Design Skillz circa 2011, well, check it out. I haven't updated it since then.

(This page, that you're reading now, dates from 2012. Someday I'll remodel it too.)

Teaching

After clinching the SECOND degree from the University of Oregon, I lucked into my dream gig — at my alma mater's arch-rival, Oregon State University. Since then, I have become a self-proclaimed Naturalized Citizen of Beaver Nation (much to the dismay of Natalie, who remains a proud Duck). My opportunity came about when legendary journalism teacher Pam Cytrynbaum left to take a job at Northwestern University in Chicago. They needed somebody, and needed him fast; and I was available and ready to go.

From both professional-development and personal-fulfilment standpoints, this has been one of the best things that has ever happened to me. Given the choice between that lucky break, and a $5 million Lottery win, I would probably ... pick the Lottery win, of course. But, I would probably have to think about it a bit. It was that big.

The new gig encouraged me — no, required me — to develop expertise in both theoretical and practical aspects of new media and social media, which I was almost wholly ignorant of in September of 2010. I was an old-media warhorse, of the sort that kind of flooded the job market about a year later when the hard times started to really hammer the newspaper world. I knew if I were going to keep my job, I would need to develop some skills, quick.

Luckily, I had a franchise that I could use to develop those skills in the real world: my newspaper column. I had turned it into a syndication service in December 2008, and had been quietly pumping out a column a week since that time; a few months later I'd called upon my mid-1990s-class HTML coding skills and produced a horribly dated Website for them. I'd created a Facebook page, too, and even a Twitter feed; but wasn't doing anything with either of them.

I started doing things with them. And I started adding stuff in. The podcast was the first, and best idea. I launched it in 2011, sitting in my chair and dorkily reading my column into the butt end of my twenty-dollar Droid X cell phone. It sounded awful. But I did it every weekday, and I subscribed to my own feed and listened to it in rotation with the other podcasts I listened to (“dogfooding,” it's called) and it was kind of amazing how quickly I got better and better. To the point where, when the opportunity to get into audiobooks came up, I was already sounding fairly professional.

Basically, starting right around the beginning of 2011, Offbeat Oregon History went from being a newspaper column with an archival Website, to a trans-media public-history resource with a hub page feeding out into its various channels (RSS newsreader feed, iTunes daily audio podcast, a Facebook page with about 5,000 "likes," an auto-posting Twitter feed, and a few other things). Along the way, I tried and abandoned a few other things: a YouTube channel (I can't edit video and ain't got time to learn), a Tumblr blog, a fleet of Pinterest boards, etc.) — with a newspaper column attached (which, although easily overlooked, is the core of the franchise).

The first book

In mid-2011 I took a break from my then-active Herbert Hoover project to produce a pop-history book on what you might (had you a sufficiently dirty mind) call the “naughty bits” of late-1800s Portland. The result was Wicked Portland: The Wild and Lusty Underworld of a Frontier Seaport Town, published in June of 2012 by The History Press. (The audiobook version, produced and narrated by Yours Truly, was released in January 2014.) It was an utterly unmitigated pleasure to research and write. I had an absolute ball. And it introduced me to some of the real treasures of the history world — specifically, the University of Oregon Special Collections Reading Room, the OSU Archive, the City of Portland Archives and, oh yes, most definitely the Oregon Historical Society library.

History shows and lectures

For a few years after the book came out I made a regular practice of presenting public pop-history lectures — one-hour multimedia presentations on interesting bits of Oregon history, accompanied by a slideshow of historic photographs, visual wisecracks and gags, and pop-culture references — at the Jack London Bar, located beneath the Rialto Poolroom at Fourth and Alder streets in downtown Portland, on the first Tuesday of each month. I ganged up with four other pop-history mavens: Heather Arndt Anderson (author of Portland: A Food Biography and several other books); Doug Kenck-Crispin (resident historian and author of the Kick Ass Oregon History podcast); Joe Streckert (author and producer of the Weird History Podcast); and Joshua "J.B." Fisher (author of Portland on the Take: Mid-Century Crime Bosses, Civic Corruption and Forgotten Murders). We had a great time doing this, and performing in front of a live audience did wonders for my stage presence in the classroom ... alas, all good things have to end sometime, and for us, the fire that ravaged the Rialto in 2016 was that end. The place was rebuilt as a jazz club, and in the classy, cosmopolitan phoenix that arose from the Jack London's ashes there was no room for edgy, F-bomby history lectures. We may yet find a new venue, but my sense right now is that everyone is on to new things.

What's next?

OK, this is a temporary placeholder note ... I just discovered that I hadn't updated this page since 2013 and, well, stuff has happened since then. So, I've spent the whole morning on this, and now it's time to go to work and make some money (Racket No. 1). I'll finish this little introduction up either tonight after I get back or tomorrow morning. Until then, go out and fill up the rest of today with good stuff, k? thxbai!

So, there you have it. My story. And if it held your interest all the way to the bottom, we must have a few things in common. Drop me a line sometime at finn (a) finnjohn [.] com — and tell me yours!

—fz

P.S. One other thing. If you're looking for a more formal introduction to me and what I do, chances are you skipped straight to the bottom of this page looking for a link to my C.V. If so, here you go!