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Local author of ‘The Last Huck’ gives talk at library

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette J.D. Austin, author of “The Last Huck,” reads a chapter from his book during a presentation at the Portage Lake District Library Tuesday.

HOUGHTON — A Keweenaw author shared his work and told stories about his process during a presentation at the Portage Lake District Library Tuesday.

J.D. Austin’s debut novel “The Last Huck” came out last year. It tells the story of Jakob, his little brother Niklas and their cousin Peter, who grew up in the Keweenaw and later inherited their family’s berry farm. By that time, one of them is in prison, and another is desperate to sell the property after his losses in the 2008 financial crash.

After dropping out of college in 2019, Austin has worked as a kayak guide, ski technician at Mont Ripley and stage carpenter, among other jobs. He began writing the book four years ago, when he was 20.

Inspired by one of his literary heroes John Steinbeck, he decided to write a multi-generational saga to prove himself as a writer.

Austin, who grew up in a Catholic family in St. Louis, admitted he was coming to the culture as an outsider. He said he was fascinated with the Finnish people’s relationship with the land, and how it changed over time.

At a recent reading, he said, one audience member asked him “What gives you the right?”

“If I thought there was anything profound about Catholics in St. Louis, I would have written it … I came here, and I was like, ‘This is a place that’s worth spending four years and 200 pages on,'” he said. “It is at the end of the day, a labor of love, and a labor of respect. I put in my time and did my research. And at the end of the day, I think that’s what really makes it OK, in my mind.”

The audience member later bought his book, he said.

Some of his research came through talking with a neighbor of Finnish and Cornish descent in Liminga, who became one of the primary inspirations for a character in the novel. The neighbor also provided helpful context by tracking down a 40-page interview his father, a miner from Cornwall, gave to a journalist about his time in the mines and his life on the farm.

Looking back on the book four years after he started, Austin wished he’d done even more research into the culture.

Austin’s book was published by Modern History Press in Ann Arbor, where he worked with a continuity editor, proofreader and the president of the publishing company, who did a final read on the book. The editors helped him with logistics in areas where he had little knowledge base, such as the logistics surrounding parole.

In another instance, an editor corrected his description of a stand of cottonwood trees on high ground in the middle of the woods. Cottonwood trees are native to the area, but are usually found near moving water, the editor said.

“I learned a lot about forestry and then the natural sort of world around here,” he said.

In other areas, Austin successfully pushed back. Where one of his editors preferred to stick to one point-of-view character per chapter, Austin envisioned a kinetic style which he compared to a camera lens in TV. He appealed to publisher Victor Volkman, appending a David Foster Wallace essay on television’s influence on fiction.

“Victor Volkman, bless his heart, got back to me right away and was very cool about it, like ‘You’ve obviously done your research. I’m gonna let you have this one,'” he said.

Austin plans to write another longer book in a couple of years. First, he is working on a collection of short stories, which he hopes will come out in April.

The stories are his best work so far, he said.

“You can afford to be sloppy as a novelist,” he said. “You can’t take a paragraph off writing short stories. You can’t take a sentence off writing short stories.”

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