Student Stories

JJ Austrian - 762

Finding the Joy: J.J. Austrian MFAC '14

Most writers can trace their writing history back to a moment when it all started. For J.J. Austrian, author of Worm Loves Worm, released by HarperCollins in January 2016, this moment occurred when he was very young.

“I wrote a version of King Kong, where King Kong lives and gets back to the island,” Austrian said. “I mean, when I was five, I hated the ending of that movie, I did not want King Kong to die, so that’s what I did.”

Austrian Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults (MFAC) '14 has spent a good deal of his life writing: working in television and film, writing scripts and spec scripts. But his first love, his true love, was always writing for middle-grade and young adults.

So it was somewhat of a surprise when he found himself in Hamline’s MFAC program writing a picture book about two worms who want to get married but don’t want to have to specify who is bride or groom. 

“I was going to focus on young adult books, middle-grade books—that’s what I loved and was familiar with. But I was really fortunate that, in my third semester, my advisor, Claire Rudolf Murphy, the amazing author, encouraged me to write a picture book,” Austrian said. “I did not want to write picture books—picture books are hard—but thank goodness Claire made me write it.”

Before he applied to Hamline, Austrian was living with his wife out in upstate New York . 

“What got me to Hamline is that Minnesotans are like salmon: they all come home to spawn,” Austrian said with a laugh. “My wife is a Minnesotan, and when my son was born she wanted to be closer to family.”

From there, the path to Hamline was fairly straightforward.

“I had been writing on my own, and I realized I needed to get better. I needed more,” Austrian shared. “I needed to learn the craft of writing, and my wife’s friend attended the program and was raving about it, and I looked at the faculty and was just amazed.”

“One of the amazing things that Hamline does is give you a community and a network of not only mentors, but allies,” Austrian said. 

That certainly seems to be true in his case. His professor urged him to write a picture book. Then, one of his advisors heard him read it and pitched it to an editor. That editor bought it.

“So this book literally exists all because of Hamline,” Austrian concluded.

It wasn’t only the faculty and their boosts to his professional life that Austrian loved about the program, though. His admiration for the faculty was mirrored by his admiration for his fellow students.

“Everyone here is in it for the right reason; they’re in it for the stories,” Austrian said. “They’re in it to help kids find themselves through books, through stories, and to be any small part of that is just a wonderful gift.”

And the friendships he forged during the program have lasted far past graduation.

“Writing is a lonely pursuit; you do it on your own. To have friends and allies who understand what you’re trying to do and can not only support you but help guide you—that’s invaluable,” Austrian said. “Some of my best friends are from this program.”

So what is next for Austrian? “I’m actually finishing up what was my creative thesis, which is a big YA fantasy; it’s called The Silver Coffin,” Austrian said. “I already have some people interested in it, thanks to Hamline.”

He also spoke about potential work outside of writing. “Now that I have an MFA, I’ve been asked to teach some workshops, and I feel that I can. Before this program, I would not have said yes to helping, but because of Hamline, I think I know what goes into teaching a good workshop and into teaching the craft of writing for young adults and children.”

And, of course, he said that he will always have a home at Hamline. “They have wonderful resources for alumni: they have alumni weekend, they bring in editors, they bring in agents, they do workshops for alumni. I mean, once you’ve been part of Hamline’s MFAC, you’re always part of it, and they’re always giving back.”

When talking about what he gained from Hamline, Austrian spoke of his own writing history: “So I’ve always been writing, and somewhere I think I lost the joy of writing; it became a business. And that’s probably the greatest gift Hamline’s given me, is I’ve found that love again. I found the fun in writing.”

“I just am so thankful to Hamline for helping me find that joy again.”

Find out more about Hamline’s MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults degree on the Creative Writing Programs website or contact Hamline's Graduate Admission Office to learn more about joining the Hamline community.