Since the 1980s, Michael Henson has counseled addicts and alcoholics for various local organizations, including the Talbert House. In retirement he has become a full-time writer and part-time musician, but he remains vitally connected to the issues that framed his long counseling career. For Henson, the transition to writing was natural.
“I got paid to have people tell me stories,” he says, during an interview at the Coffee Exchange of Pleasant Ridge. “A lot of what happens in the healing process is telling and hearing stories. My academic training was in literature, and a lot of what you do there is learn to interpret stories.”
Henson’s counseling and life experiences have long been grist for his writing mill; early works like Ransack and Tommy Perdue were centered around addiction. His new book, Maggie Boylan (Ohio University Press), is a story collection where the connective tissue is the title character, a strong-willed, conniving Oxycontin addict in rural Appalachian Ohio. Henson notes that Maggie Boylan is a composite, based on the totality of his professional and personal observations.
Henson will debut his new book Friday at the Mercantile Library, sharing a program called “Appalachia: Two New Takes on Fiction” with Kentucky author Robert Gipe, whose Weedeater: An Illustrated Novel (also Ohio University Press) is the follow-up to Trampoline: An Illustrated Novel.
“It wasn’t just what I saw or heard as a counselor, it was also friends and reading the newspaper and hearing the news,” Henson says of the inspiration for Maggie Boylan. “The book is dedicated to the son of a friend who died of an overdose. Yes, it’s (from) the counseling, but it’s also just living in this world and knowing people in the city and the country who are dealing with these issues.”
Henson’s writing is impacted by his outreach work within the Appalachian community. He was a founding member of the Urban Appalachian Council in 1974 and worked for the group off and on for 13 of its 28 years. The council closed briefly but was revived as the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition, which is the host sponsor for the Appalachian Studies Association Conference occurring here Thursday through Sunday and based at the Millennium Hotel.
The theme of the conference is “Re-stitching the Seams: Appalachia Beyond its Borders.” Activities include local tours, a film festival, and panels on a variety of topics including community health and Appalachian music. Some events are open to the public, such as a Saturday night showcase of musical and literary talent at Aronoff Center for the Arts’ Jarson-Kaplan Theater. For more info, visit appalachianstudies.org.
“My band, Carter Bridge, will be playing on Thursday night at Herzog Studio, showcasing local Bluegrass talent,” Henson says. “And during the conference, I’ll be doing a panel on writing about the opiate crisis, reading from my work for another panel and coordinating a table for the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative so we can get our work out and let people know what we’re doing.”
The conference has a broad agenda and sets some historic precedents; it’s the first time that a community group and not a university has hosted it. “That’s significant,” Henson notes. “It’ll be a busy time.”
Maggie Boylan raises questions about law enforcement’s role in the opioid crisis. Shady officers and corrupt officials crop up in the book’s storylines. While Henson believes certain aspects of the legal system are culpable, he’s quick to give credit where it’s due.
“I didn’t want to paint a totally negative picture, because there are heroic efforts happening by law enforcement,” he says. “I work with a community group called Mt. Washington Cares! and law enforcement is part of our effort. We have an officer who’s been a part of the countywide effort, and he started out with a lock-them-up attitude. He’s come around to say that we can’t arrest our way out of this problem. He’s been a major part of the effort to get needle exchange programs, quick response teams and other more holistic responses to the drug problem.”
Henson wanted to address the responsibility of pharmaceutical companies in fueling the opioid epidemic in Maggie Boylan, but the narrative just didn’t steer that way.
“I had hoped to expose the nefariousness of the corporate structures that brought this crisis to us, but the story wouldn’t allow for that,” he says. “The characters just wanted to tell their stories; they didn’t want to deal with all that political stuff.
“I do writing about that in other ways, though,” he continues. “I’ve got a book of essays on poverty and addiction that I’m trying to sell called Hammered, and I blog for an online magazine called The Fix about addiction and recovery. I’ve written essays where I’d like you to support needle exchange or expansion of treatment, and I think it’s crazy that we’re cutting Medicaid when we’ve had a 25 percent increase in overdose deaths in this county in the last year.
“Telling stories, writing stories, is kind of archaic. If I was trying to be effective, I’d be doing a podcast or creating a game you play with your thumbs.”
There’s no resolution in Maggie Boylan. Like the opioid crisis, an end has not presented itself. Henson will continue to document the fictional lives and real-life struggles of people whose existence is plagued by addiction, and he’s begun a book that could feature one of his heroic cops from Maggie Boylan as its lead character.
Henson retired with the intent of never counseling again but rather addressing addiction from a global perspective through his writing. He hopes Maggie Boylan hits its mark in a variety of ways.
“In counseling, it’s a one-on-one thing and you’re patching people up all the time,” he says. “I got tired of patching people up and I wanted to see a social response. It’s my hope that people see Maggie Boylan as a work of art. When I sit down to do these stories or poems, I try to think as an artist, and an artist doesn’t come up with solutions, an artist comes up with questions.”
Michael Henson will appear at The Mercantile Library (414 Walnut St., Downtown) at 5 p.m. Friday. It’s free and open to all. To attend, email [email protected]