Interview with Michael Henson, author of Maggie Boylan
Updated: Nov 3
You’ve written multiple works of fiction and poetry. Which came first for you as a writer? Do you prefer working in one genre over another?
I’ve gone through different phases where I concentrate on one or the other. I find I can’t do both at the same time; the modes of thinking are so different. I actually swore off fiction at one time, only to come back to it after a few years. And I cannot really say which came first.
I wrote a few poems when I was in high school and college, but the first concentrated writing I did as a self-conscious writer was prose. The week I graduated from college, I began the novel which eventually, after ten years of writing and rewriting, became Ransack. Which do I prefer? Right now, I’m drawn to fiction, but it’s like asking which is your favorite child.
I can tell you, though, that I find it much harder to get the prose right. I can look at a poem I wrote years ago and I nearly always find it does exactly what I want it to do. But when I look at an old story, I nearly always want to start tinkering with it. There are just so many more ways for a story to go wrong; there are so many more words, so many more elements to track.
Your linked collection of stories, Maggie Boylan, explores meth and opioid addiction in Appalachia. In the book the reader rarely occupies Maggie’s perspective. The reader comes to know her as she “bumps up against the lives of other characters.” Can you speak to your choice of perspective in this work but also in general? How do you know when to occupy a character’s mind to tell their story and when to occupy someone else’s to tell that same story?
I think it might have to do with how I identify the idea for a story, because I’ll see something in life and try to start figuring it out. I’ll find myself going inside or outside a character’s head as I try to answer my questions. How does that person work? What makes this person be who she is? What’s going on in his head?
You worked as an addiction counselor, how much of your work is autobiographical? In what ways, if any, did events in your own life influence your portrayal of Maggie Boylan? Did the book set out to do what you intended or was there a specific intent?
When I started Maggie, I hoped it would somehow expose the perfidy of the Sacklers and their enablers and co-conspirators and that whole greed-driven enterprise. But the characters spoke up and let me know they wanted their stories to be primary. There are plenty of excellent books on the perfidious Sacklerians, so whatever I could have added as a writer of fiction would have been superfluous.
The job of story is story and the truth of story is in human engagement with life. I was given a great gift in my work as a counselor and community organizer in that I had a front row seat to one of the great dramas of our time. My job as a professional was to hear the stories that people were telling me, to help them identify the emotional core within these stories. and to help them move to something better.
My job as an artist, though, is to listen to the stories around me, to find the emotional core within those stories, and to transmute what I have been given into a form that will bear that resonant truth for others. The two processes are very similar in that sense. It always sounds strange to me when I hear people speak of doing research for a novel. Because it’s never a mechanical matter of gathering material. It’s a matter of finding the emotional core that leads to spiritual truth.
You are involved with Southern Appalachian Writer's Cooperative. Your writing clearly has a social significance and impact, is this purpose you came upon organically or did a specific event/(s) lead you to aspire to work more in the direction of social justice? What is your role in SAWC?
SAWC was started back in the Seventies by a core of writers interested in Appalachian literature. I’ve heard it said that the core founding principles were love of beer and opposition to strip mining. I came along later, so I can’t say that for sure. But it has the ring of truth, so I’ll put it out there. We get together once a year at the Highlander Research and Education Center and we hold smaller gatherings and readings through the year and we put out the annual journal Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, whose founding publisher Jim Webb recently passed.
SAWC is a wonderful collection of strange eccentric characters, and it’s helped carry me through. I had to miss the Highlander gathering a couple years back and I was miserable the whole year, so I’ve vowed never to miss again if I can help it. And now, we’re looking at this miserably-handled pandemic. We’ve already had to curtail meeting up at the Appalachian Studies Association in March. Will it be safe to meet in October? Not as long as the Trump administration is in power.
Going back to that first question, I find it much easier to talk directly about social justice issues through poetry, because when I speak in a poem, I’m speaking as myself. But in a story, I’m at the service of my characters. I think we’re finally getting over this notion that somehow literature and politics live in separate worlds and people understand now that the way we do literature has a lot to do with how we do our politics. These are both human activities; they use many of the same parts of our brains and internal systems. As a kid growing up in a small Ohio town, I saw how Black people and the poor were treated.
I was moved by the civil rights movement on the news. And I read: Albert Camus, Harry Caudill, James Baldwin, Michael Harrington, Sinclair Lewis. I was bullied a lot as a kid, basically every day from grade school through sophomore year. When I see people being pushed around, I understand it at a visceral level, at least as much as a middle-class white kid ever can.
So when I sit down to write, I’m not just bringing a set of skills I may or may not have learned, I’m also bringing all that anger, hurt, and shame to the table, all that aspiration to show the world I’m not worthless, as well as a sense of solidarity, an empathy with others who have been kicked around. I am constantly searching, through my writing, for a way to bring something of dignity back to those who have been deprived of it.
How do works like Maggie Boylan change or impact the conversation around addiction in Appalachia? Have you had any feedback from addicts regarding this work or professionals in substance abuse circles?
The addiction story is one of the more powerful stories of our time. And telling our story happens to be a key to recovery. My goal has always been to tell a human story, one that tells it as true as possible, that has all the difficulty and desperation that life brings us, and to find, within that story, some glimmer of hope.
That seems to be what people are seeing in Maggie. So I’m pleased. It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to know that I’ve been able to add something to the healing conversation.
What’s your process? More specifically, can you describe how/where you begin and how you move from one step to the next in completing a manuscript? Some people begin with an idea, while others discover the book as it unfolds.
When I’m writing a story, I generally have a notion of how it’s going to end, though I may not know how I’m going to get there. I’ll begin with a glimmer of a situation. I might see in my mind’s eye a guy sitting on a park bench. And I might see, as an end point, that he’s dancing in the middle of the street.
The process of writing that story is to somehow get him off that bench and into the street in a manner that’s not only believable, but transformative. I generally write in small increments, as little as one hundred words at a time, never taking it too far, always searching for the next plausible step. I find that to go further leads to just so many dead ends. I’ll start first thing in the morning, write my first one hundred words, then go do something else for a while.
Then hit another hundred, and so on through the day. I rarely hit more than five hundred in a day, rarely less than three. Hemingway spoke of how he would write until he really felt things were cooking and then he would stop. That way, he would not bleed out the psychic energy of the story and the story would continue to cook in the psychic background until he came back the next day.
What I do is something similar. But instead of writing all morning, it’s these short intervals of one hundred words. And I’m revising all along the way, so that as the writing on the page gets better, it feeds the next interval. Then, once I have something with the shape I feel it needs to have, I revise. And revise. And revise.
For most of my writing life, I’ve had to hold a full-time job, and often a second job, and I’ve had children to raise. And I’ve tried to be a decent husband. So I’ve learned to write in these small spaces, in small increments.
I’ve learned to write anywhere, and in any available amount of time. I’ve written over lunch breaks, during boring meetings where people thought I was taking detailed notes, late at night after everyone else has gone to bed. I’ve never let “I don't have time to write” be my excuse not to write. I’ve written whole novels at one hundred words a day.
I’ve heard it said there are two writing philosophies, one is to wait until an idea comes on its own. The other is to sit down and write each day even if you’ve no ideas. Do you have a tendency toward one or the other? Both? Do you think constant practice is necessary?
The artist Ben Shahn has a book called The Shape of Content which I strongly recommend to any artist in any genre. He is talking mainly about visual art, but the issues he raises are relevant, I think, to any artist working in any form.
In a chapter of advice to young artists, he says, over and over, “Paint, paint. Draw, draw.” You’ve got to just sit down and do it, whatever the it is you’re doing. Write ten stupid sentences if you have to. There will be one that’s a gem. To become practiced at any art, you have to put in the hours and you have to do the stupid stuff.
Once, to get through from one passage to another, I wrote the sentence, “The stalled cattle cars of his thought lay moaning on the tracks.” I don’t believe there has ever been a worse sentence written. I knew it was stupid when I wrote it. But it got me through. Paint, paint. Draw, draw. Write. Write. It’s the only way to become a writer.
I believe writers must be perpetual students. Where and/or from whom would you say you have learned and are learning most?
My first, and my best teachers have been the oral storytellers I grew up among. Some of these people could not themselves read or write, but they were practiced in an art so ancient and essential that it may have arisen along with humanity and could be considered as definitive of humanity itself.
When I worked as a drug and alcohol counselor an essential part of my job was to listen to (and interpret) stories. I still volunteer with homeless alcoholics and addicts in my neighborhood and, as I do, I’m constantly paying attention to how they shape their story. It’s fascinating and a great learning for a writer. I’ve also tried to continue to learn from the bookshelf writers, canonical and otherwise, from their writings and from what they say about writing.
Bob Dylan has that line, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” To stay busy being born is, I think, the only way to live. When I was starting out, I would read everything I could from a writer and then apply it to my writing. I did Hemingway. I did Faulkner. I did Agee. I did Morrison. It was a process of stealing some of their particular thunder and seeing if I could make it my own. I’ve never taken a creative writing course and I don’t know what I think about them. If they can help you find your own voice, then that’s great. But that’s the goal, or should be: to find your own true voice.
What would you say is your secret (or not so secret) talent?
At the age of sixty-five, I earned my black belt in Aikido, a martial art developed seventy or eighty years ago in Japan. The founder (o-sensei) Murehei Ueshiba, had a vision of using martial arts to bring peace to the world, so he devised a manner of self-defense in which we can protect ourselves without doing harm to the other. Before COVID, I was training five or six times a week. I’m also lead singer and guitarist for a Bluegrass band. I stay busy.
What advice do you have for young writers? Are there mistakes you made early in your career or things you’d have done differently? Are their habits you have now you wish you’d have started sooner? Habits that have always helped you create your best work?
I actually have an essay of advice for young writers that I wrote some years ago. Here, stripped of all the explanations behind each bullet, is what it said:
· Imitate slavishly.
· Write every day.
· Learn at least one other art.
· Have a life.
· Observe the world around you (and within you).
· Fall in love with words.
· Learn at least one other language.
· Learn the rules. Break the rules. Write new rules. Then break them.
· Write. Write. Write. Write. Revise. Revise. Revise. Revise. Then write some more.
· Live well and prosper.
If I had anything to add, it would be to pay more attention to the business of writing. As a young writer, I was too busy being pure, and I didn’t understand how once you start with small independent presses, you are slotted and it is very difficult to break out of the small press slot. So I missed some of the opportunities that could have allowed me to reach a wider readership.
Has COVID impacted your writing at all? In what way? How much would you say your daily life has changed as a result?
As writers, we have to work in isolation anyway. We don’t rely so much on theaters, galleries, concert halls, and so on. We work in private to create work that people engage in private. So the isolation required to combat COVID hasn’t really changed as much for us as writers as it has for other artists. Covid19 has actually given me a bit more time to write; I have fewer reasons for distraction. I’m increasing my daily word count.
If you could be a profession other than author, what would it be and why?
I’ve done a lot of other-that-author things in my time already. When I was twelve, my dad said, “Isn’t it time you got a job?” So I delivered papers. I had ninety papers to deliver in town, and ten out in the country. It was this great mix of classes and cultures. And every Friday night, I would go out and knock on doors to collect. Seven cents a day, six days a week: forty-two cents. All these conversations!
There was a pair of elderly ladies who showed me the working of a player piano. And there was another old woman who complained she got her paper late because I was lollygagging with them girls. Which was absolutely true.
There was a very pretty alcoholic woman with a house full of pissy, wailing babies. She never paid me, so I had to collect from her husband at the bar of the American Legion where he worked. He was always disgusted and embarrassed, so he slapped down a fifty-cent piece on the bar and told me to keep the change and never looked at me. What an education for a writer! I’ve been a schoolteacher, an adjunct professor, a farm hand, a page in the local library.
I worked three years in a paper bag factory. I spent a lot of years as a substance abuse counselor and a lot of years as a community organizer. My wife and I have organized a Bluegrass band. All of this feeds the writer in me. I was never a counselor who also wrote. I was a writer who supported himself by working as a counselor. I was always very conscientious as a professional; I trained and kept up on the standards of my profession, but writing has always been at the center of everything I’ve done.
What’s your favorite word?
What’s your favorite sound?
Human voices in Bluegrass harmony
What is your favorite place to write? If you have one?
My back pack is my office. I can write nearly anywhere and in nearly any situation. I have a desk, but I move all over the house. I’ll stop in the park and write on my way home from Kroger’s. The only thing that really tethers me to a specific space is access to a printer.
What author influences your work most? What physical environment? If any.
Author? James Agee is the author I’ve studied most closely. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is the nation’s most under-rated book and is our true epic poem, Song of Myself for the Twentieth Century. My writing does not look or sound much like Agee now; I passed that phase years ago. But his influence is in every sentence.
I feel a positive vibration that calls me in two directions. One is the rural earth; the other is the city. I look to the places where there is texture, where you can sense the history of the place in the shape of the stones. Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati, before it got gentrified, was a place where there were still iron rings fastened into the stone curbs for hitching your horses. Back home, I used to stop on my way home from delivering my papers at a little overgrown graveyard. Such places resonate for me. Put me in a suburban mall and I just want to die.
Do you believe it’s true we are all born geniuses and society beats it out of us by the time we’re adults?
Society does beat a lot out of us, but in my case, the beatings I took beat into me a determination to say my piece. While the world was beating into me that I was worthless, my family beat into me that I was worthwhile and I could accomplish great things.
So I think it goes both ways. What does make a difference, though, is practice. I know people who are naturally good at things, but they don’t want to put in the time to do anything with it. Whatever your level of natural gift, you still have to put in the hours. Natural gift helps. Coaching and education helps. But put in the hours.
How do you continue to write during tragedy or do you?
When my father was dying, the thought came to me that I should be taking close notes so I could write about my experience later. I quickly retreated from that. I decided, no, I just need to go through this experience. I need to live it.
I needed to be there for my father and not for his writer kid. We owe it to our loved ones to be fully there for them and not to be constantly milking experience for our next book. On the other hand, that does not mean we have to give up all hope of being the disciplined writer we have struggled to become.
I’ve found (and my wife will confirm this) that I’m not a particularly pleasant person to be around if I’m not writing. So, I’m duty-bound to write. Like everything else, the thing to do is find a balance.
Virginia Woolf and other writers were great walkers who took long walks while thinking of their ideas. Do you have an activity that helps you think?
There is a great little book called Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande in which she talks about the number of great writers who were also great walkers and goes on to speak of the relation of repetitive activity to the hidden psychic work of creativity. Not all the work of writing happens when we have a pen or a computer at hand.
As a side note, I find it interesting that so many of the great books on writing –Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write is another—are by people who are not known as great writers.
I walk my dog nearly every night. I also find that carpentry or working in a garden is great writing time. Same for Aikido and music. Even if I rarely think consciously about my writing, I come back to the desk feeling fresh and energized.
Finalist for the 2019 Weatherford Award in fiction
Michael Henson is author of four books of fiction and four collections of poetry and has worked as an addiction counselor and community organizer. His work has been published in Still: The Journal, Appalachian Heritage, and many other periodicals. He is a coeditor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the annual publication of the Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative.
Andréa Fekete is founder of Guest Room Press.