Henson’s debut novel focuses on healing through art

Published 2:57 pm Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Local writer Robby Henson released his first novel “Loud Water” on Aug. 28, a story following a prison inmate who seeks redemption through art.

The book is published by Down & Out Books, and is available through Amazon and other national outlets like Barnes and Noble. It’s also being sold locally, with signed copies at Plaid Elephant Books in Danville.

Henson is a screenwriter, filmmaker and artistic director of Pioneer Playhouse in Danville. He received his master’s degree in fine arts from New York University’s graduate film school. He’s written and directed several documentaries for PBS as well as five feature films – “The Badge,” “Pharaoh’s Army,” “The Visitation,” “House” and “Thr3e.”  His films have been at festivals like Sundance, and he’s a member of the Writers Guild of America.

Email newsletter signup

He currently teaches screenwriting at the University of Kentucky, and is a program director of an arts-behind-bars class called Voices Inside. He goes to Northpoint Prison every other week to teach writing and performance skills to the incarcerated.

Henson said that teaching this program partially inspired the book, as he’s heard many stories from incarcerated individuals; however, the book is not based on a true story about one specific person.

“I constantly get to hear stories from those who are incarcerated, and that clearly helped with the subject matter I was writing,” Henson said.

A synopsis of the book says that it “details the gritty and redemptive story of Crit Poppwell. Eight years into a 15-year prison sentence, Crit finally discovered something he was good at, besides destroying his family and abusing drugs. He found art. The solitary act of drawing, painting and creating brings a calmness and separation from the prison chaos. A dreadlocked Dominican nun who teaches art classes behind-bars encourages Crit to paint the “truth in things.”  She even helps him parole out, back to Breathitt County where his brother is the reigning crystal meth kingpin and his ex-wife wants him dead for an unforgivable past crime that haunts his every heartbeat forward.”

“Crit returns to his Appalachian hometown with ringing tinnitus in his ear from a prison brawl, and a desire to change his DNA. But he soon meets a hot-mess substance abuser and her son, and his reluctant, then fully committed desire to help her puts him in the crosshairs of his brother’s wrath. Can Crit flush the past from his blood and bones and use his newfound creativity to change his life and save others? Or die trying.”

Henson describes the book as a “character study with crime story elements,” and “country-noir,” since the setting is Eastern Kentucky. He said people who have read it enjoy the characters, and people can understand them.

“It’s very much close to people in Kentucky who are living on the edge, who are a couple of paychecks away from disaster; I think Kentucky readers will certainly recognize these characters,” Henson said.

While his sister Heather Henson is locally known to write children and young adult books, Robby said his book is for adults. Due to its more adult themes and mentions of drugs, he said he would rate “Loud Water” as PG-13 or above.

The book was also inspired by an idea from Charles Shouse, an Eastern Kentucky filmmaker from Breathitt County. Henson said he worked on the story with Shouse to originally be a screenplay.

“I always believed in the screenplay, but it became increasingly hard to get movies made,” Henson said. “I really believed in that story of hard-earned redemption of an inmate who chooses creativity, and I decided to morph it into a novel.”

He said writing a book is much different than a screenplay. For a screenplay, the visual and emotional aspects are more up to directors and actors to create, but in a novel, the author has to paint scenes with words and go deeper with characters.

“Screenplays are written in much more shorthand, it’s more dialogue-heavy; action, description in screenplays is very brief, and in novels you’re really trying to create a whole world that you can go down more cul-de-sacs, and explore human psychology a little more deeply,” Henson said.

As “Loud Water” is his first novel, Henson said the writing style was tough for him to figure out, but he believes he did it well. He also said it wasn’t easy finding a publisher, and he got many rejections. He eventually got a yes from Down & Out Books, which publishes mainly crime fiction.

Henson said he’d love for the book to eventually be turned into a movie, since many films are adapted from books. He plans to keep writing screenplays and some plays for Pioneer Playhouse as well.

Henson will be doing a book reading and signing at the Boyle County Library on Sept. 21 at 6:30 p.m. Another book signing will be at the Carnegie Center in Lexington on October 12 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.