Helen Macdonald: Interview

Helen Macdonald: Interview

The day before our interview, Helen Macdonald tweets me: “Sudden need to assure you that I’m terribly cheerful in person :D.” And she is that: a warm, engaging presence, with whom conversation flows easily and merrily. However, her memoir, H is for Hawk, is anything but merry. It is a deep, dark work of terrible beauty that will open fissures in the stoniest heart.

The arteries of the book are these. In February 2007, as Macdonald was coming to the end of her tenure as a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, her beloved father died suddenly. Six months later, she drove up to a quayside in Scotland, handed over £800 in cash in exchange for a juvenile goshawk, and then drove it to her home in Cambridge, where she filled the freezer with hawk food and unplugged the phone.

It was a venture touched with madness, even for an experienced falconer. “I’d worked with birds of prey a lot. Merlins were my favourites: they’re tiny, the size of blackbirds or thrushes, and very friendly. I used to have one that sat on my toes while I watched television. Goshawks, I had never wanted anything to do with. Everything I’d read made them sound like complete psychos: bloodthirsty, and very hard to train. But I was a wreck after my Dad died. I started dreaming of goshawks, and decided I wanted to train one.”

In the wake of her father’s death, Macdonald also found herself thinking back to her hawk-obsessed childhood. “I was a small, slightly fearful girl, obsessed with birds . . . a watcher.” Aged six, she would try to sleep with her arms “folded behind my back like wings”, and when reciting the Lord’s Prayer in school assemblies, she would whisper “Dear Horus” instead of “Our Father”, in tribute to the falcon-headed Egyptian god.

Thirty years later, Macdonald finds herself sitting with a goshawk in her living room. She names her Mabel, from amabilis, meaning loveable or dear. “There’s a superstition among falconers that a hawk’s ability is inversely proportional to the ferocity of its name. Call a hawk Tiddles and it will be a formidable hunter; call it Spitfire or Slayer and it will probably refuse to fly at all.” With her “café-au-lait front, streaked thickly with cocoa-coloured teardrops, looking for all the world like some cappuccino samurai”, Mabel is a magnificent creature, a bird of fiercely concentrated intelligence who will play catch with balls of paper, but she is also a ferocious predator. “Living with a goshawk,” Macdonald tells us in the book, “is like worshipping an iceberg . . . what passes between us is not human.”

The edge

As Mabel’s training begins, so too does Macdonald’s solitary excavation of what she calls the “archaeology” of her grief. The pain is almost more than she can bear. She finds solace only in flying her hawk as she roams the landscape near her Cambridge home. “There was nothing that was such a salve to my grieving heart as the hawk returning.” Dark days follow. When Mabel starts to hunt and kill—pheasants, rabbits—Macdonald is constantly confronted with mortality, and taken to “the very edge of being human”. It is not a place for the squeamish. “Once goshawks immobilise their prey with their feet, there’s no reason to actually kill it; they just start eating. I couldn’t sit and watch that happen—my heart would have broken.” So she wrings the necks of pheasants and rabbits, and takes the carcasses home (“I’d rather eat hawk-caught food than things that have had a blind and crowded life in a barn or battery cage”).

Macdonald writes with authority about the complex nature of the English landscape, and in a section which UKIP supporters would do well to study, decries visions of that imaginary place known as Olde England. “I wanted to have a bit of shout about that because that image of a perfect English countryside is dangerous; it erases all the life in it, all the complicated, messy, animal interactions and the ecology.” Does she see herself as a modern nature writer in the tradition of Robert Macfarlane et al? “I could say that my book isn’t nature writing because it’s got swearing and brand names in it! But there’s a book called Sick of Nature by an American writer called David Gessner. In it, he says that there is too much quietness in modern nature writing. He thinks it should depict the struggle between humans and the wild; one spilling over into the other and vice versa. And I guess that’s what I was trying to do; talk about how notions of wildness, and of being human, inform each other.”

H is for Hawk—grief memoir, natural history, environmental manifesto—also delves biographically into the murky world of the writer T H White, best known for his Arthurian epic The Once and Future King. Aged eight, Macdonald reads The Goshawk, White’s book about his own attempts to train a gos. She devours it, but it makes her cross, because White talks about the bird “as if it were a monster”. Her adult research into his life (she even visits the Texas archive that holds his letters and journals) reveal a strange and unpleasant man, whose troubled, twisted soul bore the deep scars of an abusive childhood. But she finds herself sharing his desire to escape to the wild. “Living with the hawk day after day, I became closer and closer to a wild, feral creature,” she writes.

Deep symbolism

Her bloodthirsty goshawk constantly reminds Macdonald she is all too alive, but also packs a deep symbolism. Holding a hawk’s jesses—a strap used by falconers as a tether—is a way of holding tight to things lost: her twin brother who died at birth. Her late father. Her sanity, perhaps. She tries to rebuild herself as a hawk, a creature which is everything she wants to be: “solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life”. She takes comfort in the thought that, as ancient shamanic religions believed, hawks are messengers between this world and the next. “I wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father and bring him home”. Eventually, her grief subsides.

“A woefully inadequate question this”, I say, “but was writing this book a kind of therapy?” Macdonald thinks hard for a moment, then answers by referring to the book’s title. “H is for Hawk is kind of a pun: H is also for Helen and we sort of became this merged being, Mabel and I. But the childishness of the title also alludes to the fact that this book is about an education. I was new to a world I didn’t have any language for; I had to learn things about life and love and death I didn’t know before. I was writing a primer for myself about how to deal with the dark days after my father died. About how you just have to wait, and be patient. And then eventually, you grow into a person who can bear it.”

Despite the trace of tears which occasionally appear around her clear blue eyes, Macdonald is a survivor, a woman who—in her own words—“lashed herself to the mast like in the myths, and waited for the sea to calm”. Back in port, and now the keeper of a Conure parrot, she has produced one of the most eloquent accounts of bereavement you could hope to read: a book I predict will win prizes. A grief memoir with wings.


Publication: 07.08.14
Format: HB/EB
ISBN: 9780224097000/ 9781448130726
Rights Sold: US: Grove Atlantic. Italy: Einaudi
Editor: Dan Franklin
Agent: Jessica Wollard, The Marsh Agency


1970: Born in Chertsey, Surrey
1990-1993: BA in English Literature, New Hall, University of Cambridge
1995-1999: Worked in falcon conservation, including at breeding projects in Wales
1999: MPhil in the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge
2000-present: Works variously as a freelance writer, poet, College Research Fellow and a teacher