TCR Talks with Helen Macdonald

By Kaia Gallagher

Hailed as one of the fifty best memoirs in the past fifty years by The New York Times [1], H is for Hawk catapulted Helen Macdonald to fame as a prize-winning author. Trained as a naturalist, Macdonald is a writer, poet, illustrator, filmmaker, and an Affiliate Research Scholar at the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science. In her best-selling memoir, Macdonald combines the eye of a scientist with the lyricism of a gifted writer as she recounts how she overcame her grief over the death of her father by training a goshawk she named Mabel.

After H is for Hawk won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, Macdonald helped make the film 10 X Murmuration with Sarah Wood. In 2017, she narrated a BBC Natural World documentary which followed her as she trained a goshawk named Lupin. A passionate environmentalist and bird enthusiast, Macdonald is currently researching a new book on albatrosses. In this interview, she describes her writing process and her views regarding falconry, environmentalism, and the importance of maintaining a connection to the natural world around us.

The Coachella Review: In H is for Hawk, you have a gift for bringing your goshawk Mabel alive by capturing her instincts, her moods, and the bond you shared with her. As a writer, what techniques did you use to be able to view the world through a hawk’s eyes?

Helen Macdonald: I tried to capture, as well as I could, what it might like to be a creature with astonishing visual acuity and a nervous, predatory disposition: there’s no way we can really know what the world is like for a hawk, but my grief-spurred identification with Mabel that year made me a strangely hybrid creature; I lived through her in so many ways, for she seemed to be all the things I wanted to be. She could take flight from difficulty, she was hypervigilant, powerful and marvelously moody, and lived in the present moment only, with no regret or guilt or grief. It was actually strangely easy to write her; I used a lyrical, richly visual language, and staccato, short sentences to try and communicate her phenomenal world. I kept falling into using a faintly Shakespearean lexis and the kinds of phrases more familiar from lyric poetry, and it seemed quite a natural thing to do. Writing about my own experiences, in particular my father’s death and my everyday life during that year was far harder. I’d write and rewrite those sections, but the parts about Mabel were generally untouched after I put them down on the page.

TCR: H is for Hawk recounts your struggle to come to terms with your father’s death. In what ways did your experience in training your goshawk Mabel help you to find your way out of depression?

HM: It’s not a book that sees a goshawk as a solution to grief. It’s not “I was sad, I got a hawk, then I was happy.” I think one of the reasons I felt compelled to keep a goshawk was that they are legendarily hard to tame. Some part of me knew that there was no way I could tame the grief inside me, but I knew I could train hawks. It’s extremely hard work, involving deprivation and solitude for the trainer—things I also cleaved to—but it’s done with the utmost gentleness and entirely through positive reinforcement. It was a radical way of taking my mind off myself, a flight from humanity. One of the ways the book has been described since its publication is as a trip to the underworld and back, and that seems to me an amazing way of explaining the kind of journey that I was on, and the stakes involved.

TCR: At one point in your training of Mabel, you recognize that you were blurring the boundaries between her animal essence and your humanity. How can a better understanding of birds teach us what it means to be human?

HM: I ended up identifying with Mabel so much that I lost sight, just a little, of what it meant to be human. But I realised, slowly, that I had made a great and terrible mistake, and it’s one we all make with animals all the time. Goshawks are, at heart, just chickens with talons. But over centuries we’ve given them this weight of meaning that is all about death and destruction and murderous power. What Mabel did, eventually, was to show me that once you understand that what we see in an animal is mostly meaning that we have put there, it’s possible to look past those human things and see a real, live, creature, with its own bewitching self, its own needs, feelings, relationship with the world. The fact that Mabel was so different from me, and yet we shared this astonishingly close bond, was deeply moving and I think an important lesson in terms of the way we relate to other people too. We’re either scared of the Other or assume people are exactly like us. It’s never either of those things, of course. Working towards understanding difference, and learning to love it, fiercely, is part of what the book is all about.

TCR: Throughout your memoir H is for Hawk, you contrast the way you trained Mabel with the less successful steps taken by T.H. White as described in his book The Goshawk. How did this comparison allow you to explore the motivations that inspire someone to take on the difficult task of training a goshawk? 

HM: White is a fascinating person. Like me, he saw himself in his goshawk, and battled himself through it. He made a really bad job of it. My book wasn’t interested in crowing about that — his story is instructive because it’s a reminder that people can visit great harm upon others without even realising it, despite having the best of intentions. White wasn’t given any of the tools to know how to love and care for himself, and other creatures suffered as a result, not just him.

TCR: Your book, H is for Hawk, is an eloquent statement about the importance of having a connection to nature. What do humans lose as our lives becomes more urbanized and the natural world is more difficult to access?

HM: We lose a lot of things simpliciter. The world I grew up in is not the world I exist in now in really obvious ways. We’ve lost nearly 400 million birds from Europe since I was born, and the precipitous decline in insects over the last few decades is beyond alarming. There’s far, far less life around us, which is heartbreaking on a human level quite apart from being terrifying on an ecological scale. There are innumerable things we lose when this happens. One of them is simply that we are increasingly alone with ourselves. Interacting with and living around wild creatures reminds us that we are not the be-all and end-all of all that is. That the world is not for us alone.

TCR: Has your book, H is for Hawk, and the associated film projects in which you have been involved helped to spark a renewed interest in hawks and falconry?

HM: This was something that worried quite a few people in the falconry community when the book came out. In the UK, Ken Loach’s film Kes, about a working-class boy training a kestrel, spurred a falconry craze in the 1960s. But concerned falconers were reassured because this doesn’t seem to have happened at all with H is for Hawk. Maybe I made falconry look so difficult and miserable that people were put off the idea! But I have had so many gratifying messages from people who have read the book and told me it’s made them notice birds properly for the first time—not just hawks—and has made them see these creatures in a new way. That makes my heart soar.

TCR: In light of current trends regarding global warming and climate change, what role can writers play in calling attention to the impact that these earth changes are having on the world around us?

HM: All that they can do, they should do. Must do.

TCR: Could you tell us about your current writing projects and the essays you are working on about our relationship to the natural world?

HM: The essay collection, Vesper Flights, gathers together many of the pieces I’ve written over the last five years for The New York Times Magazine, New Statesman, and other magazines. But it also includes a lot of new material, and it’s not all about the natural world. There’s a piece about Star Wars in it, for example. Watch this space!  

TCR: You have also said that you’re working on a book about albatrosses. How does your experience in writing this latest book compare to that of H is for Hawk?

HM: It’s a book about albatrosses, environmental guilt, love, and the end of the world. Full eschatological! I’m focusing the story on Midway Atoll. Recently, I had the honour of spending a month there as a volunteer counter in their yearly albatross census. We counted nearly 680,000 pairs on this remote island. It used to be a Naval Air Station, and of course has an important history in the Pacific War. I’m still researching the book and hope to return to Midway this winter. One way in which this book differs from H is for Hawk is that it’s not being written years after the events took place. And despite the ecological apocalypse we’re living through, I’m far less miserable than I was that year after my father’s death.

Kaia Gallagher is working on a memoir called Return to Estonia, which explores her connection to her Estonian heritage. She is an MFA graduate at the University of California–Riverside’s Low Residency program.