An interview with Helen Macdonald -The Asian Age

Helen Macdonald, born in 1970, is an English writer, naturalist, and an Affiliated Research Scholar at the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science. She is best known as the author of H is for Hawk, which won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book Award. In 2016, it also won the Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger in France. Here Helen Macdonald talks about her memoir H is for Hawk, the complicated relationship between instinct and training, dealing with grief, experiencing wilderness and much else. Julie Goldberg, on behalf of the Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Helen Macdonald about her book H Is for Hawk(Grove Press), which is among the final five selections in the category of Autobiography for the 2015 NBCC Awards.

Julie Goldberg: Part of the magic of H is for Hawk is how alive your goshawk Mabel becomes-in her body and moods, in her power and playfulness. What was it like to write about her, years later, in such detail? 

Helen Macdonald: Writing about her was much easier than writing about my father's death, my family, or myself! I can recall my time with her that year with crystalline clarity. 

Grief does strange things to the workings of memory. Back then I wanted to assume her rapturous, wordless, hawkish mind, and I tried, as I wrote, to match my style to that imagined subjectivity. 

Short sentences to capture her world as a series of fleeting, present moments; lyrical passages to suggest the strangeness of the landscape through the eyes of a hawk.  I edited the hell out of most of the prose, but the sections about the hawk - what she was like, how she flew and hunted - they were written fast and hardly edited at all. 

I'm very sad to say Mabel died suddenly a few years ago of a fluke fungal infection called Aspergillosis that's been the bane of goshawkers for centuries and kills many wild hawks too. She's buried on one of the hillsides over which she used to fly. I miss her so much. 

JG: The complicated relationship between instinct and training/social conditioning is something you explore throughout the book. Do you think the impulse to pour yourself into the hawk after your father's death came in part from having learned and internalized older narratives of "running to the wild to escape... grief and sorrow," or do you and the subjects of those stories share the same innate drive? 

HM: When you train a hawk you're forced to think deeply about the differences between innate and learned behavior, positive and negative reinforcement, and consider conditioning in both a physical and psychological sense. 

But not just in the hawk-in yourself also. Hawk-training is not a one-way process. Partly I wanted a goshawk because I knew how hard it would be for me; they're famed for their fearful nature as much as for their predatory power. 

Taming it would be a challenge and a deep distraction from grief. Another reason was T.H. White's book The Goshawk. Even in my childhood I saw that it was about a man running away from something to train a hawk.  I didn't know what he was running from, back then, but that trajectory, that attempt at a salve or cure-it stuck with me. 

It was powerful, even at an early age, because unconsciously I'd already bought into that narrative about running to the wild to heal yourself, and I think the same can be said for the subjects of those other, older stories in the book. 

I'm wary of explanations that see that drive as innate. I think it rests on a palimpsest of historically and culturally-shaped notions of what the natural world is, what 'wild' is, and what we need from it. 

On a related note, there's an increasingly common argument that we should interact with the natural world because it makes us feel happy, or has other kinds of therapeutic value. I'm scared of a version of nature that is to be valued primarily for its effect on our mood. 

But it is true that being out there, out in the wind and rain and sun, surrounded by things that are not you: it can change your perspective on yourself and your place in the world. 

JG: Your experience training Mabel and T.H. White's experience training his hawk Gos were (fortunately) very different, as were the personal struggles played out through your relationships with your hawks. Why did you choose to intersperse his narrative so completely and seamlessly with your own? 

HM: White's story was always going to be part of the book because it was part of mine. I'd read The Goshawk as a child and over and over again as I trained and flew Mabel.  But it wasn't until I read through White's unpublished journals, notebooks, letters and manuscripts that I began to see the book needed more of him. 

I wanted to pleat his story together with mine partly because I wanted the book to have more than one voice; wanted to pull away from that seamless, smooth and expert voice of the old-school nature writer, which tends to erase alternative ways of seeing, writing, or thinking about the natural world. But mostly  I wanted his story to work in counterpoint to mine because both of us made the same mistake. 

TH White and I used real hawks as a mirror of our imagined selves. White saw the hawk as several different warring versions of himself-something to be pitied, something to fight against, to sabotage, to try and love. I saw Mabel as everything I wanted to be-solitary, self-possessed, powerful, free from human hurts and grief.  

Both stories were the same story, despite the manifest differences between me and White: together I hoped they would work as an extended meditation on how, when we are talking about nature, we are usually talking about ourselves. 

JG: Now, a year and half after H is for Hawk was first published, what has most surprised you about the response you've received from readers? 

HM: I've had many letters from people telling me that H is for Hawk reminded them of how it feels to be alone at home with a new baby. That astonished me. But it makes such perfect sense. You're responsible for this infinitely precious thing. It doesn't speak. You're not sure if you're meeting all its needs. Sometimes you get anxious, worry that you're doing everything wrong, that somehow you might break it, cause it harm by mistake. 

And of course, it is an all-consuming and life-changing relationship. Those parallels surprised me a lot, and the letters moved me a great deal. (But I can guarantee that goshawks are far better than babies at flying over wintry hillsides and catching you rabbits for dinner.

Julie Goldberg is a literary contributor.