'Grief Shatters Narratives': Helen MacDonald on 'H is for Hawk'

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Helen MacDonald's H is for Hawk has already been widely acclaimed as a future classic of nature writing. Ahead of her visit to the Bookshop on Friday 8 August, in conversation with Tim Dee, our poetry buyer (and avian enthusiast) John Clegg asks Helen a few questions about her book.

In the book’s postscript, you describe a visit to the Harry Ransom Centre and to T.H. White’s cottage – something necessary before you could begin writing. At what point over the period of time the book describes did you start actually thinking of it as a book? And did White always have such a central place within it?

Writing a book on training a hawk had been in the back of my mind for years, partly because of how much I disliked White’s version of the hawk-human relationship in The Goshawk. Violent, cruel, and ultimately tragic, I knew it was far from the reality of falconry. But after my father died I wasn’t thinking of writing a book at all. I started writing to try and make sense of things. I was training a hawk, so I wrote about that too. As the months passed I started to see that I might write about hawks and humans and grief and goshawks all at once.

White was always going to be part of that story—I’d read his book many times that year and reflected on it. He and I had both fled to a goshawk to fight our different demons, and I suspect my flight was partly inspired by his. But White’s central place in the book only came after reading his unpublished archives at the Harry Ransom Center. One of the book’s themes is the attempt to put oneself in minds very different from one’s own—the inhuman mind of the hawk, and the alien mind of White. Trying to understand what drove White was fascinating, disturbing, and as difficult as trying to understand the hawk.

I knew I didn’t want to write a normal kind of literary biography. The opening chapters of H is for Hawk are broadly generic: first nature writing, then memoir, then imaginative biography – but as the book progressed, I tried to break those familiar forms, complicate them, make them talk to each other. Partly this was to mimic the ways in which grief shatters narratives. But also because I’m wary of the objective, authoritative tone of much nature writing. I wanted the book to be reflexive, full of voices that were not always full of certainty, that were sometimes contradictory, not always simply my own.

There’s a lovely passage in the book that invokes Keats to describe the animal trainer’s state of being at one with the animal: ‘The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own’, you say. And yet throughout the book I thought there was a reluctance to anthropomorphise; you seemed to attribute emotional states to the hawk as minimally as possible. Was this something you found yourself consciously toning down as you wrote?

Anthropomorphism is definitely something to be avoided. In the book I tried to show that it works in much subtler ways than the simple ascription of human thoughts and motives to animal minds. In my grief-stricken state I saw in the hawk all the things I wanted to be: she was self-possessed, solitary, murderous, free from human hurts. I didn’t want to feel those things, so I let myself feel them at a distance through identifying with her. But of course she was just a bird: I’d projected all those attributions onto her. Towards the end of that season with the hawk I realised my mistake, saw that she was not a mirror of me but resolutely inhuman, and that was a turning point. My time living with a wild animal taught me how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. It’s so important to recognise that the world is not full of things like you — and learn, too, to love that this is so.

Your 2001 collection Shaler’s Fish has some beautiful falconry poems: I’m thinking especially of the poem dedicated to Bill Girden, whose first stanza seems to pre-empt in places some of the moments of sudden apprehension in H is for Hawk:

To state the discovery of a country
& be in a time without rage, keeping wings
near yourself, as barred as buried in the day, crossly.
Some present results; a tree, a quail, a rock, a hawk
rousing one's mind from safety and tameable illness
to beautiful comprehension in the form of a hunch…

To what extent did your earlier poems and experience of poetry inform upon the writing of H is for Hawk? Were there elements of your personal poetic which you found you had to repress when writing prose, or did the two domains not impinge on each other?

I’m glad you like those poems. I never met Bill Girden; he was only 37 when he died. I wish I had. He was a superb writer. That particular poem came from reading an essay he’d written on desert hawking with a Cooper’s hawk, in particular where he describes feeling a deep, almost spiritual partnership with the hawk he holds – until the hawk flies from his fist to chase a quail. In a humbling instant Girden realises that the hawk sees him merely as a convenient, mobile hunting perch. My poems are concerned with the apprehension of misunderstandings like these, slippages between identity, language, landscape and other minds. So in answer to the question, the poems come from the same place as the book, rather than the book being informed by the poems.

Recalling my grief and putting it in words required a colder quality of attention: logical and distanced. I’d never written like that before. But when it came to talking about the hawk, landscape and natural world — I suppose I was writing in the same way I write poetry: a kind of summoning of words from elsewhere, without knowing quite what will appear on the page before it is there and I can read it. It’s hard to write about that process. I don’t know how it happens. It sometimes feels as if the words are writing themselves. It’s not always like that! Sometimes I’m swearing at the screen and the words don’t come at all. But when it does happen, it feels as if you’re interacting with something that’s not you, something which is almost – but not quite – alive. It’s proper magic.

Read more about the event and book tickets.