Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Julie Goldberg, on behalf of 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 TH 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: At what point did you know that you wanted to write about Mabel and your experience after your father's death? Did you have a sense of the scale and breadth of the ideas you wanted to explore, or did that grow through the writing process?
HM: Towards the end of that first year with Mabel I began to see what had happened as a story. Not necessarily one that’d be written down, but something that felt older and much bigger than a story dealing merely with the day to day life of a miserable woman and a bird. Years passed before I could think about it being a book. I needed to gain emotional distance, couldn’t write the character of my past self until she felt quite far away, though I could perfectly remember how she felt and thought and spoke. There was a detailed chapter breakdown in my book proposal, but things didn’t go according to that careful plan. The book started to push back as it was written. Many things I thought would be in the book I had to throw out—one long chapter about a literary party in London in the depths of my hawkish depression, for example. Things I never expected to be in the book insisted they should be there; particular repeating lines, thoughts, themes. I spent a lot of time working on the formal aspects of the book, but at the same time I began to think of the writing process as analogous to wrangling a half-tamed animal. It’s an encounter with something you have to listen to very attentively, that may or may not work with you on any given day, that will show you things you didn’t expect or had ever thought of before.
JG: You write that the rarer wild animals become in our lives, the fewer meanings they can hold or resist. And through your relationship with Mabel, you show how something uniquely wonderful and complex can emerge when humans engage with the wild. How can readers (who may not be ready for goshawks of their own) more productively interact with or participate in wildness? To protect the wild world, do you think we need to see ourselves as outside it?
HM: Haha! I absolutely do not recommend goshawks. Falconry’s an exacting art that requires enormous dedication and a lot of free time. Even after a long apprenticeship with an expert falconer, a goshawk is one of the worst birds to start your falconry career with. But you don’t need a goshawk to encounter wildness. It is there in anything that is not human, anything self-willed, working according to its own motives. You can feel wild by watching a spider, legs tensed against silk across your bathroom window. There is a wildness in the healthy functioning of biodiverse ecological systems, and there is a different wildness that comes from understanding that the world is full of things that aren’t us. One of my favorite poets, the late RF Langley, wrote about how meaning can come from the contemplation of the tiniest things in this way: the wings of a grass moth furled like a cigar on an English pub toilet wall, for example. Perhaps you could go outside and look for something very small and alive, an insect of some kind, a thrip or aphid, and regard it very closely, with the greatest attention, for a very long time. That kind of natural-historical observation can literally make the world wonderful. Sometimes I think that being alive to the mystery of a moth on a wall is quietism in the face of environmental disaster. But I hope not. I hope that wonder is what drives the fire to save things that are not us. Of course we are part of the natural world, though we are fast doing our best to destroy it. It’s why I worry that hands-off is not always the best way to preserve nature. Why would anyone fight to save something if they have no knowledge of it and no emotional tie to it?
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.)
Helen Macdonald is a writer, poet, illustrator and naturalist, and an affiliated research scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of the bestselling H Is for Hawk, as well as a cultural history of falcons, titled Falcon, and three collections of poetry, including Shaler's Fish. Macdonald was a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, has worked as a professional falconer, and has assisted with the management of raptor research and conservation projects across Eurasia. She now writes for the New York Times Magazine.
Julie Goldberg is a writer, teacher and second year fiction student in the MFA program at The New School, where she is the chapbook coordinator. She's working on her first novel. You can find her on Twitter @julie_goldberg.