Helen Macdonald: Giving sorrow words

Helen Macdonald’s "H Is for Hawk" is a hybrid memoir about grief, the environment, family and a bird.
By Megan Kaplon, photos by Michele Stapleton | Published: December 7, 2015


helen macdonaldIn Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Malcom bids Macduff to “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak/Whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break.” The need to unleash crushing feelings of grief has inspired the creation of many memoirs, including notable examples from Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking), Calvin Trillin (About Alice), C. S. Lewis (A Grief Observed) and, more recently, Cheryl Strayed (Wild).

To that elite list add author Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk.

When Macdonald’s father, acclaimed photographer Alisdair Macdonald, died suddenly in 2007, she crumbled. In her grief, the experienced falconer decided to buy and train a young female goshawk. Macdonald had never flown a goshawk. She knew them only as a deadly, ferocious, intimidating species. And yet she was drawn to take this step. She named her new charge Mabel and saw in the bird an attractive possibility of escape from the human world and suffocating emotions.

It took Macdonald five years to begin recording the story of that challenging year after her father’s death, but H Is for Hawk is a compelling work of literature that boldly crosses genres and has had critics and consumers on both sides of the Atlantic raving since its publication in 2014. Within two weeks of publication, the book was on England’s Sunday Times best-seller list. Macdonald is now living a writer’s dream, celebrating her breakout moment with an international book tour and the purchase of the film rights to the story.

Macdonald, 44, worked as a historian and lecturer at the University of Cambridge before earning the title of best-selling memoirist. Her previous published works include Falcon, a history of falconry, and Shaler’s Fish, a collection of poetry. When working on academic projects, she experienced anxiety about being correct, about saying the right thing, but writing memoir has been a freeing force.

“When it’s yourself, you feel the truth inside yourself,” she says. “It becomes something utterly manifest when you know you’re writing something from the heart.”

But of course, recording the story of the most devastating year of her life was no easy task. Her first attempts at writing about her father’s death fell flat.

“When I started writing, I tried to be a little more circumspect about how I felt,” she says. “I tried to be a little bit less brutally honest about the effects of grief. And the book wouldn’t work; I just couldn’t write it. I realized one day after swearing for the umpteenth time and drinking another huge cup of black coffee that I just needed to be utterly honest about things, and as soon as I realized that, the book began to flow.”

Revisiting that trying time produced elegant writing, but proved strenuous for Macdonald.

“Going back to being that person was odd in the sense that quite often it felt a bit like I was jumping into a very cold pool of water,” she says. “I had to re-inhabit those mental states that were very difficult to do and quite often I’d be very exhausted after doing that.”

Writing the scene in which she goes to see her father in the hospital after his death was particularly painful. She’s not much of a drinker because alcohol gives her headaches. But she had a big swig of whiskey that day.

Another curious part about writing a memoir was using herself as a character, especially since during the year the book covers, she didn’t feel at all like herself.

“This person that was me in the book was this rather odd character who I kind of knew quite well,” she says. “But I remember a couple of times as I was writing I’d end up sort of swearing at her. I was like, ‘You idiot! What are you doing?’ It was really weird, almost like a conversation with an older me.”

Some memoirists rely on journals or conversations with family members and others involved in the events in question to supplement memories, and Macdonald did keep very detailed journals in the year after her father died, chronicling both how she felt and the progress of Mabel’s training. But when she started writing the book, a full five years later, Macdonald found that she didn’t need to consult her journals.

“That whole year still lives very brightly in my memory,” she says.

In bereavement, she explains, mourners often either remember everything with pristine clarity, or it’s all a blur and they remember nothing. Macdonald remembered with clarity.

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Although labeled a memoir, H Is for Hawk is not easily categorized, as it also contains lengthy sections of detailed, sometimes academic, nature writing and biographical sections that tell the story of 20th-century British author T. H. White. Macdonald read White’s 1951 book The Goshawk as a hawk-obsessed child, and although she had hated it then, she found herself drawn to it in her early days of training Mabel. In that story of White’s escape from society with a goshawk, Macdonald saw a reflection of herself.

Later, she visited the T. H. White archives at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center, where she developed an even closer kinship with the troubled writer, who is best known for his Arthurian saga The Once and Future King.

“I started to get this strong sense that he was haunting me – not in a kind of white-sheet way, but the physical archives were so moving and disturbing,” she says. “There was one point where he had cut a lock of hair off the body of his dead dog who he loved very much, an Irish setter called Brownie, and he tied it with a red ribbon and stuck it onto the page, and it was surrounded by tear spots on the paper. The hair of the dog is as bright now as it was when she died. It’s very dizzyingly strange to encounter that, and you started to feel that he was sort of there.”

White’s presence adds another layer of complexity to the book, with stories from his life and his writing weaving in and out of Macdonald’s own in the same chapter. The book is unconventional and challenging – the first chapter is nature writing, the second is grief memoir, the fourth introduces a biographical element – and Macdonald made each of her structural decisions deliberately.

“I wanted the book to have more voices in it than just one,” she says. “Particularly after bereavement, all the narratives that you expect the world to run by, all the stories you tell yourself about the world just shatter, so I wanted the book to be more confusing.”

helen macdonald by Christina McLeishMacdonald wrote the 300-page H Is for Hawk chronologically, one chapter at a time, stopping to edit and rewrite each chapter eight or nine times before moving on. She wrote the first two chapters while apartment-sitting for a friend in the seaside resort town of Brighton, England, and it was those chapters that got her a book deal, coupled with an intricately plotted chapter list and synopsis. In total, her book proposal clocked in at around 20,000 words.

“I haven’t told anyone this,” she says, “[but] the two chapters that I sold as part of the proposal, I was convinced that they were perfect and everything else that I wrote after that was complete rubbish. Of course reading it now, they all seem sort of the same.”

Macdonald wasn’t the only one who saw those two chapters as the promise of something extraordinary. Once the proposal was in the hands of Macdonald’s agent, Jessica Woollard of the Marsh Agency, Woollard whisked Macdonald off to meetings with publishers in London. Convinced she was being interviewed, Macdonald arrived at each meeting trembling from nervousness, only to realize that the publishers were courting her, trying to win her favor and convince her to sell the book to them.

It was, she says, a bit of a shock.

Ultimately, an auction was held for the publishing rights, and Jonathan Cape won the U.K. publishing deal, while Grove Atlantic scored the American rights.

“So I got a nice advance, and then I had to write the damn thing,” Macdonald says.

“It’s such a lonely thing, writing,” she continues. “You sit at your desk, you don’t have any input from anyone else. You go through moments of utter despair and lack of self-confidence, and then there are those occasional days when it all happens like magic and you sort of rage around the house going, ‘I’m brilliant!’”

She says, humbly, that those manic days of effortless genius were few and far between. You can see hints of Macdonald’s poetic legacy in her writing, which is heavy with metaphor and dripping with expressive description.

“Altogether, Macdonald is terrific with words, delivering half-sentence zingers as gracefully as extended scenes with precision and humor,” writes reviewer Daneet Steffens for the Boston Globe.

Making nature and animals central topics takes a certain savvy and a keen awareness of the complicated relationships with what we perceive to be wild – whether a landscape or a bird.

“You write about animals by writing about your own responses to them,” she says. “That’s the only way you can do it.”

When describing Mabel for the first time in the book, Macdonald fills almost an entire page comparing the hawk to a porcupine, a reptile, a fallen angel. A broken marionette. Gold falling through water. A griffon.

In Lev Grossman’s review for TIME, he writes, “Mabel is described so vividly, she becomes almost physically present on the page.”

“Nature,” Macdonald says, “has always been used to explain what we are. Look at hawks, to use an example. We see them as these ferocious noble beings. They’re not. A hawk is just a chicken with talons. So when you write about nature, you’re always writing about yourself and your categories and structures that you give the world.”

Mabel was clearly more than a chicken with talons for Macdonald. The hawk allowed her to wallow in feral anger and despair when that was exactly what she needed. Tragically, Macdonald lost Mabel as well; she died last year from aspergillosis, an airborne fungus that is particularly deadly for birds. Instead of getting another goshawk (not yet, at least), Macdonald now has a parrot, a loveable little guy named Birdoole who makes frequent cameos on her Twitter page.

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It was on the floor of that Brighton apartment where she wrote the first two chapters of the book, fiddling with a malfunctioning wifi router, that the idea for the book’s title emerged. Although never fully explained in the book, H clearly stands for hawk and for Helen, but for Macdonald, it goes deeper than that.

“It stands for heart and hope and home and a whole bunch of other things,” she says. “But also, the book is an education. It’s about learning to live again after you’ve suffered a big loss. You have to start from the beginning and learn everything anew, and I wanted that sense of it being a kind of primer, a schoolbook, a guide to learning new things about the world following loss.”

People joke with her and ask if her next book will be I Is for Iguana.

“I’m not a mystery writer,” she says. “There’s probably not going to be another alphabet title.”

The title, with all its simplicity and resonance, is proving to be a challenge for translators working to get the book ready for release internationally. In German, H is still for hawk (habicht), as it is in Dutch (havik). But in languages in which the word for hawk starts with a letter other than H, Macdonald is not quite sure what the publisher will decide to do.

“I’m desperate to know what they’re going to call it in different languages,” she says. “I’ve said they can call it what they like, within reason.”

Although she shares generously about her own creative process writing about animals, nature and grief, Macdonald believes there’s more than one way to write a book. “I always am slightly nervous of Internet [posts] or guides to how to do it,” she says. “I think it’s a bit like grief: You can read all you like, but when you actually have to do it, you have to do it your own way.”

Macdonald’s story of dealing with grief has compelled many readers to reach out to her, sharing their stories and thanking her for telling her own.

“It’s just made me realize that the world is full of people who all go through lonely times,” she says. “I always thought I was a terrible introvert, but actually, this whole experience has made me feel really differently about everything. I kind of really like people now.”

In the course of her North American tour, which comes a few months after the conclusion of her U.K. tour and before a stint in Australia and New Zealand, Macdonald is sure to encounter many more readers and admirers, each eager to have a word, get a book signed, shake hands with a writer fearless in the face of a topic that often goes unspoken.

Surely, too, the months of touring will begin to wear on her. She’ll get tired of readings and interviews and photo shoots. Soon – sometime in the fall, she estimates – she’ll return home, sit at her desk and decide what comes next. U.K. publisher Jonathan Cape won a two-book deal at the auction, and she’ll have to fulfill that obligation, not to mention satisfy the hordes of readers keen to know what journey she’ll take them on next.

“It will be something on this subject of people and nature and our relationship to the natural world. I think it’s the biggest subject right now. I just can’t think of anything more important,” she says.

In the meantime, Macdonald has started writing a monthly nature column for the New York Times Magazine. At press time, she had published two articles: one about watching a peregrine falcon hunt pigeons amid the ruins of a Dublin power station and the other about the way we have come to see reserves as the only place where nature still thrives.

“It’s so important to write about nature because it’s in big trouble, and even if one person reads a book about nature and thinks, that’s beautiful, or that’s something I hadn’t really thought of before, that might make a difference,” she says.

At the end of H Is for Hawk, Macdonald takes Mabel to an aviary where the hawk will spend the moulting season, shedding her old feathers and growing new ones. The imposing creature that initially struck fear and doubt in Macdonald’s heart, and the heart of her readers, enters her season of transformation, and yet one metamorphosis has already run its course. No longer the beast that emerged from her box “amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering,” Mabel “feels like a protecting spirit. My little household god.” A little goddess who helped the writer navigate through the tangled swamps of grief and find herself again – as naturalist, grieving daughter, austringer and historian – and inspired her to test her memoirist wings.

Megan Kaplon is a contributing editor to The Writer.

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An excerpt from H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Keys in pocket, hawk on fist, and off we go. Leaving the house that evening is frightening. Somewhere in my mind ropes uncoil and fall. It feels like an unmooring, as if I were an airship ascending on its maiden flight into darkness. Stepping over the low railings into the park I head for the thick black avenue of limes and the lamplit leaves beneath. Everything seems hot and clean and dangerous and my senses are screwed to their utmost, as if someone had told me the park was full of hungry lions. Night air moves in the spaces between the trees. Moths make dusty circles about the lamps. I look down and see each pale blade of grass casts two separate shadows from the two nearest lamps, and so do I, and in the distance comes the collapsing echo of a moving train and somewhere closer a dog barks twice and there’s broken glass by the path and next to it a feather from the breast of a woodpigeon judging by its size and curl. It lies upon the grass as if held just above it, gleaming softly in the darkness.

‘Bloody hell, Mabel,’ I whisper. ‘Who spiked my tea with acid?’ Night has never looked like this before. I walk deeper into this lamplit world, wondering at my heightened perception and reassured by how unconcerned the hawk is. She does not look up. She couldn’t care less about her surroundings. She is hunched busily over the rabbit leg in my glove. It is a tiring – a piece of sinewy, bony meat to keep her occupied as we walk, drawing her attention from the things around her. She pulls and picks scraps from it with the rapt concentration of a diner disassembling a lobster. Watching her I begin to relax. And straight away the emptied world is full of people.

But they are not people. They are things to shun, to fear, to turn from, shielding my hawk. They come towards us like tumbling rocks in a video game, threatening destruction with the merest glancing blow. My heart beats fast. Escape and evasion. I am here to show people to the hawk, but from a safe distance merely, and those three men in pastel shirts are heading right towards us. I dodge behind a tree trunk and let them pass. When their backs enter Mabel’s line of sight she sucks her feathers in so tightly she seems vacuum-packed in plastic. When they are gone she shakes her head nervously, cheeps once through her nose and starts eating again.

A minute later a woman swinging supermarket bags is upon us. There’s nowhere to go. Where did all these bloody people come from? I look about in desperation. Mabel is now a pair of huge and haunted eyes, a ghost of bones and sinews, seconds from a bate. I hold her close to my chest and turn in a slow circle to block the woman from view. The woman doesn’t see the hawk. What she sees is a weirdo in a tattered jacket and baggy corduroy trousers revolving on the spot for no good reason. She hurries past, fast. There’s a sense of dreadful escalation. It’s fine, I tell myself. This is going well, but blood sings loud in my ears. A bicycle hisses by. The hawk bates. I curse. Another bicycle. She bates again. My nerve breaks. I start back to the house. We are nearly at the door when a runner passes – he’s come up silently behind us on his expensive trainers – and the hawk bates once again. I hate him for upsetting my hawk – actually hate him, am outraged by his existence. All the anger within me, the anger I didn’t know was there, the anger the books call One of the Five Stages of Grief rears up in a towering instant of white-hot fury. I look at his retreating back and wish him death.

But then he breaks stride, turns back, and stops ten feet from us.

‘Sorry,’ I say, smiling and biting back ire. ‘It’s her first time out of the house, and she’s still scared of people.’

‘God, no. I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I didn’t see her.’

He’s a person, I realise. A real person, skinny and bearded and wearing a blue T-shirt and with a water bottle in his hand and he is friendly and wary and a little in awe of the hawk. I think he might be a nice man.

‘I hope I didn’t startle you,’ I begin apologetically. He grins and shakes his head.

‘I was surprised! It’s not something you see every day!’

I turn briefly to the hawk as she bends down to pull at the rabbit leg again. I open my mouth to speak. But when I look up he has gone.

It is bright, after heavy rain, and the crowds of closing time have gone. On this second expedition from the house Mabel grips the glove more tightly than ever. She is tense. She looks smaller and feels heavier in this mood, as if fear had a weight to it, as if pewter had been poured into her long and airy bones. The raindrop marks on her tight-feathered front run together into long lines like those around a downturned mouth. She picks fitfully at her food, but mostly she stares, taut with reserve, about her. She follows bicycles with her eyes. She hunches ready to spring when people come too close. Children alarm her. She is unsure about dogs. Big dogs, that is. Small dogs fascinate her for other reasons.

After ten minutes of haunted apprehension, the goshawk decides that she’s not going to be eaten, or beaten to death, by any of these things. She rouses and begins to eat. Cars and buses rattle fumily past, and when the food is gone she stands staring at the strange world around her. So do I. I’ve been with the hawk so long, just her and me, that I’m seeing my city through her eyes. She watches a woman throwing a ball to her dog on the grass, and I watch too, as baffled by what she’s doing as the hawk is. I stare at traffic lights before I remember what they are. Bicycles are spinning mysteries of glittering metal. The buses going past are walls with wheels. What’s salient to the hawk in the city is not what is salient to man. The things she sees are uninteresting to her. Irrelevant. Until there’s a clatter of wings. We both look up. There’s a pigeon, a woodpigeon, sailing down to roost in a lime tree above us. Time slows. The air thickens and the hawk is transformed. It’s as if all her weapons systems were suddenly engaged. Red cross-hairs. She stands on her toes and cranes her neck. This. This flightpath. This thing, she thinks. This is fascinating. Some part of the hawk’s young brain has just worked something out, and it has everything to do with death.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, © 2014 by Helen Macdonald.

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