Reeling from the death of her father, British author Helen Macdonald did something peculiar. She bought a goshawk, a massive, mysterious raptor with a reputation for being extremely difficult to train. For a year, the two of them stalked the English countryside together, hunting rabbits and eschewing human company. Macdonald isn’t the first British writer to seek solace at the breast of a bird of prey. In the 1930s, T.H. White, the closeted author of “The Sword in the Stone,” trained a goshawk in an attempt to tame his own sexuality. In Macdonald’s stunning 2014 memoir, “H Is for Hawk,” the author describes how her bird helped her find her way through the tangled forest of grief, while telling White’s story in parallel. How do you follow up such a singular work? We asked Macdonald about that and more ahead of her talk Monday at Politics and Prose.
It took you five years after your father’s death to write ‘H Is for Hawk.” Was it hard to relive such a difficult time in your life?
I had to get back into that state of mind that I was in, in that very dark but beautiful year. Sometimes I’d sit down just trying to remember what it was like. It was really quite hard and there were quite a few tears while I was writing. But by the time I came to writing, the person that was in the book wasn’t really me anymore. She was this other person I had been, and I could treat her as a character. It was very freeing to have that distance, to write with what felt like objectivity.
There was far more T.H. White in it than I thought there would be. I began to be really haunted by this strange, sad and amazing character. He was a writer best known for “The Sword in the Stone” and “The Once and Future King” — these sort of Arthurian legend books. He also tried to train a goshawk himself in the 1930s and made quite a bad job of it. He wrote a book about it that I read when I was small, and I hated it. He didn’t know what he was doing, and he was unconsciously pretty cruel to the poor bird. Trying to weave his story alongside mine was a really interesting formal challenge. Hopefully I’m a very different person from him, but I found that dual narrative really interesting.
How did training a hawk, of all things, help you cope with your father’s death?
I wanted to be like a hawk, and the book traces this very strange psychological transference. It took a toll on my mental health at the time, but it seemed necessary. They are amazing animals. They come across as being very unlike us, very self-possessed, very powerful beings. But you can communicate with them, and that relationship between these two very different souls is what falconry is all about. And that’s why I love it. Here you have a wild animal and you let it go completely free and it chooses to come back to you. It’s an enormously emotional experience, and I treasure it.
Do you have any hawks in your care now?
I haven’t got time to have a hawk right now. I do have a small, green parrot. People think of parrots as much more cuddly and friendly than hawks, which is true, but it’s also much more vindictive. I’ve had more bites and more blood drawn by this parrot than I ever had with my goshawk. I love it to bits, though. It’s a great companion.
Will your next book also be about animals?
I think it’s going to pick up on a theme of “H Is for Hawk” — how we humans see the natural world. That’s the most important subject there is, in these environmentally apocalyptic times. We think the wild is something out there, which we shouldn’t touch. The spaces we live in are carefully policed as human-only spaces, where you’re only allowed to keep a few kinds of animals. Of course, there are issues with people keeping wild animals, but I still think that contact with animals is a good thing. They teach you what it is to be human.
Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Mon., 7 p.m., free.
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