What I Was Flying Toward: An Interview with Helen Macdonald

By Christine Fischer GuyApril 29, 2015

BRITISH HISTORIAN, poet, and falconer Helen Macdonald is winning the hearts of readers, critics, and prize juries with H Is for Hawk (she’s already received both the Costa and Samuel Johnson prizes), a book whose individual elements may at first sound incompatible but which work a special alchemy on each other. Part memoir, part biography, part training manual, part nature elegy, this remarkable book was written with a scholar’s precision and a poet’s attention to language.

The story begins when Macdonald’s beloved father dies suddenly of a massive heart attack and her grief drives her into the familiar embrace of falconry. But she doesn’t want to keep company with just any bird. She chooses a goshawk, the wildest, spookiest, and deadliest of the hunting hawks, the same one that T. H. White famously failed to train in The Goshawk, published in 1952, which she first read as a child in the 1970s. Her own experience with Mabel, her hawk, though turbulent, turns out far better.

It was a pleasure to talk with the author over coffee in Toronto during the first leg of her North American tour. She’s unassuming and endearing — bien dans sa peau, as they say in French: comfortable in her own skin. That wasn’t always so — after her father died, her own skin was the thing she most wanted to escape.


CHRISTINE FISCHER GUY: Among other things, this book is a record of a relationship. Those minute observations of Mabel’s moods via her body language made the bond between you feel almost human — the way we know someone we love is tired because one of her eyes looks smaller than the other, for instance. Did it feel safer at the time to enter a relationship with a bird than with a person?

HELEN MACDONALD: People say, Why didn’t you get a dog? I guess the big question is, Why didn’t you find a human? In a way, I tried. I fell in love with a friend of mine, a very nice man. I think I freaked him out, deeply, because I was broken. He ran away. So maybe there was a feeling that the hawk was safe. But falconry is very strange in that it’s very much about letting things go. These birds are flown free; once you’ve got them tame and trained, you let them go every day! And hope they come back to you. When they do, that reestablishes the sense that things can return.

I was thinking that there are similarities between training a hawk and scuba diving — you enter an almost Zen space where you focus on your air and your partner: the world is whittled down to that.

That’s a fantastic analogy. That the rest of the world is stripped away. I don’t know if it’s quite the same thing — maybe when the hawk was hunting and I was her hunting companion. Early on, though, being in the company of the hawk was a way of me, not the world, disappearing. I had this idea that I could lock myself away in a darkened room and that no one could visit because they would frighten the hawk. But the real disappearance was trying to empathize with the bird to the extent that I didn’t really feel like me anymore.

I loved the way the book is littered with vocabulary specific to the hawking culture, in yarak, jess, bating, manning. Was that part of the attraction, that ability to slip into another identity, language and all?

I’d been a falconer for many years, on and off. When I was small those words were magic because they were words that no one else knew. There’s a quiet power to knowing words that the grown-ups don’t. Whereas when I was a falconer, living a life with lots of falconers around me, that was everyday jargon of my life. But there was a strange feeling at this point, speaking words that my friends didn’t know: it was really isolating. It was like I’d lost the power to communicate.

That’s interesting. It’s the opposite of what I thought you’d say, that sliding into an alternate identity somehow insulated you from pain and loss. But you say it made you more isolated.

Isolation was what I wanted, though. Isolation was safety. Back to those strange imaginings from when I was small. Despite having a really happy childhood, I did love to hide, watch things from a distance, be invisible.

You wrote that being a watcher made you a perfect austringer (a trainer of goshawks and sparrow hawks; a falconer trains falcons and other hawks). At one point early in Mabel’s training you “concentrated very hard on the process of not being there.” I’m wondering about that negation of the self. How much is temperamental and how much a kind of destruction of the self as a response to grief?

It’s a temperamental ability I shared with my father, to possess the “chameleon consciousness” of Keats. It’s very easy for me to empathize with other things, imagine I can see through their eyes. It was always a lovely escape when I was small. That radical disjunction between being a human and being a bird was amplified in response to grief. I desperately wanted to be that hawk. It’s very strange looking back on that now, that desperation. Quite often when I was writing the book I’d be swearing at myself as I was then: “What were you doing? What were you thinking?”

But I guess wanting to disappear into other eyes is also part of the bigger theme of the work. It’s not just the eyes of the hawk I saw through. It was also T. H. White’s — it was a strange and uncomfortable process to try and understand why he did what he did with his hawk.

Keats defines that chameleon quality as the ability to “tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment.” Are we drawn to the wild instinctively, for that reason?

I think it lets people be things they can’t otherwise be. For instance (I talk about this in the book) — there’s this long tradition of gay writers using close relationships with wild or domesticated animals to speak about intimate relationships that they couldn’t otherwise. So that’s one example of how the wild isn’t really the wild.

It’s a kind of allegory.

Yeah. What we think of the world is made out of so many stories and histories and cultural suppositions. We use it to naturalize our own concepts. There’s this nature writer’s chestnut, that you look at the animal in the eye and it looks back at you, and there’s a moment of understanding. What interests me is, what could that understanding be? Is it just difference, or is there more there? With Mabel, my goshawk, it became more and more obvious that all the meanings I was giving her were human meanings. They weren’t goshawk meanings. They had to do with gender and identity — with our definitions of ferocity and predatory, of nature read in tooth and claw. Those ideas are really interesting, but they’re about us.

You’ve said that because hawks are so solitary, you can’t train them with punitive measures. You can only positively reinforce behavior. Could that apply to solitary humans as well, for whom the desire to please for its social value is less important?

It’s true that goshawks are solitary, except during the breeding season, and humans are generally not. But I don’t think drawing analogies between solitary people and goshawks is a good idea. I learned at a cost that the solitude of a hawk is not the same kind of solitude as that of a person broken by grief. It’s dangerously alluring to see other minds as mirrors of your own — and this is one of the deepest themes of the book. Training anything through negative reinforcement — through harsh words or physical violence — is a terrible idea. Of course you can try to force a dog or a person or a parrot to behave in certain ways and punish them for perceived infractions. But it leads to mistrust, incomprehension, and psychological damage. T. H. White was himself taught this way and it made him choose to be solitary to avoid persecution, real and imagined. Positive reinforcement is the best way to encourage particular behaviors — whether in a hawk, a dog, a human, or a horse.

Last year The Guardian ran a story about the first female falconer in Mongolia, a 14-year-old who hunts with golden eagles. How male-dominated is the sport in the Western world?

If you go back to the 12th century, it was a very common practice amongst aristocratic women. They didn’t just fly cute little birds of prey like merlins; they flew what are now boy’s birds, gyrfalcons and goshawks. They were considered to be exceptionally good at it. This conception that falconry is a masculine preserve is a much later invention. It was developed in the 19th century when it became tied up with the notion of hunting and sporting activities — those landscapes belonged to men, and women stayed at home.

When I was small, I assumed that I was just like these posh men wearing tweed. But of course I wasn’t like them, I was a slightly knock-kneed, wildly overconfident Surrey schoolgirl! I never understood why those other falconers looked at me askance. But things are changing. About 10 percent of new falconers are women, and every year it’s more and more. You still do hear that women can’t become falconers because they don’t have a “hunting instinct,” to which I roll my eyes. It is strange, how these boundaries are so carefully policed.

In this book you do seem to be tracking a particular strand of British identity via hawking traditions. It feels like an indictment of a British self-mythologizing.

Not an indictment, more a finger pointing. The whole reason for the stories we invent about ourselves is to exclude others — people who are not like us, who haven’t got the same background — and these so often filter through to the landscape: as in this is ours, we’ve always lived here; you can’t have this. I find that incredibly troubling, and not talked about as much as I’d like.

White said that he wrote The Goshawk out of economic necessity, but while that might have been partly true, it wasn’t the whole reason, because he hid it under a cushion for 12 years and then published it only with coercion. You seemed to have been guided intuitively to training a hawk as a reaction to immense grief, but when did you decide to write about it?

When I was small and I read White’s book, some tiny part of me always thought, Maybe one day I’ll write a book about training a hawk that shows that it’s not a tragedy, it’s actually this beautiful and intimate relationship between a person and an animal that is pretty cool for both sides.

That’s not what I thought when my dad died and I got a hawk. But that Whitean sense that when you’re broken you can run away and train a goshawk must have been operating on some level in my brain. Towards the end of that time, I realized I’d bought into that notion of running away into the wild to heal myself, when in fact all I did was get completely lost! I thought I’d write something from that time, because I realized that the story wasn’t just about a miserable woman and a bird, it was kind of about life and death, really. It was about learning how to live again after a big loss.

Why did it need to be a book, rather than just a personal experience?

I thought it was a story that maybe would say some things about grief that I hadn’t come across. I wanted it to be brutally honest about how it feels physically and mentally to lose a friend and a father. When I finished it, it became apparent to me that this was grief work.

The thing about hawk training is that it has a natural story arc. You go into the dark, and then you emerge into the light, and you go from enclosed spaces to wide-open spaces with the hawk, it goes from being captive to being free. So I thought, the whole arc is here, it’s going to be simple. But of course it’s never simple to write a book, and this weird thing happened about a third of the way through, which other writers had told me about: the book was almost alive. I would try and write a chapter and it would push back and say, No, you’re not doing that! Writing the book felt like dealing with a half-trained hawk. You have to be very gentle sometimes — and sometimes walk away.

You say that T. H. White haunted you while you trained Mabel, and he haunts the pages of H Is for Hawk too, even stylistically.

My chameleon consciousness isn’t just restricted to birds! I read The Goshawk an awful lot, both when I was training Mabel and when I was writing the book, and his prose style started to elbow its way up through mine.

I’m very conflicted about White, still. I think he was a very unpleasant man in many ways, but I ended up feeling a huge compassion for him. He had a horrendous childhood that marked him for life.

White’s Gos is an “ungovernable barbarian,” a “robber baron,” “a hump-backed aviating Richard III,” but Mabel is “a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.” The hair on my arms stands up every time I read that, it’s so beautiful. Were you consciously writing to counter White’s characterizations?

Not at that point. I wanted to get across that sense of an animal being so big, conceptually and visually and emotionally, that you can’t grasp it at once. It becomes a series of remembered snapshots of other things. It’s that extraordinary. But as that passage goes on, you move from my incomprehension to the hawk’s. I wanted that movement to be almost invisible to the reader, because it became invisible to me as I trained her. What I was doing was moving my own eye into the eye of the hawk, both “eye” and “I.”

Let’s talk more about that fusion. Even early on, you start to see the world from Mabel’s perspective “as if the room is darkening, contracting to a point.” Is that degree of empathy common among austringers and falconers?

Anyone who has trained an animal knows that you have to put yourself in the animal’s mind, otherwise you can’t communicate with it. If you’re training a dog, you have to work out what it’s thinking from its posture or the way it’s looking at you. I think it’s a common and necessary part of hawk training, this kind of empathizing with the bird. It becomes automatic. All the falconers that I know can do it.

But it goes much farther than that. You’re on the telephone with your mother and you’re looking out the window, seeing the world as a hawk might see it.

Most falconers go in and out of that state because they have other people in their lives, but I cut myself off purposely from everyone else, including my mum and my brother. I was always in it, and it became stronger and stronger. That sense of being in a new landscape that was animated by motives different from my own became very addictive. That was an extraordinary, immersive, visceral, emotional, phenomenological experience that I’ve never experienced before and I doubt I will again. I wanted to be an animal. I didn’t want to be looking at that landscape, I wanted to be in it. It was an intensely fragmenting experience, because I didn’t feel like a human, but it made me feel very safe. There was no past or future, there was only now. That was what I wanted, what I was flying towards. The great irony was that every time I went out with the hawk I was seeing death.

Your father’s death is the reason the book exists, but though it’s omnipresent throughout, it’s just beyond the book’s pool of light. Did you leave it in the shadows deliberately?

A couple of people have said to me, I don’t know much about your family from this book. Well, in my mum’s and my brother’s case, they’re alive and they have their own stories to tell. My dad was quite a private person. He saw the world through a camera lens and he wanted his photographs to stand for him and I wanted to talk about him in a way that respected that. I didn’t want the book to be a biography of my father; I wanted to say just enough to make it plain that he was a very, very dear and kind man, and a very skilled photographer. The motives for making his death in the book not mysterious, but not fully articulated, are about him, not about me.

You ran to the hawk for healing, but the irony was always that you might easily have endured more loss if Mabel had escaped. You had a constant fear of losing her, and she did in fact die suddenly.

Many years later, though. One of the deep reassurances with Mabel was that she always came back. I wasn’t, deep down, worried that she would go. As much as humans and animals could be, we were friends. But she did die a couple of years ago. By that time we had a much more chilled relationship! My circumstances had changed; I couldn’t fly her every day. So for the last year of her life she went to a very good falconer in the north of England who could. He went off to get married and Mabel went into an aviary for a couple of days, and she died of Aspergillosis whilst she was there. He was in pieces, I was in pieces, it was a very sad time. But I put her death in the acknowledgements, not in the book itself, because her passing wasn’t part of this story.

You wrote that your addiction to Mabel was “as ruinous, in a way, as if I’d taken a needle and shot myself with heroin.” Is there a danger of relapse?

I don’t know much about addiction. It’s not my area of expertise. But at that time, I used the hawk like a drug. I could escape into a world where things didn’t matter, that’s what flying her was like. I don’t think I’ll relapse to that state again, but I did fly a goshawk a few weeks ago in Ireland, and found it very hard to pass her back to her owner, so I suspect there may be another goshawk in the future.


Christine Fischer Guy’s debut novel is The Umbrella Mender. Her short fiction has appeared in journals across Canada. She reviews for The Globe and Mail, and contributes to Ryeberg.com and themillions.com.

LARB Contributor

Christine Fischer Guy’s debut novel is The Umbrella Mender. Her short fiction has appeared in Canadian and US journals and has just been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She reviews for The Globe and Mail, and contributes to Ryeberg.com and themillions.com.


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