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The Good Book Appreciation Society

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The Henrietta Rose-Innes and Helen Macdonald interview on GBAS

This morning we had the most magnificent live interview over on The Good Book Appreciation Society between Henrietta Rose-Innes and international bestselling author, Helen Macdonald.


Here’s an excerpt of that interview. To read the rest of the interview, join The Good Book Appreciation Society by emailing or friend Bea Reader on FB.

pj flash fest henrietta and helen macdonald.001

HJ Rose-Innes Good morning everyone! We’re talking about a wonderful book today: H is for Hawk is a compelling account of a year the author spent training a young goshawk; but more deeply, it’s about the process of grieving the loss of a beloved parent. It’s gorgeously, lyrically written, containing some of the most sensuous bits of “nature writing” I’ve ever read, as well as profound meditations on wilderness, history, mortality and what it means to be human. It justly won the Costa Book of the Year Award and the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, and is a runaway bestseller. I absolutely loved it, and I’m thrilled to be chatting to author Helen Macdonald today. Good morning Helen! Lovely to have you with us.

Helen Macdonald What a lovely introduction, thank you so much! It’s great to be here. I’m sitting at my desk in my house in Suffolk on a foggy autumn morning drinking coffee and looking forward to our chat!

HJ Rose-Innes Ah, then we are in the same time zone. I’m in Norfolk. I think the people in South Africa need to appreciate that we got up a good hour earlier for this …

Helen Macdonald I wondered whether you were in Norfolk or Cape Town… now I know *Poirot face*

HJ Rose-Innes So, can we start with Mabel, the star of the show?
Mabel is one of the most glowing literary personages I have ever encountered. Her personality just beams off the page – her intense, alien beauty, her playfulness and affection, her ferocity. Now I know you have had a lifelong love affair with birds of prey – but was Mabel something special? She seems so.

Helen Macdonald Yes! She’s…well, she’s definitely the star. I was her sidekick, in a way. Only goshawks can’t write books, so…. grin emoticon

HJ Rose-Innes (Oh I’m sorry – Mabel, is, of course, the goshawk!)

Before her, you never thought you’d train a goshawk, did you?

Helen Macdonald But she was special. She was a particularly calm goshawk. They are just as variable as people in temperament, and I was very lucky to have found her. The other goshawk I NEARLY bought from the breeder (people who’ve read the book will know that I ended up begging him for the bird) ended up being very very hard to tame, almost impossible. I dodged a bullet there!

No, I never wanted a gos. They had this extraordinary reputation as things that rather like feathered shotguns crossed with serial killers. I thought they were a bit scary, to be honest. And they were very much blokes’ birds. But, you know, living with Mabel showed me that goshawks are much more complicated than avian killing machines.

HJ Rose-Innes That is the most extraordinary scene in the book, where Mabel first emerges into the light is just a thing of beauty. I think everyone responds to birds of prey as just stunningly beautiful. Maybe that’s part of the reason this book has touched SO many people.
But it’s more. One of the amazing things about H is for Hawk is how it speaks strongly to so many people. I have yet to hear from one reader who hasn’t been particularly affected by it, and of course it’s been a worldwide sales phenomenon. It seems to have struck a cultural nerve. What do you think is the magic of the book? Why do people find Mabel’s story so compelling? Are people just mad for hawks?

Helen Macdonald Oh my goodness, it’s all been a complete shock, this year. When I pressed ‘send’ and emailed the MS to my publisher I honestly was convinced no-one would read it. So maybe I’m not the right person to ask — but I think partly it is indeed down to Mabel. Hawks are awesome. And a woman once told me that it was a book for ‘anyone who ever wanted to escape from the life they are living’ – which is all of us, I guess, at one time or another.

Also it’s nature writing — there’s been a big craze for it in the UK as you know. I think we’re desperate to renew contact with a natural world that we’re fast losing, make it significant to us.

HJ Rose-Innes Yes indeed. Because of course it is also very much about bereavement – about your grief at the loss of your father. I think it speaks to anyone who has ever been bereaved, or feared death. You speak of training a goshawk as a way of not feeling for a while; of becoming a hawk to get away from the pain of being human. Do you think it’s possible that readers find it cathartic, to witness you going through your “year of madness” with Mabel and coming out the other side? I found it very moving and ultimately comforting, myself.

Helen Macdonald I think so. I hope that the book ends with the recognition that everything changes, that we’re only on the earth for a very short time, that it is possible to bear that knowledge and live with it. Everyone who loses someone very close to them falls off the edge of the world for a while. And there’s a great temptation to obliterate yourself with SOMETHING. It can be drink, or drugs, or inappropriate affairs or meditation … all sorts of things. I did it with a goshawk. I didn’t want to be me any more. But looking back on it, that experience was important because it let me change into someone new. Coming back from that year with Mabel I was a different person.
I think reading about someone else’s journey to the underworld and back can be helpful, can be reassuring.

HJ Rose-Innes I was going to say, that you seem to also have come out the other side with a new appreciation for human fellowship.
“Human hands are for holding other hands”, you write…

Helen Macdonald Yes!
What’s more, this year of touring with the book has shown me that I’m less of an introvert than I’d previously assumed :)

HJ Rose-Innes :) I was going to ask about that! You must have been thrust into some very intense human contact this last year.

To read the rest of the interview, please join The Good Book Appreciation Society on Facebook by emailing or friend Bea Reader on FB.

Henrietta Rose-Innes is the author of four novels and a short-story collection. Her most recent novel, Green Lion, came out in South Africa in May 2015. Her short stories have been widely published, appearing in Granta, AGNI and The Best American Nonrequired Reading, and have earned her the Caine Prize for African Writing, the South African PEN Literary Award, and a second place in the BBC International Short Story Competition. In 2012, her novel Nineveh was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the M-Net Literary Award, and in 2015 (in French translation, Ninive) it won the François Sommer Literary Prize. It will shortly appear in Spanish translation. Henrietta is currently in her second year of a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, Norwich.

henrietta green

Helen Macdonald is a writer, poet, illustrator, historian, and naturalist, and an affiliated research scholar at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge, where she teaches to graduate level. Over the years she’s also worked as a Research Fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, as a professional falconer, assisted with the management of raptor research and conservation projects across Eurasia, and bred hunting falcons for Arab royalty. She’s also sold paintings, worked as an antiquarian bookseller, organised academic conferences, shepherded a flock of fifty ewes and once attended an arms fair by mistake.
In 2014 Helen’s first trade book H IS FOR HAWK was released in the UK, where it went on to win The Samuel Johnson Prize in November 2014 and the overall Costa Prize in 2015 having won in its category. It will be published in over twenty countries and has been a number one bestseller in the UK and the US.

Helen can be found on twitter as @HelenJMacdonald


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