Q&A with Helen Macdonald, longlisted for 'H is for Hawk'
How does it feel to reach the longlist for the Samuel Johnson Prize?
Like a dream. I’m fizzing with happiness.
What research did you do for writing your book?
It’s built from diary-entries and personal memories of the loss of my dad and training my hawk. It’s also informed by years of academic research on the cultural history of natural history. To write the sad, strange story of TH White, I visited the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas to read his unpublished journals and manuscripts. It was a deeply spooky experience, seeing his small, clear hand interspersed with photographs, feathers, newspaper cuttings, a ribbon-tied lock of hair from his dog Brownie, even the dried foot of a skylark, all stuck with tape to the pages. Sometimes it felt as if he were standing behind me, reading over my shoulder.
How do you feel about the status/ popularity of non-fiction books in general?
I’m delighted by the variety of forms it can take; from detailed, empirical histories to formally experimental works incorporating elements from many different genres. It’s a happy, healthy time for non-fiction.
What is your favourite non-fiction book and why?
Henry Green’s Pack My Bag (1940) a memoir and a reckoning of a life written by a man who assumed he would die in the oncoming war. No-one writes sentences like Green; they move on the page and bury themselves in your mind for days on end. It’s an astonishing piece of work.
What are you working on next?
I’m in the early stages of planning another book that, like H is for Hawk, will use both memoir and biography to investigate how we relate to ourselves, to imagined histories, and to the natural world.
Helen Macdonald is the author of H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape)
Photo credit to Marzena Pogorzaly