September 22, 2017

Author Helen Macdonald: Conversations from the Sun Valley Writers' Conference

Falconer and Author Helen Macdonald with a Goshawk

Host Marcia Franklin talks with British falconer and award-winning writer Helen Macdonald. Her 2014 bestselling memoir, H is for Hawk, describes how she rose above grief and loss with the help of a goshawk.

Macdonald is featured in a PBS Nature documentary called "H is for Hawk: A New Chapter."

The interview was taped at the 2017 Sun Valley Writers' Conference and is part of Dialogue's ongoing series from the renowned event.

When Macdonald's father died suddenly, she was bereft. To get her mind off her sadness, she turned to what she knew, training birds. She decided to train a goshawk, a species known for its irascibility, and a kind of bird she had never trained before.

"I didn't want to train one," Macdonald tells Franklin. "They were kind of a macho murderous creature, like kind of feathered shotguns.

"And then my dad died, and I think all that rage and wildness inside myself, the wildness of grief was really filling me up. And I realized that training a goshawk would be a distraction, but also I was just drawn towards this creature of death and difficulty."

Training a bird is a solitary enterprise in the best of circumstances, but in her book, Macdonald chronicles how she became intensely close to Mabel, her goshawk, and increasingly isolated from family, friends, and her own feelings. She finally realized she needed to seek help.

"I'd taken it way too far," she says. "I'd got completely lost."

At the same time, the beauty and isolation of training the hawk helped her begin her life anew. The book struck a chord with readers who had faced similar losses, and won high awards in Macdonald's native Britain, including the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book of the Year.

The PBS documentary follows Macdonald as she trains a new goshawk, Lupin.

"I think it might be the first time that the actual real moment-to-moment training of a hawk… has been captured like this," she tells Franklin. "And it's an astonishing thing. It's a beautiful film, you know, and I'm really proud of it."

Helen Macdonald is the author of two books in addition to "H is for Hawk:" "Shaler's Fish," a collection of poetry, and "Falcon," a cultural and natural history of that species.

The program can be streamed at video.idahoptv.org after it airs. Previous episodes of Dialogue from the Sun Valley Writers' Conference can be streamed at idahoptv.org/dialogue/sunvalleywriters.

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