After her father died, Helen MacDonald spent a year training a goshawk. Five years later, she wrote a remarkable memoir about her relationship with the bird, which she named Mabel, interwoven with nature writing, and a biography of fantasy author TH White who, over sixty years ago, had attempted to tame a goshawk and had written a book about it. This memoir, H is for Hawk, is why the British historian and naturalist was at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year. Excerpts from a conversation.

You say you turned away from a certain narrative of wildness in H is for Hawk, one which pits the human against nature.
Yeah, the book is interesting in the regard. Most books about nature have this weird structure, straight white boys going out to conquer the wild. I’m not denigrating that in any way, they’re amazing books and amazing guys. But it’s about yourself in the end, and testing yourself.

I think I did something with the book that was different, and in some ways more dangerous to me. It wasn’t more physically dangerous, but I brought the wild inside my house, inside myself, and there wasn’t any escape from it. It was a really weird feeling.

At the end of the book, I realised that I’d bought into this myth which all these books say, that when you’re broken, you should leave and go out into the wild, and it’ll make you better. And I want way too far, and realised that you need a balance, as in all things. You need a balance of the wild and the tame within yourself, and in the world.

You became very depressed during this period.
Oh god yeah, I was very depressed. Oddly enough, it was a beautiful depression. I didn’t feel depressed at all. I felt that my world was complicated and exquisite and full of amazing things, and it was. But I was having these physical symptoms: I was crying at night. I’d wake up and my pillow would be wet. I was aching all over. I was frightened of people. It was only after my father’s memorial that I realised these were symptoms of some serious issues that I was having. It was pretty much a breakdown. I think that was because I’d used the hawk to run away from my grief, really efficiently. And I needed to feel it, I needed to feel that grief in order to get better.

Let’s talk about your goshawk, Mabel, a little bit.
Mabel! You know, it makes me so happy to be here in Jaipur, talking about my goshawk. Dearest Mabel.

Actually, my question was going to be about how hard it must be to keep talking about her after she passed away.
I miss her. Mabel taught me a lot about how short our lives are, and how randomly they can be taken away from us. So I grieve her, I mourn her a lot but it’s very simple grief. It’s not complicated and messed up. I really, really wish she was still around. They should live about twenty years. She was only six. It was a freak infection. I miss her a lot.

In naming her Mabel (“lovable”), it seems that you’d already decided she’d be loved.
Oh my god, totally! Deep down I wanted to love something and be loved back. Getting a goshawk is a daft thing to do if that’s what you want, but actually I think she did love me as much as an animal can love a person. We would play together. She’d chuck bits of paper with her beak and I’d catch and throw them back and we’d have these kind of silly games. We would watch television together… my goshawk’s watched more TV than any goshawk ever. And she particularly liked really bad house-moving programmes.

What happens after bereavement quite often… I thought it was just me but it seems to happen to everyone is that you can’t examine what’s driving you, it just happens. A lot of things happen that seem like fate, you have these compulsions out of nowhere, and I think the name Mabel unconsciously just came to me, but as you say, it means lovable.

This is quite unconventional, isn’t it? It goes against the culture of “taming” the hawk to bend to your will.
There’s this bit in the book where I explain to my goshawk-flying friends that my bird and I play games. They were horrified. But later on I discovered, they all do it, and they just don’t want to talk about it. And I think that’s actually really sad. These guys have a rich, sentimental, emotional bond that they don’t feel able to talk about.

You’ve said “Birds are made of metaphors for us.” Do you think that the human ability to use nature as a metaphor – an alienating act – is the same thing that allows us to destroy nature? How urgent does this problem seem to you now, in the age of the Anthropocene?
We do use nature as a mirror. We use nature to talk, and it is always all about ourselves. Even scientific knowledge is produced in this context. We use it to reflect our own needs and we have always done so. But it is absolutely terrifying now. I was born in 1970. And since then, we’ve lost half the world’s wildlife. It’s just happening everywhere, it’s the most frightening thing I can imagine. People say to me now, what will your next book be about, and I say I don’t know yet, but it will be about our relationship to the natural world. I think there’s no more important subject than that.

Certainly in England, the distance between human spaces and animal spaces is incredibly strongly policed. You’re allowed a few kinds of pets in your house, but that’s it. Whereas here, I was just in the Author’s Lounge [at the Jaipur Literature Festival] with some pigeons. They were making cooing noises and bringing sticks to each other. And I thought, oh god I wish I had a house that had pigeons coming in. Those spaces that are shared between humans and animals seem to me really healthy, emotionally and spiritually. I don’t know how it is here but in England, children are not as encouraged to go outside into nature. There’s less of it. There’s this distancing.

Let’s talk about TH White, the fantasy writer whose life is chronicled in your book. I read that you hated him when you first read him, when you were a child.
Oh my god, I was such a judgemental child. I was a nightmare. He wrote this book called The Goshawk, and before that I’d only read falconry how-to-do-it books, 19th century, terrible imperial falconers. They all knew what they were doing and said they did. Here was a book by someone who didn’t know what he was doing and he was honest about that. He was quite unconsciously, without realising it, quite mean to his hawk. I was outraged. I was tiny, I was eight years old. That was my superpower when I was a kid: reading.

The book really stuck with me, though, and I realised later that he was running away from something. When my father died, one of the reasons I ran to a hawk was because I had that TH White influence in my mind. He wasn’t going to have such a big place in the book until I went to read through his archives at Texas, and I found that intensely painful and moving.

He was a man who could not be himself through society, and through his upbringing which was really cruel. I don’t think he was ever really happy. I just thought, I want to talk about him. Like me, he used the hawk as a mirror of himself, we had different dealings, but I just wanted to speak for him really.

Did you start to understand White’s cruelty?
Yeah, I think it was an entirely unconscious cruelty to the hawk. He saw the hawk as himself, as a slightly strange, ferocious, gay creature, and he wanted to be the hawk but also wanted to control the hawk to fix himself, in a way. When he was growing up he was not given any of the tools to teach him how to care for things, including himself, or to love himself. It’s just the saddest story. I still can’t read that book without feeling so sad. He’s amazing though, an amazing writer.

You’ve done quite a lot of genre bending with this book, by blending the memoir, nature writing and biography.
There are these books on nature written by very confident, entitled guys. They say: this is the world, these are all the things in it, this is what they’re called, and this is how you think about them. I loved those books, and I still love them. But it seems to me that that is really one way of thinking about the world, and I wanted to do something different. I wanted to prise apart some of the certainties that those kind of books have. I wanted also to play with different genres, as you say it has got literary biography, grief memoir, and nature writing.

This is partly because I wanted the book to be more than one voice, because you don’t have a singular voice in grief. Grief is a maelstrom of different impulses and thoughts, and I wanted the book to mimic this in the way that the narrative structure of the story explodes by this happening. But it was very carefully done, so the book opens with a chapter on nature writing, followed by a chapter which is grief memoir, and then a chapter which is literary biography… and then as the book goes on they start to collide. I worked very hard on that, stylistically.

I just want more voices to be writing about nature. Women and people of colour should be commissioned to do nature writing. It’s considered this kind of preserve of people who “come from England”, and I think that’s complete nonsense. I just get frustrated, and I just want more people commissioned to do this… more, more, more please. At the same time, nature is disappearing.

Despite your closeness to Mabel, you’ve spoken about her ultimate unknowability. Do you think human beings can ever really understand animals?
We’re given all these stories about animals all the time and they all seem true. And the only these that can disrupt and break these stories are the actual animals. There came a point with Mabel when I realised that the great grace and honour of being in that relationship with her, this close intimate human-animal connection, is that she’s not human. The importance of any relationship is that we should love the difference between people, and between people and animals, and glory in it. I miss Mabel a lot.