Helen Macdonald: 'Am I refusing to read Bleak House out of sheer contrariness? Possibly'

The H Is for Hawk author on drawing inspiration from Douglas Coupland, finding comfort in le Carré and crying over fan-fiction

 ‘I avoid reading books when I’m in the midst of writing my own’ … Helen Macdonald.
‘I avoid reading books when I’m in the midst of writing my own’ … Helen Macdonald. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Guardian
‘I avoid reading books when I’m in the midst of writing my own’ … Helen Macdonald. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Guardian
Helen Macdonald

Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 08.46 EST

The book I am currently reading
I’m very much enjoying On the Back of Our Images, an edited collection of diaries by the film-maker Luc Dardenne, and Bill Clegg’s glorious novel The End of the Day. I’m also rereading Lisbet Rausing’s phenomenal biography of Carl Linnaeus, and Edward Upward’s The Railway Accident, both old favourites I’ve not picked up for years.

The book that changed my life
Lots of books have shifted the way I see the world. But if I have to pick, perhaps it was Generation X by Douglas Coupland, which I read in my small college room back in the 1990s. After I’d read the first couple of pages – on a teenager lying alone in a field of wheat watching a total eclipse of the sun - I felt, with all the self-absorption of youth, oh, this one’s been written for me. It was certainly the first novel that made me seriously wonder if I might one day write a book too.

The book I wish I’d written
I couldn’t have written it, of course, because it’s an autobiography, but I love Henry Green’s Pack My Bag with a passion. He wrote it instead of his more usual novels because he believed he would be killed in the second world war. He explains in his introduction that because there was no time to write anything else, “we should be taking stock”. It’s a sentiment that feels more relevant than ever in our historical moment, and the deep, cut-from-rock honesty of every word of his book is breathtaking. I try to emulate that, when I write.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
I tend to avoid reading books when I’m writing my own, because I have a dreadful tendency to unconsciously imitate other people’s styles. When I was writing H Is for Hawk I tried to get around this by listening to lots of BBC Shakespeare adaptations and Agatha Christie radio dramas. I thought they were safe, but now I wonder if some of the narrative drive of H Is for Hawk was nicked from all that Christie, and I definitely hear some wonky echos of Shakespearian diction in parts of the book. But in terms of analytical influence on my work, it’s probably a tie between William Cronon’s Uncommon Ground: Rethinking Our Place in Nature, and Gregg Mitman’s Reel Nature. Both are brilliant; both reveal the extent to which we fill the natural world with a weight of meanings that reflect human political and social concerns.

The book I think is most underrated
Perhaps not exactly underrated, but certainly not widely known for reasons I find inexplicable. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. Starts off as a rather straightforward family narrative about a woman refusing to live the roles society has provided for her. Ends up being absolutely, supernaturally, gloriously bonkers. I adore it.

The book that changed my mind
Selected Poems by Frank O’Hara changed my mind about what poetry could be. Reading it for the first time was a revelation. Familiar, intimate, lyrical, serious, highly literary, conversational and playful, all at once, and wonderfully, joyfully queer.

The last book that made me cry
The last writing that made me cry wasn’t technically a book at all, but a work of fan-fiction, a genre that includes some of the most moving works I’ve read over the last few years. It infuriates me how often people sneer at it.

The last book that made me laugh
I pulled Through It All I’ve Always Laughed: Memoirs of Count Arthur Strong by Steve Delaney from my bedroom bookcase shelves the other day and laughed myself silly with it all over again.

The book I couldn’t finish
Pride and Prejudice. I know. I know. I’ve tried. I can’t. I just can’t get through it.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
Bleak House. Yes, I know Dickens was a genius and it’s a masterpiece. Am I refusing to read it now out of sheer contrariness? Possibly. Am I ashamed about this? I’m not sure.

My earliest reading memory
A small buckram-bound edition of selected Sherlock Holmes stories. I was tiny. I’d been enchanted by a Basil Rathbone Holmes film on television and wouldn’t stop going on about it. My parents told me the character came from books, so I begged them for one, and they obliged. I could read, by then, just about. But I didn’t know very much about the world. So it was a bizarre experience. I didn’t know what a Turkish slipper was, or what Afghanistan, St Barts, or a thousand other things were either. But I read it all the same.

My comfort read
I’ve read John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy so many times I know it almost by heart. Other bath-time reading includes hardboiled detective fiction (I’ve got back into Dashiell Hammet in a big way lately), and a lot of sci-fi, particularly vintage sci-fi short story collections.

The book I most often give as a gift
For a while now, it’s been Elena Passarello’s essay collection Animals Strike Curious Poses. I think it’s the best book on animals I’ve ever read, and one of the best books I’ve ever read, period. A joy.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
It’s going to be H Is for Hawk, isn’t it, although I’m going to try to write something better before I kick the bucket.