scorecardresearch Skip to main content

Bibliophiles: Helen Macdonald on Shakespeare and animal books

English nature writer Helen MacdonaldBill Johnston Jr.

The English nature writer Helen Macdonald landed clearly on the literary map with the best-selling and critically acclaimed “H Is for Hawk,” her 2014 memoir about training a raptor while deeply grieving her father. In “Vesper Flights,” her new essay collection, Macdonald lets her exceptionally original mind wander amid a long list of subjects: lunar eclipses, migraine headaches, mushroom hunting, and nocturnal bird-watching. Macdonald lives in Suffolk, on England’s east coast, and is an affiliated research scholar at the University of Cambridge.

BOOKS: What have you been reading?

MACDONALD: I admit I’ve been watching a lot of television but I have picked up a few books recently that I’ve enjoyed, including Jay Kirk’s new book, “Avoid the Day,” one of the strangest pieces of creative nonfiction I’ve read. It’s a hallucinogenic, deeply personal story about his search for a missing Bartok manuscript. I also just read Eley Williams’s forthcoming novel “The Liar’s Dictionary.” It’s about a Victorian lexicographer who adds made-up words to a dictionary he is working on and the present-day character who is winkling them out. Then I was writing an essay on the current hysterical moment, and I dug out Andrew Causey’s monograph on Peter Lanyon, a 20th-century Cornish painter I love.


BOOKS: Who are your favorite essay writers?

MACDONALD: My current favorite is Elena Passarello. This is a bit of a grand statement, but I think her “Animals Strike Curious Poses” is the best book about animals I’ve ever read. It’s about animals that have been named by humans, starting with Yuka, a mammoth found in Siberia, and ends with Cecil the lion.

BOOKS: What were your favorite books about animals when you were a kid?

MACDONALD: My favorite was a series known as The Adventure Books by Willard Price. They were horribly imperialist and about a couple of boys who collected animals for a zoo. Another was “Brendon Chase” by Denys Watkins-Pitchford, which was about schoolboys who ran off to live in the English woods. That’s who I wanted to be. I was happy to be a girl, but I felt a little bit weird because it was all boys in these books.


BOOKS: Who is a favorite nature writer for you now?

MACDONALD: The science fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation series is one of the great environmental works of our age. I’m increasingly drawn to speculative fiction because there’s more freedom in it than nature writing allows. Maybe I’ll write one.

BOOKS: What are your reading habits?

MACDONALD: I like to dot around. In the huge pile on my bedside table I have a Colson Whitehead novel, Omar Sakr’s poetry collection “The Lost Arabs,” and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s “The Mushroom at the End of the World,” a nonfiction book. I like to move between genres, and I’ll read several books at once.

BOOKS: Any other reading habits?

MACDONALD: I can’t read when I have migraines, but in this strange period afterward I read a lot of Shakespeare, the poems or the plays, and I’ll start crying. My favorite is “Coriolanus.” That really gets to me. But all of it is a mind-blowingly emotional experience.

BOOKS: Is there a writer you love who isn’t well known?


MACDONALD: I want everyone to read Henry Green’s autobiography, “Pack My Bag.” It’s a strange, exquisite book. He expected to die in World War II, and wrote that those of us who might not have any time to do anything else must take stock. I find this sensibility so crucial now. We need to bear witness to everything that is happening.

BOOKS: Have books helped you through other difficult times?

MACDONALD: There are two kinds of books that can do that. One shifts your thinking about the world, such as Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass.” I read that when I was quite down about the world but it made me feel like things weren’t so doom laden. The other kind is books that are refuges. When I was miserable at college I read Frank O’Hara’s poetry. Now if I’ve had a rough day I’ll take a hot bath and read John le Carré. I think I know all of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” by heart.

Follow us on Facebook or Twitter @GlobeBiblio. Amy Sutherland is the author, most recently, of “Rescuing Penny Jane’' and she can be reached at