I’m in Santa Fe for PubWest’s annual conference, with the theme “A Passion for Books.” My traveling companion is H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a tightly written, stunning, visceral memoir about training a goshawk in the wake of her father’s death.
This book has been on many best-of lists and bestseller lists, but I’m glad I waited for a trip to savor it. I started it on the plane yesterday, soaring away from my usual root system and home life, and then at a solo dinner last night, tucking an edge under the heavy plate when I had to pick up both knife and fork. I never mind dining alone when I have a book.
H Is for Hawk has a timeless quality, in part due to the author looking back at falconers from the past, and also her grief-edged newness in the world, how familiar things suddenly seem startling, because of the grief and also because of how closely she’s bonding with her goshawk. There’s a seamless blend between the now–her and her hawk–and the then, her father, when he was alive, and also a few scenes right after he died, capturing the disorientation, the anger, the confusion. That seamlessness of blending things that have already happened into the current stream of story-this-way is missing in a lot of the manuscripts I’ve been reading, and often in a lot of published books. So often back story shouts BACK STORY! HELLO! BACK STORY HERE! and while I’m not particularly against learning about story-past, sometimes it pushes things out of focus, or feels less essential, or stretches me too far away from the plot itself.
I thought about such things, and also about novel beginnings, and whether my new novel begins where it should, on the hour-long shuttle ride from the airport to my hotel last night. There were six women, most of us going to one conference or another, sitting in the dark, solo, staring out the window. Only one had her phone out. Something about traveling in the dark, feeling the temperature drop outside the pane of my window, also led me to think about fathers–how H Is for Hawk works to tell the story of grief, and how I had been reading manuscripts previously downloaded to my laptop that all had to do with father-absence, or father-mourning, or bad fathers. My own father is quite well, and has a birthday tomorrow. I thought of him, the planned celebration with my family, while traveling farther away from all of them. Becoming more attuned to the quiet, the squeak of what I suspect was old shock absorbers on the shuttle, the colder and colder temperatures.
This morning, H Is for Hawk accompanied me to breakfast at a French cafe. A woman approached, confessing she had seen my book first–she had read it and loved it–and then after processing the book, she noted the person holding it: me. It turns out we met each other at PNBA through a friend of hers, who is part of the excellent sales team at Legato Publishers Group. She might not have noticed me–at least not before the conference started and we were all officially in the same room–if it weren’t for the book. She’s been there, in those pages, in this woman’s story I’m traveling through right now. And somehow, with traveling to Santa Fe, and thinking about fathers, and novel beginnings, and back story, and how we choose to tell ourselves the story of our own lives, and our parents’ lives, this felt exactly right.