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Author Helen Macdonald talks about her new book Prophet

Helen Macdonald. Photo: Lucas T
Helen Macdonald. Photo: Lucas T

It was a time when everyone noticed the birds singing. The traffic had stopped, the air was cleaner, the weather was glorious. Lockdown should have been very special for a nature writer, but Helen Macdonald was indoors watching films, learning about video games and messaging people on social media.

‘I was hiding from the world,’ she says. ‘It was so bleak. It felt like the end, everything was in pieces.’ She was at home, alone (with a parrot), in her beautiful village in west Suffolk, and at a loss, she says, because she had been due to be working on her next book.

It would be her third. She’s best known for H is for Hawk, her extraordinary memoir of coping with grief while training a hawk. This was followed by a collection of essays called Vesper Flights. Next she planned to look at albatrosses in the Midway Atoll, where the military and nature coexist. ‘I was meant to go a tiny island in the Pacific to research my new nature writing book and I couldn’t go because of the pandemic.’

Without a work project, she turned to the internet and connected with friends on social media, and particularly Sin Blaché an emerging writer and musician from California, now living in Ireland.

Great British Life: Helen Macdonald and Sin Blache. Photo: Catherine LarnerHelen Macdonald and Sin Blache. Photo: Catherine Larner

They’d known each other on Twitter for about 12 years, connecting through mutual friends, sending each other messages and occasional gifts (‘I’m an aggressive gift giver,’ says Helen, of the Star Wars shirt she insisted on sending Sin during their correspondence). ‘I always knew that Sin was funny and sharp and wry, and always had the right opinions about things. Sin became an absolute lifeline.’

They talked books, writing and storytelling as well as politics, the state of the world, the future, and the past, and in doing so they discovered they had an idea for a novel.

‘We were really interested in nostalgia as a subject because it seems so ubiquitous in today’s culture at the moment, not only politically but in terms of consumerism,’ says Helen. ‘We’re living in an age where it’s becoming increasingly hard to imagine a liveable future and we are anchoring all our hope in trying to retrieve the past.’

‘People like complexity but we’re being told day to day “remember when things were simple?”’ says Sin. ‘And that tends to dull people.’ Helen and Sin were also fascinated by film, television and video games, and using different genres to explore their message and story. So they put everything into a book called Prophet.

‘I had a dream early on,’ says Helen, ‘about Lakenheath. It’s a very dear place to me because I have long been obsessed with the way US air bases in Suffolk are little bits of America dropped into the English landscape; they are completely bizarre.’

So this was where the novel began. An all-American diner appears overnight in a Suffolk field of sugar beet. It has no power, no water, no connection to the real world. Other similarly puzzling objects follow in other locations, other countries. They all appear to be treasured recollections from the past, which then stifle the innocent people who cherish them. Some deadly force is conjuring them into reality. Two military agents are engaged to find out who is creating this phenomenon and why. As they draw closer to the answer, their own relationship is tested.

Great British Life: Prophet by Helen Macdonald and Sin BlacheProphet by Helen Macdonald and Sin Blache

A Guardian reviewer describes Prophet as ‘a genre-blending science fiction fantasy thriller about the weaponization of nostalgia’. ‘And it’s an homage to all the things we love,’ says Helen, ‘all the tropes of romance fiction, all those ridiculous Bond-style locations and weirdly flat villains with bizarre ideas and military monologues. It was a joy to write.’

Helen had invited Sin to join her in writing the novel, but as they were living in different countries, they communicated with each other through direct messages on Twitter. ‘We didn’t meet until it was nearly done,’ says Helen, who has since hosted Sin at her home in Suffolk. Together they visited Southwold and Framlingham (they are both fans of TV's The Detectorists), experiencing a midsummer Wicker Man celebration in the village, and spotting the sugar beet fields as they drive by. ‘Sin can identify them now!’

They wrote chapters, scenes, characters, dialogue and send it to each other for comments and editing. ‘Initially it was hard on both of us, ego-wise,’ says Helen. ‘I had no idea there was such vanity in me about the fact that I’ve written books and won all these prizes. Who is this person telling me to change what I’d written! But we learned to be really vulnerable with each other.’

Great British Life: Helen Macdonald and Sin Blache. Photo: Catherine LarnerHelen Macdonald and Sin Blache. Photo: Catherine Larner

Helen is an established and much-loved writer, an academic and an historian of science, so fiction is a departure for her. ‘But even though it’s not a book about nature, a lot of the things in my nature writing are also in this book. Who are we? What do we think is important?’

Sin, though only previously having been published in magazines, has long been writing horror and sci-fi stories. Characterisation and dialogue are Sin’s forte, says Helen.

‘Sin was way better at writing American than me. I’m still laughing about the number of times where I’d written some dialogue and Sin would say “no, that sounds like Jane Austen”.

‘It was the most fun I’ve had, writing,’ says Helen. ‘It was such an extraordinarily wonderful thing to be doing to cut all the despair and misery of lockdown. And we were inventing a world that’s subversive and hopeful. It kept my soul going.’

Prophet by Helen Macdonald and Sin Blache is published by Jonathan Cape priced £18.99


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