Interview: Amy Liptrot – 'I wrote it because I wanted to make something beautiful'
The Outrun author talks about quitting London for Orkney to rebuild her life
Blending memoir and nature writing, The Outrun tells the story of Amy Liptrot’s recovery from alcoholism, and her complex relationship with Orkney.
After ten years in London, Liptrot returned to her home island aged 30, coming to understand her addiction and finding new ways of being in the natural world. The book’s success has delighted Liptrot, but she’s been taken aback by the personal ways in which individual readers have responded to it.
‘There are quite a lot of ways into the book, whether it be people who are interested in the natural world, or the Scottish islands, or people with rural backgrounds,' she explains. ‘And then also, of course, people who are interested in, or have been touched by, or who have even experienced themselves, problems with addiction. I’ve had people asking me to sign copies of the book that they’re going to give to somebody who’s maybe struggling with alcohol, as a way of opening a conversation with them. It’s not a reason why I wrote the book, but I’m pleased that it can be used in that way.’
Liptrot writes frankly about her addiction and the highs and lows of a hedonistic east London lifestyle. Fond memories of tipsy afternoons spent idling with friends in London Fields are juxtaposed with bleaker recollections of late-night solo booze runs and disintegrating relationships. Returning to Orkney after a stint in rehab gave Liptrot an opportunity to rebuild her life but she resists the temptation to present the island as an idyllic retreat.
‘I didn’t write it as a self-help book or as a tourist guide. I wrote it because I felt that I wanted to make something beautiful,’ Liptrot says. ‘Maybe the book is slightly misrepresented in people saying, “Oh, it’s about Amy returning home to heal herself”. Things don’t tend to work like that. It was a much more practical choice to return to Orkney, which I did because I was out of work and had no money.’
While living on the island, Liptrot worked on her parents’ farm and spent a summer monitoring corncrakes for the RSPB. As a result, her relationship with the land is different to that of more romantically inclined writers. ‘What’s been most fertile for me in terms of learning, understanding and also writing about the natural world has been when I’ve been working in the land, rather than simply going out for walks. So whether it’s building the drystone dykes on the farm or doing the survey work, looking for the corncrakes or actually immersing myself in the sea, I found that this was how I was able to understand a place more deeply and get more out of it in terms of writing.’
Although Liptrot has rightly won acclaim for the crisp beauty of her Orkney writing, her depiction of urban places is equally vivid, informed, as it is, by her islander’s perspective. ‘I think that what I have realised, which I didn’t back when I first lived in London, was how much the landscape that you grew up in stays with you. There’s something in me that’s kind of looking for a horizon or overlaying the landscapes of my mind onto the city. So there are passages in the book where I’m seeing the skyscrapers and imagining that they’re cliffs, or seeing a light on top of a building and imagining that it’s a lighthouse, or hearing the sounds of traffic and thinking it’s the sea. I think that’s something I’ve had to face up to; the kind of homesickness that I carry with me.’
In contrast to writers who argue that digital technology has alienated us from nature, Liptrot has a more positive take, writing of her evenings spent researching local history and natural phenomena online. In the book she was keen to show the ways in which different types of technology could actually help people to learn about the natural world. She does this by citing instances of people tracking sightings of orcas on social media, or using astronomy apps on their smartphones.
Being online, she believes, allows her to be in two places at once, connecting her with ‘the ghosts of my past’ and helping her to deal with her homesickness.
‘I think writing about the internet, particularly in conjunction with the natural world, throws up lots of interesting imagery and juxtaposition. And indeed, in computing language you’ve got lots of metaphors from the natural world: streams, cloud, virus, field, mouse. It’s something I enjoy writing about and will continue to do so. I’m experimenting and trying to push myself.’
Amy Liptrot & Melissa Harrison, Charlotte Square Gardens, 0845 373 5888, 26 Aug, 10.15am, £12 (£10).