Salvation Under a Midnight Sun
Amy Liptrot on Finding Sobriety in the Far North of Scotland
Amy Liptrot stayed up late last night trying to catch feral raccoons in Berlin. She didn’t manage to see any and around 3am she gave up, after walking around the streets for hours, writing and asking drug dealers in Görlitzer Park if they’d seen any. The experience resembles one she had a few years ago when, on a tiny island at the northernmost edge of Scotland, she set out every night, “out in the gloaming with the livestock and the wildfowl,” caffeinated drinks and a backpack, to find a rare, endangered bird called a corncrake for a conservation project. She was 30 and adrift.
Despite having been raised on a farm on a bigger island not far distant in the remote archipelago of Orkney, she wasn’t always that interested in nature or wildlife. In fact, it wasn’t until she’d washed back up on those shores, escaping a life that had fallen apart in London, that her new life began. After a few years of hectic, hedonistic drug-filled fun, her life south evolved into alcoholism, and then accidents, arrests, and lost apartments, relationships, jobs… Her beautiful first book, the memoir The Outrun, tells of her addiction and her journey back to Orkney, where nothing but water separated her from the Arctic, and where the tremors of the land matched her own.
Liptrot spent a winter writing and recovering on the most remote island of the archipelago, called Papay, with population of 70 forming a warm, supportive community (as its own website attests). Gradually, reluctantly, she re-programmed herself physically and mentally as the landscape drew her in. Her recovery merges with her discovery of nature, and the book—and her life—becomes less in-her-head and slower, more outward. The Outrun came out in the UK over a year ago and Liptrot’s since been awarded the Wainwright Prize for nature and travel writing, and been praised by the likes of Olivia Laing and Will Self. She also has, she explains, received messages from hundreds of grateful readers.
She says, however, that her inspiration was more rap lyrics than landscape literature—and it does feel so. Extremely relatable, her writing draws you in—yes, she talks about birds, the sea, astronomy, but she mixes those with the internet, technology and reflections on city life. The writing is not just lyrical and elegant but sexy, honest and not self-helpy at all. In fact, throughout the book Liptrot is candid about craving the nightlife of the city, the heightened states, the “feeling easier” effects of drinking, the being at the center of things. Neither she nor the reader knows whether she’ll be able to stay sober.
We talk in the morning, on a video-call on the eve of publication of The Outrun in the US.
Marta Bausells: I was curious as to why you didn’t talk about your writing in the book, except for mentioning it a couple of times. It was clearly happening while you recovered, in Orkney, and seemingly in London as well. What was the reasoning behind that?
Amy Liptrot: I made a decision with the book that I wasn’t going to write about writing. There are a couple of mentions, but I think with a book you have to make decisions about what it is and what it’s not, and lots of writers can do that meta stuff fantastically, but I didn’t want to complicate things in that way. The time when I was on Papay, where the book is mainly set, that was actually the time when I was writing it as well.
MB: How did the practice of writing fit into your recovery, your gradual re-programming and choosing of “strength and beauty and creation” over alcohol?
AL: Good question. I was writing about getting sober, but the writing itself was helping me to stay that way, definitely. I think having a big project to concentrate on, which I started when I was about a year sober, was hugely important in re-focusing my energies and frustrations away from other things. So alongside the birds, and the sea-swimming, the writing itself was as big a part of my new lifestyle and what I found rewarding. Just the fact that I was producing a lot more and better stuff than I did when I was drunk made me think: “I’ll keep this up.”
MB: You write remarkably about place, about city versus nature and about your own inner process in nature. I wonder if you looked for or were you inspired by any other writers, and how you think The Outrun fits in the genre?
AL: I wouldn’t say when I was writing the book I was inspired by other nature writers. My background as a writer and the writing that I find interesting is often more like journalism, so good nonfiction. Actually, I’ve worked myself doing music reviewing and arts-magazine writing, and I think that informed my style as much as anything like landscape writing. Also, music and song lyrics are just as influential on the style of The Outrun as any literature. When I was writing the book I was listening to a lot of this American hip-hop band called Why?, who have a lot of intricate lyrics that use unusual factual stuff alongside hard-hitting emotions, and they ask the listener to make the connection between those things.
I sometimes thought I was trying to write the literary equivalent of the mood of Hyperballad by Björk—I just had that in my head. So music journalism, music, rap … oh, and Twitter, the odd poets operating on Twitter who really distill images down into a tweet and come at things from strange angles. I would be lying if I evoked John Muir or Emerson. So it’s nature writing but with different influences.
MB: So what do you make of people comparing The Outrun to H is for Hawk—as they do on the blurb on your very cover!
AL: I’m delighted to be thought of in the same category as such a wonderful book; however I see it as very different, because Helen Mcdonald is an expert in her field, she’s a falconer and the book is really about sharing her knowledge, as well as her fabulous writing, whereas for me, I’m a novice in the world of learning about birds and nature, and I see The Outrun as readers going alongside this journey of learning with me. A lot of nature writers are real experts in ecology, they have backgrounds in conservation, which is not me.
MB: The book has really resonated with readers in the UK and hundreds have got in touch with you saying it inspired them to get sober or helped them in the process. As you wrote about addiction and mental health—present also in the figure of your father, who suffered from manic depression—did you consider at all what the reader was going to take from it?
AL: No. I was on very shaky ground myself. The way it is described in the book—that I’m unsure if I’m going to start drinking again or if I’m going to maintain sobriety—was exactly how it was, so I think it would have been ridiculous to think it would be of assistance to other people. However, a foundation of AA is helping other addicts and assisting newcomers. The idea is that it helps you keep sober yourself, which is step 12. So I guess I can see that writing this book was a big step 12.
MB: One of my favorite chapters in the book is the one you devote to the internet, and I really enjoyed the ways you write about it as a place itself. Was it always part of the plan to integrate reflections on your digital life into the book?
AL: The book started as a series of columns, and this column that I wrote had a line that said “I’m carrying a lump hammer and a digital camera.” And I just really liked that combination. I felt like I struck on something with that, which was this combination of timeless, elemental land and then 21st-century technology. And that gave me a way into writing about Orkney, but being able to do it in a new and individual way.
And of course being online is very much part of my life and I didn’t want to be dishonest about that, I didn’t want to present that I had gone off grid and back to nature. I wanted to show the kind of intertwining of worlds that is such a common experience and how this even goes on in far-flung places. And, actually, how digital technology can almost be more important to small islands than it can be to cities, because it allows them to be connected and for people to live there and to work.
Also, talking about the internet in conjunction with the natural world throws up some strong images and juxtapositions, and I quite enjoyed the language.
MB: So many beautiful passages about sky-mapping apps, satellite views of thousands of puffins, Facebook tip-offs on orca sightings, flight tracking! I was also pleased you offered a defense of sorts of the online world, which has so much to be wary of but also so many pleasures. Like: “I’m using technology to take myself to the centre of something from my spot at the edge of the ocean. I’m trying to make sense of my environment. With my digital devices, the planes and birds and stars seem more quantifiable and trackable. […] I take a photograph of the sun setting over Westray and upload it to Facebook. My sky is converted into zeroes and ones, my personal data beamed into satellites, bounced through fibre-optic cables under the sea, through microwaves and copper wire, over islands, to you.”
AL: I’m glad you liked that chapter, because the fourth dimension of the internet will figure highly in the new book I’m working on—as will Berlin! And by fourth dimension, I mean the idea that for most of us now, as well as our physical life, we have this other zone running alongside us that we can enter in and out of, and is also intruding in and out of our minds at all times … when I was walking about looking for the raccoons last night, I was getting emails from my American publisher, and I find that interesting. It’s quite an easy trap to fall into being negative about all this, but I’m more interested in showing the strangeness and sometimes beauty and possibilities of this world, rather than the easy skepticism.
MB: The Outrun is a call for connecting to nature if I’ve ever read one—perhaps more so, because you’re not trying for it to be. You’re never attempting to be inspirational or prescriptive, but your life experience does make a strong case for “the ability of sea, land, wind, moon to restore life and new hope.”
AL: I find it hard to talk about my life and my writing as separate things, because it’s all intertwined. There’s a way that the writing changed and the book became slower and more outward-looking, mirroring the changes that were going on in me personally. I think opening my eyes to the world around me and appreciating the place that I was fortunate enough to have grown up in also made me happier, as well as giving me new things to write about. I feel very lucky to come from Orkney, it just took me a while to realize it—sorry, that’s a bit of a cliché, but there you go!
MB: Do you have any expectations around the book’s reception by American readers?
AL: I have no idea how it will do in America, but there’s such a high quality of nonfiction and memoir coming out of the US, that I’m delighted that it got picked up by a publisher. I absolutely love Rebecca Solnit. And if I can introduce a few people to the Orkney islands, then I’ll be delighted.