Amy Liptrot interview: on writing The Outrun

Feature by Ceris Aston | 03 Feb 2016
  • Amy Liptrot

Amy Liptrot’s debut, The Outrun, has already marked her as a major new voice of 2016. The Skinny catches up with her days after the book’s release to talk about the restorative quality of the wilderness and the links between fiction and memoir writing 

Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun is an honest and painfully beautiful memoir of addiction, healing and hope, detailing the author’s return home after rehab and the relationships she forms with both people and place. Her debut, published by Canongate and featured as Radio 4’s book of the week, her debut has shone a spotlight on an author who details disco lights and night skies with equal eloquence. Six days after its publication, Liptrot chats to The Skinny about the process of crafting a memoir.

Conversation opens with remarks about the weather, as we wait a few moments for the phone connection to steady – “I’ve only got one bar of signal,” Liptrot notes; a familiar concern for someone who grew up on Scotland’s remote Orkney isles. The island where her family farmed was known as the mainland – with the rest of Scotland and the UK known simply as ‘the south.’ Returning to the farm where she grew up, she would sit on an upturned bucket in a field to get reception, keeping connected with the rest of the world through photographs and stories shared on social media.

“Part of what the book grew out of was that, when I went back to Orkney I started putting pictures of the farm and life up there on Facebook,” Liptrot recalls. “To all of my friends back in London it sounded really fascinating. That helped me to realise that it is an unusual or interesting place, and lifestyle, and maybe it’s worth writing about.

“In my first year in Orkney I started doing this column for Caught by the River, a kind of nature-writing website, and all those columns have become chapters of the book – the ambergris one and the dyke-building one, lambing time – but all of those columns were much more on the nature-writing side, with the personal stuff more one brief mention. But also, when I was at the treatment centre I wrote a blog, which I just shared with a few friends, and that was another kind of starting point.”

Amy Liptrot's personal diaries

As well as these, The Outrun draws upon Liptrot’s personal diaries, which she has written since the age of eight. “A lot of people write diaries in their teenage years but rather embarrassingly I never stopped! I’ve got this big box of them in my mum’s attic. I was actually just over there and I went and looked at the box, and there was a moment of ‘ah, that’s what you were working me towards’ – all these hours in teenage bedrooms, it makes sense now.

“I got the first draft down very quickly, and that might have been a little bit painful, but I think when I began redrafting it, it’s part of this piece of work rather than being about my life, if that makes sense; it was craft rather than therapy. I think it gets to a stage where I am able to separate my writing from my own experiences.”

The Outrun is rooted firmly in place by meticulous, dazzling descriptions of Orkney’s natural landscape and its inhabitants – from the Orkney Polar Bears, braving the North Sea in swimming costumes and woollen hats, to the male corncrakes that Liptrot spent a summer listening out for and recording. ‘The oldest islanders are already familiar with the call, which was once the sound of the countryside on summer nights,’ reads one simple but poignant description.

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From remote Papa Westray, or Papay, Liptrot writes of life as it is and as it was, tracing London’s lines onto Orkney’s contours and vividly evoking her experience of both places. “I’ve always written directly from personal experience. In writing about place, I try to do a thing where I stop and count off – what can I smell, what can I hear, what can I feel? We tend to be visual but sometimes it pays to stop and to think about the other senses as well.”

The Outrun is the largest field of the farm, ‘a stretch of coastland at the top of the farm where the grass is always short, pummelled by wind and sea spray year round.’ There, as a teenager, listening to music on her headphones, she would look out at the horizon in frustration, feeling trapped. As an adult, she pictures the scenes of shipwrecks past, the search for bodies and survivors.

This sense of peril pervades the book – from a collie pup disappearing over a cliff in the opening pages, to Liptrot’s open reflections on her struggle with alcoholism and the obsession of addiction. “I read an interview with Cheryl Strayed, the American writer, where she said that writing nonfiction can use the tools of fiction, which I thought was quite a good way of putting it,” Liptrot muses. "There are some parts in the book, especially when I was rewriting, when I was thinking about that, thinking about adding suspense or a kind of element of peril, parts with the threat hanging over the farm, and the idea – which was true – of the risk of me wanting or starting to drink again, the kind of things which you would find in a novel as well."

Writing a memoir

Reflecting on the nature of the form, she considers that “It’s a weird thing, writing a memoir. It doesn’t tell that much; I mean there’s loads of stuff in my life that’s not in the book, whole jobs and boyfriends, but people reading it might get the impression that it’s my whole life. There’s a smoothing out and a giving of a narrative to things that in real life are more complex and meandering. I think there’s a distinction between memoir and autobiography. It mainly concentrates on this period, really just a year or two, after I returned to Orkney after I got out of rehab. It’s a strange thing, it gives the impression of a whole truth but really it’s just part of it.” Yet, for all this, she says, “My best attempt at describing what has happened in my life is in this book.”

It is four years since Liptrot started The Outrun, one-and-a-half since she knew she’d be published. The published memoir is the fourth draft, and Liptrot relates the pressure from early readers to put more of herself into it. “So I went back the second winter and I did add in more of the personal stuff, particularly the early chapters that became more like a traditional memoir. Actually that second winter, I think I went there with 70,000 words, and after four months’ work I had 70,000 words!

“When I was writing the book I had a daily word count that every day I hit, or it was a daily redraft-one-chapter-a-day schedule, six days a week. I tend to smoke roll-up cigarettes and drink Coca-Cola when I am writing, which is not very good, and get myself into quite a highly strung state of mind, because I feel as though I need this sort of edginess to write. I’ve heard that it’s possible to write without chain smoking but I am not sure if I believe that.”

The Outrun is out now, published by Canongate