As I watch Amy Liptrot roll up her trousers, revealing entire yards of bone white shins, it feels like I’m standing beside a swan, a viking, a heron, a willo’ the wisp. We’ve come to the edge of a tree-lined lake on the outskirts of Berlin, and are wading out to a nearby island, to swim. As Liptrot slips into the water to chase a coot she seems fearless of depth, of weed, of watery beasts or wading birds – but, she says, she can imagine currents pulling her, even in this still and sandy place, out of control.
The author of the award-winning memoir The Outrun has come to Berlin to do a reading from her book. The hot, thundery streets and rattling S-bahns of Kreutzberg are a long way from the wild, wind-lashed, salt-sprayed islands of Orkney where she grew up and wrote the book. We have swapped Atlantic isolation for continental heat. And yet, watching Amy stand in the shallows beside a huge white swan, it seems that a part of that northerly outrun travels within her all the time.
The Outrun isn’t a simple, chronological story of alcoholism and recovery – it instead winds between recollections of drunk, dangerous London nights, the surreal, difficult months of rehab and the subsequent isolation, physicality and wonder of life on a distant island. “Being more outward looking was important in my recovery,” says Liptrot, about listening for birdsong, watching ice clouds, snorkelling in the ocean and scouting for razor clams and firewood. “I had the time and space to grow my brain, rather than destroy it on a regular basis. The book is really about what happens after I stopped drinking; and what can happen when you allow the unexpected.”
Liptrot’s birth, detailed in the prologue to the book, was itself an eventful mix of the mental and elemental. As her mother gave birth, her father was at that very moment being carried off to a secure unit, suffering an episode of mental crisis. Out of this melee, Amy grew into a tall, willowy woman, drawn to the bright lights and loud music of London, yet well-versed in lambing, rock pools, dry stone walls and salt-drenched storms. Her alcoholism, her heartbreak and her recovery is brilliantly documented in The Outrun. “Rereading my diaries from that time, I was struck by how much pain I was in over giving up booze,” says Amy. “But I’m glad I managed to write about it because not only was I writing about getting sober, but the writing itself was helping me to stay sober.”
Nicknamed ‘The Corncrake Wife’ by the other 70 residents of the tiny island of Papay, Liptrot came back to Orkney to work for the RSPB, recording and documenting its population of corncrakes - a rare, shy, secretive bird that nests in long grass and whose song sounds like a spoon being dragged over a draining rack. “I was writing during the day but the night times on Papay were quite alone,” says Amy who kept herself tethered to her old life through the blinking portals of laptop and iPhone. “I was living in this house that didn’t have any insulation. I’m tall and it was quite pokey, so I needed to get out every day. In the mornings I’d go walking, either on the North Hill, which is the bird reserve, along the west coast that has a rocky shoreline, or around the east coast, which has beaches. When my body was in motion, the cogs would be turning and that’s when things would fall into place. Then I’d get back, light the fire, and write in the afternoon into the evening.”
Unlike many writers, Liptrot wouldn’t write herself into oblivion, pouring out prose like a river; she had a 1,000 word target, an obstacle to surmount, and then would stop. “I was quite workmanlike about it, I treated it like a job,” she explains. Was it intrinsic to her process, to be out there in Orkney, vulnerable to the elements? “It did feel like a challenge being on the island in the winter; surrounded by the high winds and big seas,” she says, pulling on a cigarette. “In all the time I was walking on the North Hill I never saw another walker. It was mine, you know? We don’t have trees or blossom in Orkney. But the birds start coming back and swimming in springtime and you can see the stars a lot better in winter.”
Papay, she says, smells ‘damp and salty’. The nights are long – sometimes 18 hours long, and the storms are wild, often tearing doors off barns and upending cattle. But in the daytime she would swim – swapping the intoxication of drink and drugs for the shivering, wet-lashed exhilaration of the sea. “I like the feeling and smell of salt on my skin,” says Liptrot, “and I’ve learned with the swimming, like the writing, that you’re reluctant to do it but if you make yourself the rewards are amazing.” For her, writing is no simple pleasure. “I find writing full of anguish. Of course, I like seeing the progress but the daily nuts and bolts of knowing where you want to go but not knowing quite how to get there, I find that awful.”
The Outrun was built up from fragments; passages from diaries, tweets and sections of an unfinished novel that would collect into different chapters, different themes. Each time she dragged through what she’d written, those fragments would be intertwined, echoing from the inside. And so we see Liptrot standing on top of a phone box in East London just a few pages away from her building up a dry stone wall on her father’s farm; lying hazily on London Fields and then stalking the wave-battered coast of Papay, drinking into oblivion in her bedroom, followed shortly by a description of the twilight shine of an ice-filled noctilucent cloud.
As Amy and I get dressed to leave this little Berlin island, two huge swans rush towards us; their backs arched, wings spread, beaks snapping. Amy stands perfectly still, watching with a wry smile as I edge away, flicking my towel like a makeshift matador. She is tall, pale, unflappable, until the birds eventually retreat. She has, I suppose, seen off greater dangers than a couple of angry birds. And so we turn, our feet sandy, our hair smelling of lake, and head back to the pavements and pages of the city.