From the drama of her birth on Kirkwall to life as an addict in London, Amy Liptrot tells all in her memoir. Well, not quite all, finds David Robinson
Here’s what I still don’t know about Amy Liptrot, and it’s quite a long list. Where she lives, whether she lives with anyone, where and when she went to university, what she studied, what she wanted to do when she left. Whether she wanted to be a writer, whether she still does, what she likes reading, whether she goes to parties, concerts and pubs any more. And is she still, as she describes herself on Twitter, a night listener, sea swimmer and diarist?
Even after I’ve read her first – and really rather brilliant – memoir, The Outrun, I know none of this. And though its inside back cover adds that she’s also been a trampolinist, an artist’s model and worked in a shellfish factory, the book itself doesn’t mention it.
Yet if we’re looking, at the start of the New Year, for new Scottish writers of talent to watch out for, here’s what I do know: that Amy Liptrot is right up at the top of the list. And if I have given the impression that you can read her book and feel as though you don’t know anything about her, I must correct that straight away. The Outrun is one of the most scabrously honest, sassy and moving books about addiction and recovery that I have read.
This is, of course, a crowded field. So many writers have described their spiral into addiction and their fraught recovery that you might wonder what more can possibly be added. Yet when Liptrot writes about her hard partying days in London, when no-one was actually earning any money yet somehow the booze and drugs never stopped, you can catch its allure. Here, for example, she is describing an impromptu party of friends on London Fields, crowding around a patch of grass and sniffing a spilled bottle of poppers.
“It was stupid and pitiable and fun, as I breathed in the solvents, rolled onto my back and looked at the sky. As the horizon tipped, I was covered with warm light, and flying with my friends, limbs and sun cream and honey and ants, all sticky and sweet, and the sun was blinding me, and I had never been as high.”
This is when she meets her boyfriend. “My bare toe touched his weekend stubble. I noticed his bruised shoulder and felt my pulsing ambition.”
So that’s the start of a romance of some kind, and even though Liptrot doesn’t describe it or him, she almost doesn’t need to. For already she’s done the hardest thing of all: she’s made her readers give a damn, or at least enough to want to read about a complete stranger whose life is, on one level, irrelevant to them. That’s an amazing trick to pull off, so it’s worth looking briefly at how Liptrot manages it.
First, there’s that feisty self-confidence you might already have glimpsed in those quotes. But there’s also, both in Liptrot’s life and the way she writes, an engaging unpredictability. She’s already read all those addiction and recovery books, she tells me. While she was an alcoholic, she was obsessed by them.
Yet her own story is different. It doesn’t, like so many addiction memoirs, start at the nadir, the “worst moment”, the turnaround point. Instead, it begins on the Kirkwall airport helipad. Her parents are both there: her mother, having just been released from the hospital where she gave birth to her. Her father, in a straitjacket and in a wheelchair, is being taken to a secure unit near Aberdeen by helicopter. His daughter’s birth has triggered a psychotic episode and he has been sectioned. On his way to the helicopter, the baby is briefly put in his lap.
Liptrot’s story unfolds from that moment. Her father, from England, trying to make a go of a farm on Orkney despite his mental illness. His mother, a farmer’s daughter from Somerset, attempting and failing to help him, and turning to evangelical religion for consolation, though it only pushes them further down the road to divorce. Their daughter, going to university and returning to work in a dead-end job as a cleaner of oil terminal workers’ bedrooms, all the time feeling that her life needs an edge if she is not to slip into invisibility. An edge that seems to mean partying with east London’s young hipster crowd and drinking as though there’s no tomorrow.
You start to realise Liptrot’s skill when you realise her writing’s nuances. Somehow, she’s able to satirise her London life at the same time as showing what drew her to it. Writing about her Orkney childhood, she pulls off a similarly difficult trick of avoiding both self-pity and alienating emotional exhibitionism. And when she goes back there to build on the recovery she had started in rehab, a process that sees her learning to align herself with the natural world all around her, there’s still that same unforced, unfooled acceptance of complexity. Yes, she knows how sea swimming off Orkney, checking out the night skies, or building a GPS map of her island walks in the winter she spends on Papay all give her a strong and valued sense of identity and belonging. But no, you sense, she’s not going to be a poster girl for Nature: she appreciates its wildness, but won’t lose her own.
So when I speak to her on the phone, I’m somehow not surprised that Orkney wasn’t the end of the story, that when she finished The Outrun in October 2014 she headed out to Berlin, where she lived for a year, writing notes for her next non-fiction book (“about racoons and traffic islands and the internet” she offers tantalisingly) before her boyfriend dumped her and she went back to stay at a friend’s in east London. Even that’s only temporary, though. “I’ll be here until the end of March,” she says. “After that I have no idea where I’ll be.”
She seems quite nervous on the phone, and I realise it’s because I started off – as here – by mentioning all the things I still didn’t know about her. But as we talked, and she explained some of the technical changes in the rewrites (mainly moving parts of the text around), she relaxed, and I started to understand why the book feels so real to me, how the writing is so clear that it doesn’t really feel like writing (even though it is mined with consistent and effective metaphors).
It is, I reckon, something to do both with keeping a diary for close on a quarter of a century, and writing, for no money, a few columns for the Caught by the River website, which she started when she returned from London.
“The book itself really came from desperation. I was nervous about those first columns, because although they might have been about being on Orkney, they all had a little mention of what I was doing there – that I’d returned after being in rehab. And all my Facebook friends, for example, didn’t know this had happened to me. But I had such a nice response to the columns from friends and strangers, and this was a time in my life when I didn’t have a lot going for me apart from the fact that I could write.”
So here’s what I now know about Amy Liptrot but didn’t learn from the book. That the Liptrots mainly hail from Wigan. That she read English at Edinburgh, edited the student newspaper in her final year and was writing for NME and doing an internship in the last days of the uber-cool mag The Face (“I thought I was the bees’ knees, doing that while still a student”). That while working on the trampoline/bungee at Edinburgh’s Princes Street Mall, she learnt how to do a quadruple backflip. That she still keeps a diary, just as she has from the age of eight, a page of a day, and in a perfect world that would be a full-time paid job. That when she got back to Orkney after Germany in October, she swam three times in the sea with her friends in the Polar Bear Club and once on Papay.
And parties and pubs? Does she still go? “Amazingly, in the last two years, it’s extremely rare that I think about having a drink. I’d never have thought that in my first year of sobriety when I went back to Orkney and was struggling with cravings the whole time. I’ve got to be vigilant, and I do go to AA meetings, but in Berlin I’d go to a bar or a party for an hour, see the people that I wanted to and then say goodnight.”
Towards the end of The Outrun , she writes: “If I can be cheeky and flirtatious without booze, I’ll be unstoppable.” It’s my last question, and I’m sorry if it’s obvious. Is she? “Yes,” she laughs. “My confidence level in my ability to do things sober continues to grow and has grown with this book.” She pauses, mentally replaying what she’s just said. “Sometimes I do have that arrogant tone of voice. But then again, sometimes I really do feel like that.”
• The Outrun, by Amy Liptrot, is published by Canongate on 21 January, priced £14.99. It will be Radio 4’s Book of the Week from 18-22 January