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Amy Liptrot: ‘I wanted to put the sex into nature writing’ | Amy Liptrot

Across the pages of Amy Liptrot’s new memoir, The Instant, the moon slowly follows us: in the app she has downloaded on to her phone to chart the phases of its orbit; passing through the sky, just visible from the windows of her apartment in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district; and in the subheadings she has awarded to each chapter (Thunder Moon, Hunger Moon, Strawberry Moon). It is the book’s steady presence: ancient and constant in an otherwise dislocated tale of fevered love in the digital age.

Today, Liptrot, 40, stands in the kitchen of her terraced house in Yorkshire, making tea on a cold midmorning. Tall and pale and slender, she is something like a sliver of moonlight herself – if the moon wore pink cords and a violet top and spoke with a silvery Orcadian accent.

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Liptrot’s life these days is some way from the one she described in her 2016 debut, The Outrun. Then, she was newly returned to the family farm in Scotland after a hedonistic decade in London. As she rehabilitated from alcoholism, she found solace and sustenance in the nature of the islands. This life is different, too, from the year she documents in The Instant, in which she left Orkney and relocated to Berlin, spending her time wheeling across her new city, working in a tea-packing factory, dancing, dating, searching for raccoons, companionship, love.

But for the last few years Liptrot has been settled here, with her partner and their two small children, in a house looking down over the rooftops of their close-knit town. She is, she points out, about as far as you can get from the coast – a strange feeling for someone who grew up by the sea. This calm, domestic existence is a subject she has yet to write about, and perhaps never will, having come to realise that keeping part of yourself back is crucial to the art of memoir-writing. “There’s a tendency, if you read about somebody’s life, to think that you have the entire picture, when really that’s an illusion,” she says. “Even though it’s a memoir, it’s carefully selected, and crafted, and there’s actually a lot that’s left out. I see myself as a writer, rather than somebody who has a sensational life.”

And so she is nervous, she says, about being interviewed today. We sit in her living room, with its bookshelves and binoculars and small wood-burning stove. Liptrot perches on the edge of her sofa, and for much of our conversation casts her eyes down. Between us, on her coffee table, sits a book about the moon.

“I’ve kind of got used to this thing with people I meet,” Liptrot says. “I can see in their eyes that they know quite a lot about me, and it bypasses a lot of small talk. They want to get into deep stuff straight away.”

In her debut, Liptrot wrote of the gradual escalation of addiction: losing her job, her lover, her home; isolating herself, drinking alone; the desire for alcohol blurring her judgment and heightening risk, leaving her with few routes out. There was a cool radiance to the way she wrote, a willingness to get into that same deep stuff, that made for something remarkable. The book became a bestseller, won both the Wainwright and the PEN Ackerley prizes, and is now set to be turned into a film by the German director Nora Fingscheidt, starring Saoirse Ronan.

Portrait of Amy Liptrot
‘My writing process is very long and time-consuming,’ says Liptrot. Photograph: Owen Richards/The Guardian

Still, that openness brought a responsibility. It forged a fierce bond with her readers, who write to her and seek her out at readings. “They want to tell me about the parallels between their life and mine,” she says. “The most amazing thing is the people who are trying to get sober, or who are newly sober, who’ve said the book’s helped them. Or people who have addicts in their life who say that the book’s helped them to understand and have compassion for those people. That has been incredible for me and the greatest gift of my life, I would say.”

This sense of connection galvanised her writing. “The fact that people will come on board with me, to keep on following down the things that I felt were interesting or worthwhile rather than what other people are writing about,” she says. “It gave me that confidence to follow my own instinct.”

Liptrot thought about those readers a great deal when deciding whether to adapt The Outrun; it was the strength of that bond, their investment in her book and its subject matter, that convinced her it was a worthwhile enterprise. She worries about representing its characters and Orkney well, and plans to evolve the narrative and even the central character’s name so it feels less autobiographical. “Having your book made into a film is a huge honour and thrill,” she says, “but also comes with a lot of nerves and responsibility … The way I’m stopping myself going bonkers is by concentrating on the work that needs doing – on making a piece of art distinct from the book.”

Now, on the eve of the new book, she is again fretting about letting her readership down. “I’m nervous about it,” she says. “I feel like I’m sort of pushing myself with the book, and taking a few risks both artistic and emotional with it. Now that it’s come to publication, I do have the collywobbles. I feel I’ve got quite a lot to lose.”

The Instant is not a straightforward book. It is a fragmentary, episodic account of Liptrot’s time in Berlin, which took inspiration from poetry and song lyrics, from the internet-led alt-lit movement, and Jenny Offill’s novel Dept. of Speculation. “A lot of books that have been published in the last five years or so are quite fragmentary,” Liptrot says. “And I definitely think that’s a product of living on Twitter, and being distracted and how our attention spans are. But also the way that we’re sophisticated enough as readers to process different information in parallel.”

It makes for a familiar rhythm for those accustomed to the perpetual scroll and swipe and tab-dance of online life. Liptrot designed each chapter as an extended metaphor: “There’s one about being in a techno club and being underwater. And there’s one that’s about online dating and looking for raccoons. And then there’s one that’s about traffic islands in Berlin and also about the love affair.” These were all interests that were happening concurrently for Liptrot. “I was doing the dating at the same time as I was getting up early to look for goshawks, and staying out late to look for the raccoons,” she says. “In my diaries, these things are mentioned in the same entry.”

When she looked back through those entries from that time, she noted a theme pulling these disparate strands together. “There was a kind of searching that’s at the heart of a lot of them,” she says. “A search for love, but more broadly a search for meaning. A very broad message of the book is about finding your own meaning, and finding the things that are important to you.”

She mentions her love for the work of the American author Annie Dillard, “and how she talks about giving voice to your own astonishment, which I take as this idea that whatever it might be that interests you as an artist, to really drill down into it”. There are many things that interest Liptrot: “The elements, stuff about geology, physics and astronomy, and then wildlife and birds,” she says. “And if something interests me, I’m going to put it in there, even if I don’t fully understand why. In art, not everything’s explained. It can be a little bit mysterious and magic.”

Halfway through the book, and halfway through her time in Berlin, Liptrot finds a hyperfocus in the form of a short but intense love affair. It is giddy and sensuous and full of promise, and when it ends, unexpectedly, she is heartbroken. In her grief, she performs what she describes as “digital archaeology” on their relationship: examining all of their old messages and all of his social media posts for clues; buying online guides to getting your ex back; posting photographs and updates she hopes he might see; following him across the internet, like the moon.

“I feel quite exposed having written about that,” she says now. “I feel it’s a bit embarrassing and it’s maybe a bit trivial. However, it was what concerned and obsessed me for a long time, and what my diaries were full of, and I thought, therefore, this must be worth writing about.”

She is aware, of course, of the parallels with addiction; that her personality type may be particularly susceptible to the highs of love and the keenness of its loss. “But if I mention it to other people I often get this little gasp of recognition,” she says. “So I think it is a widespread thing that we’re trying to negotiate. I wanted to acknowledge and honour that experience, and look at the weirdnesses and the strangenesses, and the funny bits, and eventually the recovery. But not to get there too quickly, because I was stuck in it for a long time.”

Sometimes she feels guilt for not writing about bigger issues. “Why am I writing about heartbreak?” she says. “Why am I not writing about climate change or the refugee crisis?” Not so long ago she told a friend that she feared her subject matter was indulgent and trivial. “And she said, ‘Well, some of those refugees are going to be heartbroken … ’”

Amy Liptrot near her home in Yorkshire.
Amy Liptrot near her home in Yorkshire. Photograph: Owen Richards/The Guardian

Since the success of The Outrun, many authors have attempted a similar feat – attempting to find consolation and new life through writing about nature. Liptrot is hesitant to talk about the current state of nature writing. “What can I say about that?” she wonders, and her eyes dart about the room. “I guess I see myself as a nature writer,” she says eventually. “But I want to slightly push the boundaries of what that can include.” She smiles, and her face pinkens. “A lot of nature writing is quite chaste, so I wanted to put the sex into nature writing. So humans as animals, and human instincts, and how the internet and digital technology allows us to amplify our animal instincts is of interest to me, in terms of searching for things, in terms of sexual opportunities, in terms of seasons.”

For those who relished the nature-rich elements of The Outrun, there is also plenty of wildlife in The Instant. Liptrot arrives in Berlin feeling “quite lost and quite lonely” but through her exploration of urban wildlife, she finds structure and understanding of her new city, there in each sighting of goshawk and crow, each suggestion of Berlin’s unexpected raccoon population. Early on, she buys a pair of binoculars and takes them out on field trips. “I had the skills that I’d developed on Orkney, understanding the natural world around me and writing about that natural world,” she says. “And I was interested in transferring those skills from the Scottish island to the city: writing about urban wildlife, but writing about human nature as well and human relationships, because nature doesn’t exist just in rural places.”

She makes no great claim to be any sort of authority on anything. “It’s not an academic polemic, or a fully researched book,” she says. “For me, it’s about the vibe, it’s about the mood, it’s about a certain place in time. It’s not me trying to fully authoritatively describe Berlin and the subculture. It’s my own experience.”

She felt much the same about The Outrun: “That I’m sort of an interested novice birdwatcher,” she says. “I’m not an expert. But the reader comes along with me on my journey of learning.”

Recently, Liptrot began looking for a fireproof box in which to keep her diaries – somewhere a little safer than the “big box upstairs” where they currently live. It was a moment, in many ways; an admission that she is now a writer, that this is her job. “My ambition has always been to write my diary for a living,” she says. “Which is kind of what I’m managing to do, and what I really hope I’ll continue to be doing.”

I wonder if the voice she uses when writing her diary has changed as a result – whether she is aware now that it will form the basis of something more substantial. She thinks for a moment. “I try not to use it as a place just to moan,” she says. “If there’s a particular sensation or experience, I try to get loads of it down, so I can perhaps go back and use it at a different stage. But my writing process is very long and time-consuming, and the diaries are just one starting point of it.” Any piece of writing will also involve extensive note-taking, research, talking to experts. “I feel like I’ve struck on a process that works quite well but is quite laborious.”

Take the moon, for example. “When I was back on Papay [Papa Westray, where much of The Outrun was set] I started getting more and more aware of the moon, and I then kept up that awareness in Berlin,” she says. “I got the app that tells me what the moon phase was, what time it’s going to rise and what direction to look in.” Sometimes, she will mark the full moon with a swim. “With the solstices and the equinox and the movements of the planets, I try to get my head around understanding what they’re actually doing. And I find it pleasing to have a combination of academic book learning and then seeing it happen in real life.” She laughs, and her eyes spring up. “And come on,” she says, “the moon! Poets have been at it for all time! I can’t claim it’s a new thing. But I like knowing it’s up there, holding on to us.”

The Instant is published by Canongate at £14.99 on 3 March. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply. Amy Liptrot will be interviewed on 5×15.com on 1 March.

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