After reading each other’s books, Sarah Perry and Amy Liptrot struck up a correspondence. Here they discuss seasonality, noctilucent cloud, and the ethics of nature writing.
Sarah Perry by Jamie Drew/Amy Liptrot by Lisa Swarna Khanna
Sarah Perry: I want to begin by asking you what seems like rather a childish question; but it’s something that occurred to me when reading your wonderful book and which I think about a great deal in my own work. It’s also something my Mum asked me about when she and I were chatting about nature writing, so it’s been on my mind of late. Do you think you are influenced by the seasons when you write – are you (for example) more likely to write about icy weather or frost on car windows if you’ve just come in from a long walk in the cold?
I find myself setting scenes in my fiction in precisely the kind of weather I am living in at that moment – it’s as if by the time autumn comes I have forgotten what snowdrops look like, or even that they exist!
Amy Liptrot: This is an apt question to ask because today, springtime in London (mild and still, wisteria blooming in the garden), I have been trying to write about autumn in Orkney (equinoctial gales, high seas) – and struggling. I resorted to finding an old photograph – one where sea spray dotted the lens on my camera – to try to trigger the correct memories. It’s much easier to write in the time, when the sensations are fresh and because I write non-fiction, and more specifically usually about things that have happened to me – I usually can stick to this. I take notes on my phone when I’m outside, write daily diaries and take photographs to try to store the information with immediacy.
I’ve very rarely written fiction so I’m interested in your processes. The Essex Serpent, which I enjoyed so much, is set over the course of a year. I wonder: did you write it over one year too, in the same seasons? Were the experience of the natural world that your characters were having in the 1890s ones that you had too? Were the Essex Marshes the same then as they are now?
SP: The image of sea spray on the lens of your camera rings so true – I wonder if you find, like me, that if you can crystallise these little moments it opens up all the other sensations and images that you need? I remember when I was writing a forest scene it was the sight of tree-roots crossing a path and creating a flight of stairs that suddenly made me feel I really knew the wood…
I did actually write the book over the course of a year, more or less in keeping with the months (though I’m not disciplined enough for it to have been exact). I went out and got cold and wet in a wood in winter, and got my long-suffering parents to drive me down to the Blackwater estuary. Because of sea-defences, tens of thousands of acres of wetland and marshland are gone now, but it’s still an eerie and wonderful place. Mersea island in particular … at dusk you could well believe there’s something about to creep out of the water.
Immediacy challenges me, too. I so rarely make notes – I tend to only write about a place days or weeks after I’ve been there. So I’m often writing from memory, which diminishes some things to nothing, and makes other things seem bigger and more vivid than they really are. I wonder if I’d be more painstaking if I were (or thought of myself as) a ‘nature writer’, as if that confers some kind of responsibility?
Which leads me on to one of the main things I want to ask you, which is about the idea of the nature writer, and of nature writing as a particular genre. Are you comfortable with this kind of categorisation – and do you think of yourself as being A Nature Writer?
AL: I just re-read the chapter with the scene in the forest on the green stair (never have conkers been so sexy, crikey!). I love this book and your writing: “dreadful tenderness”, “thicky mossed”. Cora and Luke’s relationship is so special and unconventional and the setting of the gilded temple of the woods just completes it. Could it be set anywhere other than Essex, I wonder?
I’m definitely a Writer first with Nature being just one of my subjects. While I am interested in birds, what I am particularly interested in is writing about birds and I think that distinction is important, even if it sounds a bit calculating. What I’ve really always written about – in my diaries from a young age – is myself but over the time period when The Outrun is set and was written, I was making all these new discoveries (different stages of twilight! the folklore about arctic terns returning in ‘the first mist of May’!) and was able to find material from the wider world which I wanted to share with readers. I was not a keen naturalist/ornithologist kid but I did grow up on a farm on the coast in Orkney and – although I was reluctant to admit it for years – these things, the elemental natural forces I was raised in, the island wildlife, were in me and affect the way I see things and how I write.
So I have this inescapable tendency to write about Orkney (I was in Berlin writing about a techno club, which became writing about how the dancers were like sea creatures and – dammit – I realised I was writing about Orkney again) and I wonder if you feel the same connection with your territory of eastern England? There’s such a strong atmosphere and aesthetic in The Essex Serpent and I wonder what it is that makes these places special to you?
SP: I think it’s really telling that you say your interest is more specifically in writing about birds: that makes a great deal of sense to me. I suppose it is shockingly self-involved but I am always most interested in life – and the natural world is a part of that – as material for writing. Not in an acquisitive way, I hope – but in the sense that to write about something seems to me the highest tribute of appreciation and attention I can give it. Recently I was in a car going through Thetford Forest at dusk, and staring at the bare trunks of the pines receding into the distance, trying to come up with the perfect descriptor – all I could hit on was that they looked rather like a barcode, which was totally unsatisfactory; then I lost all interest, and turned away. My interest in them was, I think, my interest in finding the words for them, which is not quite the same as giving them attention on their own terms…
You use the word ‘inescapable’ and I think this is incredibly important in trying to come to terms with why we write as we write – and why we write the places we write. Perhaps the places we live leave an imprint on us. I doubt I would write quite how I do, if I had been born in the Scottish highlands, or in some hot Spanish city. Even if I were to say: I am sick of my immersion in marsh and mist – let me write about the hot sun on a red-tiled roof! – it would all still, really, be about East Anglia – like the negative of a photograph.
I can’t really account for why the East is so special to me (and it really is the East – I even feel all out-of-sorts if I am in West London: sometimes I think my blood is magnetised and I’ve got some sort of compass in me.) It is essential, and it is mine. All other landscapes – even ones that I find giddyingly seductive (I have in mind the many holidays I’ve spent in Glenelg and Oban) – they are not-mine, not-me. When it is hot, and bare, I feel exposed. In cities, I feel as if my skin is being picked off by a thousand sharp little fingers. Among mountains I feel like a car being put in a compressor. Put me on a Norfolk beach or the Essex saltings at dusk and it’s not only that I feel more comfortable, more content. I feel more myself.
There is something I want to ask you in light of the last few days. After Orlando and the murder of Jo Cox, I became very despondent – I know we all did – and wondered what the point of writing was, unless writing directly in response to the atrocities. And it sounds so banal, and immature even, but the night Jo Cox died I put on Springwatch and watched a nightingale protect her nest from an adder. And it did seem that there was a particular value and a particular benefit to turning my back on the news for a while and watching natural life instead. Do you feel there is a particular need – an ethical purpose, almost – to kinds of writing that deal with nature, when the world is as it is these days?
AL: I feel there is an ethical purpose in writing about nature in the face of its destruction; to celebrate the species of plants and animals we have now as they are disappearing due to climate change and human activity. I also think there can be comfort in observing and understanding the seasons and the tides and the movement of celestial bodies – there are things bigger than us that go on regardless of whatever messes we get ourselves into. However, everything is connected and I don’t think “nature writing” is a place of gentle escapism: on another day that adder would have successfully invaded the nest.
I am going to come and walk on an eastern beach at dusk with you soon, Sarah, looking out for the Essex Serpent. The other night I had a vivid dream which was partly like the episode of the hysteria in the school. Your book has infiltrated my dreams.
One thing I particularly love about the book is your use of Unusual Nature Phenomena – including noctilucent cloud (‘the night shining’) and sea mist mirages – at dramatic points in the story. Have you ever seen these things for yourself?
Sea mirage in Orkney. Photo: Antony Hodgson
SP: I loved reading about noctilucent cloud in your book – it was one of those moments when you felt like my kindred. I am jealous, though, as I’ve never seen it myself – perhaps I should come with you to Orkney after you’ve had a walk on a misty marshy East Anglian beach with me. But I have seen the Fata Morgana, and I think that I saw it because I wrote about it. I was on a beach in North Norfolk and saw these curious black smudges on the horizon, that through binoculars became these tower blocks that grew and diminished over the course of a few hours. If I hadn’t been a little obsessed with them in order to write that scene, I don’t suppose I would even have noticed. It was one of those weird instances when I felt I had begun to inhabit the natural world I’d written, rather that writing the natural world I inhabit.
AL: P.S. I like the simile of the trees like a barcode. I like mixing up nature and technology. If you don’t use it, I’ll have it.
SP: Ha! You are very welcome to it: I love the idea of sharing a phrase.