Novelist Katy Regan joins Zibby to talk about her latest book, How to Find Your Way Home. The two discuss why Katy wanted to write about homelessness with a bother and sister dynamic, their shared love and mourning for print magazines, and the personal connection that inspired Katy to include a birdwatching element to the story. Katy also shares the wide range of books she’s reading now and how she found her way to writing through other artistic mediums.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Katy. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss How to Find Your Way Home: A Novel.

Katy Regan: Thanks for having me.

Zibby: Would you mind telling listeners a bit about what the book is about? I’m particularly interested in the homelessness angle of it and how you so seemingly realistically portrayed the experience of being a homeless person and what it’s like reacclimating and all of that stuff.

Katy: How to Find Your Way Home, I would call it a big, emotional family drama. It’s about a brother and a sister, Stephen and Emily Nelson. When we meet them in the present day, they’ve been estranged for seventeen years. We know that Emily’s been looking for her brother who she knows is homeless. One day, her prayers are answered in that he walks into the homelessness office where she works finding flats for homeless people. Their lives recollide. Then they embark a birding trip, a birding journey. We learn all about their childhood and the reasons why they were estranged in the first place, the big event that happened in their childhood that catapulted them apart. The reason I made it a brother and a sister was a lot to do with the homelessness angle in that I was really interested in this idea that if you were a brother and sister brought up in the same family with the same circumstances, what would mean one of you ends up homeless on the streets and one of you doesn’t? One of you ends up in a normal life, I guess. Emily’s quite middle-class. She’s got a nice apartment. She’s got a boyfriend, good job. What could’ve happened in your life to make that happen? That’s where that came from.

Zibby: I love the — well, I didn’t love. I was equally horrified by the Burberry sweater showdown.

Katy: Yes, who says things like that?

Zibby: There are always moments where you see the true character of someone.

Katy: Always in the small details, isn’t it?

Zibby: One small detail about one character, which was so perfect. I didn’t even realize, of course, but birds obviously play a big theme. I didn’t even notice the cover. I didn’t even notice the birds on the cover until after. I was like, of course there are birds on the cover because they come up all the time, and the binoculars and taking care of wounded birds and all of the things that happen along the way. Why birds? Why did you include all this aviary stuff?

Katy: Why indeed? I’m not a birdwatcher at all and never was. My granddad was quite a birdwatcher. My dad used to take us birdwatching when we were little. I come from quite a marshy area of English which is similar to Canvey Island in the book. Although, I come from the north. Canvey Island’s near London. Do you know what? Well, I do know. My son’s father, his brother suffers from quite severe mental illness. He suffers from schizophrenia. He’s always loved birdwatching. It’s always been a great source of joy for him, resilience. It just really interested me why that was, what it was about nature that really helped in his life. I think that that’s where the initial inspiration came from. I wanted Stephen to be — I wanted to show the resilience of homeless people. I’d worked in a few homeless shelters. That’s what really struck me. I wanted to give him something like a love of nature to kind of give him this superpower, almost. That’s where the birdwatching came from, and his love of nature. I had to research it all because I knew nothing about birds. Then the more I researched about birds, the more I found really magical, beautiful things that I wanted to weave into the plot about the — what do you call it? I’ve forgotten the word. Migration. The migration thing, I was really wowed by this fact that the swifts in the book and all migratory birds, they fly thousands and thousands of miles. They’re the size of a crisp packet. They fly thousands of miles every year to, sometimes, the same branch to breed. I thought, god, that’s resilience, all right.

I loved the idea that it was mirroring that and the fact that the swifts in the book that Stephen’s so in love with, they represent security and reliability to him in a world and a childhood that hasn’t got any of that. He can completely rely on these swifts to come back, to the day, every year to Canvey Island where he lives to nest every spring. He looks forward to it. Whilst things are going on around him with his stepfather and so on — life’s quite difficult for Stephen as a child. He’s got these to rely on. That was also a factor. It was very organic, how it came about. I didn’t go, I’m going to make it about birds. I’m going to make it fit. It was just like, when I learned about migration and I learned about bird behavior, I was blown away by it. I wanted to somehow think about what they could teach us, I suppose, and this idea that we’re sharing the planet with something. It’s not just us here. We’re not the most important things on the planet. Also, because he’s homeless, his superpower is he’s a real observer of life. I thought, what could more show that than him being a birdwatcher? He’s used to observing. He observes from his place on the street as well. He can see things other people can’t see about life and human beings. It all kind of tied in.

Zibby: Wait, say again — it’s your husband’s — it’s your stepson who is schizophrenic? Is that what you said?

Katy: No. My son’s dad, his brother, so my son’s uncle.

Zibby: Your son’s uncle, so your brother-in-law or former brother-in-law or whatever?

Katy: Yeah, we’re not together anymore.

Zibby: Ex-brother-in-law?

Katy: Yes.

Zibby: Okay, just making sure I had it straight. Was the experience of your ex’s growing up with — I know schizophrenia usually shows up around age eighteen and everything. Not that you can speak for him. Are there pieces of that relationship that particularly — one of my favorite books and movies is the Wally Lamb — I’m literally losing my mind. I want to say She’s Come Undone, but that’s the wrong Wally Lamb.

Katy: I’ve read that, though. That’s a fabulous book.

Zibby: It’s the one with Mark Ruffalo. It was directed by Derek Cianfrance. My mind is literally escaping —

Katy: — Oh, good. I need to watch this. I loved She’s Come Undone.

Zibby: That was also good. I’ll think of it in two seconds. I’m going to look it up. It’s the same thing where there are twins. One of them was schizophrenic, and the other was not, and how that ended up evolving. I was just wondering, anecdotally, if you had —

Katy: — With my ex?

Zibby: Yes.

Katy: He doesn’t have schizophrenia.

Zibby: I Know This Much is True. That’s what it’s called. Sorry. I Know This Much is True.

Katy: He doesn’t have schizophrenia, but he has always been very close to his brother, looking after him, caring for him. He goes birdwatching with him. He’s actually a photographer. He’s done a big book called Big Brother, which is all about his relationship with his brother, a photojournalism book, which is amazing. All of this filtered into my head and became an inspiration for the novel. It was all going on around the same time.

Zibby: Wow. Tell me about your writing journey. You grew up in this marshy part of England. Then what happened?

Katy: In the northwest of England. I always wrote stories. Actually, I was more into dancing when I was younger. I was more into performing arts. That was kind of the direction I was going to go in, but I was always in an imaginative world. I used to write my own books, ripping off, shamelessly, things like Beatrix Potter stories. I was obsessed with Beatrix Potter. I used to do my own rip-offs of that. I was always writing story. Then I did follow the dancing thing for a while, the acting/dancing thing, but that didn’t work out. I went to a residential dance college, but that didn’t work out. I decided that I wanted to come back and study and go to university, which I did. I did a French and English degree. I think it was at university, really, that I discovered that maybe I could do this writing thing. I worked at the student newspaper as a features writer. I just really felt like I’d found my spiritual home. I loved the vibe of it. I loved writing. I found out I could do it. A newspaper took an interest in a feature that I’d written. I think that was my moment where I went, oh, okay, maybe someone like me could make writing a career. I thought people from little towns in the northwest of England don’t become writers. That’s a grand thing to be . Little things happened where I thought, maybe I can do that. Then I was a journalist. I still am a journalist for Maire Claire magazine and glossy magazines. I wrote a column. Then that turned into my first novel. Then it went from there.

Zibby: What do you think is the future of magazines? I know everything is moving so digital.

Katy: I don’t really think there is much future for actual readable magazines. I love magazines. I still love magazines, but so many of them have closed. Even Maire Claire here has folded. It’s now only online. In fact, I don’t know whether it’s even online now. It’s such a shame. I feel so lucky that I worked for magazines in literally the golden era of the late nineties, early two-thousands in Soho in London. That was a really exciting time to work in magazines. That was the best time. It’s really sad. I don’t know if it’s the same in the States. Here, a lot of the magazines have merged. We’ve got three magazines working on the same features desk, people writing features for three different magazines. It’s got smaller in the skeleton staff. I still write for magazines myself. I write for Yahoo! and things like that. I still do bits of journalism.

Zibby: Love it. I know, I miss magazines. I understand the rationale that it’ll just be digital. Then once things all just get digital, it’s impossible to sort it all out. I don’t sit here and think, okay, I’m in the mood to read a magazine online. Which one should I read? Whereas if it comes on my desk, I’ll flip through it.

Katy: There’s something about holding it and going through the pictures. I’m with you. In fact, it never occurs to me to look at a magazine online, I have to say. I don’t even read the news online. I listen to the news on my Echo Dot. I just go, play me the news. It’s really changing, isn’t it?

Zibby: I read actual hardcopy newspapers. I read so much faster with an actual thing than a .

Katy: I do when I’ve got the time, but I quite like to listen.

Zibby: Listening is good. We like listening. It helps this podcast. What are you working on now?

Katy: I need to write a new book. I’m actually out of contract now. I wrote the two books for Berkley. I’m working on a new book to get the next deal. That’s how it works in books. You get the deal or two-book deal or three-book deal if you’re really lucky. I’ve got an idea for that. I’m working on that and doing lots of other sorts of writing, to be honest, as well to pay the mortgage. Well, pay the rent. I’m really excited, actually. I’m really frustrated. I want to get more into my new book and find the time for that because that’s where my real satisfaction comes from. Journalism’s great because it’s fast. You write it, and it’s done. You get paid. It’s fast-moving. There’s nothing like fixing a problem in a novel. That’s so satisfying.

Zibby: I love that. Do you have anything great that you’ve read lately?

Katy: Yes. What have I read lately? I read a book called Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, which was an odd little book about a woman who believes that she’s had a virgin pregnancy, immaculate conception. It came out quite a long time ago. I think it was short listed for the Booker or something. It’s a really quirky little book. I liked it a lot. I read lots of things to quote on them, my peers’ books and things like that. I read a book called Attic Child by Lola Jaye. It deals with black history. It’s set in late 1800s. It’s about that period in black history. It’s a double timeline. Some of it’s set in the nineties and some of it in the 1800s, about two children who are both locked in an attic for different reasons. It’s brilliant. It’s brilliantly done. I think it’s her first epic history book. Watch out for that one. It’s fantastic, really rich, and so well-researched. Other than that, I’m reading an Anne Tyler, A Patchwork Planet. I’ve never read that. I know it’s a classic. I’m reading that at the moment. I’ve got really eclectic tastes. I’ll read bits of women’s commercial fiction. Then I’ll read some literary stuff. Then I’ll read a bit of nonfiction. Sometimes I read things that I need for research for my new novel.

Zibby: Excellent. Last question. Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Katy: It’s not for the faint-hearted. My one piece of advice, which is probably what everyone says, is just actually write. It’s so easy to go, oh, I’m going to buy another how-to-write book. I’m going to look at this — there’s that podcast, “Story Grid,” which is great, but I can get lost in that for days and never write a word. It’s all plotting and description and breakdown and inciting incidents. It’s all the maths of storytelling. If you’re careful, you can get really bogged down. My tip would be, sit down and try and actually do some words. Read all that stuff. It’s all helpful. Do some words. Also, at the moment, my tip would be — other authors kind of disagree with this, but it’s just where I am at the moment in my novel-writing. Have a framework before you start. Otherwise, it’s just hell, in my experience. Have a framework. At least know the vague middle, beginning, and end. Don’t just start something with an idea of a theme that you want to write about. To be honest, How to Find Your Way Home, I started it, and I was like, I want to write something about a homeless man. I had the brother-and-sister relationship, but that’s about all I had. I made it quite difficult for myself. It went through lots of drafts of trying to sort out the actual story. My main tip to myself was, I’m never going to write a novel again where I don’t know, loosely at least, what happens.

Zibby: Great. Katy, thank you so much. Thanks for spending the time. I really enjoyed getting into the relationship of these two siblings, and Stephen. I loved all their little nicknames for each other and just the intimacy and the idea of a brother rebounding. Not to give anything away, but spending time with people who you’ve not spent time with in such an intimate way after so long and what it does to a family and how families can come in and out. I really enjoyed it. I got really into it.

Katy: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me on. It’s been a pleasure.

Zibby: Thanks a lot.

Katy: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.



Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts