What if the person you thought you’d lost forever walked back into your life?
What if the person you thought you’d lost forever walked back into your life? That’s the question Katy Regan asks in her latest novel, How to Find Your Way Home. Once I discovered that the book involved birdwatching, a subject I wrote about in A Funeral for an Owl, I knew that I needed to track Katy down. I was delighted when she agreed to be interviewed for Virtual Book Club.
Katy grew up on the north-west coast of England. She began her writing career as a magazine journalist and is former Commissioning Editor of Marie Claire magazine. She has written for most national magazines and newspapers. She has also written two self-help books, (a cause of great amusement among those who knew her well.) How to Find Your Way Home is her sixth novel and her second to be published in the States by Berkley, Penguin Random House. Her first was Little Big Love.
She lives with her teenage son. When she’s not writing, she mainly loves swimming in freezing cold lakes, reading and going on mini-breaks.
But before we get to the questions, here’s the blurb to whet your appetite
On a sunny morning in March 1987, four-year-old Stephen Nelson welcomes his new baby sister, Emily. Holding her for the first time, he vows to love and protect her, and to keep her safe forever.
Nearly thirty years later, the two have lost touch and Stephen is homeless.
Emily, however, has never given up hope of finding her brother again and when he arrives at the council office where she works, her wish comes true. But they say you should be careful what you wish for – and perhaps they’re right, because there is a reason the two were estranged . . .
As the two embark on a birding trip together, Emily is haunted by long-buried memories of a single June day, fifteen years earlier; a day that changed everything. Will confronting the secrets that tore them apart finally enable Emily and Stephen to make their peace – not just with their shared past and each other, but also themselves?
“A luminous novel about the power of love and how to find your place as part of natural world once again. It’s beautiful, fascinating, perfectly crafted and life affirming. I adored it”
Rowan Coleman, Sunday Times Bestselling author of The Brontë Mysteries series, The Vanished Bride, The Diabolical Bones and The Red Monarch
Q: Welcome, Katy. Neil Gaiman said, ‘Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that — but you are the only you.’ Why is How to Find Your Way Home a story only you can tell?
I love that quote. I needed to hear that today! Actually, this book is the least autobiographical book I have ever written, as it’s about a homeless birdwatcher and a brother and a sister relationship and I don’t have a brother, have never been homeless and didn’t know much about birds when I started! BUT it’s also about being an outsider and what it means to come back home, or feel at home in your own skin and those are two subjects very close to my heart, something I felt I could write about with authenticity and experience.
Q: Where is the book set and how did you decide on its setting?
The childhood sections of the book are set on Canvey Island and the present-day timeline in London and along the east coast of England. (There’s a road trip element to most of the book.)
I’ve always been drawn to writing about places on the edge, locations I feel are a little forgotten and what this does to the characters’ mentality who live there. A coastal setting was particularly important for this novel because my main character Stephen is so passionate about wild birds and nature. As soon as I set foot on Canvey in 2018 I knew it was perfect. Stephen and his sister Emily (the main characters in the novel), grow up on the marshes there, the edge-lands. This contributes to especially Stephen’s feelings of being an outsider, existing in a liminal space between two worlds. When he ends up homeless on the streets of London, this is amplified.
Q: Has setting the novel in a place that is well known to you changed the way that you feel about that place?
Actually, I didn’t know Canvey Island well at all – I’d never been there before. Obviously, I visited it several times in the writing of the book, but I still wouldn’t say I know it well. Perhaps that’s why it still holds such mystique for me.
Q: ‘Notice how many of the Olympic athletes effusively thanked their mothers for their success? “She drove me to my practice at four in the morning,” etc. Writing is not figure skating or skiing. Your mother will not make you a writer. My advice to any young person who wants to write is: leave home.’ Those words were from Paul Theroux. Well? Did You?
Yes. I actually left once at 16 to go to stage school (in a whole previous life!) then again at 19, to go to Leeds University. I think Paul Theroux is making the point that to be a better writer, you need to see some life and I think that’s definitely true. The older I have got, and the more I have seen, the more I have to say. I now live in Hertfordshire but love returning to north Lancashire where I am from to see family.
Q: I know that you particularly wanted to write a novel about homelessness, but why make your protagonist Stephen Nelson an ornithologist? Did you find a link between the themes of homelessness and birdwatching?
The big inspiration for the novel was my son’s father’s brother, Justin. He suffers from severe mental health issues and so, in many ways – like Stephen – is side-lined by society. He has always been a passionate birdwatcher, however and I have always been fascinated and inspired by how this hobby that he loves grounds him and contributes so much to his resilience and wellbeing. I wanted Stephen to have that too.
There’s also the thing of Stephen being an amazing observer of life – both in his capacity as an ornithologist, but also a homeless person living on the streets at times. Far from being a negative thing though, this is his superpower; his attention and appreciation of beauty is his gift to the world, and something Emily and Alicia in many ways, learn from.
Q: Emily has been looking for her brother for a long time, to the extent that she’s taken a job in a London housing office in the hope of narrowing the search. Did you draw on any parallels between birdwatching and Emily’s search for her brother?
Not really, because it’s very much Stephen who’s the birdwatcher, the observer – Emily has always just come along for the ride! If anything, Emily is missing a trick searching for her brother in that at first, she doesn’t fully appreciate why he might not want to be found.
Q: Did you draw any comparisons between human migration and bird migration?
For sure. I was really interested in the homing instinct of all living things: this natural draw towards migrating for survival, even if ‘survival’ when it comes to birds is quite literal (they migrate to breed and feed) and with humans it’s often more subtle but nonetheless essential to our wellbeing.
Also, I wanted to explore our migratory paths in life; what takes us in the directions we end up and what, if any, control we have over it. That’s why I made this a story about a brother and sister. I was fascinated by this concept: if two people grow up in the same circumstances, with the same opportunities, why one of them ends up homeless and one of them not?
Q: Are there any types of birds that have a particular meaning in the book?
Yes, swifts. They never touch down. They are there for 100 days. They mate for life. Stephen finds stability and a sense of ‘home’ in the swifts that come and nest in Canvey Island every spring – this is a sense of home he doesn’t have it in his own life and he loves them for it. Emily does too.
Q: Did you draw on any mythology about birds in your novel?
I was always conscious of it and did draw on some mythology (with reference to blackbirds, and how they are linked to the revealing of secrets, for example) but I had to be careful not to get lost down a rabbit warren of internet research and lose sight of the actual plot!
Q: One of the joys of writing a novel is that for the duration of writing, you immerse yourself in a different world. Where did your research take you and did it throw up any particular surprises?
This novel was particularly research heavy in that I knew very little about birdwatching OR homelessness. I had never been to Canvey Island. I was already volunteering at a homeless shelter and had the great privilege of talking to the people there – and people always surprise you! Mainly with their resilience and resourcefulness, qualities I then put into Stephen. I was also really lucky to be put in touch with an ornithologist who read my novel and fact-checked all the birding stuff. We met recently for the first time in person and went birdwatching – now, I never thought I’d say I’d do that in a million years! This book has surprised me constantly and it’s been a lot of hard work but also sometimes, totally illuminating.
Q: What role does memory play in your novel?
I was interested in how siblings can have had circumstantially, the same childhood but have totally different memories of it and also of course, secrets they haven’t told one another. This is a big driving force of the plot.
I can completely identify with that. I am one of five children, and have a sister who is only eleven months older than I am. I’m constantly amazed by how different our memories are.
Q: Which scene did you find the most challenging to write and why?
It was actually the very first chapter / scenes. I always find the early chapters the hardest because it’s such a fine balancing act between being intriguing and not offering all the information up front. I wanted the reader to know Emily was desperate to find her brother and had been looking for him – but also that she was reluctant to find him for reasons that become clear. Getting that balance right was very tricky and it went through so many drafts.
Q: In writing A Funeral for an Owl I was greatly influenced by A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines. Were there any novels that you took your lead from?
No not really with this one. I did have in mind The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry because there is a kind of country-long nature trail in that book, like there is a birding trip in mine. However, I didn’t really end up taking much influence from it in the end. This book – of all my novels – was definitely a law unto itself!
Q: Regardless of genre, what are the elements that you think make a great novel? Did you consciously ensure all of these are in place?
I don’t really consciously do much! Writing is like magic for me and happens very organically – at least that’s when I am doing my best writing. I guess a great novel has a big sense of ‘what’s going to happen? Something’s going to happen…” that intrigue and hook. Also, most importantly for me, anyway, characters that are totally 3D. That you care about. They don’t really have to be doing all that much, as long as you cannot help but watch…
Q: James Baldwin said of writing, ‘When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway.’ What was the thing you didn’t want to find out?
This quote reminds me of two others from famous writers: one from Joan Didion who said that ‘a novel should be a cautionary tale – by writing it, you stop it happening to you.’ And Michaela Coel, who wrote I May Destroy You who said ‘write what scares you’. They all mean pretty much the same thing to me and so the answer with this book, was probably : I wanted to find out what ‘home’ really meant, but also, (the thing I don’t want to happen to me / that I’m scared of), what stops us ever finding it?
Want to find out more about Katy’s writing?
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