While “Our Little World” – the debut novel by Beacon Hill resident Karen Winn (published by Dutton on May 3) – is purely a fictional work, its premise about a small girl who goes missing from a lake in suburban New Jersey is based in part on a real-life experience Winn had at around the age of 10.
As a girl, Winn often swam at a local lake near her home in Mendham, a small town in Morris County, N.J., about 45 minutes outside of Manhattan. She liked to go underwater for long periods while holding breath.
One day at the lake, she had submerged herself and, upon resurfacing, saw everyone exiting the area. Winn followed them, not knowing where they were going, or why they were leaving.
She then spotted her mother standing beside a lifeguard, who appeared very distraught. The lifeguard was grabbing each passing girl and then turning to Winn’s mother to ask, “Is this her?”
Winn soon came to the realization that everyone at the lake had been looking for her, including her mother, and she still clearly recalls the look on her mother’s face when she realized Winn was safe.
“In my mind, it’s such a visceral memory,” she said. “I thought, ‘what if I had gone missing or someone had gone missing,?’ So I thought that would be a good starting-point for a novel.”
Winn, who received an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University, once worked as a nurse in the surgical ICU at Mass General Hospital. She left that position to go back to school to get her master’s and doctoral degrees in nursing before becoming a nurse practitioner. Nowadays, Winn is mostly focused on her family and her writing, although she still does some healthcare consulting work on the side.
Winn said she had been working on the book for a number of years in what little spare time she had between her duties as a mother of two and working as a nurse practitioner before 2016, when she finally decided to get serious and devote herself to finishing a first draft of the novel.
“Our Little World” is set in 1985, and while Winn is an admitted child of the 1980s and ’90s, she said she is a couple of years younger than the narrator would be.
“It’s a coming-of-age story with a looming mystery,” said Winn. adding that her novel will also likely appeal to readers’ nostalgic side.
The story revolves around soon-to-be seventh grader Bee Kocsis, who spends her summer days at Deer Chase Lake and evenings chasing fireflies around her cul-de-sac with the neighborhood kids, including Max, the boy who just moved in across the street. Despite her seemingly carefree childhood, Bee worries never be as special as her younger sister, Audrina, however.
When Max’s little sister, Sally, goes missing at the lake, the families in this close-knit community turn inward and become suspicious of each other. This is especially true in Bee’s home where the already fraught relationship between her and Audrina grows even more strained.
“At the heart of it, it’s really a story about sisterhood,” said Winn. “It’s about the complicated bond of sisterhood and also about the corrosive power of envy, and basically, I wanted to tell a story about sisters and secrets…and about how seemingly small secrets can have lingering and cumulative consequences.”
But unlike in “Our Little World,” where Bee is one year older than Audrina, in real life, Winn has a sister two years older than her (as well as a younger brother).
Like Winn, the narrator’s father is a Hungarian immigrant, although the similarities end there, since Winn said her late father was an honorable man (something that could not necessarily be said of the narrator’s father).
Moreover, the story is based in the fictional small town of Hammend, N.J., which besides having a population of 5,000, just like Mendham, is also an anagram for Winn’s hometown.
Winn will be making Author Appearances in support of the publication of “Our Little World”: as part of Grubbie Debut Author series at Porter Square Books, located at 50 Liberty Drive in the Seaport, on Wednesday, May 4, from 7 to 8 p.m. (https://www.portersquarebooks.com/event/grubbie-debuts-karen-winn-shelley-berg-our-little-world); and at The Vilna Shul at 18 Phillips St. on Tuesday, May 24, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. (https://vilnashul.org/events/event/coming-of-age-in-america).
Winn, a Vilna Shul board member, will be appearing at the May 24 event with Betty Yee, a member since 2009 of Winn’s writing group, as well as author of a historical fiction young adult novel, which is her literary debut, called “Gold Mountain.”
To preorder “Our Little World,” visit https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/669156/our-little-world-by-karen-winn/.