Zibby is joined by debut author Karen Winn to talk about her novel, Our Little World, which she has been working on since 2016. Karen shares how the plot was inspired by drama she wished had happened during her childhood, as well as how she combined her doctoral degree and experience as a nurse practitioner with her lifelong love of writing to craft this story. The two also discuss the significance of Karen’s writing group in her life, the potential titles this book almost had, and what she’s working on next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Karen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Our Little World.

Karen Winn: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: I could not stop reading this book. It was so immersive. I feel like this is such a good example of the type of book I’m trying to produce myself at Zibby Books because there is such a strong sense of place and voice. I didn’t want to stop reading. You created such real characters. I cared about all of them. I wanted to know what was going to happen next. I just really, really enjoyed it. It was good.

Karen: I really appreciate that. Thanks.

Zibby: Tell listeners what your book is about, please.

Karen: Our Little World, it’s a coming-of-age story with a looming mystery. It’s set in the 1980s in a small, idyllic New Jersey town. The story is about these two sisters, Bee and Audrina — Bee’s a rising seventh grader — and how their relationship fractures when a neighborhood girl goes missing.

Zibby: Very interesting. There was so much, even from the point of view of the parents and the townspeople and how this affected the whole community. It was also really interesting how you had one of the sisters develop a medical issue and how that affects a family. When somebody is sick and suddenly, all the attention is on one sibling, what happens to the other sibling? What happens then? Tell me about how this whole story came to be, especially the missing child angle. Was this from a place of fear? Where did this what-if come from for you? Then go through with the siblings.

Karen: The story inspiration — the town of Hammend, it’s a small, five-thousand-person town, a very safe community where nobody ever goes missing. It is a fictionalized version and anagram of my hometown, Mendham, New Jersey. I did grow up in this bubble, in this idyllic neighborhood and town. I, as a writer and reader, am drawn to exploring those darker elements, those cracks in relationships, in families, in towns. I really just wanted to almost insert a tragedy into the childhood that I knew and see what happens. The actual starting point for the story — what happens is, there’s this family from Boston that moves to Hammend across the street from Bee and her sister, Audrina. There’s cute Max Baker and then his little four-year-old sister, Sally. It’s been a week of rain. It’s 1985. These kids have been couped up. Finally, they have this beautiful day. They decide to go swimming at the local lake. They go there. It’s Bee and Audrina and Max and Sally. Sally goes missing.

That specific incident, I also drew on from my own childhood. There was this lake, Sunrise Lake, which is what Deer Chase Lake in the book is based on. I used to go swimming there as a child. I used to love to swim underwater. My mom used to call me a fish. One time, I was there and kept dipping underwater and coming back up. When I resurfaced, I saw everybody exiting the lake. I wasn’t sure why. I followed them out. There was mass confusion — it had this little sandy beach — on the sandy beach. I hadn’t even heard the lifeguard blow the whistle, but he must’ve. I was just underwater, so I didn’t hear it. I was trying to find my mom. Finally, I found her. She had this panicked look on her face. The lifeguard, who was probably this really nervous high schooler lifeguard, was literally grabbing girls and saying, “Is this her?” Then I realized that my mom couldn’t find me, so that was why they had emptied the lake. It’s one of those moments in childhood that are just one of those visceral memories. It always stayed with me. From a writing standpoint, I just thought — you talked about the inciting incident, what sets into the motion the story. I just thought it was a great starting point for a story. What if I or someone else had gone missing that day? It’s fiction. I never knew anyone who went missing.

Zibby: I feel so bad for your mom that she went through that.

Karen: As a mom now — I have two kids — I totally appreciate that.

Zibby: I was on the beach once where somebody thought somebody was missing. Everybody stood up to look. Parents were freaking out. The girl turned up. She had walked down the beach. There is collective — everybody stands and is looking. I’m like, who are we looking for? There’s just abject panic. Are you really in the middle of this horrific moment in someone else’s life or not?

Karen: Right. You’re just waiting.

Zibby: You’re just waiting.

Karen: Do you just keep waiting? Then obviously, the waiting gets stretched out if the terrible happens. Is there some sort of more immediate resolution like the girl walking down the beach?

Zibby: This was in, too — what was that movie? The Lost Daughter. Did you see that?

Karen: I didn’t.

Zibby: It was with a British actress who I think was nominated for everything this year. There is a scene where she’s in this beach and a girl — not that it’s so — anyway, you might want to watch it. I think that’s what it’s called. It doesn’t matter. So you have that. Tell me about the sister relationship. I know you have a sister, who we were just chatting about. Tell me about that and introducing this illness component. I did find that piece very compelling too, with one of them having more, not mental, but hair pulling, more mental challenges in the moment and one more physical challenges in the moment.

Karen: Like you alluded to earlier, I was really interested in — the story is, this girl goes missing, but it’s really about how her disappearance sets into motion all this other stuff that happens with the sisters, with the family, with the neighborhood, with the town. I was just really interested in exploring those cracks beneath the surface and how they rise up when something like this can happen. With the sisters in particular — I do have a sister. We’re very close. I was really interested in exploring those moments in sisterhood that aren’t so wonderful and then pushing on those and making those more heightened. I did that. Then also, with the relationship with the parents and other stuff, I’m really interested in the drama that can occur within relationships. Then in terms of how this tragedy affected everyone involved, these two sisters, one of them does develop more of a — I wanted her to basically have some physical response to the trauma of this missing girl. There’s also something that Bee, my protagonist, does that day at the beach. give away too much, but essentially, she takes something that maybe could be crime evidence. She takes it because she wants it. That’s all I’m going to say about that. That guilt of that action is also weighing on her. We have the trauma of this four-year-old girl who’s gone missing and the guilt of this action. Then there’s a lot of sibling rivalry and tensions in this household. I wanted her to have some sort of physical manifestation of all of this. I thought, what could I do? I was doing some research.

We’re not giving away too many spoilers, but she starts pulling her hair. I dove deep into trichotillomania, which is what that’s called, and all of that. I have a nursing background. I worked as a registered nurse, a nurse practitioner. I have my doctoral degree in nursing, so have a lot of medical experience in order to — also, the research component, I could carry out as well. Dove deep into what that would’ve been like in the eighties. Also, there’s a chronic, very devastating illness that occurs to the other sister, Audrina. I’m not going to give away spoilers there, so I’m not going to talk about what it is. From the start, she always had this in my mind. It was only a matter of it coming out, the timing that it did. As someone who’s been so entrenched in the medical field, I just feel like illness is kind of always there either waiting to occur or part of somebody. I feel like illness just makes its way into my writing. From the start, Audrina, in my mind, was this — she’s the “perfect sister.” Bee’s very jealous of her because she’s kind of the family favorite and the beautiful one. She was very vulnerable in my mind from the start. This condition that she develops contributed to her vulnerability and really made her very raw in so many different ways.

Zibby: It’s so interesting. Tell me about the intersection of writing and nursing. Did you want to do both of those things your whole life? Were you working full time as a nurse and writing this book? Tell me the trajectory of those careers.

Karen: I’ve always had these two loves, medicine/nursing and writing. I’ve always done both. Even in college, I took some extra writing classes. Then when I was working full time as a registered nurse, I did a low-residency MFA, so was always pursuing writing and have had to focus more on one versus the other at different points in my life. Then I would say in 2016 was when I really got serious about this novel idea that I’d been kicking around for a while. I’ve been in a writing group here in Boston since 2009. We’re still going strong. We meet monthly. I really have pursued these two interests from the start. I would say in the last year was when I was like, okay, if I’m not going to do this, when am I going to do this? At the time, I was working as a nurse practitioner. I took some time off work to work on the novel. I had my mom come up from — I live in Boston. She came up from New Jersey and watched — I have two kids — watched the kids. I actually, instead of going to work, I would go to work on my novel. It was scary because I didn’t know what was going to come of this. I’m a new writer. People used to be like, what do you do? I’d be like, I’m a nurse. I almost used to whisper, but I like to write. I wouldn’t say I’m a writer. I’d be like, but I like to write. It was a real commitment to myself to put the time aside, dedicated time, to speak the words even, to ask for help, and to do it. Aspiring writers, I give them all the credit because you have no idea what’s going to happen. You’re doing this because you love writing. For so long, these characters, Bee and Audrina, were sitting in my head. I just felt like I had to tell their story.

Zibby: Wow, that’s awesome. I love it. Did you end up finishing it all during your time off from work?

Karen: I’ve been working on it for a long time. I would say 2016 was when I said to myself, I want to have a finished, good draft. To be honest, Zibby, with the pandemic, I feel like my memory is just shot.

Zibby: I don’t mean to put you — I’m just making conversation here. You could make it all up. It doesn’t matter.

Karen: Was it a three-month period where I wrote a first draft of my novel? No. I’ve been working on this idea, loosely, for many years. That was probably when I finally was like, okay, I’m going to go through and have a good draft. Then I had an old writing teacher do a manuscript consult, and I ended up rewriting the whole thing from the start. I took pieces of things in my head that were in that draft, but it was a process. I met my now-agent at a writing conference here in Boston through GrubStreet. I had signed up to meet with her. I had submitted the first twenty pages. She said to me, “Send me this when you’re done.” I think it was eighteen months later that I sent it to her. I took my time with it. It was so long that when I had the call with my agent, my sister actually said to me, “Don’t tell her how long it took you to write the book.”

Zibby: It all seems to have worked out, so there you go. That’s really exciting. Are you still nursing? Is that still your day job?

Karen: I do clinical consultant work now. I’m still doing that. I took some time off with the launch, but I’ll get back to that. I have some projects waiting for me.

Zibby: How old are your kids?

Karen: My daughter is six. My son just turned ten, which makes me sad.

Zibby: No, it’s just going to keep getting better, maybe. Amazing. Are you working on a new project now?

Karen: I am. I’m working on a project which I’m really excited about. It takes place in Boston. It’s about a group of women friends and, actually, a secret society. Essentially, it’s going to be similar to Our Little World in that there’s going to be relationships that unravel and secrets that come to light. There’s going to be a tragedy. I’m really excited. I just had a call with my agent yesterday about it. I’m really excited.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Congrats. Were there any alternate titles — just wondering — for this book, or did you know from the start it was —

Karen: — I’m the worst with — it’s funny because after my agent and I got off the call yesterday about my book that I’m working on, she sent me a text. She’s like, “Oh, I forgot to tell you –” I don’t even want to say what the name of that current . “I don’t love that title.” I said, “Oh, no.” My response was, “Oh, no,” with a laughing emoji. Here we go again. I agree with her. This book initially was called — I have to give the background info for it because otherwise, it sounds so random. It was initially called Secret Walking Sally. Sally’s the name of the girl that goes missing. Audrina, the sister, as we mentioned, she has a health condition that made her get up in the middle of the night potentially almost sleepwalking. There are a lot of secrets in Our Little World. At one point, Bee, my protagonist, was thinking about all the stuff going on in her life and thinking almost like a pinwheel going around and around. Everything was getting jumbled together. Eventually, it shortened in her mind to these three things, Secret Walking Sally. That scene has since been cut because . Actually, my agent said to me, when I sent it to her eighteen months later, she said, “You know, when I first saw this, Secret Walking Sally, it reminded me of a country song.”

Zibby: Yeah, I could see that.

Karen: She was like, “You need to work on that title.” Then it became Our Little World War because very much about these troubling relationships between the sisters and the family. My editor thought it sounded a little bit like a historic fiction novel, which I get, war. She said, “What about just Our Little World?” I had to come around. I think it’s the perfect title now, but I did have to come around to that because I wasn’t sure that it was encapsulating the darkness in the book. With the cover art, which they just nailed — it’s the most beautiful cover ever. There’s this crack that goes down the middle. I was like, oh, my gosh, that’s just so perfect. Honestly, now I can’t think of any other title for it. I just think it’s the most perfect title.

Zibby: It really is. It’s a great cover. Awesome. Sometimes those are the hardest things. I’ve had so many of your blurbers on my podcast. This might be the biggest percent blurb overlap.

Karen: I just got so many amazing blurbs. I felt so incredibly grateful to all the writers who blurbed me.

Zibby: When you’re not writing and nursing and dealing with the kids, if you had a guilty pleasure, what would it be? What would you do if you had a day of free time?

Karen: Oh, my gosh, let’s see. What would I do? I love Southern Charm, that reality show, Southern Charm. I don’t really love reality TV, but I love that one. I could binge on that and rewatch that. I have a dog. He’s right next to me here, an eighty-five-pound bernedoodle. He’s my little — not little. He’s my big companion. I would go with him on a walk. I love the beach. I would probably go to the beach, lay in the sun for a little bit if it’s sunny out. Read a book, of course. I’m always wanting to read more. I’d love to be able to have a few uninterrupted hours just to dive into a book. That’d be nice.

Zibby: Are you reading anything good now?

Karen: I’m in a Facebook group for debut authors, so I’m lucky that I’m able to read a lot of advance copies of these books. Just finished one called Groupies by Sarah Priscus. That’s coming out, I think, in July, which I highly recommend. It’s about the groupie scene in the seventies, musical groupies. The biggest groupies are always music fans, right? Maybe not. I’m about to start another one, The Secret — let me just make sure I’m getting this right. It’s The Candid Life of Meena Dave. It’s by Namrata Patel, The Candid Life of Meena Dave. She is a fellow Boston writer. We both belong to this organization called The Writers’ Room of Boston. We both, at one point, were on the board together there. I just got her book, so I’m really excited to dive into that.

Zibby: Wait, how do you get into the Facebook group of debut authors?

Karen: Anyone can join, anyone who has a novel coming out in — there’s been one every year, actually. It’s nice.

Zibby: How many people are in your group?

Karen: There’s probably two hundred or so.

Zibby: That’s so cool. That’s really neat.

Karen: I was in the one for 2020 because my book originally was slated to come out in February instead of May. Then they bumped it to May. Originally, I was in the 2021 Facebook group. It covers both that year and then the first few months because you’re really doing a lot of your marketing and stuff, obviously, in the months beforehand. Now I’m in the 2022 group.

Zibby: See, it’s an unexpected benefit from —

Karen: — Anyone wants to join that hasn’t joined yet, just request. Just find us.

Zibby: Awesome. Karen, thank you so much. Again, I really, really enjoyed this book. You did a really great job. It’s really been nice chatting with you.

Karen: Thank you so much, Zibby. Thanks for having me. It’s been a pleasure.

Zibby: My pleasure. 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