Katherine St. John’s debut novel could be the ultimate pandemic beach read. The setting is wish-you-were-there glitzy with a thread of glad-you’re-not dread as a dishy coterie of nubile frenemies cruise the Riviera aboard a luxury yacht.
“The Lion’s Den,” published in May, got a New York Times nod in a roundup of beach-worthy fiction at summer’s start, and St. John — pen name for Katherine Wood, who grew up in Jackson — is happily settling into her latest storytelling avenue.
“I’ve always been very interested in the arts,” says the author, whose parents Frank and Celia Wood founded the summer arts retreat Camp Windhover in Crystal Springs. Frank Wood practiced law, but also wrote musicals with David Womack that twice won the Eudora Welty New Play Series; Celia worked creative writing into her teaching stints at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, Jackson Preparatory School and Hinds Community College.
“My parents definitely had a huge effect on me,” St. John says, from their arts love, to their desire that she explore and find her passion.
“We were always encouraged to read and do art in all its forms.” Dance, drawing, the violin, singing and acting were all part of the mix. “The thing that interested me most, at the end of the day, was the storytelling aspect of things.”
She attended St. Andrew’s through sixth grade, and then Jackson Prep, before jetting off to the University of Southern California to study acting. With the exception of a year or so in New York shortly after college, she’s mostly been in Los Angeles since. Home there includes her husband, Alex Petrovitch, a television editor, and their two young daughters.
She first pursued the storytelling drive through acting, immersing herself in a character’s head to see the world through their eyes. Later, she became more interested in the storyteller role, as a singer/songwriter and, because she was part of the entertainment industry, as a screenwriter.
“I’ve always been an avid reader of novels,” St. John says, “and anytime people would ask me, ‘If you could do anything, what would it be?’ I’d say, ‘I’d like to write a book.’” Acting pursuits meant doing any job she could get her hands on to support it, and included stints, too, as a director, photographer, legal assistant, bartender-waitress, yoga instructor, real estate agent and travel coordinator.
“People look at my resume and think, ‘Oh, she’s just a dabbler.’ But for a writer, those are actually qualifications,” she says, laughing.
Her two girls’ births, a year and a half apart, hit the pause button. “My husband was very sweet to support me, so I could stay home with them a year, and actually write that book I’d been thinking about writing for so long.” She calls “The Lion’s Den” her “nap-time novel,” for the writing time she’d squeeze in during the girls’ naps, and in the early-morning and late-night hours.
St. John reached out to her cousin, best-selling “The Help” author Kathryn Stockett, when her book was at auction. “She has been so wonderful, and so encouraging and so sweet, and I really, really appreciated having her to talk to about things,” St. John says. Stockett’s dust jacket blurb deems “The Lion’s Den” “irresistibly wicked.”
In the novel, struggling young actress Belle goes along with a few other gal pals when her best friend invites them on a Mediterranean cruise aboard her billionaire boyfriend’s yacht. But niggling details in this glamorous setting — confiscated passports, controlling atmosphere, surveillance cameras — are a fly in the ever-flowing champagne. Sex, drugs, catfights and corporate intrigue all swirl into the story.
The book’s Riviera setting is one St. John visited about a dozen years back. “I saw the billionaire lifestyle depicted in the book. … I’ve always been interested in how money affects people, what people will do for money, and where the line is on morality.” It’s a fun, voyeuristic, outsider’s view into an out-sized and ostentatious lifestyle that few ever see.
The escapist novel also takes a look at relationships among young women — the intense friendships, the backstabbing, the swapping loyalties. She drew on her own and friends’ experiences, but “It is a work of fiction. … None of the characters are real people, thank God,” she adds with a laugh.
She likens the story to a smoothie that tastes good going down, and sneaks in a bit of nutrition besides. “It’s a fun page-turner, but at the end of the day, there’s maybe a little more to think about than you would get with your typical beach read.”
St. John’s second book, “The Siren,” due out spring/summer 2021, is also an escapist novel, set on a Caribbean island during the making of a movie. Just as “The Lion’s Den” looks at money, “The Siren” deals with fame, with a peek into more glamorous lives with a whole new set of characters. “A fun story that involves romance, murder, and rich people behaving badly,” while also saying something bigger about the topic at hand, she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic meant public book events were canceled for “The Lion’s Den.” Virtual events put her in touch with fans from all over, but she misses the human interaction, she says. She looks forward to being able to come to Lemuria in Jackson and Square Books in Oxford with her next release. She’s currently at work on a third book.
Her parents are delighted with her success. “We were so excited when she started writing seriously. She’s aways written on the side,” says Celia. “We kept telling her, ‘You’re just a natural with it.’”
What’s tickled St. John most since the book’s release? Reading Facebook comments from her mom’s friends, particularly after Celia’s “It is rather racy” warning. Rejoinders rallied around a general consensus of “Good!” These were women who’d known her since birth and seen her through childhood, now grownup, and writing about grownup things, she says. “That really cracked me up.”
But even more than that, their enthusiasm, their kindness and their pride in her hit home. “That really touches me.”