Katherine St. John, THE VICIOUS CIRCLE: A Novel

Katherine St. John, THE VICIOUS CIRCLE: A Novel

Zibby talks to author (and former Hollywood actress, screenwriter, and director) Katherine St. John about her latest novel The Vicious Circle, a twisty and unnerving suspense about a woman who inherits a wellness center (or a creepy cult’s home-base?!) in a lush Mexican jungle. Katherine talks about her lifelong love of storytelling, her mandatory book elements (an extraordinary, remote setting and a bit of romance), her immersive brainstorming process, and her plans for TV adaptation. She also talks about her adorable daughters (and mini publicists) and even reveals her skincare secrets!


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

Katherine St. John: I’m so happy to be here and finally get to meet you.

Zibby: You too. I was just saying you are the most prolific author. You’re doing one book a year. The Siren, The Lion’s Den, and now The Vicious Circle, this is boom, boom, boom, one after the next. How are you doing this? Congratulations.

Katherine: The trick is to be writing one while I’m editing the one that’s about to come out. When you go back and forth with your editor, you have a couple weeks to a couple months, depending on how long she takes. I use that time to get started on my next book. I’m always in the process of writing, editing, promoting, adapting. I have so many different books and so many different stories going on in my head. I have to switch gears.

Zibby: Wow, so impressed. Before we jump into each book, go back for two seconds. You had a ten-year career in the Hollywood side of life. Tell me about that. You’ve had every role imaginable there as well. You are the consummate multitasker. I feel like you have this superpower of doing a million things. Take me through that and how you transitioned over to this world.

Katherine: I think that I found the one career, as a writer, where having all of these other careers is actually a qualification. Instead of “jack of all trades, master of none,” I found one in which all of that stuff actually works for me because I have all these different experiences. I’ve always been a storyteller. When I was younger, I was an actress. That was how I really first got into storytelling. It’s just a different mode of it. You’re using your body as your instrument instead of words. I was an actress for many years. Then I started really getting interested in the other side of the camera and writing and directing.

Zibby: Wait, when you say actress, was this TV, film, stage? I want some details here, please.

Katherine: All of the above. I went to the University of Southern California and was in their acting department, so we did a ton of theater at school. Then actually, while I was in school, I started doing television and film and commercials. I was able to pay my bills acting, which is a real win for a young actress. It was small roles in big films and big roles in small films. It never really progressed past that. I reached a point when I was like, okay, this isn’t sustainable. I want to have kids. I don’t want to be having to leave my little babies for three months to go shoot a film in Turkey. I started thinking, what else do I want to do? I’d always wanted to write a book. I had two little girls back to back. I had been working in production. When my second daughter was born, I was like, I need to take a break and just stay home with my little girls. This is the opportunity to write a book. I call my first book, The Lion’s Den, the naptime novel because I wrote it during naptime. That was the only time that I had. I didn’t do anything else. I didn’t cook. I don’t ever really cook. I didn’t clean the house. I didn’t go to the grocery or do anything else. My husband, thank heavens, was very helpful with all those things. All I did was take care of kids and write. That’s all I could do. It was a good thing that I did because now I get to do it full time.

Zibby: Amazing. When you started writing at naptime, tell me about the writing experience you had up until then. Were you writing screenplays as well? Did you do this from when you were a kid, or just, now’s my chance to become a novelist?

Katherine: I’ve always written. I have somewhere, framed, a poem that I wrote in the third grade that got third place in the Mississippi poetry contest for kids.

Zibby: Congratulations.

Katherine: My mom was very proud of me. My mom was an English teacher. She’s retired now. My dad is a lawyer playwright, so it runs in the family. I think everybody in my family has some sort of a book at least halfway written. I had a stint as a singer/songwriter. I turned my love of writing poetry into writing songs. Songs really are poetry. It’s poetry you sing. Then it was when I was working as an actress that I started writing screenplays. I wrote commercials. I’ve written all kinds of promo copy. My favorite thing is writing novels because you get to be everything. With a screenplay, it’s such a collaborative effort, making a movie or a TV show. You really are dependent on your actors and your director and your costumer. You’re working with all these people, which is so much fun, but when you’re writing, you are all of those people. You’re the costumer. You’re the director. You’re the cinematographer. You’re setting the scene. You’re giving the characters their words, all of it. It’s really fun to do it that way. I love getting into a world and finding the best words to make other people come to that world with me.

Zibby: Love it. All of your novels have the strongest sense of place. I read an interview with you where you were calling it escapist fiction and how it’s really important to you to take your readers to different places while you set the stage. Tell me about that. Take us through all three of your books in terms of setting and synopsis and how they all linked together.

Katherine: When I start thinking about what I want to write next, I start with, where do I want to go? Then I start thinking about, and what story do I want to tell while I’m there? What story really works in this environment? That’s the escapist part of the escapist thrillers, is getting to take readers somewhere, and where I want to go. With my first book, The Lion’s Den, it is set on a yacht in the Mediterranean. Who doesn’t want to go on a yacht in the Mediterranean? We all do, right? Of course, when our lead character, Belle, gets to this yacht in the Mediterranean, it is not all it’s cracked up to be. Her friend from childhood has turned into quite a gold digger. Her sugar daddy, who owns the yacht, is very controlling. Things are not what they seem to be. I’m really into things that are not what they seem to be on the surface, so having these beautiful locations, these places that would seem like, oh, my gosh, I really want to go there. Then you get there, and it’s, wait a minute, something else is going on here. We were in the Mediterranean for that one, on the coast of Italy and France.

Zibby: Did you go for research purposes?

Katherine: Yes, I did.

Zibby: Many times, perhaps?

Katherine: You got to do that.

Zibby: Of course.

Katherine: I had actually been there years before and thought this would be an amazing place to set a book. I just had to figure out what exactly the story was and how I was going to tell that story. That was kicking around in my head for years before I actually got the opportunity to sit down and write The Lion’s Den. I had been to Saint-Tropez. I had seen the yachts. I had experienced a little bit of that world. I thought, how interesting it is, for somebody who’s a normal person, looking at people who have all of the wealth at their fingertips. They can just sail around on yachts and jets, and what that does to a person. The Lion’s Den is really about money and what it does to people. I just had to figure out how to tell that in a really fun way. It’s never moralizing. It’s fun. It’s blingy, swingy, yacht and fashion porn with a little bit of a socially conscious message.

Zibby: What was your conclusion of what wealth does to people?

Katherine: It depends on the person. Wealth magnifies the qualities that are already there. If someone has a tendency to be generous, if they are a wealthy person, they will likely get involved in every charity. They will become more generous. If someone has insecurities and needs to prove themselves, they will use wealth to do that. If someone is a pretty nasty person, it can really do a number on them. That was what I found. It doesn’t change us. It just magnifies the qualities that were already there. My second book, The Siren, is set on a Caribbean island. I love the Caribbean as well. It’s funny, too, with my books, it’s not just about the setting. I also like to find a way to make it somehow isolated. With The Lion’s Den, it is on a yacht, which is isolated. There’s no Wi-Fi on the yacht. Cell phones don’t really work when you get farther offshore. With The Siren, it’s set on a beautiful Caribbean island that is owned by the movie star who is producing the film that is being shot there. He has ultimate control over everything. He not only is paying everyone, but he also owns the island resort where they’re staying, owns the sound stage, all of it. It is on an isolated Caribbean island. When a hurricane starts heading for the island, we have a big problem. That was also a really fun setting.

Zibby: Where did you go for that research?

Katherine: I went to the Bahamas. I went to Jamaica. I went to the British Virgin Islands. I’m really indiscriminate about where I’ll go in the Caribbean.

Zibby: I’m trying to see if I could follow this itinerary around for a wish-list dream year of travel or something. Keep going.

Katherine: When it came time to write my third book, I was like, okay, I’ve done beach-beach. Let me do something a little bit different. Let me do the jungle. For this book, The Vicious Circle, it is set in a remote Mexican jungle. It is specifically a jungle that is on the borderline between Mexico and Guatemala. It’s the second-largest rainforest system outside of the Amazon. It also allows us to have that kind of isolation. This is the beautiful place where my lead character goes to bid her uncle farewell. His retreat center, called Xanadu, it’s like a wedding cake standing on the edge of this river deep in the jungle. It requires a plane, a helicopter, and a boat to get there. Once you’re there, it’s a real problem if your helicopter needs a part and can’t come get you. There’s no way out. That allowed me to isolate them. It’s also really fun to have jaguars and snakes and crocodiles and all of those kind of things around them in the jungle.

Zibby: I love how in the beginning you say that she had — what is the main character’s name? I always blank on the names.

Katherine: Sveta.

Zibby: Sveta says how she knows about the wealth because of her fiancé, Chase, and how his family has houses in Aspen and this fifteen-thousand-square-foot house in Connecticut and the Hamptons and whatever, but that the brochures had not done this place justice because it was even more breathtaking than all of those things combined.

Katherine: When she gets there, she thinks it’s going to be really cool because it’s this beautiful mansion with tumbling gardens and all these beautiful people with this very transcendent vibe. They’re all very welcoming. The more that she gets into it, the more that she starts to see that their belief system is disturbing. This is no wellness center. This is a cult.

Zibby: And that you have her ex-boyfriend suddenly become the lawyer in this whole mess.

Katherine: That’s another thing that I really like to add into my books, is some romance because who doesn’t like some romance? I feel like it really gives a heart to it. You’ve got all this thriller stuff going on. It does get dark in places, but it’s always people to a place where after they finish the book, they’re going to be depressed. I don’t want that to happen. I want them to feel like they went on a ride with this character and feel satisfied by it at the ending without feeling like — sometimes you finish a book and you’re like, oh, man, I need to go read something light now. I try to give them enough lightness that they don’t feel that way.

Zibby: They’ll just be ready for your next book.

Katherine: I hope so.

Zibby: I assume you already have a fourth one either completely written or in progress, or maybe the fifth one.

Katherine: I’m editing it.

Zibby: Fifth one started? Is that where you are?

Katherine: In between books three and four — I’m editing my fourth book right now, which is set in Greece. I just can’t stay away from the beach.

Zibby: Mykonos? Where are we going in Greece?

Katherine: It’s a fictional island called . It’s in the Cyclades. Unless I’m actually going to be writing on the island, I like to make — the one that’s set in the Caribbean is also fictional because I need it to check certain boxes for me. It’s very difficult to do that with a real place if you’re not actually living there. I, of course, have been to Greece. I’ve been to Mykonos. I’ve been to Santorini. I love Greece, but I am not living there while I’m writing it. I want to be as authentic as I can with every place that I set things. I don’t want to set them on an island and then have people who’ve been to that island be like, there’s no house like that on that island. People get caught up in those kinds of things. If I’m fictionalizing, I like to go ahead and just make it a Greek island that’s not a real island, but it’s one that you might find there.

Zibby: Got you. Wait, my question before was, when you’re picking your next novel and the elements, do you start with place and then you move on to romance and then conflict? What big things are set before you start to write it?

Katherine: I have all my tentpole moments set. I know the beginning. I know where I’m going. I know the end. It’s a character arc thing. I find the place. Then I think about my characters and their arc. They’re going from here to here. That allows me to plot out, what kind of a love interest am I going to be able to give them? What kind of things are going to stand in between them and their love interest? That’s going to have to do with their arc. I like to make the internal struggles that a character is going through external. I give them an external conflict that illuminates their internal conflict. In the most recent book, The Vicious Circle, Sveta, my main character, isn’t incredibly confident. She’s been a model her entire life and has been told since she was fourteen that she’s not thin enough or pretty enough or exciting enough or smart enough. She’s internalized all of that. She’s not very confident. It’s a journey of confidence for her, but that would be kind of boring to read about. All of these external things are illuminating that and helping her find her way to confidence. It’s a thrill ride, page-turner for the reader. For Sveta, it’s her reclaiming her confidence.

Zibby: I want to be a part of this brainstorm for a book of yours. I am serious. I want to go with you and be like, where should we go? Where are some beautiful islands or places where you’re isolated in some way? It just seems like such a fun, immersive process, even the brainstorm. Do you feel like it’s super fun?

Katherine: It is. It is really fun. I get super into it. My poor husband has to listen to me talk about characters he doesn’t know. I’m very fortunate. My agent is an editorial agent. She and I talk through all of this. She can really see it as we’re talking about it. She’ll have great ideas too. We’ll have these marathon four-hour phone calls where we kind of root around in my head and figure out exactly what we’re doing. She’s the only person that I’ll really allow inside my head. I feel very fortunate to have that, to have somebody that I can fail in front of, that I can tell terrible ideas to. She can be like, no, I think we’re going to do something else.

Zibby: Who is your agent?

Katherine: Sarah Bedingfield at Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency. She’s wonderful.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Aside from Greece, where do we have to look forward to? Do you have any other ones selected?

Katherine: I’m going to Portugal for two weeks in November, so expect something from Portugal. Anytime I’m going somewhere, I’m thinking about, what am I going to write here? I have a book that goes — during the pandemic, I spent a lot of time — I was living in Los Angeles at the time. I had a friend with a house in Palm Springs. The kids weren’t in school anyway, so we just went to Palm Springs and hung out where our kids could actually swim in the afternoon and run around on the golf course and have somewhat of a normal-seeming life. I did set something on a beautiful golf course type of place in Palm Springs. However, that book, I have put away currently. I’m going to circle back to it. It kept growing. It got a little out of control. I need a moment to step back so that I could trim it up and figure out exactly what I want to do with it.

Zibby: Wow. You mentioned adapting. Tell me about that.

Katherine: I am adapting currently, for television, The Lion’s Den and The Siren, which is a fascinating process because you really have to use the book as a jumping-off place. You not only have to break open the ending so that it can be opened up to a second, third, fourth season, but you also have to think about it in terms of the format for television, which is so different than the format for a book. The format for a book is a lot more like a really long movie. Whereas with television, each episode has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Things have to happen. It has to be these bite-size pieces as opposed to one big meal. That’s been really fascinating. Storytelling in different ways, I feel like it just makes you a better storyteller because you can use some of the things that you’re using for television or that you’re using for songwriting or that you’re using for writing a commercial in your novel writing as well. It makes you, maybe, think more visually or think about your dialogue.

Zibby: Have you thought about podcasting, doing some sort of scripted podcast situation?

Katherine: I have not thought about podcasting. I have not thought about that, but now I have.

Zibby: I feel like you’ve done everything else. I’m thinking, what are the other modes these days of storytelling?

Katherine: I’m very much trying to stay afloat. I’m such a juggler. I have to write down at the beginning of the day, these are the things that I have to address today. I have to focus on one at a time. Then I try and give myself — in between, maybe I will meditate for ten minutes. I will go walk the dog or something to switch. So that I don’t have bleed from one project into another, I have to do a little reset before I keep going.

Zibby: Do you do time blocks, like, I’m going to do this from nine to eleven?

Katherine: No, because it’s so task oriented that I have to get to a stopping place. If I’m in the middle of an idea, I can’t allow myself to stop that idea because then it won’t — you know how it is with ideas. They might not come back. If the muse shows up, you entertain her no matter what time it is. Even if she wants to show up at two o’clock in the morning, you have to at least pull your phone out and type in whatever it is that the muse is telling you.

Zibby: I feel like I rely more on, I am going to deal with my inbox, but I am going to do this just until it hits 1:15. Then I’m going to switch to this. I have to think about it that way.

Katherine: I feel like for administrative tasks, yes. I try and get those out of the way because that’ll definitely interrupt your creative flow if you start thinking about logistics or if you read a review.

Zibby: How old are your girls now?

Katherine: My girls are six and eight. It’s a great age. A lot of people really love babies. I love babies. My babies were great. I love other people’s babies. I really like kids because you can talk to them. You can play with them. They’re fun. They say funny things. They try on my shoes. They’re really cute. This is going to be our first time, when we take them to Portugal, traveling that far with them. We’ve taken them to Mexico and to Jamaica. This will be their first time in Europe. We’re going to stop in Paris as well just because they’re obsessed with Paris and want to see it. This is what I’ve looked forward to about being a parent, is this age where you can really do stuff with them and show them the world and talk to them about ideas and start to see them developing into these adorable little people.

Zibby: I totally agree. My little guys are seven and nine right now. I feel like I’m in the same . Although, I have twins who are fifteen. I feel like I get, now, a second chance to really appreciate what this age is. I’m appreciating it even more now.

Katherine: The teenager years, I’m a little afraid of. I’ve heard so many horror stories about the teen years. I like to think it’s not going to happen.

Zibby: So far, so good, for my guys at least. It’s one minute after the next. We’re very close. So far, so good. I’ll just say it like that. I don’t know how these guys will do, the little guys. They’re very independent already. We’ll see.

Katherine: My sister-in-law, who has children that are a little bit older than mine, one of the pieces of advice she gave me is that whatever it is that they’re interested in, just be interested in it. You need to learn about it. If it’s Pokémon, learn about Pokémon. Whatever it is, even if it’s not something that you would naturally be interested in, it gives you a way to stay close and to be able to talk to them about something that they’re interested in talking about, not something like, how was school today? You need more than that.

Zibby: I actually had my kids teach me how to play Roblox when they were really into Roblox.

Katherine: I love that.

Zibby: Now I’ve taken away their iPads for months. I pretended I lost them because I actually did lose them for a little bit. Then I was like, this is going well. I think I might not give them back. Now life is so much better.

Katherine: Losing things is always a good option. The problem is, my children are really wily, and they will find things.

Zibby: I actually could not find it, but that’s okay. Do your kids get involved in plotting or your characters? What’s their involvement when you have a book come out?

Katherine: They are my little publicists. Completely inappropriate. They are constantly pushing my books on people.

Zibby: I think that’s totally appropriate. That’s their job.

Katherine: One of their teachers, they’ll find out has read a book of mine. They want to feel special, so they want to bring in a book. “Mommy, Mommy, can we bring her a book signed?” I’m like, “Of course, but my books are not appropriate for first and third graders, and so please do not be reading it in the classroom.” They’re dying to read my books. They’re always trying to open them up and sneak a page here and there, but we’re not there yet. We’re not there yet. Too much to explain.

Zibby: Have you thought about children’s books?

Katherine: I don’t know that I have the mind for children’s books. People who write children’s books, they are — my mom, for example, is a teacher. She is a person who could write children’s books. She thinks in the mind of a child. I’m murdering people. It’s just not appropriate. I’ve thought, I should write a book without a murder. I’ve thought about that. Every time I sit down to try and write a book, somebody gets killed. I do what I do. Will it change over the course of my life? Probably. Hopefully. Who knows? Right now, I love what I do. I’m going to keep doing it.

Zibby: I love it. Is this compulsion to murder people based on any sort of anger you feel towards any one particular person, or it’s just because you like it as a story? Is there some anger you have deep-seated in there?

Katherine: I am probably the least-angry person you’ll ever meet. Anger doesn’t stick with me. I’m a very roll with the punches, surfing the wave of life type of person. I’m looking for fun everywhere I go. I don’t have a lot of anger issues. My murders are murders more in the British sense, like a manor murder. It’s more of a fun murder. I’m never going to kill children or animals. When I read a book where a kid dies in the beginning, I cannot read. If this is what we’re going to be dealing with, I can’t do that because I can’t go there. It’s hard enough as a parent not to constantly be worried about horrible things happening to your children irrationally all the time. When I read about a child dying in a book, it hurts me so badly, even though I understand it’s fiction. It’s hard for me to go on. With television, same thing. It’s like, no, I can’t do this.

Zibby: I get it. This is probably a totally inappropriate question. You happen to also, in addition to being a prolific author and creator and storyteller, but you are gorgeous. I want to know, what do you use, skin care, hair care? What tips can you share? I need to know the makeup, any products.

Katherine: I’m pretty simple. I really am. I’ve been using hyaluronic acid. I’ve been using a vitamin C serum, a hyaluronic acid serum. I just started using a red light. Have you heard of red light therapy?

Zibby: No.

Katherine: Red light therapy, you can go and get BroadBand Light on your face to help you get rid of age spots and stuff like that, and fine lines and wrinkles. It’s this red laser that they put over your face. They now sell lights that have — I’m not going to get the science here right, so nobody quote me on this. There’s a certain wavelength of light that is really good for the skin and also for things inside the body. It has both red light and infrared light. You sit in front of it. I sit in front of it to meditate. It’s like, okay, this is going to force me to meditate. Just ten minutes a day. I’ll sit in front of the red light. You put on these little goggles. You sit in front of the red light. It’s supposed to be really good for skin rejuvenation. It helps you sleep better. It improves your mood. If you spot treat areas of the body, it’s really good for inflammation. I have a bunion on my right foot. Sometimes when I’ve been wearing real-people shoes for too long, it’ll be throbbing. I’ll put my foot in front of it. It helps. It really does. I’ve just started using it six weeks, two months ago. We’ll see whether I can keep it up and whether it really does what it’s supposed to do. So far, so good.

Zibby: Great tip. Love it. I’ll google goggles to buy for red light.

Katherine: Red light therapy.

Zibby: I wonder if you could somehow use the red light instead of a ring light when you do interviews. You could multitask.

Katherine: It makes you look double. You can’t stare into it. My children will see the light. They’ll see that the bathroom looks red. They’ll be like, oh, no, Mommy’s using the red light. Don’t go in there.

Zibby: That’s so funny. I love it. Sorry, that was a total deviation, but I had to ask. Last question. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Katherine: Just do it, in the words of Nike. Don’t let anything get in your way. It’s so easy to make excuses. It’s so easy to feel like, well, I don’t know the ending yet. I don’t have five hours to really focus on this. That doesn’t matter. Take it from somebody who wrote her first book with two very small children. You don’t need five hours. Set aside whatever you can manage. Just start putting words on paper. Also, don’t be too precious about it. No first draft is good. If you wrote a good first draft, kudos to you. I have yet to do it. Every time I write a first draft, I’m like, this is terrible. I’m never going to write a book again. Some brilliant soul said that writing a first draft is like scooping sand into a sandbox knowing that later, you will make castles. That’s what I like to think about it as. I’m putting the elements in there. I know that it’s really in the editing process that the work takes place. I actually love the editing process because I feel like so much of the work is already done. I’ve already put all the characters in there and put the problems in there. Now it’s just about molding them and getting it all right. Just do it. Just sit down and do it. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. Don’t second-guess yourself. You never know who’s going to be a fantastic writer. Somebody that majored in English might be terrible. Somebody that didn’t go to college might be the next J.K. Rowling. You just don’t know.

Zibby: I love that. I love the sandcastle, sandbox metaphor as well. That is super helpful.

Katherine: I cling to it. I do.

Zibby: It’s really helpful.

Katherine: In moments of terror, I’ve googled, what do other authors say about first drafts? They all said the same thing, which is that they’re terrible.

Zibby: I feel better now myself. That’s great. This has been so much fun. I hope I meet you in person sometime. Thank you for coming on.

Katherine: Me too. This was so much fun.

Zibby: I’m sorry it’s taken so long for us to connect. By the time I talk to you next, you’ll have written three more books.

Katherine: Oh, man. That’s a lot.

Zibby: Thank you so much. This was really fun.

Katherine: Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: Have a great day.

Katherine: Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

Katherine St. John, THE VICIOUS CIRCLE: A Novel

THE VICIOUS CIRCLE: A Novel by Katherine St. John

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