By Dan Lalande
If Katie Tallo didn’t already wear the ever-present smile by which she’s instantly recognized, she’d have good reason to. Tallo, a fixture on Ottawa’s film and video scene, is enjoying unprecedented success under a new identity: best-selling novelist. A year ago, her debut thriller, Dark August, was published. The book instantly made the Canadian bestseller list, was hailed by The Globe and Mail, and dissected with delight by CBC Radio’s The Next Chapter. Better still, it proved a hit in the U.S., scoring an Editor’s Pick in The New York Times Review of Books and a starred review in Booklist.
Dark August, a tale of small-town crime and corruption, is one of the few works of popular fiction unabashedly set in Eastern Ontario. The book is both an exemplary contribution to the genre and a public declaration of civic pride.
While still reeling from the book’s success, the enterprising Tallo has just submitted the sequel to her publisher and is busily crafting the next adventure in the life of her stalwart heroine, Augusta “Gus” Monet, and her canine Dr. Watson, Levi.
Tallo took time out from typing to talk…
Which part of Ottawa did you grow up in?
I was born in T.O. but I grew up in the Carleton Heights neighbourhood of Nepean— spent summers at General Burns Public Pool or biking along the river at Vincent Massey and Hog’s Back.
How did you end up in Ottawa’s film and TV industry?
At eighteen, I joined the Katimavik youth program because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. I loved movies so when I came home, I enrolled at Carleton for Film and English. After that, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I took a two-year hiatus to figure it out. I worked as a server in the late ’80s at Maxwell’s on Elgin. It was a great time to be in the business: people had money, they went out a lot, and there was a real sense of family amongst the staff. I met some wonderful people who became lifelong friends—including my bartender husband, who I’ve been with ever since. But it wasn’t the career I wanted so went back to school, this time at Algonquin College to get some hands-on filmmaking experience. I won a few student awards forged a business partnership with one of my instructors
You became a writer-director-producer on the Ottawa media scene, making corporates and your own indie productions for many years. All through that life, were you considering writing novels?
I think writing a novel was always there, in the background, tapping me on the shoulder. But like many, I thought a lot about it but never actually got down to doing it. I wasn’t sure how to begin or if I could even pull it off. Self-doubt and excuses kept novel writing an unchecked item on my bucket list.
How did you “turn the page,” so to speak?
In my forties, I read Stephen King’s On Writing. He offers up lots of great advice but there was one piece that struck me. He said, just stick your characters in a situation and then go where the book leads you. It seemed like a way to begin and so I did. Eventually, I had a few hundred pages. Was it a novel? Who knows? I’d never written one before. So I entered the book in a novel-writing contest in the UK and I won. That manuscript also landed me an agent in New York. And even though we couldn’t sell that first manuscript, I was hooked on the form. So, I wrote another one, based on a screenplay I’d written years earlier. I reimagined elements of that screenplay and Dark August was born.
How long did it take you to write Dark August?
Off-and-on, the novel probably took four years to write. I was new to the form and sort of muddling my way through, more on instinct than experience. These days, I’ve let go much of the baggage that used to hinder my writing process: the thoughts that I wasn’t good enough, the idea that I had to write every day to be a real writer, the need to have a great swath of time laid out in front of me in order to do it right or before I could start. It’s meant that what used to take me four years now takes closer to two.
You were new to the thriller form and yet you pulled it off —and then some!
I’m a slow reader. I’m not a skimmer so in some ways, it’s an odd genre for me to have landed in. Thrillers are often fast-paced, page-turners that almost beg to be read in one sitting—at least, that’s how thriller readers often put it. For me, crafting a good thriller is about momentum and tension. I like a slow burn that becomes more explosive and nail-bitey as the story unfolds but mostly, I don’t focus on the genre as much as I do on just trying to get the story down on the page. As Stephen King says, “The scariest moment is just before you start.”
Your book is unabashedly set in Ottawa and the surrounding area. Did you ever stop to think this might have limited its appeal?
I never gave it much thought. I just began my story where I live, writing about what I know. It grounds me to be able to see the real thing. If I’m stuck, I can take a walk past my character’s great grandmother’s house or take a road trip out to the small town that I blew up in the novel. Plus, writing for me is atmospheric as much as it is about plot and character. Indeed, place is like a character—the old house, the ghost town, the highway—they are all living, breathing entities that speak to the novel’s themes of isolation and loss and the road ahead. So it would be odd for me to write about somewhere I can’t go or have never been. And frankly, no one at my literary agency or publishing house ever mentioned changing the locations. The towns may not be known by someone living in the U.S. but they’ll still feel recognizable or familiar.
The book is a North America-wide hit. How much of that was expected?
I had no expectations going in but I was blown away by the reaction. Having the marketing and publicity team at HarperCollins supporting and championing the novel really made a difference. I wouldn’t have had the know-how or the reach to do it alone. In the U.S., they spread the word, securing guest spots on literary podcasts and getting it into the hands of bookstagrammers, readers, and reviewers. Every week brought some new piece of good news, a review, or requests to appear on panels and before book clubs.
The publicity leg: what was that like under the pandemic?
Book tours in a pandemic look a little different. My travels extended from my living room to my home office—about twenty feet. My “book tour” involved a lot of chats, panels, book clubs, and guest spots on Zoom. But that kind of suits this introvert. And there was a surprising intimacy to seeing all those faces on Zoom, beaming from their own homes, versus what I imagine it would have felt like standing in front of a group of strangers at a bookstore. It felt very one-on-one and relaxed and personal. I also got to meet people from across Canada and the U.S.
Finally, how are the much-anticipated follow-ups progressing?
I just delivered the final edits of my latest novel to my editor. It’s a sequel that features Gus and Levi embarking on a brand-new cold case investigation This one is set in one of my favourite Ottawa neighbourhoods where I lived in my twenties: The Glebe. Having just wrapped up this sequel, I’ve already begun the third novel in what will become the Augusta Monet trilogy.
Dark August by Katie Tallo is published by Harper Paperbacks