International model, top-selling crime writer and presenter Tara Moss doesn’t do things by the book. As at home with Dior as she is with the dead, she is a woman who is not afraid to tackle all aspects of life.
Vive Magazine, 2008
“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil, assaulted by bears. C is for Clara, who wasted away, D is for...”
With a pause between each letter, Tara Moss recites The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. Excitedly explaining how she learned the alphabet as a child, she tucks her dark-painted toenails beneath her long, bare legs and settles deep into the sofa. “My taste for the delightfully morbid started early,” she says with a smirk. “I was a strange kid.”
Wedding glamour with geek, and geek with goth, Moss is a woman who defies classification. First, there is her outfit. Despite the driving rain outside, her skimpy snakeskin-print dress – combining at least six shades of purple with Elvira-inspired lace-capped sleeves – is fit for summer in the tropics. Then there is her towering height. Not to mention the hair as big as a house. Delectable drag queen meets Amazon woman, and all before the trap door of dark tales has even begun to creak open. “I’m incredibly verbose,” she warns. “I have no idea how you’re going to turn my ramblings into anything readable.”
Talk she undoubtedly can, but the truth is, Moss’s musings make for gripping conversation. She speaks slowly and dramatically, in a throaty Canadian accent. As Richard Mayer, producer for the crime documentary series Tara Moss Investigates observes, “With Tara, there is no warm-up time. She’s engaging right from the get-go.”
Studying for a private investigator’s license, frequenting morgues and tending to pet snakes are all in a day’s work for the 33-year-old. ACNielsen rates her Australia’s top-selling crime novelist. And who can forget her former career as an international model? Certainly not the press.
“In every new territory I become published, I go through it all again. The same experience, the same headlines: ‘Beauty and the brain?’, ‘Bombshell with brain?’ All these people wondering how this person could have possibly written this book.” Plumber-turned-author would never rate a consistent mention, she quips, yet model-turned-author does.
But her sense of humour remains. In 2002, journalist Emma Tom proposed a polygraph test to prove authorship of her books. “Bring it on,” said Moss. In terms of silencing her critics, the results were successful; for a short time, anyway. “As a woman, it’s disappointing because it happens to other women all the time. Let’s wake up and face facts here, people. There is no association between physical appearance and intellect whatsoever. I write. That’s what I do. It’s no big deal.”
Ah, but it is. Having written full-time for the past eight years, producing four novels – Fetish, Split, Covet and Hit – it’s a pursuit she has relished since the age of 10. Growing up in small-town British Columbia, stories of murder and mayhem dripped from her pen. “A demonic car killed off my classmates one by one,” she says, remembering her first novella.
“In today’s post-Columbine environment, you’d probably have little Tara Moss dragged off and put into a straitjacket.” But kids wanted to be written in and killed off, she insists. “They asked for their own chapter where they reached their grisly demise. I would hand these out after school each day.”
Add to the picture a childhood lust for all things boyish, and the modern-day adventurer in Moss takes shape. “I hated all expectations of what a female was meant to be excited by. I hated sewing, cooking, finding the man and getting married. Guys got to have more fun. They’re flying planes, running businesses and doing things I thought were cool.”
When she won a Barbie for the ‘girl’s prize’ for a running race, “I cried. I didn’t want it, but those were the rules. My mother helped me transform it into Vampira. We dyed her hair and clothes black and gave her a Frankenstein stitch on the side of the head. Mom understood my morbid sensibilities.”
As her teenage years unfolded, it was her mother who suggested modelling. The idea was to “bring her out of her shell”, and the 15-year-old soon found herself plunged into the international fashion scene.
At the time, the phrase ‘next big thing’ flew from all corners, but Moss now laughs this off. “I did well, but I wasn’t the next big thing. There were a number of times I was discovered, then undiscovered, then discovered again.” In the end, posing and preening lost its appeal. “There is no power in modelling. There are no personal choices, no sense of expression and no progress. I turned to writing out of complete and utter boredom with my life.”
Her life, however, was about to change regardless. On a trip to Australia in 1996, she emerged from her apartment one day and spotted a man wearing a shoulder holster, a fake gun and a detective’s badge. “That was it. That was two years of my life right there – the shoulder holster. Everybody’s got their thing.” As it turned out, actor Peter Mochrie was shooting on location. Quaint but true: the detective scored a damsel. It’s a sweet story, but in the long run, the romance was not to be. Eventually, it was film producer Mark Pennell who secured her affections. The couple wed in 2004 and Moss relocated from Sydney to Melbourne.
Adjusting a fold of her dress, Moss says, “I’m a big believer in lists. I like writing about things I would like, or want to do with my life.” But she says Pennell had qualities for which no list could cater. “I just recognised him, and he recognised me. He fell off the page.”
As for future lists, children spring to mind – motherhood is a role she hopes to fulfil with “as much cool as my mother did”. Sadly, Moss’s mother passed away in 1990, a loss made more bearable through the process of writing. “It helped me to put on paper some of the things I was feeling at the time,” she says.
When the lead character in her books, Mak Vanderwall, has flashbacks of visiting her mother in hospital “all puffed up and bald from chemo”. “That stuff is all real," she says. "I made a choice to go pretty personal and it got me where I am today.”
Death, like all aspects of life, is something Moss tackles upfront. “You can face death head on and live a bigger and happier life than people who don’t. Otherwise you can let it get on top of you and become sad, depressed and overly focused on the negative,” she says. “The world really is yin and yang. For every horrible act there is a beautiful act, you just need to find it.”
Writing, and the research behind it, brings Moss into contact with the darker aspects of life. “Whether it’s shooting guns, going to the FBI Academy or getting a brain scan as part of university training, experiences are what I live for,” she says.
A self-professed “chronic over-researcher”, she claims to use a mere five per cent of her findings, but nonetheless, she feels research is important for giving her books a sense of reality. “I was at the morgue the other day and I realised it was the first time I had seen a body with its eyes open. Previously, I didn’t get what it was like to look into eyes that didn’t look back. That’s why research is so important – had I done this earlier I could have made a sentence in Hit that little bit better.”
For Moss, maintaining a career is akin to needing oxygen. “It’s something that keeps you living and breathing,” she says. “It may sound self-indulgent, but it comes down to personal development and making your mark.”
With this in mind, the seemingly contradictory fragments of Moss – a woman as comfortable with Dior as she is with the dead – fall into place like clues from a crime novel. “They’re all just part of me. I find routine incredibly depressing. There’s so much out there, you can’t take it all in over one lifetime. Why wouldn’t you try to fit as much in as you can?” she says. “Never live the same day twice.”
As she catches her breath, a chocolate cookie she ordered appears on cue. Avoiding its ugliness is futile: the brown crust is cracked and flat, and bears four Smarties in a clumsy diamond pattern. Studying the arrangement, she furrows her brow. With dark-painted fingernails that match her toes, Moss snaps off a chunk in disgusted delight. “For a second I thought it was a happy face, but I think it’s actually an alien. That’s OK – it’s inspired,” she says.