It’s 31 years since Tara Moss wrote her first book, which is pretty impressive given she’s 42. I’m with the elegant, poised – and very tall – Tara in her publisher’s offices.
It’s too late in the day to call her the model who writes, not only because her modelling days are long gone but because Tara does so many different things now that she defies categorisation: she’s a human rights advocate, UNICEF ambassador for child survival, high-profile advocate for the rights of women and girls, anti-cyber-bullying campaigner and part-time uni student.
But she’s always “writer”. And today Tara is reflecting on why, at 10, living in a small town in British Columbia, Canada, she wrote a book called Black and White Doom, “a very clear homage” to Stephen King.
“It had a plot about a demonic car killing off the classmates of its owner at a high school,” Tara says in her Canadian accent, with the odd hint of Aussie. “Classic Stephen King. It was the ’80s, what can I say?”
It was no flash-in-the-pan childhood hobby. By 23 Tara was writing crime fiction professionally and now she ponders why she was drawn to it.
“Why do I write this stuff? Where does it come from? [As a kid] I wanted to be Stephen King while the other girls wanted to be ballerinas and princesses. I was very dark comparatively and I’ve often wondered why that was.
“I’ve recently concluded that my childhood was very safe and idyllic and it gave me the opportunity to explore things that scared me because I felt safe to do so.
“We weren’t rich. I come from a lower-middle-class family but we never worried about food, we never worried about our parents breaking up – how rare is that? We never worried about whether there would be a roof over our heads. And now that I’m older and a parent myself, I realise what a gift that was and how difficult it is to provide that stability.”
After a modelling career that began at 15, Tara went on to a successful career as a writer of crime fiction. In 2014 she released her first non-fiction title, the autobiographical The Fictional Woman.
It was in that book that Tara revealed that at 21 she had been raped and imprisoned overnight by a man she trusted, who had given her a ride home from an acting class. (He was eventually jailed).
It was a story she had “kept locked up in me for 20 years”. Today she says the decision to include it in the book was not made until the last minute.
“It was the last part of the book I wrote. I realised it simply had to be included because it would be extremely inauthentic to leave it out. It would be to me some sort of cop-out or blank space in an otherwise balanced book, particularly as I’m an advocate for women and girls on many topics.”
I ask Tara whether it was harder to write about her own life. “It was easier and harder,” she says.
“Easier in the sense that I already knew the story and I had something to say … Harder because as the date of the publication approached, I could feel my body tensing and my heart acting strangely. On a subconscious level I was concerned about the repercussions of people knowing more about me.”
Tara was just 15 when her nascent modelling career took her to Europe. “I think I was very lucky to be able to model because I got to see the world,” she says. “I got to live in Europe as a teenager, Milan, Barcelona, London, Paris, Zurich.”
Modelling, she says, was “part of what’s made me who I am. All that travel, seeing different cultures, seeing the world in that way, made me older faster, which I don’t think is necessarily a good thing but it’s also me.”
Did it make her resilient, independent, maybe wary?
“I think so. Not wary enough. I think coming from a small town in Canada I had a ways to go before ‘wary’ would be a term you could realistically use to describe me. Thankfully I’m not even wary now. Maybe street-savvy. Wary is almost a loss, I think. You would shield yourself from the world, and I want to be part of the world.”
Aside from the disturbing story about sexual assault, she says there have been many “micro-aggressions”, both during her modelling career and afterwards, which “add up to an experience of the world that is difficult for any young person”.
The responses Tara elicits from people vary wildly, and are sometimes disturbing. “The response I get is incredibly varied, from I would say undue praise to undue vitriol, on the same day and about the same things.
“The last time I appeared on [the ABC’s] Q&A, which was the first time I had spoken on television about my experience of sexual assault, I had perhaps a thousand messages of really moving, heartfelt support … an outpouring. Twitter, Facebook messages, people emailing my agent.”
And then there were the ugly, vile and threatening responses. “Standard fallback language we use to bully women in particular, and very sexualised and very violent,” Tara says. “I blocked and reported and sent through reports to the platforms on which those various messages appeared, Twitter and Facebook.”
And the response? “Adequate to disappointing, in that there is not much that is normally done about people who spend their day doing this kind of thing.”
Tara’s new book, Speaking Out, is a practical step-by-step guide on participating in public life, handling criticism, surviving trolls and speaking out through writing, public speaking and online.
The book was inspired by questions Tara was asked by hundreds of women and girls after The Fictional Woman came out.
“There is a final chapter in The Fictional Woman where I basically say, ‘Over to you’,” Tara says.
“I pass the baton. These women wanted to take it up, but wanted practical advice. How do you deal with the trolls? How do you approach research? Public speaking? Writing a blog or essay? Overcoming nerves?
“I am passionate about seeing a better representation of women in public life and I hope this book can be part of that, in its own small way, for those it touches.”
Tara has done a lot of work in the area of cyber-bullying, or “online ethics” as she calls it. “I’m very serious about that issue. I speak to schools specifically on cyber-bullying.
“Often I’ll be speaking to schools where I know that, statistically speaking, there will be many students who have experienced bullying and many who have been bullies, whether or not they see themselves that way,” she says.
“There’s a lot of shock. It’s very challenging for a lot of the kids. You can see some of them get a bit nervous about some of the things they’ve said publicly online. A lot of kids do it because they’ve seen other kids do it.”
There was a poignant moment last year when she was speaking about cyber-bullying in Mackay in Queensland. Speaking from a raised stage in a marquee, Tara could see things that others couldn’t. She noticed some girls holding hands under desks to comfort each other without their friends seeing. “That was really moving,” she says. “You could see their eyes start to tear up.”
Tara lives in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, with her husband Berndt Sellheim, a poet and writer, and their five-year-old daughter Sapphira. On top of her writing, Tara is a doctoral candidate in social sciences at the University of Sydney.
“I love it. If I could be full-time I would but it’s not possible with a family to support and books to write.
“My studies give me a lot of energy and insight. I was already studying when I wrote The Fictional Woman and I think my studies really enhanced the book and the arguments in the book. I really enjoy the university environment and that engagement with ideas and with thinkers,” she says.
Life, of course, is a juggle. “It is often a challenge. What I try to do is the things I feel I must do and the things that give me energy, and between those two things I get by. The humanitarian work I do with UNICEF, for example, I feel I must do that. I have an opportunity to make some impact, [even] if it’s a small impact I will do that. I would not like myself if I didn’t do that,” she says.
“But having vintage caravans and going out and having a holiday on the weekend with my family gives me energy.”
Tara and Berndt own two 1960s vintage Viscounts, which they tow to small towns. “We like little towns with history that are being forgotten. That’s the type of stuff I find quite fascinating. It’s my preferred form of escape and holiday.”
Tara and Berndt, who is writing his second novel, are both stay-at-home writers.
“It’s a great set-up. We take turns doing what needs doing. We’ve got the dogs and wild birds outside and it’s pretty great. I feel safe and secure and free within that environment, and I tend to be what you’d call a hot-desker. I like to move around so I’ll write in various parts of the house. I don’t need an office. Sometimes I write in the caravans.”
Tara arrived in Australia in 1996, aged 21, for a modelling assignment, fell in love with an Australian actor and stayed. Her first novel was published in 1999. “And that was it. Australia became home.” But she maintains a deep affection for Canada and its people.
“I love Canadians. There’s a great joke about Canadians, which I think is rather true: how do you get a dozen Canadians out of a hot tub really quickly? Just ask them nicely.
“Canadians are very polite. A bit no-nonsense. Aussies are also no-nonsense but there’s a bit more play with language, a bit more irony in Australia. You might say the opposite of what you mean. Canadians tend not to do that, they tend to talk pretty straight, so we can come across as a bit earnest and I don’t think I’ve ever dropped that entirely. I don’t mind it. It’s not the worst thing. I’m probably at least as Australian as I am Canadian but I’ll let other people decide.”
Well, it’s a great mix. Tara is an important figure on our national landscape, and a strong and brave voice that’s always worth listening to. As I thank Tara for finding time for us in her schedule, it strikes me that Canada’s loss is our gain.
- Speaking Out: A 21st Century Handbook for Women & Girls by Tara Moss (HarperCollins), $19