Tara Moss: Best-selling author of The Spider Goddess

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image-taramoss200Tara Moss is the best-selling author of The Spider Goddess, the second book in her new series of paranormal fiction featuring Pandora English. A heady mix of high fashion and gothic horror set in New York, The Spider Goddess follows Pandora as she goes to live with her great-aunt in a haunted mansion in Spektor, Manhattan.

Tara started her career as an international fashion model before pursuing her love of writing and publishing her first novel, Fetish, at the age of 23. Since then she has published six novels – five crime novels and two in the latest series – which have been published in 17 countries. She has been awarded the Scarlett Stiletto Young Writers Award and also been shortlisted multiple times for the Ned Kelly and Davitt crime awards.

Tara is also a journalist and TV presenter, and blogs at The Book Post.

Click play to listen. Running time: 28.31

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Welcome to the Sydney Writers’ Centre. My name is Valerie Khoo. Today we’re talking to internationally best selling author Tara Moss. Her latest book is The Spider Goddess. Tara, thanks for joining us today.

Tara
My pleasure.

Valerie
Now, do tell us about your latest book, what it’s about.

Tara
Well, The Spider Goddess continues on from The Blood Countess, the first in the paranormal series that I’ve been writing, starring my new character Pandora English. So, with The Spider Goddess there’s some questions asked in the first book, which are answered in this second book, and there’s still a lot of mystery for Pandora as well. So, we get to discover a little bit more about her life, her new life in Spektor, which is a super-natural suburb in Manhattan that doesn’t appear on maps. We find out a little bit more about her great aunt, Celia, who’s taken her under her wing, and a little bit more about Luke, who’s a civil war ghost, who she has a friendship with, perhaps a bit of spark of romance even between them.

So, we find out a bit more about various characters and it also continues to lead us towards what I’d say is the bigger journey that I have in mind for this series, so there’s a large plot line that goes over several books, which I plan to write. This just gets us a little bit closer to understanding what’s ahead for the series itself.

Valerie
So, did you always plan for it to be a series?

Tara
Yes, I did. In fact, with my crime series, with Mak Vanderwall, I wrote Fetish kind of as a one-off and loved her so much and loved writing the novel so much that I decided to continue the series. That’s not the case with Pandora English. I actually decided that I wanted to write a particular series, I wanted to set it in this alternate New York, contemporary, but sort of timeless setting and draw on my love of ancient folklore, ancient mythology, and my love of all things macabre and gothic, and kind of look at a way of taking all of this wonderful old myths and ideas, transplanting them into the modern day and leading them on this big journey.

So, I won’t give away what’s going to happen in the last books that will come in the series, but let’s just say it’s all leading to something quite big. And, with The Spider Goddess I wanted to tell the story of Arachne, who of course the woman who was turned into a spider by the goddess Athena back in the Old Greek mythological tale. So, yeah, that’s the where The Spider Goddess spawned from.

Valerie
The great thing about this book is that you don’t need to read the first one for this book to make sense and for you to enjoy it. Is that difficult because you need to ensure that the reader has a complete experience, even though they may have no idea about what happened in the rest of this series?

Tara
Yeah, it’s an important thing to do as an author, I think, especially when writing a series you need to be aware that previous readers or fans of this particular series don’t want to have everything rehashed, that’s boring and takes a lot of time, it just slows the plot down, but at the same time new readers to this series, you want to make sure that they have a complete experience reading the book. So, it’s something that I focus on. It’s something that I had to also grapple with, with my crime series, so I’m kind of used to that, over the last 13 years, trying to find that balance between revealing new information and also giving people an idea of context in terms of the larger series. So, each of my novels I see as ones you can read as standalones, but hopefully if you do read any you’ll enjoy it. You’re going to want to go back and find out kind of what the progression is of the series as well.

Valerie
So, the first book in the series is The Blood Countess. And, prior to that, as you mentioned, you have been writing crime books, starting off with Fetish in 1999, and then Split, Siren, and so on. So, why did you decide to delve into or embrace the paranormal world, as opposed to the world of the FBI and CSI, and all of that?

Tara
Well, I’ve been writing the crime genre for 13 years now. In fact, I’m writing the sixth in the Mak Vanderwall series now, which should be out next year, and hopefully titled Assassin, to follow on from Siren. So, I’ve been immersed in that world of crime, and forensics, and research for some time and I needed a break, actually, creatively I needed a break. And, also I had a desire to express a more kind of gothic interest, and that interest has been with me since I was a little girl. So, even in Siren, the most recent of the Mak novels, I touched on the Grand-Guignol, which this theatre, a theatrical troupe from Paris. And, in a way I found myself actually going down this road towards the more, you know, the gothic and fantastical, and realized, “Well, wait a second, this isn’t the book for this. This isn’t the series for this.” The crime books are so based in kind of authenticity and research and fact that I really couldn’t do everything I wanted to in terms of the scope.

So, I thought, “I’m going to write a second series, and make it completely different.” So, with the Pandora English series I write the books in first-person rather than third. It’s all from Pandora’s viewpoint rather than from multiple viewpoints. It’s set in a different place. It’s set in a world where everything is possible and where there are kind of no limitations in terms of what I can do. That’s really liberating, I think, as a creative person.

Valerie
Right, because with your crime series, as you say, it’s very rooted in authenticity and research and facts. So, did you have to do this same level of research. Presumably there’s some rules in the paranormal world, or conventions that you need to include to be credible?

Tara
That’s right. People who love speculative fiction and love the paranormal are really well-read, and I’m quite well-read in the genre as well. I understand you need to either embrace certain conventions, and if you don’t embrace those conventions, you need to acknowledge them, and give a reason why that’s not true in the world that you’re creating. And, that’s actually one of the most fun things you can do when dealing with the paranormal and the supernatural, is to kind of acknowledge previous authors. So, there’s a lot of references in the paranormal series that I write to things like the Adams family, to Bram’s Stoker’s Dracula, to terms like Nosferatu, which meant “plague-carrier.” So, I came up with the idea that — obviously plague-carrier is a pretty pejorative term, it’s not a very nice way to refer to someone, but I’ve come up with the idea that “vampire” is also a very politically incorrect term. You don’t call people vampires, they’re sanguine, which means “of blood”. So, I wanted to create a kind of — I guess revisiting some of these ideas, but also reinterpreting them and taking some classic horror archetypes and giving them a little bit of a twist.

Valerie
And who knew that Michael Hutchence played such an important in the paranormal world.

Tara
This is right. It was great fun to imagine who may or may not be undead. I won’t give too much away for the readers at home, but there are some big names that we know who are still around. It’s something quite fun I think Charlaine Harris has done with the Sookie Stackhouse series, that I’m a fan of, you know, when she decided Elvis, who’s very rarely named as actually ‘Elvis,’ but we know Elvis was taken over to the other side as a member of the undead by a fan, rather than dying as everybody believes he has. So, that explains the frequent sightings.

So, there’s lots of things you can do to have fun with the genre. And maybe even poke a bit of fun at the genre, whilst also creating a really rich and interesting world that’s not just vampires or sanguine that appear in the paranormal English series, there are ghosts, there are, of course, the mythological creatures like The Spider Goddess, herself. What was fun about The Spider Goddess was imagining if she was around now in a modern day New York what would she be up to, and also as a villain, or villainess, what’s her arsenal? What are her weapons? And, that was a great experience for me to actually let myself just imagine all the possibilities of what a spider goddess could do, things I haven’t read about, because I didn’t feel this area had been visited particularly in the genre. So, it’s fun to take some known things and some unknowns and mix it all together.

Valerie
It’s quite a skill because you are setting it in New York, and yet it is this whole other world. What did you do to maintain that credibility, so that people still felt that this was grounded in reality?

Tara
Well, I did quite a bit of research into ancient folklore, as well as mythology. I lived in New York for several years, so I know New York well. And, I wanted to create an alternate version of New York, but to bring in historical facts, and also with the ancient folklore, focus on things that are based in real beliefs that people had in different cultures at one point, but maybe are now kind of lost and forgotten. One example of that is the sanguine in my novels are obsessive compulsive.

This is something that a lot of people when they’re reading have a bit of a laugh over, but this is not something I’ve made up. This is actually based on early belief systems at a time when people genuinely feared the undead and believed the undead could slaughter whole towns, they believed that they were obsessive compulsive and therefore you could scatter grains of rice outside cemeteries or outside homes to slow the progress of the undead. And, some believed they had to only count one grain per year, considerably slow them down. And, in other cultures they just believed they had to count them all, so it would slow them by days, or weeks, or hours.

So, I went with the latter idea. There was also a belief that pumpkin seeds would have the same effect. So, these are all things that I can, in the books, write about, these early belief systems and it’s something that I find personally fascinating and readers have told me they find it fascinating as well. With The Spider Goddess there are actually a lot of spider gods and goddess that were believed in various cultures over the years, and they get a mention in the book as well. So, there’s that rooting in fact, still, even in a setting of something more fantastical.

Valerie
It deals with some spooky and eerie concepts, and I know for the first probably three chapters I just kept looking up, you know?

Tara
What was that?

Valerie
Exactly! Before I let myself get into it. Do you get spooked out when you’re writing it?

Tara
Some of the sequences that I write in this book, The Spider Goddess, are actually based on nightmares I had while I was writing the book. And, that’s something I’ve done in the past, so I sometimes do write dream sequences, or nightmare sequences, because I think it says a lot about human psychology, where we’re at, what are fears are, most primal fears. And, so with The Spider Goddess I literally translated those to the page. They’re some of my favorite scenes actually, the dream sequences, or nightmare sequences. And, when you’re imagining spiders and for Pandora, she’s not afraid of spiders, and her mother taught her that spiders are misunderstood creatures, so they shouldn’t be feared. So, as a consequence in the first chapter while everyone else is trying to kill this very large spider, she saves it. She doesn’t want to see it killed. So, she’s someone who doesn’t fear spiders, but at the same time if you start imagining a lot of spiders, if you start to imagine spiders that are being moved by someone’s hand, in this case The Spider Goddess, there’s so many infinite possibilities. And, I think the result is quite chilling, actually, in this book.

Valerie
You’ve written, as we’ve said, crime, where suspense is very, very important. This book is also very suspenseful, and now it’s your seventh book, so you’ve become a bit of a master at suspense. But, for those people who are starting out, perhaps, in crime writing, what’s the key to maintaining that tension, and to keep the reader turning the page?

Tara
Look, I think suspense is something — it’s extremely central and important in any good novel, no matter genre it is, or is if it’s a non-genre piece of fiction, suspense is really key, also true crime for that matter. It’s very much about pacing, I think. And, also not giving too much away too early. But, the key is also when a mystery is revealed and the answer is revealed at some point to some question you’ve asked earlier in the book, it has to make sense to the reader. So, you need to make sure that people don’t feel ripped off by a twist that was completely — there were no red herrings, or no clues for it beforehand. You can have red herrings leading them in different directions, but ultimately when you do have a big reveal it needs to be able to fit well into the book, it seems properly motivated and that the precedent is there earlier on.

But, in terms of actual pacing it’s something that I think each author needs to feel out themselves. Don’t go back in history too often while you’re writing. Try to keep it in the present so that the action is moving forward. I think that’s one thing I learned early on, which is very important, and again can be difficult in a series when you’re trying to explain the context of things. You need to explain a little bit about the past, but it’s important to do it in small drips, rather than having whole sections. That just slows down the plot and takes away the sense of pace and suspense, and action. So, action is important. Make sure every single scene that you write is necessary for the progression of the book. It’s not necessary cut it out.

Valerie
You’re well-known for your level of research, particularly in your crime novels. You’ve gone to the FBI, you’ve been choked —

Tara
Choked unconscious, set on fire…

Valerie
Yes, what other bizarre things have you experienced that most of us normally don’t, all in the name of research?

Tara
You’ve never been choked unconscious? Set on fire?

Valerie
No!

Tara
I’m surprised, Valerie. Frankly, I’m disappointed. Look, I will take nearly any opportunity to experience something new, so I get a better understanding of the human experience, and so I can translate that to the page. With the Pandora English series it has to do with spending time in places that are renowned for having a presence, or having ghosts. So —

Valerie
Like where?

Tara
Cave’s House, at Jenolan Caves in the mountains is renowned for its — the caretaker and the —

Valerie
Did you see them?

Tara
I had a very strange dream, actually, when I stayed there. It’s a really interesting place. I’m one of those people who sits on the fence in terms of the paranormal. I believe there’s a lot that we don’t understand with science and there’s a lot that remains unexplained, but I really don’t know what the answers are to all of this. You can consider me open-minded. And, when I spend time in places like Cave’s House I really become very convinced that there’s the echoes of previous lives in places like that.

It’s something that helps me to write a character like Pandora, because she has a special gift, which is a connection with the dead. And, I don’t think I could write about her unless some part of me believed that it was possible. So, places like Cave’s House has a presence. There’s the Monte Crisco, which is a Victorian Mansion in Junee, in New South Wales, which is known as the “most haunted house in Australia” because of the number of deaths that have taken place there over the years, some from natural causes, some for other reasons. And, there’s said to be quite a presence there. When I went I found quite a presence, particularly in the maid’s quarters. Actually, the hairs stood up — the tiny hairs on the back of my neck just stood up, and I got quite a chill, it felt like someone had walked over my grave. So, there’s definitely places that have a presence.

And, I’d say that’s probably also true, to a lesser degree, of the Tea House, or the tea rooms that I have at home in the mountains. There’s something there and a lot of people have come to stay have said that they’ve had experiences there at certain parts of the house. So, there’s something, some energy, if you will, whether it’s actually a benevolent spirit of some kind, if you believe in ghosts or spirits, or whether it’s just an energy that a place absorbs after so many lives and experiences have taken place. I don’t know what the answer is, but some places do have a real presence.

Valerie
Take us through your writing process. When you are actually in the depths of writing your novel, what is your routine? Do you have a ritual? Do you have to start the day a certain way? Do you aim for a certain number of words? Do you plot it all out first, or do you just let the spirit take you somewhere?

Tara
That’s a good word to use. With Pandora I do let the spirit take me somewhere. It’s a very liberating experience to write each of the Pandora English novels, because it’s so freeing. Again, I don’t have to stop to speak to a forensics expert, or an investigator to make sure that I have the details of the scene correct. Most of the knowledge that I’m putting into the books, it’s knowledge that I’ve absorbed over decades, you know, in terms of ancient mythology, and folklore, and things. So, it’s a less stilted process with the Pandora English novels.

Each day I aim for 1,000 words. Some days I fail miserably, and I might get 300, or a 100 even, if I’m having a bad day, or I’m quite distracted by other things. Other times I will overshoot that considerably and write, I think, 2,500 words, or the biggest day has been 4,000. But, when I speak to authors like, say, Jeffrey Deaver, he’ll tell me that he writes 10,000 words day, but he’s very verbose and repetitive in his writing. And, so he has to scale it right back.

For me, my writing works in the opposite way in that I tend to write the skeleton, if you will, and then I flesh it out. So, the first drafts for me are shorter rather than longer. And, they become more layered and textured with each adapt, as opposed to being scaled back. I very rarely have to delete, although I’m not afraid to do that, if a scene is not working. For the most part I add, so that seems to be my approach. And, I’ll have a good idea of what I want to achieve before I begin the first words — I was about to say, pen to paper, but I do use a laptop, most of the time. I’ll have a good idea of what I want to achieve, but I often find that it takes on its own life and I think it’s important to follow that, and let writing instincts take over.

Valerie
Has the writing process changed at all now that you’re a new mother?

Tara
Yes. Well, yes, because there’s this new energy and influence in my life. And, she’s wonderful and very inspiring, actually. But, it means that it’s a new kind of time management. As any author who’s a parent will tell you, you need to be able to work around your children. For me, I’ve been very lucky with Sapphira. She’s very happy to let me write. And, my husband who’s also a writer, and an academic, he’s been a very hands-on dad, so he’s allowed me to say, “Work furiously towards deadlines, since Sapphira can–” I was finishing The Spider Goddess when Sapphira was very young, so it was necessary to have him say, “OK, I’ll just take over here.” And, also learn to be able to type with one hand. I’m not very fast, but I can write with one hand. I can write in the middle of the night. I can write at all hours now, in hotel rooms and on planes, in all kinds of places.

Valerie
So, you have the level of focus. You can just write wherever?

Tara
Yeah, it’s not always easy. Sometimes that level of focus is hard to come by, but I find the most difficult part is what I call the reentry. So, if I haven’t been writing for a few days, or even weeks, because of some other issue, whether it be a book tour, or something else I’m focusing on, or some journalism I’m writing, when I’m reentering a fictional world I find that’s the hardest thing to do. It’s excruciating for a few days, and frustrating as I stare at the words and they don’t come together for me, and I just get a word out, or two words out. It’s just really hard. And, then I go, “Oh, I’m in,” and once I’m in — yes, I can make a cup of tea, I can answer an email, I can do an interview, even, or catch a plane. I might still be in that world, but just be able to dip in at every spare moment.

Valerie
Tell us about the journalism that you do. What kind of journalism and what sort of topics do you mainly cover?

Tara
I’m interested in current affairs, particularly women’s issues, or current affairs, as they affect women. I’m also interested in a variety of topics. When I see something dealt with in the media in a way I’m not happy with, I like to try to give another opinion, to try to balance things. I’m interested in the world around me. So, I wouldn’t pinpoint any particular topic, but say that I’m interested in what’s going on in the world.

Also, I write book reviews. I’ve got an author interview show on 13th Street Universal. So, sometimes I’m researching other authors in anticipation of interviews, and I might write about them and their lives as well, and write reviews and things. So, my non-fiction writing and non-fiction journalism has taken a bit more of a role in the last couple of years, as I’ve written more for some newspapers, literally as the need has arisen. So, I’ll read about a topic and go, “You know, I’ve really got a strong view on this,” and I’ll write something, just to sort of throw in my two cents and get the discussion going.

Valerie
You mentioned that you need to get your head into fiction, when it’s time to write fiction, which of course is very different to journalism. But, also you mentioned that your writing the next Mak Vanderwall book, which is Assassins, but also the next Pandora English book.

So, they’re very, very different. Do you need to do something to switch hats, or change gears, or get into the right space for the different books?

Tara
Look, that is a struggle. It probably makes the transition more difficult because the feeling is so different, and I can get very excited about one book or the other. It doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the one I’m on deadline for. So, at the moment I’m on deadline for Assassin, and I need to really focus on that book.

Valerie
And, be careful that she doesn’t become a vampire.

Tara
Exactly — exactly. Well, I’ve kind of nipped that in the bud now, by being able to express all of this interest in ghosts and the paranormal through Pandora English. So, I’m actually finding it’s not seeping into the crime books as much as it did with the last one. So, yeah, it is a struggle, but I have a strong idea in the basis for The Skeleton Key already on the page, but most of the writing is yet to come. So, now with Assassin it’s just a matter of writing the rest of the book, which I’ve been living with in my mind for a couple of years and have been writing for nearly that amount of time. Once that’s done I’ll take a quick breath and I will jump into The Skeleton Key and get that finished. So, I can have lots of concepts. In fact, I’ve got a concept for a couple of other books as well, down to all the plotting and characters, and titles, and everything in my mind for future novels. So, it’s going to be a pretty busy five years ahead.

Valerie
So, paint us a picture, fast-forward five years, and paint us a picture of what life looks like for you.

Tara
Well, I would like to think that I will have at least a book out every year, in the past I’ve had one out every two to three years. So, I’ve stepped up the pace a little bit. There’s a one-off horror novel that I’d like to write, which I haven’t pitched to anyone yet, but I’m very keen to write, perhaps towards the end of next year. I’m commissioned to write another five novels, some Pandora English and some Mak Vanderwall novels. So, I would like to think that all of that has been completed and that I’m continuing to work, I think, as a journalist and as a novelist, and just enjoy those things, and travel, I think a lot of travel ahead as well.

Valerie
And, finally, what would your advice be to people who are watching this, who they really want to get their first novel out there, whether it’s paranormal, or crime, or something else, what would your advice to be aspiring writers?

Tara
Get involved with a writers’ centre, get involved with writers’ groups, meet writers, speak to writers. I think that’s one way to get a grasp of the publishing industry and what’s necessary to finish a novel. And, also don’t send something off to a publisher too soon. It’s hard to get things seen by publishers, and if you have an opportunity that’s wasted because you’re sending a first draft your work may not get seen again ever, possibly, or certainly not for a long time. So, whether you’re writing novels, whether you’re writing non-fiction, or even screenplays, know that a first draft is not a book. It takes a lot of time to get it right. It takes a lot of rehashing. So, I would say get involved with writers and you’ll get a good sense of what’s involved. And, even down the track maybe get a professional editor or reader to give you feedback before you send it off to someone who’s a professional in the industry, because that can give you a really good sense of what you can do to hone your own craft — and, good luck writing.

Valerie
Great advice. Thank you very much. And, certainly great advice from someone who knows. The Spider Goddess by Tara Moss, I couldn’t put it down, had to keep turning the pages. Fantastic book.

Thank you, Tara.

Tara
Thank you.


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