FWF Quarantine Q&A: Tara Moss

Tara Moss is the internationally bestselling author of 13 books. In 2015 Moss received an Edna Ryan Award for her significant contribution to feminist debate, speaking out for women and children and inspiring others to challenge the status quo. Her latest book is the internationally bestselling historical thriller The War Widow.

What does feminism mean to you?

I grew up with a strong sense of the power of women, and a belief that I could be who I wanted to be, unencumbered by the limitations of traditional gender norms of the past. I was regarded as a ‘tomboy’ when I was growing up, as if being interested in Hot Wheels cars, horror and adventure novels, and tree climbing or riding bikes made me a form of boy, rather than a different type of girl. While I was loosely aware of the history of women’s human rights, I did not really understand that those changes took place through sustained and difficult activism. I rarely if ever heard the word ‘feminism’ or even ‘suffragette’. Later, those words were often heard being used disparagingly, which was confusing. Why would the very movement that gave me human rights be a movement I should be embarrassed by?

Women were ‘given the vote’ but I did not hear much about the literal fight for it, or those who died for those rights I had. Like a lot of girls and younger women at the time, I did not yet know the history, or even the terms. Still, I gravitated towards pop culture portrayals that offered something different from the male centered norm. I wanted to see women as central protagonists, as heroines with agency, as heroes and villains and participants in an interesting and exciting world — the virginal princess in chains, or the dead woman in the detective story was not enough.

When I began writing, I created the stories I wished I’d found as a younger person, and stories I wished I could find on shelves. I became my own hero. And I became the writer of the stories I wanted to read.

I believe my ideas of feminism were shaped through various stages of my life, both before I was aware of feminist activism and since. In fact, I was a few novels into my Mak Vanderwall crime series before I started really identifying with the term ‘feminism’ or ‘feminist’, though it was clearly a form of feminist work I was organically trying to create, and now, years after publication, those books are often regarded as feminist crime fiction canon in Australia, with a ‘strong female heroine’ and something of a breakthrough representation for the crime fiction of the time. The books have many flaws, but even so, the central character overcomes great obstacles, and her resilience has inspired many readers over the years. I feel proud to have created Mak, even if she was my debut character and series, and I feel I have evolved a lot since.

How is historical fiction a vehicle for feminist ideas and/or talking about the present? How consciously are you ‘writing as a feminist’ with your fiction?

I have spent the past 21 years and 13 books centering women and girls in fiction and non-fiction, across four genres. In that way, I suppose the themes remain similar but the genres and form change. This has come organically.

It’s my belief that when you awaken to feminism and learn about the history of inequality — the long history of sexism, racism and ableism — you can’t unsee it. My belief in the value of people, in the value of women and their contributions, and the importance of human rights, human stories, and diverse stories, informs all of my work and can’t truly be separated from it.

Both the crime genre and historical fiction are excellent mediums for discussing social justice issues, violence against women, human rights and historical and current inequalities. Feminist crime fiction and queer crime fiction in particular have fine traditions, but they are by no means the norm in a genre that has tended to be heavily dominated by white male heterosexual writers and characters, with women characters often being relegated to the role of victim, love interest or both, and other diverse characters sidelined. Writing about the 1940s provides an opportunity for me to explore the rise of fascism and its consequences, the Holocaust and human rights abuses in Europe, but also closer to home to where The War Widow is set, looking at the treatment of Indigenous people, and in particular Indigenous women and girls.

The War Widow provides a marriage of these two genres — crime and historical — creating feminist noir that is both exciting and fun, but speaks to the status of women and girls, and racism, ableism, fascism and human rights in the 1940s. These discussions resonate today, and form an authentic backdrop to the story.

What about the craft? Billie, like the best of heroines, is bright and bold, but flawed — how do you get the character balance right?

I wrote Billie to fill a place in the genre that I wanted to find, wanted to read, and wished I had had access to decades ago. I wanted her to be a woman of action — a type of woman who is true to the period but sadly is too infrequently remembered or represented.

The War Widow was born from a mix of real life and fantasy, of family stories of World War II, my fascination with the 1940s and women’s postwar history, my love of the great noir and hardboiled fiction of the period, and my love of action and the great women who made their mark on that time. These were women of bravery and adaptability, and we have not heard their stories enough. It’s what made me want to write a 1940s private eye story with a twist and a stand out heroine, one who is different than the women so often portrayed in the genre — not a victim, not a femme fatale or ‘fatal woman’, but a woman of action and grit. That heroine became my new fictional protagonist, the stylish, champagne swilling, fast talking and fast driving Billie Walker.

To get the character balance right I researched heavily and crafted the novel for over two years, and relied on the instincts and craft I have honed during 21 years of my professional writing. Research, instinct and patience are all valuable tools as a writer.

Could you share some feminist recommendations; which authors and books are you reading?

Some non-fiction books I recommend at the moment are Growing Up Disabled in Australia, edited by Carly Findlay, Ruby Hamad’s White Tears/Brown Scars, The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy, and Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee. There are so many more, but these four books give a good look at many contemporary issues.

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