‘I have a very busy imagination’: How an embalmer turned to a life of crime



Stuff NZ Newspapers



K M Tarrant had always loved writing. After qualifying as an embalmer in 2012, her first novel, Life and Death in Birkenhead, was published last year. Now, she’s working on a second book. You worked as an embalmer – was it as sombre as one might imagine? A much loved family friend, Helen Whatman, knew I was looking for work and introduced me to her brother-in-law John Sibun – a highly regarded Auckland funeral director. John very kindly sent me to see his colleague Andrew Blanche who unbeknownst to me was in need of an embalmer. Andrew liked my approach and took me on as a trainee. The moment I set foot in the mortuary I was hooked. Two years later I achieved my National Diploma in Embalming and, alongside my then manager John Drake, I went to work at a larger business (that covered the mortuary requirements of three funeral homes). I worked there until I left at the end of 2016 to give writing a serious try. It can be a sombre job at times and the work does come with a great deal of responsibility but also with a wonderful sense of satisfaction that our skills have helped to make an often very difficult journey a little easier for the deceased’s family. When they can trust that their loved one has been cared for by an empathetic, professional people they take comfort that they have done their very best and can say their last goodbyes without regret. Where did the inspiration for your first novel come from, and how did your embalming work inform the story? I have a very busy imagination! Coming up with Life and Death in Birkenhead was as simple as writing down my thoughts. You will have heard the phrase ‘‘write what you know’’ – well, I ran with that, creating the characters and storyline around the best and the worst of the world of a (fictitious) embalmer. I relayed some of the experiences I had in my career but kept the details very generic as the actual people I worked with are all wonderful and of course they and our clients are obviously entitled to their privacy. How long did it take you to write and what was your process? I began writing on a part-time basis then, when circumstances allowed, I left work and took it to the next level. To begin with, I found I’d write as many as 12 hours a day then life kind of got in the way and my enthusiasm waned. The Covid situation was very unsettling for me and my family as it was for so many others and I lost the desire and the drive to finish the book. It just seemed very frivolous and unnecessary. Then my dad became unwell and I went to stay in my home town Temuka to support him and Mum. Dad passed away in August 2020 and with encouragement from my family and friends I decided to get stuck in and finish what I’d started years before. What are you reading right now? I’m nearly finished with Mad Honey by Jodi Picoult (which I’m loving) then it’s straight into Straight Up by Ruby Tui! I am such a fan – what an incredible force of nature she is. Then I’ll be reading through the almost finished first draft of my next book – For the Love of Max – a huge departure from Life and Death in Birkenhead as far as genre goes. This book tells the tale of a young boy and his impact on the three families closest to him. I really love it!