Colleen McCullough’s two dinner guests in Cambridge, England had finished their steak béarnaise and 1970 Pommard and the hostess was making coffee when the call came from Ann Harris, an editor at Harper & Row in New York. “Can you get someone,” asked Harris, “because you’re going to need support.” Colleen replied, “That’ll be the day.”
It was. Harper had just sold Avon the paperback rights to McCullough’s novel The Thorn Birds for a record $1.9 million, of which the author gets half. (The book will be published in hard cover in May, in paper a year later.) “I began to shake like a leaf,” recalls McCullough, who then burst into tears. “I got terribly depressed. I didn’t want them to make me into another celebrity like Truman Capote.”
In the presence of 39-year-old Colleen (“Col” to friends), even Capote might fumble for words. The red-haired, 5’10”, 200-pound Australian describes herself boldly: “I may be big, but at least I have a waistline and a good pair of knockers” (42B for statisticians). She says that she gets “a kick out of men trying to look at my face. But I’m a born people-watcher, and I use myself to stimulate some kind of reaction from them.” That includes braiding her Godiva-length hair with pearls and wearing gold eye shadow and matching nail polish—”Dramatic, but I hope not tarty.”
Her powers of observation (“You have to take it from real life”) were stretched to the fullest by Thorn Birds, a sort of Down Under Gone with the Wind that follows an Australian family across 54 years (1915-1969) and two continents in 280,000 words. It is, she admits, loosely based on her own clan. “A great streak of tragedy, rather Kennedyish, runs through my family,” she muses.
The novel tells how the Clearys were hornswoggled out of their sheep ranch by an uncelibate Catholic priest, Father Ralph de Bricassart, who is billed by publishing insiders as “one of the great fictional males since Rhett Butler.” “A complex human being rather than a villain,” Colleen says. “I fall in love with all my characters, so they can never be entirely bad.”
Born in New South Wales and raised in Sydney, McCullough remembers herself as being “fat and homely, aggressive and ambitious.” Her mostly absent father, James, a sugarcane cutter, discouraged her ambition to become a doctor. “His only observations about me were that I was lazy and ugly. I detested him.” (A beloved younger brother drowned off Crete in 1965.)
McCullough did put in one term studying medicine at Sydney University before dropping out to spend a year in the Australian outback as a teacher and school bus driver. She next qualified as a neurophysiologist and eventually landed in the U.S., where she managed the laboratory at Yale University’s neurology department for 10 years until resigning last June.
McCullough has been writing since she was 7. Her first novel, Tim, was published to modest success three years ago (and is being made into a movie). She began writing Thorn Birds on Friday, June 13, 1975—”Friday the 13th has always been lucky for me”—and turned in the final draft last summer.
McCullough is the kind of writer publishers dream of. After a full day in the Yale lab, she would return to her apartment, slip into a silky nightgown, put on support hose (to prevent swelling of her feet and ankles), swathe her forearms in surgical stockingettes (to protect her skin from rubbing against her clothing while working) and then, refueled with heavily sugared coffee, type away nonstop at 80 words per minute. “A really zooming night,” she says, yielded 30,000 words, although the average was about half that.
“I think of myself as a glorified typist who pounds along, chasing my characters to find out what happens,” she says. The most difficult sections to write were the love scenes, she confesses: “I tease and tease, and create a mood so readers can put in all the details themselves. If your hero is a priest, sorry, but you can’t be explicit.”
McCullough hopes to enter nursing school in England—”I’ve always wanted to help other people”—even while researching her next book, set during World War II. Eventually she hopes to “try everything, from a murder mystery to an esoteric intellectual novel.”
What she hasn’t tried is marriage: “I go through men at the rate of one every three months.” One reason, she suspects, is her domestic self-reliance. “I can hammer my own nails and repair a TV set,” she explains. “The only thing I’d want a husband for is to take out the garbage.”