It is with great sadness that we learned of the death of Colleen McCullough today. Col has been with Head of Zeus since its inception three years ago, but our connection goes back much further -- Anthony Cheetham and Rosie de Courcy first worked with Col when they published THE THORN BIRDS at Futura in 1977.
Col was best known as the author of THE THORN BIRDS, a 600-page romance spanning 60 years which became the best selling Australian novel of all time, with sales of 30 million copies in dozens of languages across the world. The book was first published in 1977 when she was a research assistant in the neurology department at Yale Medical School. Three years later she found a permanent home and a refuge from the sudden rise to fame on Norfolk Island, an improbable speck of sub-tropical paradise lost in the ocean mid-way between Australia and New Zealand. She bought a property, Out Yenna, built a house and married the builder Ric Robinson, a descendant of the mutineers on the Bounty whom she used to describe as "part Samoan prince, part devoted husband".
23 further books followed: a prodigious output of novels, history, science fiction, myth, biography and a volume of autobiographical essays with a title that summed up her attitude to the world: LIFE WITHOUT THE BORING BITS. She wrote mainly after dark, up to 20,000 words a night, slept late in to the morning, and re-emerged in the afternoon to organise the household, feed her guests with gargantuan steaks larger than dinner plates or roast pork and sweet potatoes with crackling raised to an art form, to share her infallible views on everything from astrophysics to zoology. And to crush any challengers on the scrabble board with her mastery of exotic two letter words culled from the dictionary.
None of the subsequent books even came near the success of THE THORN BIRDS. This was , at least in part, a voluntary decision. She rejected the idea of a sequel, which would have unleashed on her a tsunami of money, on the grounds that another such outing would typecast her as a writer of romantic ' chook books'. But there was, perhaps, a deeper truth behind her decision. THE THORN BIRDS can be read as a fantasy autobiography, a hymn of repressed longing, electric with sexual tension, conceived and nurtured in the mind of a bookish teenager born of an unkind father and an uncaring mother and raised in the poverty and isolation of a rural backwater. She may have convinced herself, with some justice, that a repeat performance of THE THORN BIRDS was simply not possible.
It was her bookishness that saved Col from her background. She won a place to study medicine at Sydney University, and moved to London after graduation to work at Great Ormond Street Hospital before accepting a research post at Yale. The switch from medicine to neurophysiology was the result of a skin condition that inhibited direct contact with patients. It was at New Haven that she wrote her first novel TIM in 1974 about a mentally damaged boy and his relationship with an older woman. It was also here that she encountered the work of Erich Segal, a classics professor who found fame and fortune by writing a romantic bestseller called LOVE STORY. It was Segal's example that triggered THE THORN BIRDS. Col started work in 1971 and the book was first published in New York by Harper and Row in 1977.
Segal's influence did not stop here. Col's magnum opus was not THE THORN BIRDS. It was MASTERS OF ROME, seven novels on the life and times of Julius Caesar, each a colossus weighing in at up to one thousand pages which pre-occupied her for almost thirty years from the early 1980's to the publication of the final volume in 2007. The research was in itself a monumental task. A library of several thousand books and monographs on every aspect of Roman history and civilization accumulated on the shelves at Out Yenna. She drew maps of cities and battlefields, scoured the world's museums for busts and inscriptions, consulted experts in a dozen universities and recorded every known fact about her subject and his times. The work was not originally intended to be on such a scale but it grew and kept on growing, impelled by the tidal force of her determination and the fierce joy she felt when a new fact or an alternative interpretation came to light. No editor or publisher could resist the tide or dare to suggest that the storyline might be improved by some judicious cutting, and every year brought more of the custom-made maroon boxes despatched from the South Pacific.
Throughout her life on Norfolk Island Col was dogged by ill health: skin, eyes, joints, kidneys, insomnia took turns in creating an obstacle course that she negotiated by the sheer power of her will. The arthritis in her fingers seemed the cruellest punishment for a writer who had to wear gloves to diminish the pain of touching the keyboard. But Col had no time for anyone who behaved like a wuss, not least herself.
Towards the end there were money worries. The royalty payments were diminishing, the medical bills mounting. Her unbounded hospitality took its toll. It is fitting that her final novel BITTERSWEET in 2014, aka the Chook Book, took her back to her roots: two sets of twin girls working in a hospital in rural New South Wales to tend a generation of soldiers maimed in the trenches of the First World War. It was a bestseller.
Colleen McCullough won numerous academic and literary awards, degrees and prizes, both at home and abroad. To the writer of this obituary the most appropriate must surely be that 1997 declaration by the Australian government that she was a national treasure. Yer not wrong, Norelle. See you later, Col.
Above: Colleen McCullough and Anthony Cheetham sign the contract for THE THORN BIRDS, 1977.
Almost every editor can identify books which proved to be turning points in their publishing life. One of the biggest - arguably THE biggest - in mine was THE THORN BIRDS. It was 1976 and Harper and Row were auctioning the UK rights. As a newish paperback company, Futura was very low in the pecking order, but Nat Sobel, our US scout, had managed to wangle us an advance reading proof and I was detailed to read it as fast as I possibly could. I remember starting it after a dinner party, sitting cross-legged on the floor. I don’t think I got to bed that night. The bidding for THE THORN BIRDS during the ensuing week was absolutely ferocious. How Anthony had the courage to press on, over our chairman’s authorised limit for advances - and then our chairman’s chairman’s limit - I shall never know. But we prevailed and the rest is history. Colleen McCullough changed our lives, both as a writer and as a friend. It is the end of a very special era and we are all extremely sad this morning.