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COLLEEN McCULLOUGH


Colleen McCullough "I enjoy being interviewed tremendously," Colleen McCullough says, " I never know what I'm going to say!"

She is workaholic, determined, and has strong opinions which she readily shares - perhaps a publicist's dream (or nightmare).

Born during the Depression to itinerant parents working in rural Australia, Colleen was 'brainy, bossy and big', and often clashed with her mother. "I don't think she was suited to marriage or motherhood," Colleen adds. Her father abandoned the family while his two children were in primary school, and they eventually settled in Sydney with their mother in the late 1940s.

Colleen studied neurophysiology (the electrical behavior of the nervous system), and after graduation, set up the Department of Neurophysiology at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital. After five years, she worked and studied in London and Birmingham seeking a higher degree, and met a professor from Yale Medical School who invited her to move to the US to manage the research laboratories under his jurisdiction there. She accepted, migrated, and stayed for ten years.

For the first time in her life McCullough found she could afford to rent a proper apartment, and knew she held the professional respect of her colleagues.

In 1972 she commenced writing her first novel, 'Tim'. She had a natural affinity with written expression; the manuscript was accepted by Harper & Row, New York and published to excellent reviews in 1974. 'Tim' was later made into a movie featuring the then little-known Australian actor, Mel Gibson.

Her greatest success followed a few years later. The paperback rights to Colleen McCullough's 'The Thorn Birds' were sold for a then world-record advance of US$1.9 million. The book, published in 1977, became an international bestseller and printed in 20 languages. McCullough's career as a neurophysiologist was over.

In 1980 she moved from Connecticut to Norfolk Island to live, using a Temporary Entry Permit. The island is a tiny three-by-five-mile speck in the Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles to Australia's east. After two years, she received permission to live there permanently. On Norfolk she felt safe to live on her own and concentrate on her writing.

Her next book remained unpublished for twenty-five years. 'Angel Puss' looks at the life of a single, professional woman living in a boarding house in Sydney's bohemian Kings Cross during the 1960s. It wasn't published until 2004.

Colleen McCullough Colleen herself ceased being a single woman in 1984. She married Ric Robinson, a native Norfolk Islander, on Friday, the 13th of April that year. "Ric," Colleen said, "is the only person I ever met who can control me, which is probably why I married him. He's a gentle man who intimidates me psychologically."

Three further novels ('An Indecent Obsession', 'A Creed for the Third Millennium', and 'Ladies of Missalonghi') were published before McCullough's six-book Roman series commenced appearing.

'The First Man in Rome' (1990), 'The Grass Crown' (1991), 'Fortune's Favourites' (1993), 'Caesar'sWomen' (1996) and 'Caesar: Let the Dice Fly' (1998) revealed a marked change of direction in McCullough's published works. Here were thoroughly researched historical books that won her a new and respectful audience. In 1994, she was created a Doctor of Letters at Macquarie University, Sydney.

'Morgan's Run', McCullough's twelfth novel, was published in 2000. It is the story of Richard Morgan, the hard-working son of a Bristol tavern-keeper who ends up being transported as a convict on the First Fleet to Australia. He was sent on to a notorious penal colony where he eventually finds a new life and a new love on (surprise!) Norfolk Island.

But don't laugh. The book's authenticity is based on initial work in England by Colleen's stepdaughter, Melinda; genealogical background supplied by Helen Reddy, a Robinson family cousin, and McCullough's own eye for thorough research and correct detail. "I typed about 1,700,000 words in less than five months (to produce the first draft)," Colleen said.

In 2001, Colleen returned to the Roman series with 'The October Horse', celebrating the remarkable relationship of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, and Gaius Julius Caesar. This fast-moving novel embraces love affairs, battles, intrigues and murders, and the consequences to the Roman Empire of the actions of history's best-known figures.

"I think the women of Australia like me because I'm a woman who is rich and famous without being beautiful or lying on her back to get there," Colleen McCullough said in 2003.

Doctors told Colleen McCullough in 2004 that she suffered from macular degeneration, an irreversible condition that destroys the eye's retina. She is blind in the left eye already. "I donít worry about it. If it happens, it happens, and I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," she says.

© BARRY JOHN WATTS 2004

 
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