For more articles and interviews, go to Literary Liaisons

Colleen McCullough - Lady Blockbuster

IT'S all in the laugh. Average amusement is accompanied by the heh-heh-hehs of a two-stroke mower kicking over. Glee beyond a giggle but below a belly laugh begins with volcanic rumbles and ends a stifle shy of eruption. Full-monty merriment is pay dirt, an uninhibited barking in husky tones redolent of late nights in cigarette-shrouded bars.

Not that Colleen McCullough has been a nightclub habitue, but she has always liked a laugh. She's so good at it that she could laugh for Australia. And nothing is going to stop her from bloody well doing what she does so bloody well. Not the disease that took her left eye's sight a year ago, or the fact that ``it is only a matter of time'' before she will be completely blind. Not the cancer that she recently fought into remission, or the osteoporosis or the diabetes. Not the death of her mother last month. And certainly not the carping of any lit crit poised to greet her latest novel with de rigueur snobbery.

Her disdain for the disdain of the literati is renowned -- and, given her sales figures, her need for their approval does resemble the old need of fish for bicycles. Who else could dismiss Time magazine's 1985 snipe at her Creed for the Third Millennium as a contender for ``the most perfectly awful novel ever published'' with: ``Personally, I don't give a shit -- it's the public who buy my books, not the critics''? And mean it? Or debunk the star-making delusions of critics with such earthy thoroughness, suggesting those critics ``haven't got time for people who aren't going to follow them around with a roll of toilet paper to wipe their bums''?

Coming 30 years after the publication of her first novel, Tim, when she was 37, her just-released Angel Puss is her 18th book (her output includes a biography and a couple of cookbooks) and her most contemporary. It is set in 1960 and pre-publication PR spiels had suggested it was also autobiographical. Not so, it seems -- even if the heroine, like its author, was born in the late 1930s, moved into terrace house digs in Victoria Street, Kings Cross, worked in inner-city hospitals for half her male colleagues' wages and had ``epileptic'' hair. The broad background is from her life, McCullough allows, ``but please believe me, the novel is not autobiographical. It's fantasy ... on top of hard reality.''

Which is a recipe that has always served her well, from Tim's extrapolation of a May-December odd couple relationship she'd observed while working as a neurophysiologist, through her second novel -- and big breakthrough -- The Thorn Birds, which smashed publishing records in 1977 for its $1.9 million paperback advance before selling more copies than any other Australian's book, to her 1990s Masters of Rome series that NSW's history-tragic premier Bob Carr has called ``a towering achievement in historical fiction''.

McCullough sees her fiction mix as simple -- and sensible. Strong plots, believable characters and a beginning, middle and end. Plus a leverage of reality, a foundation of research and, most important, ``letting your imagination run absolutely free on things that could have happened or, if they did happen, they happened differently because they are controlled by the stream of time whereas what happens in your head ... well, it's lovely, you can play God -- you birth people, you kill people, you can do anything you like with them.''

Angel Puss, however, is an unusual offering from the McCullough creative kitchen, having taken an unheard of 26 years in the cooking.

``I wrote a first draft of it in 1978, straight after The Thorn Birds, in a very different form,'' says McCullough, ensconced in velvet pants-suit and fetching pink socks at the Darling Harbour hotel that has become her HQ away from her Norfolk Island HQ (``I'm in Sydney endlessly these days for treatment on my eyes,'' she explains). But her then editor in New York wanted a Thorn Birds sequel and rejected it. ``Instead of being crushed by this, I went away and said, `OK, they think that Goodbye Sister Agatha, Hello Mrs Delvecchio Schwartz is not Son of Thorn Birds, wait 'til they see what I write now.' I put the manuscript away and wrote An Indecent Obsession, which was even further away from The Thorn Birds ...''

She chortles at happy memories of disconcerting publisher expectations, as she has continued to do since. But she never forgot her bottom-drawer book, giving it a half-life in 2000 when she teamed up with musician Max Lambert to write the musical Mrs Delvecchio Schwartz for the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts before resurrecting it as Angel Puss, ``right after I had collaborated on a screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola, which was eventually canned because of 9/11''.

It is her first book for publishers HarperCollins, ``and Jesus, yes, it's changed since its first incarnation. Nothing I have written has gone through as many drafts.'' Which is saying something, seeing as she habitually writes seven to 10 drafts of all her books. Her difficulty with it was simple. ``I'm a very rational writer who understands, even if I don't submit to, the commerce side of publishing, and I realised that all those wonderful books written by women in their 60s and set back when they were 20 and full of reminiscences and dah-dee-dah-dee-dah -- well, quite honestly, they were as boring as bat shit. The world's moved on.''

She knew she had a great story, she says, but she also knew she needed to find a way to give it immediacy. ``And then it struck me: I could make it timely by making it a diary.''

So what we have in Angel Puss is a coming-of-ager with atmosphere and a quietly subversive feminism, set amid the suburban culture-breaking anarchy that was the boho Cross of the '60s, tied in with sex 'n' sin 'n' the supernatural ... and as a bonus, one of McCullough's more engaging creations, the off-the-wall, over-the-top and larger-than-life landlady, Mrs Delvecchio Schwartz.

McCullough herself has always been a larger-than-life character, even if she's no longer quite as formidable a figure as she was in her pomp. She has also always demonstrated the can-do capability that distinguishes her novels' heroes, while the shifts in her life fortunes would make a suitably saga-ish plot. Even in shorthand, they have a novelistic edge.

There's some irony in her being a doctor of letters (courtesy of Macquarie University, 1994), given that when she left Woollahra's Holy Cross College in Sydney in the 1950s her abiding ambition had been to become a doctor of medicine. This proved impossible when a congenital skin condition prevented her from ``scrubbing up''; instead she became a neurophysiologist, later establishing the department of neurophysiology at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney before leaving Australia in 1963 to seek further qualifications in England. After four years in Britain, she was headhunted to manage the research laboratories at Yale Medical School in the US.

For more than a decade she researched, lectured and supervised theses, but her financial rewards matched neither her expertise nor the salaries of less well qualified male colleagues. The realisation of a probable poverty-stricken old age encouraged her, she says, to resurrect her childhood enthusiasm for writing as a way of raising extra income. Ignorance can be bliss. Unaware of the perpetual disappointment that is life for most writers, she wrote, submitted and published. Just like that. Tim earned her more than $50,000; The Thorn Birds made her internationally famous, then extremely wealthy.

It also ended her scientific research career, which essentially depended on anonymity, and meant that her personal privacy and safety became of paramount importance. Which is why she left the US, and her beloved Connecticut, to become a resident of Norfolk Island (population 2000) in 1980. Where, after a lifetime of confirmed spinsterhood, she surprised herself in 1984 by marrying Ric Robinson, 13 years her junior, a sometime Norfolk Island government minister and descendant of several Bounty mutineers.

 McCullough became a stepmother (and later step-grandmother) and partner in a home-grown enterprise that sells palm seeds to the world. As well, she is patron to several unfashionable but important medical organisations, a board member of international think-tanks and academic bodies, and a designated National Living Treasure of Australia.

In her 24 years on Norfolk, she has been a magnet for media attraction and a staunch defender of the island's integrity. Last year, she denounced Australian parliamentary moves on Norfolk's governance, calling the federal government a ``colonial overlord no different from HM George III's government when Boston held a tea party''.

Now, though, she knows ``very little about what's going on around Norfolk because I no longer get around the island much. I have such a struggle with my eyes -- I have no depth perception so I can't distinguish how high a step is or see undulations in the ground, and I fall ... I've just had a beauty, hit my head on a solid wood bookcase and the scar is only now disappearing.''

People have no idea how blind she is, she says, ``because I am a very good bluffer'' but her condition has fast-forwarded her normal workaholic tendencies into overdrive. ``It just happened, bang, like that,'' she says of the macular degeneration that destroyed the central vision of her left eye in September 2003, ``only 10 days after I'd had the last of the surgery for cataracts and to correct my vision so I wouldn't need glasses. For 10 days I had perfect vision in both eyes as I had in my youth and then suddenly came the blind spot ... it was a horrible irony.''

Her mother had had something similar, as had two of her brothers -- ``it is familial but I'd had no intimation of it. I just knew my mother went blind but no one ever said exactly what the cause was.'' With characteristic thoroughness, she investigated the disease and is now patron of the Macular Degeneration Foundation Australia, which earlier this year reported that more than 800,000 Australians suffer some form of it and that numbers will triple in the next 25 years. MD is caused by genetic and environmental factors, with 90 per cent of those afflicted suffering the milder dry form whereby vision loss is gradual. ``But the one we have is hemorrhagic,'' says McCullough. ``You develop these blood vessels like spiders underneath the retina and then one day they dive up through the retina and rupture and bleed. And blood outside of its own little tubes is highly toxic -- it just kills the retina.''

Now, she says, she is ``waiting for the right eye to go and I write madly in the meantime, at all hours, night or day. I still have to cook dinner and things like that, but on the whole it's all writing these days. I can no longer paint -- the frontispiece of Angel Puss is the last McCullough painting ever because I can no longer see where the brush touches the canvas -- and where I could once devour a book in no time flat, now I crawl through reading it.''

Many people who get MD ``get terribly depressed when they hear the news'', she confides. ``Well I can't -- I won't stay idle long enough. If you work, if you are creative, you don't become depressed because you don't have time. Besides, it's a fact of life that I can't change, so why should I let it slight what's left of my life? I'm still hanging in there and I will strive to hang in there as long as I can. And if I do go completely blind, I'll then work out some way to keep writing.''

On the agenda are several books a year for as many years as possible. Several books a year, I eyebrow-raise. I haven't misheard. ``I'm a superb typist,'' she says, ``I can fly at 140 words a minute.'' I can't think that fast, I interrupt. She ignores the speed bump: ``If I'm on a roll, I can produce up to 20,000 words of manuscript in a day. I was born talking and to me writing is a form of talk. The words are there, and if you're a writer, you use them.''

That doesn't mean writing the same book ``over and over again. That's boring, and while I may be a lot of things, one thing I ain't is a boring writer.'' Her attitude, she chortles, ``causes the number-crunchers at publishing houses to have apoplexy. They want to be able to predict every sale so when I produce a whodunit, say,'' -- as, by coincidence, she has done for next year's McCullough -- ``and it doesn't matter that it is a superb whodunit, the number-crunchers go: `Oh, shit, she's never been in that field before.' Still, to their minds I should also lose 40 pounds, dye my hair, have a face-lift and write about sex. Well, guess what? It's not happening.'' Cue laughter of the uninhibited kind.

A few years ago, she was reported as being determined to age with acceptance and gracefully. ``To age with acceptance is a definite ethos,'' she agrees, ``but gracefully is not exactly a word I associate with me. With the blindness thing, well, I have to be an icon, otherwise I wouldn't be a living national treasure, which I am, therefore, QED, I must be an icon. Which means that my attitude to my diseases is very important because it is something other people can seize upon and either take comfort from or whatever ... I'm very direct and open about my blindness, but then I'm open about most things, probably everything. And I say it's not going to beat me. Now that's not graceful ... it's rambunctious, it's ... well, it's me. Graceful? I never wear make-up or worry about clothes -- all of that is such a bloody waste of time.''

Then out come the heh-heh-hehs again. ``The one thing I enjoy about going to a doctor's office,'' she discloses, ``is having the chance to look at the women's magazines they have there. And what I like looking at in them is all those articles about movie stars -- and their execrable taste in clothes. All these girls want to look like whores -- and they're succeeding. I blame that dreadful movie Pretty Woman, which told them that if they become a whore, they'd marry a millionaire who looks like Richard Gere. What a despicable load of crap.''

That's the thing about McCullough -- you're never in doubt over what she really thinks. She has little sympathy for ``the dominant vegan culture'', for instance -- ``I'm a bushie, I'm not sentimental about animals''. Nor is she fond of politicians, who are ``attuned only to golden handshakes and getting re-elected''. As for the recent trials of several neighbouring Pitcairn Islanders on under-age sexual assault charges, the decision to prosecute ``did not take enough account of cultural differences and practices -- these are Polynesian people, for God's sake''. Besides which, she says with a conspiracist's wink, islanders are deeply suspicious of British motives, given that Pitcairn ``would make a very strategic military base''.

That's another thing about McCullough: while she's the veteran of a thousand interviews who could easily sleepwalk through the process (and certainly some of the detail she drops into our talk is already well recycled -- she's ``completely ambidextrous'', for instance, ``has a phenomenal memory'' and ``there have been great debates over whether I have two speech centres'') -- she's also spontaneous enough to continually surprise herself. It adds foot-in-mouth frisson to the process, particularly when she gets tangled in a straight-talkin' riff and mires herself in ``I wish I hadn't said that'' territory.

Today she comes promisingly close when talking about a writing festival she plans to attend in February in Lithuania. Normally, she says, ``I don't go to festivals, I hate them because ... well, if people like me turn up, and this is not said egotistically, but I take everybody's attention, and that's not fair because I think that it's a place for writers trying to get somewhere to mix and exchange ideas. And I come along and I'm like ... well, it's like having the B-graders in a physics class and Albert Einstein walks along.''

She does a double-take as her statement echoes in the silence. ``Silly comparison,'' she smiles sheepishly, ``but what I'm trying to say is that I do get everybody's attention. Besides which, half the writers there hate my guts, which is human and understandable.''


McCULLOUGH'S public bravado is steeled by an inherent courage, yet her steely will has been tested, and tempered, by tragedy. She was born in Wellington in NSW's central west, but spent her childhood as an emotional and physical gypsy, the family chasing seasonal work across rural NSW and Queensland. That made education idiosyncratic and friendships problematic. Her brother Carl's death in Crete in 1965, when he drowned while trying to save some German tourists from drowning, devastated her. ``I loved him desperately,'' she says quietly, ``and it still hurts.'' He was 15 months younger and they were ``like twins united'' against the emotional indifference they encountered on the home front. By contrast, her mother's death last month was ``nothing but a relief. She was 95, she'd been demented for years, she was blind, deaf, and she hated the world -- it was a most awful existence and I was terribly glad when she died.''

Besides which, her parents' relationship was always so fractious and fractured that it decided her, and Carl, against marrying. Her parents had declared war on each other, she has said, and the loser was whoever died first. ``My mother and I just didn't get on temperamentally -- I'm a very rational, detached sort of person and she was a volcano, an impulsive woman who never thought before she did anything. She was born in New Zealand, an adventurous spirit who should have been a spinster nursing sister, but in her day she had no other alternative but marriage.

``As for my father, well he was just a right bastard, a rogue and a philanderer.'' Belfast-born, he was a champion cross-country runner who came to Australia as a cane-cutter. ``After he died in 1973, we found out there were three other Mrs McCulloughs -- he was drop-dead gorgeous but no good and he was never there when I was growing up.''

Her mother brought Colleen and Carl to Sydney when McCullough was 12, ending their haphazardly nomadic lifestyle but filling the family home with her many brothers. Which impelled McCullough to move out ``the first minute I could'' because although ``the heaps of uncles living with us were all lovely, they crowded the house. I never, ever had my own space.'' Now, she smiles, ``they're all dead, except for one -- and he lives with me on Norfolk Island.''

Life, she heh-hehs, certainly has its ironies.


Published in The Weekend Australian, 13 NOV 2004 Copyright (c) Murray Waldren


Feel free to Feedback Just drop a line to

Back to Literary Liaisons