Remembering 'Thorn Birds' Author Colleen McCullough

Jan 31, 2015
Originally published on January 31, 2015 1:20 pm

Australian writer Colleen McCullough died Thursday; she was 77 years old. McCullough was best known for her novel The Thorn Birds, a huge hugely popular romance which has sold 30 million copies around the world, and has never gone out of print.

By her own account, McCullough had a lousy childhood. Her father was abusive, and her relationship with her mother was so bad that as an adult she moved to Norfolk Island, a remote Australian territory, because — as she once told an interviewer — she could be "close enough to keep an eye on her family ... without having to live on the same continent." But as often happens in unhappy childhoods, McCullough found refuge in books. No doubt that planted the seeds that led to her life as writer.

But McCullough took a circuitous route to becoming a best selling author. She had hoped to be a doctor, but while in medical school in Sydney she developed an allergy that forced her to abandon that dream. Trained as a neuroscientist, she became a researcher, which led to a job at Yale University. And it was during that time that she wrote her first novel, Tim — followed by the book which would make her famous: The Thorn Birds.

A sprawling romance which begins in the Australian outback and stretches over many years and many miles, The Thorn Birds is the story of a tortured love between a beautiful woman and a Roman Catholic priest. The book captured the imagination of millions when it was first published in 1977, and its popularity has never abated. In 1983, it was made into a hugely popular miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain. McCollough said her husband made her watch the TV adaptation — and she hated it.

McCollough is likely to be best remembered for The Thorn Birds, but she wrote some two dozen other books, including the "Masters of Rome" series, seven novels about ancient Rome. She even issued her own take on Pride and Prejudice, with 2008's The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet. It was not well received by Jane Austen fans. In recent yrears, McCollough's eyesight began to fail, and she suffered from debilitating arthritis — but she kept on writing. Her last book, Bittersweet, was published in 2013.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Australia's Colleen McCullough died this week at the age of 77. She was working as a neuroscience researcher at Yale University when she wrote the novel that would bring her fame and fortune, "The Thorn Birds." It has sold 30 million copies around the world since it was first published in the late 1970s. NPR's Lynn Neary has this remembrance of Colleen McCullough and the book that is her legacy.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Colleen McCullough wrote two-dozen books in her lifetime, many of them set in her native Australia. But in the late '90s McCullough was living in Rome, happily working on a series of novels about the Roman Empire. She had two more books to go, and as she told NPR in 2000, she was fully prepared to stay there.


COLLEEN MCCULLOUGH: But my agent and my publishers started to bleat that it was time that I got out of Rome. They said, you know, if you don't get of Rome, the world will forget that you ever wrote about anything else.

NEARY: That bit of hyperbole may have catapulted McCullough out of Rome, but there was little chance that anyone was going to forget her most popular novel, "The Thorn Birds." It made publishing history in 1977 when Avon Books bought the paperback rights for $1.9 million. Carrie Feron, who still shepherds the book at Avon, says it has never gone out of print.

CARRIE FERON: We have published the book in all different formats - first in mass-market, then in trade, then in e-book ever since then. And people still come to the book and still love the book.

NEARY: "The Thorn Birds" has not only attracted legions of fans, it's also inspired a generation or two of writers. Sarah MacLean is a romance novelist who also writes about the romance genre.

SARAH MACLEAN: I read that book and I read it over a summer. And I can remember just loving every page of it, just eating it up.

NEARY: MacLean says she's been talking to a lot of romance writers since McCullough died. They say that "The Thorn Birds" was a huge influence on them. Strictly speaking, MacLean says, it doesn't fit the formula of the genre. But that doesn't mean it isn't hugely, dramatically, unforgettably romantic. It's an epic tale spanning several generations and set largely on the Australian outback. At its core is a love story between a beautiful woman and a Catholic priest.

MACLEAN: Which is bonkers (laughter). But wonderful at the same time because of the illicit nature of this romance that you know can't possibly succeed. I mean, she just - she tells a great story.

NEARY: "The Thorn Birds" was an instant best-seller when it was first published, but its popularity grew when it was made into one of the most-watched TV mini-series ever, starring Rachel Ward as Meggie and Richard Chamberlain as the priest.


RICHARD CHAMBERLAIN: (As Priest) Meggie, we must make an end of this. My life belongs to God. You've always known that.

RACHEL WARD: (As Meggie) That dear and gentle God, who has taken from me everyone that I've loved most in the world.

NEARY: "The Thorn Birds" has lasted because it was written from the heart, says Avon's Carrie Feron.

FERON: It reminds me of other books like that, such as "Jane Eyre," where you have the journey of a woman, and not all of it's easy and not all of it's pleasant. And it definitely lifts a veil on a life that most of us will never live, so I think that is what makes it an enduring story.

NEARY: Feron says McCullough wrote a wide variety of books, from historical fiction to whodunits, but none had the sticking power of this tale of forbidden romance. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.