When she was young, Colleen McCullough realized she would spend her old age in poverty unless she started to write.
“As I moved through my 20s and 30s, I became aware that I was going to be a 70-year-old spinster living in a cold-water, walk-up flat with a single 60-watt light bulb,” she later said.
By day, the large, garrulous, Australia-born McCullough ran the neurophysiology lab at Yale University. By night, she wrote. Within a few years, “The Thorn Birds,” her 1977 saga of a baronial outback family and a priest tormented by love, sold millions of copies and was made into TV’s second-most-popular miniseries, topped only by “Roots.”
McCullough, an endearingly blunt personality whose literary output ranged from police procedurals set in Connecticut to a series of seven novels based on her extensive readings in ancient Roman history, died Thursday in a hospital on Norfolk Island, 1,000 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia. She was 77.
McCullough had been in declining health for years, according to her publisher HarperCollins Australia. Among other ailments, she had macular degeneration, an eye condition that was blinding her. Setting aside her electric typewriter, she dictated some of her later work from her 30-room house on tiny Norfolk Island, where she had lived since the late 1970s.
McCullough sold the paperback rights to “The Thorn Birds,” her second novel, for $1.9 million, a record at the time. The book has since sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, according to HarperCollins Australia.
However, the 1983 mini-series, starring Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward, was not on McCullough’s must-see list, despite its six Emmys. In interviews, she described it, with her characteristically outspoken candor, as “instant vomit.”
McCullough resisted calls for a “Thorn Birds” follow-up, as she told Australian TV host Andrew Denton in 2007.
“If I wrote ‘Road to Thorn Birds,’ ‘Return to Thorn Birds,’ ‘Thorn Birds Revisited’ … can you imagine? I would be stuck in a dreadful quagmire of boring stuff, and I mean I deliberately killed everybody off in that book because I knew I couldn’t write any sequels.”
McCullough’s more than two dozen books include a biography of Australian World War II hero Roden Cutler; four novels with police detective Carmine Delmonico set in the fictional college town of Holloman, Conn.; her first novel, “Tim,” about the relationship between a handsome, developmentally disabled young man and an older woman; and “An Indecent Obsession,” the story of a wartime nurse and the battle-scarred soldiers under her care in a South Pacific psychiatric ward.
Closest to McCullough’s heart, though, were the novels in the series she called “Masters of Rome,” a painstakingly detailed epic that spans the decades from 110 B.C. to 27 B.C.
McCullough amassed more than 2,000 volumes on ancient Rome and sent an assistant to consult far-flung scholars on such arcana as the design of Roman saddles. Her glossary for the series’ first volume, “The First Man in Rome,” is 123 pages.
“I wanted to write a true historical novel,” she told the Western Mail, a newspaper in Cardiff, Wales, in 2009. “I didn’t want to write a book about King bloody Arthur and all that codswallop. I’m not a romantic, you see.”
Over the years, critics have not always been kind to McCullough. In 1977, Times book reviewer Jonathan Kirsch panned “The Thorn Birds” as “hollow people in a technicolor landscape.” When a commemorative edition was released 30 years later, Germaine Greer called it “the best bad book I’ve ever read.” McCullough also denied accusations that she plagiarized portions of “The Ladies of Missalonghi” from a 1927 Canadian novel called “The Blue Castle.”
Such jabs left McCullough unfazed.
“I think that in their heart of hearts, all these people know that I’m more secure than they are, more confident than they are, and smarter than they are,” she once said.
Born on June 1, 1937, in Wellington, New South Wales, she grew up on remote ranches — “stations” — in Australia. She said her father was uncaring and often absent, probably owing to the several wives he secretly had on the side. Her mother was “bitterly anti-intellectual” and resented young Colleen’s success in school.
Living in Sydney during her teenage years, McCullough was drawn to a career in medicine. Allergic to surgical soap, she became a researcher in neurophysiology — a job she quickly traded for literature after her success with “The Thorn Birds.”
With plenty of money easing her fears of a destitute old age, McCullough returned to Australia, where she could occasionally see her ailing mother and two uncles. However, as she later explained it, she preferred not to share a continent with her mother and lit out for Norfolk Island, a 13-square-mile speck inhabited by descendants of Fletcher Christian’s HMS Bounty mutineers.
One of them was palm tree grower and house painter Ric Robinson. McCullough and Robinson, 13 years her junior, married in 1983.
“He’s drop-dead gorgeous,” she told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1996. “Anybody in real life knows that a fat tart never marries anybody but a drop-dead gorgeous bloke. And that’s the truth.”
In addition to Robinson, McCullough’s survivors include stepchildren Wayde Robinson and Melinda MacIntyre, and two step-grandchildren.