Colleen McCullough: Thanks for the Memories

Colleen McCullough was a great storyteller and a great lady. I discovered that when I first met her on Norfolk Island in 1993, producing a story for the Nine Network’s Sunday Program, with reporter Max Cullen.
I was looking forward to the trip after getting a call from a Random House publicist, Alan Davidson, asking if we wanted to do a profile of the famous author to help promote the third book of her seven-part Masters of Rome series, Fortune’s Favourites. Her Roman novels had Julius Caesar at their heart, and the history of the Roman Republic as their backbone.
McCullough built up a virtual library on the Republic, hiring researchers to help her gather the massive volumes of historical material used in the novels.
She loved research from her days as a neurophysiologist at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital, the Hospital for Sick Children in London, and as a neurophysiological research assistant at the Yale School of Medicine in the US so it was important for me to reciprocate before flying into Norfolk Island with the crew.
I talked to Warren McStoker, a legendary producer at Nine’s Sixty Minutes, who had done a story on Colleen and became a friend. He advised me to do as much reconnaissance as possible: Colleen does not suffer fools gladly. Another friend of the author, Bernie Leo, then the chief sub-editor of the Australian Financial Review, gave me two valuable bits of information: she and her husband Ric Robinson loved to play scrabble (Bernie used to join in the game on visits); and she liked Madura Tea, cultivated in the Tweed Valley in northern New South Wales and virtually impossible to get on Norfolk Island.
After picking up a large package of Madura, I got the folder from the ACP Library (the internet was still in its infancy), photocopied all the relevant articles about her, and read as many of her books as I could in the days before the shoot – Tim, The Thorn Birds, An Indecent Obsession, The Ladies of Missalonghi, and a bit of the 945-page The Grass Crown, the second of the Roman novels, with a 92-page glossary. Max read a few as well, and we perused as much of the 804-page Fortune’s Favourites as we could. (I can’t remember how much!)
Despite that, we were well prepared, I thought. As my usual Sunday reporter that year, the late Paul Lockyer, often said: “Time spent on recce (reconnaissance) is time well spent.” Alas, don’t miss the obvious. For television stories, you try to shoot a lot of vision of the main talent to give the editor overlay for the interviews, narrative and thought track (that’s when the person being profiled looks out over the sea, or garden, or the landscape and his or her voice runs underneath).
I sat down with Colleen and Max and the cameraman, Jim Chrystal, and the sound recordist, Nick Nezval, to talk about the shoot, and she had a lot of questions. After all, she had been a successful and world famous author since the US paperback rights for The Thorn Birds went for $1.9 million in 1977. She knew a lot about television interviews. I did my best to answer them all, but I felt I wasn’t exactly scoring goals. Where was Warren McStoker when you needed him?
I pressed on and said: “Could we get started with a walk through your wonderful garden?” It was beautiful, with a rolling hill, and quite expansive. And that was my first mistake. As Max and Colleen wandered lonely as a cloud (with apologies to Wordsworth) before coming to a host of Norfolk pines and palm trees, I could tell she was getting a bit tired, but we needed that vision. What I didn’t consider was that Colleen had recently been diagnosed with diabetes and her feet were hurting. I didn’t learn this until her personal assistant mentioned it the next morning. No more walkies for Colleen McCullough!
But I apologised, and she took it well. The Madura Tea and the mention of Warren McStoker and Bernie Leo helped our cause. And she and Ric played Scrabble for our camera on their magnificent marble table. It is a game they took seriously, and she claimed on Seven’s Sunday Night program a few years ago he always beat her. Here’s the exchange, beginning with reporter Rahni Sadler’s voiceover: “They’re deeply in love and the best of friends except when they play Scrabble. To love, honour, obey and let him win at Scrabble.” Colleen McCullough: “I don’t let him win.” Rahni Sadler: “He beats you fair and square.” Colleen McCullough: “He just wallops me.”
As you’ll be able to see in the edited video accompanying this post, Colleen had a large and lovely library with a lot of reference books and novels. She told Max: “I’m not a great reader of novels, but I like to have them.” She shared her love of libraries, talking about the stacks of books at Yale University, while I waxed lyrical about the libraries at Villanova and New York Universities, and, of course, Sydney University.
Looking back at the Sunday story broadcast in October 1993, I had a poignant moment, when arts journalist Andrea Stretton (That’s a picture of her on the first frame of the video below. She appears later), who presented a book show for SBS at the time, gave her assessment of Colleen McCullough’s literary talent. Andrea died aged 55 in 2007, and I had forgotten she had appeared in the story. She was a friend, a terrific journalist and a lovely lady. She said Colleen “will be remembered as someone who did an enormous amount for Australian popular fiction and I mean in the sense in really contributing something to the genre, and definitely for The Thorn Birds … I think The Thorn Birds is a bit of an icon in Australian writing.”
While some critics criticised the book, which won her many readers and a lot of money, for using too many exclamation points!, Colleen was never bothered by negative reviews. The Philadelphia Inquirer described her as “a woman supremely unafflicted by self-doubt,” in a 1996 profile, mentioned in The New York Times obituary. That Times article quoted her response to the critics from a 2007 Australian television interview: “I think 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.” The Times obituary writer goes on to say: “In her nearly four decades in the limelight, it was one of her few printable replies on the subject.”
When Max Cullen asked Colleen how she replied to her critics, she said: “I don’t. Like Liberace I cry all the way to the bank.” And she broke out in that glorious laugh of hers.
She liked the Thorn Birds book, of course, but not the mini-series, one of the most watched television shows of all time. She told People magazine in 2000: “I hated it. It was instant vomit.” At one point in the interview, she told Max that Tim (her first novel) was made into “a very nice film,” but as for The Thorn Birds series: “I don’t want to talk about it. I want to heave.” It usually prompted those stomach-churning synonyms.
But Colleen McCullough had only kind words about fellow novelist, the Nobel Prize-winning Patrick White: “I love Patrick White. And I tell you, the death in the garden in The Tree of Man. If I could write a page or two like that, I’d be happy. I never will.” So there is a humble Colleen McCullough.
By the second day, Colleen McCullough was friendly and accommodating, and she gave a great sit-down interview to Max, explaining, among other things, why she loved touring and “flogging the book.” She added: “I like to talk and you’re my victim. You have to sit there and listen.”
She wrote the Roman novels because “it was a fascinating era. The thing I love about that era is how juicy it was. It was great stuff. All the marvellous little details that people think I made up probably are historic.” At which point Max added a spontaneous line: “Rome wasn’t written in a day.” Colleen laughed heartily and replied: “Rome can never be written in a day. Even Cicero would have trouble.”
Just before we left, Colleen signed some of her books for my mother, who lived in Philadelphia and was a big fan of her work. My mother passed away a few years later, but she was so excited when I gave her the signed copies after the shoot. And despite my getting Colleen to work like a Roman pleb, a forgiving author could not have been more hospitable. She then signed a copy of Fortune’s Favourites for my wife and me, “with many thanks.” No, Colleen, you deserve all the thanks … and kudos.
I’ll leave the last words to her former publicist, Alan Davidson, and Carolyn Reidy, the President & CEO of Simon & Schuster, Colleen’s long-time US publisher. Alan, who arranged the profile for Sunday, posted this on his Facebook page: “Vale Colleen McCullough. We toured together and I’ve heard your fabulous jokes followed by that raucous laugh and seen you bring the passengers in an aeroplane to life. You will be missed. Love Davo.”
And Carolyn Reidy posted this on the author’s Facebook page: “Colleen McCullough was a born storyteller of limitless versatility. Since bursting on the scene with her unforgettable novel “The Thorn Birds,” Colleen has captivated millions with stories that can take us anywhere from Ancient Rome to Australia of bygone years to mysteries from America’s recent past, all told with her characteristic historical accuracy and attention to detail, and more importantly, her wisdom and perception about the ways of the human heart and mind. It has been a privilege to publish her, and a joy to know her these many years.”
And for the shortened 12-minute video version of the Colleen McCullough story, please click below. My thanks to Channel Nine for allowing me to post this on my blog, to Richard at TCN Archives for all his help, to Mike Connerty, who edited the original Sunday story with his usual creative genius and to Steve McQueen, who cut down the story with his usual professional expertise. Photo at the top by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images; Photo of Colleen with Thorn Birds book News Corp Australia.

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