Colleen McCullough (muh-KUHL-uhk) was born in Wellington, New South Wales, on June 1, 1937. Her father, James McCullough, was an Irish emigrant who arrived in Australia in the 1920’s. His wife was a New Zealander with Irish Catholic roots. The family lived primarily in Sydney, Australia. The father, who was a sugar cane cutting contractor, was often absent. Colleen later described him as cold and disinterested in family. The household was expanded by Colleen’s mother’s nine brothers, who often lived with them during the 1930’s and 1940’s.
McCullough was educated as an Irish Catholic, attending parochial school for twelve years, then going on to Holy Cross College, and she graduated with honors in English, chemistry, and botany. She then intended to ensure her future financial well-being by attending the University of Sydney to study medicine. This plan was abandoned because of a lack of funds. After a stint away from school working as journalist, teacher, library worker, and bus driver, McCullough returned to the University of Sydney and obtained a degree as a medical technician specializing in neurophysiology. She worked in neurophysiology in Australia, London, Birmingham, and finally in the United States at the Yale University School of Internal Medicine.
While at Yale, McCullough decided to supplement her income by writing a novel. Using her evenings to work at a characteristically feverish pace, she finished ten drafts in three months and emerged with Tim (1974). The next year she began to write The Thorn Birds (1977). At this time McCullough was still working full time at Yale and writing in the evenings. She spent such long hours at the typewriter that she wore surgical gloves to keep her arms from rubbing against the desk and support hose to relieve her legs and feet from swelling. She finished the entire work in one year. The Thorn Birds soon became a best seller and made publishing history by commanding the highest paperback reprint price to date at that time—$1,900,000.
At the time of the success of The Thorn Birds McCullough was scheduled to begin nurses’ training in London. Once publicity for the novel raised her to celebrity status, however, she changed her plans. As a new millionaire she felt she would have been too conspicuous in any hospital, and her presence would not have aided either the patients or her own research for future books.
McCullough’s next work reflected her interest in nursing. An Indecent Obsession (1981) is the story of an Australian military nurse in a ward for mildly emotionally disturbed soldiers at the end of World War II. Critics considered it a more serious work than The Thorn Birds. McCullough considered it her whodunit.
At this point in her career McCullough decided that fame required a buffer and began to search for a more secluded place to live. She moved to Norfolk Island, a tiny bit of land off the coast of Australia with a policy which required that one be approved to live there. The remote location and absence of distractions allowed her to indulge her many hobbies, which have included reading, cookery, painting, gardening, and astronomy. She wrote a book on Australian food called Cooking with Colleen McCullough and Jean Easthope (1982). In 1984, she married Ric Robinson, another Norfolk Island resident.
Once settled in her new life McCullough continued her literary efforts. To her offbeat romance Tim, her family epic The Thorn Birds, her mystery An Indecent Obsession, and her cookbook she added a futurist novel called A Creed for the Third Millennium (1985), and an altered fairy tale entitled The Ladies of...
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Missalonghi (1987). The latter work elicited cries of plagiarism from some readers, who saw in it a distorted reflection of The Blue Castle (1926) by L. M. Montgomery. McCullough’s response to the allegations was to point out that both novels are basically retellings of the tale of Cinderella and both happen to be placed in similar settings and time periods. The heroines, however, have very different motivations and are quite distinct from each other. Since the two books were similar in concept but not execution the charges of plagiarism were not accurate.
McCullough’s next foray was into the world of historical fiction with The First Man in Rome (1990). A painstakingly detailed account of the Roman republic before the time of Julius Caesar, it was the first book in Masters of Rome series. The series continued with six more novels: The Grass Crown (1991), Fortune’s Favorite (1993), Caesar’s Women (1996), Caesar: Let the Dice Fly (1997), The October Horse (2002), and Antony and Cleopatra (2007).