“The Thorn Birds,” published in 1977, is set against the sweeping panorama of Colleen McCullough’s native Australia and was described often in the U.S. news media as an Australian “Gone With the Wind.”
Colleen McCullough, a former neurophysiological researcher at Yale who, deciding to write novels in her spare time, produced “The Thorn Birds,” a multigenerational Australian romance that became an international best-seller and inspired a hugely popular television miniseries, died Thursday on Norfolk Island in the South Pacific, where she had made her home for more than 30 years. She was 77.
The cause was believed to have been kidney failure, her agent, Michael Carlisle, said. She had been in declining health with a variety of ailments in recent years.
“The Thorn Birds,” published in 1977 by Harper & Row, is set against the sweeping panorama of the author’s native Australia and was described often in the U.S. news media as an Australian “Gone With the Wind.” Spanning much of the 20th century, it centers on Meggie, the beautiful wife of a loutish rancher, and her illicit affair with Father Ralph, a handsome Roman Catholic priest.
“The Thorn Birds,” which has never been out of print, has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and been translated into more than 20 languages. In hardcover, it spent more than a year on the New York Times best-seller list; the paperback rights were sold at auction for $1.9 million, a record at the time.
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The book was the basis of a 10-hour television production starring Richard Chamberlain as Father Ralph and Rachel Ward as Meggie. First broadcast in 1983 on ABC, “The Thorn Birds,” which also starred Christopher Plummer, Barbara Stanwyck and Jean Simmons, is among the most-watched miniseries of all time.
“The Thorn Birds” was the second novel by Ms. McCullough, who, forsaking her scientific career, would write more than 20, though none sold nearly as well. Her most recent, “Bittersweet,” about the lives and loves of four sisters in Depression-era Australia, appeared last year.
Her fiction was prized by readers for its propulsive plots, sympathetic characters and sheer escapist potential. Its critical reception was mixed; reviewers took the author to task for sins ranging from stilted dialogue to the profligate use of exclamation points.
“‘Don’t be bitter, Meggie,’” Father Ralph says in “The Thorn Birds.” “‘No matter what’s happened to you in the past, you’ve always retained your sweetness and it’s the thing about you I find most endearing. Don’t change, don’t become hard because of this. … You wouldn’t be my Meggie anymore.’
“But still she looked at him half as if she hated him. ‘Oh, come off it, Ralph! I’m not your Meggie, I never was!’”
Negative reviews did not appear to faze Ms. McCullough, whom The Philadelphia Inquirer, in a 1996 profile, described as “a woman supremely unafflicted by self-doubt.”
“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,” she said of her critics in a 2007 interview on Australian television. In her nearly four decades in the limelight, it was one of her few printable replies on the subject.
Nearly everything about Ms. McCullough had unrestrained heft: her voice, her laugh, her frame, her opinions, the blizzard of cigarettes she smoked each day and, most conspicuously, her books. “The Thorn Birds” clocked in at 533 pages. Titles in her “Masters of Rome” series, a seven-volume cycle set in the ancient world, could run far longer: The inaugural entry, “The First Man in Rome” (1990), spanned 896 pages, some 100 of them devoted to a glossary.
Her profusion was matched by her speed. On a typical day, she said, she might produce 15,000 words; on a very good day, 30,000. Her facility was all the more noteworthy in that she continued to use an electric typewriter well into the computer age.
“I spell perfectly,” she told The Inquirer in the 1996 article. “My grammar’s very good. My sentence construction is excellent. So I don’t have a lot of mistakes.”
In recognition of meritorious service to her homeland, Ms. McCullough was named an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2006. The country had named her to its list of 100 living national treasures in 1997.
“I gather I was one of the top 13,” Ms. McCullough told The Press of Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2000. (The list was published in alphabetical order; Ms. McCullough is No. 59.) “In Australia I’m an icon, and it’s an interesting thing to be.”
But as she made clear between the lines of interviews, and more overtly in “Life Without the Boring Bits,” her volume of memoiristic essays published in 2011, what passed for ample self-assurance was the product of ample sorrow.
Colleen Margaretta McCullough was born in Wellington, in the Australian state of New South Wales, on June 1, 1937. Hers was a brutish family: Her father was an itinerant sugar-cane cutter of savage temperament, her mother a cold, withholding woman. The couple fought constantly; after her father’s death in the 1970s, Ms. McCullough said, he was discovered to have had “at least two” other wives simultaneously.
In this maelstrom, Colleen and her younger brother, Carl, both bright, sensitive and bookish, grew up.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,” Ms. McCullough’s memoir quotes her father telling her. “Get out and get a job as a mangle hand in a laundry. That’s all you’re good for — you’ll never get a husband, you’re too big and fat and ugly.”
Carl fared no better at his father’s hands. In 1965, at 25, he drowned in the sea off Crete. His death was considered an accident, but a letter he wrote to his sister, which arrived afterward, made her suspect he had committed suicide. Even half a century later, she could talk about his death only with extreme difficulty.
As a girl, Ms. McCullough dreamed of becoming a doctor. She entered medical school at the University of Sydney but was forced to abandon her studies after she developed a severe allergy to the soap widely used in Australian hospitals. She trained instead in neurophysiology, which is concerned with testing for and diagnosing neuromuscular diseases.
In the late 1960s, after working at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, Ms. McCullough accepted a position as a neurophysiological research assistant at the Yale School of Medicine. Discovering that she was being paid less than her male colleagues there, she cast about for another source of income.
“I loved being a neurophysiologist, but I didn’t want to be a 70-year-old spinster in a cold-water walk-up flat with one 60-watt light bulb, which is what I could see as my future,” she told the California Literary Review in 2007.
Interested in writing since girlhood, she took to her typewriter. Her first novel, “Tim,” about the tentative romance between a middle-aged professional woman and a younger man with a mild developmental disorder, was published in 1974 to enthusiastic notices if unspectacular sales. (The book became a feature film in 1979, with Piper Laurie and Mel Gibson in the lead roles.)
In 1970, one of her Yale colleagues, the classicist Erich Segal, had scored spectacular success with his novel “Love Story.” Inspired, Ms. McCullough interviewed Yale students to discover what they liked about it. Their answers — romance, characters, plot — combined with her own Australian background, spawned “The Thorn Birds.”
Before the book’s publication, Ms. McCullough had planned to move to London to study nursing. Afterward, she found she could not.
“I don’t believe a patient would appreciate the idea of having a millionaire nurse carrying the bedpan,” she told The New York Times in 1977.
She left Yale that year and eventually returned to Australia. Refusing to inhabit the same continent as her mother, she settled on Norfolk Island, a verdant, 13-square-mile fleck of Australian territory — population roughly 2,000 — a thousand miles northeast of Sydney.
She drew unwelcome attention in 1987 with the publication of her novella “The Ladies of Missalonghi,” about an impecunious woman in early-20th-century Australia. As some critics pointed out, the book’s plot, characters and narrative details strongly resembled those of “The Blue Castle,” a 1926 novel by L.M. Montgomery, the author of “Anne of Green Gables.”
Ms. McCullough, who said she had read “The Blue Castle” in childhood, swatted away charges of plagiarism.
“I am not a thief,” she told The Daily Mail, the British newspaper, in 1988. “Neither am I a fool. I have too many wonderful ideas of my own to have to steal from another writer.”
Her survivors include her husband, Ric Robinson; two stepchildren, Wayde Robinson and Melinda MacIntyre; and two step-grandchildren.
Her other novels include “A Creed for the Third Millennium” (1985), set in a dystopian future; “Morgan’s Run” (2000), about 18th-century Australia; “The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet” (2008), a sequel to “Pride and Prejudice” starring the middle Bennet sister, to whom Jane Austen had paid scant attention; and a series of crime novels featuring Carmine Delmonico, a detective in 1960s Connecticut.
Over the years, Ms. McCullough was often asked what she thought of the “Thorn Birds” miniseries, watched by more than 100 million people.
Her response packed her usual pith and punch.
“I hated it,” she told People magazine in 2000. “It was instant vomit.”