Remembering Colleen McCullough. By Linda Funnell
The world lost more than a household name when Colleen McCullough died on 29 January.
Over 15 years, off and on, I published and edited Colleen McCullough in Australia. She was not only an internationally recognised bestselling author and an official Australian National Living Treasure, but a powerful personality and a passionate storyteller.
When Colleen died I was in Indonesia. The local media reported: ‘Colleen McCullough, penulis The Thorn Birds, meninggal …’ [Colleen McCullough, author of The Thorn Birds, has passed away …].
The Thorn Birds, first published in 1977 and continuously in print ever since, was the worldwide bestseller that made Colleen’s name and her fortune. That this story of a young woman’s love for a Catholic priest in outback Australia should find an audience in Indonesia is a measure of its extraordinary worldwide reach.
Even before it was published it achieved notoriety when the paperback rights – in the days when there were separate publishers for hardback and paperback editions – were sold at auction for a record price. While Col described the TV miniseries based on it as ‘instant vomit’, the series (which introduced Bryan Brown to his future wife Rachel Ward) only further increased the novel’s fame.
I remember reading The Thorn Birds as a teenager and wondering how the author had made the pages turn so quickly. However it was many years later, in 1998, that I first met Colleen when I was a publisher at Random House.
Colleen was determined never to write the same kind of book twice, and she was particularly determined never to write Son of Thorn Birds (there is a very funny account of her publishers’ reactions to this in the essay ‘Col on Her Books’ in her collection Life Without the Boring Bits).
Which was how she came to write Roden Cutler, VC: The biography, published in 1998, and how I came to work with her.
She’d never written a biography, admired Roden Cutler, winner of the Victoria Cross and former governor of New South Wales, and so wrote a book that sold an astonishing 36,000 copies in hardback. Well do I remember the discussions in-house before publication as to what we could expect to sell: yes, it was Colleen McCullough, but Roden Cutler wasn’t really known outside New South Wales, military history was a bit of a niche market, etc, etc. Consequently, the original sales expectations were on the low side. What we hadn’t counted on was the extraordinary power of Col. She toured the country and made sure everyone knew not only who Roden Cutler was, but why they should read the book and find out more about him.
As Roden Cutler was outside the interests of her international publishers, it was sold separately in Australia, and I was able to secure it for Random House. Col donated all the royalties to charity: to Legacy, to the Prince of Wales Medical Research Institute for the Neurosciences (Col was a scientist herself, after all), and the Gerontology Foundation of Australia.
Col delivered the manuscript of Roden Cutler in person. I arrived at work one morning to find her and her friend Selwa Anthony (who was the agent for the book) already sitting in my office. Col wore a leopard-print wrap and I closed the office door so she could smoke. The office allowed a bit of wriggle room on the no-smoking-in-the-workplace rules after 6 pm when most people had left. However, this was Colleen McCullough, and you weren’t going to say no to her at nine o’clock in the morning, were you? Not when she was delivering her manuscript.
The manuscript was presented in what I came to know as Col’s trademark manner: in a beautiful maroon box with her name embossed in gold, the manuscript itself impeccably typed on her electric typewriter (she was never to take to computers) on heavy American quarto-size paper, and preceded by a list of instructions to the editor. The resulting conversation was a useful, if forthright, briefing.
In 2004 I was working at HarperCollins and had the chance to publish Angel Puss, a novel Col had written decades before, set in Sydney’s Kings Cross in 1960 and featuring the redoubtable, tarot-reading Mrs Delvecchio Schwartz. It was Col’s favourite novel, but its urban Australian setting, unlike the The Thorn Birds, was of no interest to her American publishers. It was eventually taken on, with some puzzlement, by her UK publisher, who changed the title to just Angel, perhaps fearing the original might be interpreted as some mysterious Antipodean double-entendre.
At HarperCollins I became the Australian publisher of Antony and Cleopatra, the last of the Roman books, and of her Carmine Delmonico crime novels. I continued to edit her, off and on after I left HarperCollins, and worked closely with her on her last novel, Bittersweet.
Editors get to know writers in a particularly intimate way; we see the brilliance and get to know their crotchets (a favourite word of Col’s), as well as the rhythms of their prose. I also got to see Col at home when I went to work with her on Norfolk Island on two occasions.
Guests were generously accommodated on Norfolk. There was a separate, spacious and well-appointed guest apartment adjacent to the main house. The first time I visited, in 2010, a portable keyboard was set up in the living room – Gavin Lockley, the composer of the musical based on Col’s novel Morgan’s Run, had been staying.
Col lived on Norfolk for over 30 years. She often said that she refused to live on the same continent as her mother. Yet she had also lived in the US for many years, working as a scientist at Yale University, and recognised that it was America that had made her writing career. Her first publishers were Harper & Row in New York, and she developed a lifelong respect for American editors. Foremost among these was Carolyn Reidy, who worked on the first two of the Roman books with her.
However, Col had also had bad experiences with editors, and was adamant that editors not try to change her style. She was vehemently against editors ‘masturbating over editing Colleen McCullough’ and changing things for the sake of it.
While in many ways Col’s directness made life easier – there was no need to second-guess – it was by no means simple. Copy-editing is a painstaking, pedantic business, and while Col was a perfectionist herself, she didn’t always respond well to the same trait in others. When we were editing one of her Carmine Delmonico crime novels, she prefaced her responses to the copy-edit queries with:
You probably know that I abominate copy-editing, and have scant patience with its hair-splitting. So if I get cranky, I get cranky … If it’s too exasperating, I just won’t answer.
In the same letter, in response to something I’d done (lost now), she replied:
Don’t Anglicize my text! It’s simply ‘and waiting to be called …’ Americans are very fond of their participles.
It would only be fair to add that this missive ended, ‘Ta heaps and heaps’.
With each book there were decisions to be made about spelling. Having lived so long in the US, American spellings came easily to Col, but the manuscripts often contained a mix of US and Australian/English styles. The crime novels, all set in a fictionalised version of Yale, kept American spellings to suit the subject, whereas with Roden and Angel Puss, Australian books, we tended to follow the Australian style.
When I worked with her on Norfolk, we would spend several hours together in the conservatory, a long room hung with a profusion of baskets of ferns and dominated by an onyx dining table that could comfortably seat a dozen or so. Here Col would sit, smoking, her book rest and papers on the table beside her.
Late each morning I would join her to go over the day’s work. (Happily for me, as it suited my own work patterns, Col was a night owl who preferred to work late into the evening rather than rise to greet the dawn.) Often Shady the cat would join us, sitting in husband Ric’s chair at the head of the table.
Col would then retire to her writing room upstairs – ‘the scriptorium’, a surprisingly small space decorated with dragonfly wallpaper. Everything was handily in reach from her chair – typewriter, telephone, ashtray, reference books, and another large wooden book rest. When needed, she could accomplish prodigious amounts of rewriting and refining overnight.
I would return to my guest suite and continue with my editing and checking of the previous day’s work. We would meet up again in the evenings for dinner.
Col loved cooking (she co-authored a cookbook back in the 1980s, and an entire wall of the Norfolk Island kitchen housed her cookbook collection), but by 2010 Ric was preparing the meals to Col’s specifications. We ate like royalty: chicken à la king, steak with chateaubriand sauce, excellent roast dinners. She gave me some of her recipes, including this for roast chicken: Put bay leaves inside the chicken; salt the skin. That’s it. Roast till ‘the legs wobble’. Don’t bother basting.
Standing on the coastal cliffs of Norfolk, looking out to the limitless horizon, it was impossible not to be aware of the island’s isolation. In winter, the wind could howl though the famous pines at night.
Col was a true polymath. Her training was in science – she specialised in neuroscience and had stints at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, Guy’s Hospital in London, and ultimately at Yale – yet she not only became a bestselling writer, celebrated for the historical research in her Roman books (Macquarie University awarded her a doctorate on the strength of it), she was also an artist. Until her eyesight deteriorated, she did all the maps for her Roman books, and the line drawings of portraits of the central characters; she also did an extraordinary watercolour astrological chart for Angel Puss, complete with a sword-wielding scorpion.
Col was formidable and had tremendous presence. I remember being beside her once as she simply walked down a corridor; there was something in the way she held herself that made it feel as if I was next to an empress. Yet she was also warm and charismatic. Whenever she came into the office it was an event, and people would crane to get a look at her and find reasons to drop by and say hello. She was rightly proud of her success, but she was unpretentious and never a snob.
After my second visit to Norfolk, we finished the final tweaks to the edit of Bittersweet by phone when I was back in Sydney. When we’d got to the end, she said, ‘Thanks for everything. See you for the next one, darling heart.’
It’s still difficult to accept there won’t be a next one from this prolific, demanding, straight-talking, generous, hilarious woman. Farewell, Col.