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Remembering 'Thorn Birds' Author Colleen McCullough

Colleen McCullough at home on Australia's remote Norfolk Island in 1990 — she told an interviewer she moved there to escape her difficult family.
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Colleen McCullough at home on Australia's remote Norfolk Island in 1990 — she told an interviewer she moved there to escape her difficult family.

Australian writer Colleen McCullough died Thursday; she was 77 years old. McCullough was best known for her novel The Thorn Birds, a huge hugely popular romance which has sold 30 million copies around the world, and has never gone out of print.

By her own account, McCullough had a lousy childhood. Her father was abusive, and her relationship with her mother was so bad that as an adult she moved to Norfolk Island, a remote Australian territory, because — as she once told an interviewer — she could be "close enough to keep an eye on her family ... without having to live on the same continent." But as often happens in unhappy childhoods, McCullough found refuge in books. No doubt that planted the seeds that led to her life as writer.

But McCullough took a circuitous route to becoming a best selling author. She had hoped to be a doctor, but while in medical school in Sydney she developed an allergy that forced her to abandon that dream. Trained as a neuroscientist, she became a researcher, which led to a job at Yale University. And it was during that time that she wrote her first novel, Tim — followed by the book which would make her famous: The Thorn Birds.

A sprawling romance which begins in the Australian outback and stretches over many years and many miles, The Thorn Birds is the story of a tortured love between a beautiful woman and a Roman Catholic priest. The book captured the imagination of millions when it was first published in 1977, and its popularity has never abated. In 1983, it was made into a hugely popular miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain. McCollough said her husband made her watch the TV adaptation — and she hated it.

McCollough is likely to be best remembered for The Thorn Birds, but she wrote some two dozen other books, including the "Masters of Rome" series, seven novels about ancient Rome. She even issued her own take on Pride and Prejudice, with 2008's The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet. It was not well received by Jane Austen fans. In recent yrears, McCollough's eyesight began to fail, and she suffered from debilitating arthritis — but she kept on writing. Her last book, Bittersweet, was published in 2013.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.