Padding about in a pair of Popsicle-pink pajamas, Colleen McCullough says she doesn't mind being known primarily as the writer of The Thorn Birds, her sweeping 1977 novel about the lives and loves of three generations of an Australian family. But she would really rather not be associated with the 1983 TV miniseries adaptation starring Richard Chamberlain. "I hated it," says the 63-year-old author. "It was instant vomit." She cheerfully goes on to bash the series' casting, direction and pacing. "In the book, you can string out all the deaths," she says, "but they all happened within the last half-hour of the show." In fact, McCullough admits she would never have seen The Thorn Birds at all had her husband not eventually forced her to endure a tape of it. "I was sitting up in bed," she recalls. "I kept diving under the covers, and he'd haul me out again. It was agony. It was awful."

To call McCullough outspoken is gross understatement. She is as garrulous as she is unconcerned about giving offense. Her trademark is a loud, throaty kookaburra laugh, full of mischief and happiness, that ranges between a cackle and a guffaw. And Colleen McCullough—just "Col" to her friends—has much to be happy about. There's the worldwide respect she has earned as the author of 13 books—most recently, of the bestselling Morgan's Run, a historical novel about the travails of an Englishman framed for a crime and banished to a penal colony in the 18th century. There's her 8,000-sq.-ft. mansion and 16-acre garden on a South Pacific island of staggering beauty. And above all, there's the love that came to her after three decades of determined self-sufficiency. "I think it was just that I finally met the nicest man in the world," she explains, looking fondly at Ric Robinson, 50, her husband of 16 years.

To meet Robinson she first had to leave Australia, where, after the success of The Thorn Birds, she feared that she would become a target for predators—"not so much stalkers as burglars, rapists, druggies," she says. In 1980 she sought refuge on Norfolk Island, a 3-by-5-mile speck of tropical coniferous forest and steep cow pastures some 900 miles off the Australian coast, where more than half of the 1,700 residents are descended from H.M.S. Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian mates. "It's a very strange place," McCullough says. "When I first came here I thought, 'This is where the flying saucers are going to land.' "

Like a character in a D.H. Lawrence novel, Robinson came into her life when he came to paint her house one day in 1982. A longtime resident of the island, he was then getting started as a planter of prized kentia palm trees, taking on odd jobs to support his family while he waited the 15 years it takes to produce a crop of seeds and seedlings for export. While he was working for McCullough, Robinson's wife left him, taking their two kids off to New Zealand and leaving him heartbroken. He started drinking heavily and was beaten senseless one night in a bar brawl, after which McCullough took him in to help nurse him through the worst. Two years later, after his divorce was finalized, they were married.

For McCullough it was truly a sea change, for she had decided long ago that romance would exist in her novels but not in her life. "That was always my ambition, to live on my own and have nobody to answer to," she says. But Robinson is a rarity, she adds. "He's a gentleman." And that, McCullough says, is the simple reason why this unlikely pair—she a feisty, chain-smoking celebrity author, he younger, a strong and silent farmer—ended up together. For his part, Robinson remembers that what first attracted him was her high spirits. "I'd hear her laugh around the corner," he says.

McCullough's latest book is a love letter to her husband's heritage. Richard Morgan, the hero of Morgan's Run and an ancestor of Robinson's, helped settle Norfolk Island in the 18th century. McCullough first heard about Morgan from Robinson's third cousin, singer Helen Reddy, 59, who had researched her genealogy years ago and now visits the island often, coming by for Friday night dinners of shrimp in garlic butter followed by roast lamb with all the trimmings. "I'm very glad that Col used some of [my research] for her book," says Reddy. "She made a rollicking good story of it."

McCullough's own story is pretty rich as well. She was born in Wellington, New South Wales, the older of two children of Jim, a migrant cane cutter, and his wife, Laurie, now 92. Only when he died in 1973 after 40 years of marriage did the family find out that Jim had been married to three other women at the same time. "My father was an unmitigated bastard," McCullough says. "My mother wasn't exactly brilliant either. They never divorced—that was the problem."

Raised by her mother in Wellington and then Sydney, McCullough began writing stories at age 5. She flourished at Catholic schools and earned a physiology degree from the University of New South Wales in 1963. She planned to become a doctor, but after discovering a violent allergy to hospital soap, she scrubbed that plan and concentrated on neurophysiology—the study of the nervous system's functions. She found jobs first in London and then at Yale University.

After her beloved younger brother Carl died in 1965 at age 25 while rescuing two drowning women in the waters off Crete, a shattered McCullough quit writing. She finally returned to her craft in 1974 with Tim, a critically acclaimed novel about the romance between a female executive and a younger, mentally disabled gardener. (A film version starring Mel Gibson and Piper Laurie was released in 1979.) "Actually," she says, "it was an icky book, saccharine sweet."

A year later, while making only $10,000 a year as a Yale researcher, she began The Thorn Birds. Many details were drawn from her mother's family's experience as migrant workers, and one character, Dane, was based on brother Carl. Though some reviews were scathing, millions of readers worldwide got caught up in her tales of doomed love and other natural calamities. The paperback rights sold for an astonishing $1.9 million.

Eager not to rest on The Thorn Birds' success, she has since written 11 books ranging from a World War II army-hospital drama (An Indecent Obsession), to a futuristic tale about the second coming of Christ {A Creed for the Third Millennium), to a sextet of novels set in ancient Rome. Each new genre required painstaking research—10 years' worth for the Roman books alone. The effort pays off. "Her books are as accurate as anyone could make them," says Alanna Nobbs, a professor of Roman history at Sydney's Macquarie University. "I think I'm proudest of the Roman series," McCullough says. "And it's not finished. There are two more to write."

For up to 12 hours at a time, McCullough sits at her electric typewriter, usually churning out some 12,000 words a night. She arms herself as if for gladiatorial combat. "I wear varicose-vein stockings to stop my legs swelling," she reports. "My skin's so sensitive that it burns if it's in contact with the desk. I wear a cylinder of foam rubber strapped to my back to keep me sitting upright."

Once her body is braced, her imagination roams unencumbered. The words simply flow from her fingertips. "I don't have to stop and search for them," she says. "I don't ever cut and paste. It comes out exactly in the right order. Maybe it's the scientific training, in that there always has to be a logic." Carolyn Reidy, one of McCullough's former editors, confirms her remarkable gift: "She has the magic touch. Her prose is limpid and of a very high quality. I'd say she is one of the best storytellers of our time."

McCullough herself would hardly disagree. "Yes, I am an icon," she says, without irony or braggadocio. "And one of the reasons I'm an icon is because I do say what I think. People love that. Everybody knows with me what you see is what you get."

Julie K.L. Dam
John Hannah on Norfolk Island

  • Contributors:
  • John Hannah.