Why would one of the world’s most famous and successful authors choose Norfolk Island as her bolt hole? It was a decision pondered by many, as she had the world at her feet and publishers and Hollywood clambering for more work. But it was a decision that Colleen McCullough found much comfort in for almost half her life.
Colleen had written her first two novels, ‘Tim’ and the blockbuster, best-selling ‘The Thorn Birds’ in New Haven, Connecticut while she was running the Yale University neurophysiological research laboratory. She had been an avid writer all her life, but her decision to spend her spare time writing novels was based on a desire to escape the prospect of ending up a poverty stricken “70-year-old spinster”. (Her pay packet from the university was half of those of her male colleagues.)
It is perhaps not surprising then, that her first two novels depict strong female characters that escape the tyranny of traditional relationships and struggle to assert their independence. They certainly struck a chord with the reading public; selling millions of copies and attracting the attention of Hollywood. Tim was adapted for screen in 1979 with a young Mel Gibson playing the title role; and The Thorn Birds was made into a TV miniseries starring heart throb television star, Richard Chamberlain, ingénue Rachel Ward and her soon-to-be husband, Bryan Brown.
Colleen McCullough was always a forthright person who never held back when she had an opinion to express. According to her Telegraph obituary, she “hated” the television adaptation of The Thorn Birds even though it earned her a reported $5 million. She described it as “instant vomit” and was just as damning in her estimation of the actors’ efforts. She didn’t open The Thorn Birds again for 25 years until she was approached by Gloria Bruni, with whom she later collaborated on a musical version of the novel.
Colleen’s decision to buy land and build her home on Norfolk Island was prompted by her distaste for the fame game. She found Norfolk a quirky backwater, with a fascinating convict history and a culture influenced by the descendants of the Bounty mutineers who had made the island their home in the mid-nineteenth century. The remote location ensured her the peace and privacy to write and live as she wanted and the local characters kept her amused and possibly provided some excellent fodder for her work.
And work she did. Norfolk’s splendid isolation allowed her to shun the fame machine that hungered for the sequel to The Thorn Birds and write what she wanted. Her books fall into roughly three genres: Romances such as ‘An Indecent Obsession’ and ‘The Ladies of Missalonghi’. Historical fiction as in her magnificent ‘Masters of Rome’ series and ‘Morgan’s Run’. And crime fiction such as her ‘Carmine Delmonico’ series. She also wrote the biography ‘The Courage and the Will: The Life of Roden Cutler VC’, and her own memoir, ‘Life Without the Boring Bits’.
Colleen was born in rural New South Wales, but spent most of her childhood in Sydney. Her family life does not seem to have been particularly happy. Her mother was a New Zealand-born Catholic with Maori ancestry and her father was a protestant Irishman. Their explosive relationship drove Colleen to find an escape in books and her own writing. To add to her misery, she suffered from hypothyroidism which is a condition where the thyroid gland is unable to produce enough hormones for the correct function of the body’s metabolism. Her mother, despairing over her excessive weight gain, was constantly dragging her to doctors, putting her on diets and compensating with ‘girlie’ dresses that Colleen despised. The one positive outcome of this condition was that she became fascinated by the world of medicine.
Colleen was determined to become a doctor and started studying Medicine at Sydney University, only to find that she had a severe allergy to surgical soap. She was advised to give up medicine and she chose Neuroscience instead. After working at Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney, Colleen travelled to England in 1963 where she worked at the Great Ormond Hospital in London. There she was offered a job by the chairman of the neurology department at Yale University which she accepted. She moved to New Haven in the United States where she lived and worked for ten years.
While Colleen lived a reclusive life on Norfolk Island, the locals who worked for her over the years almost unanimously adored her. She was an individual with her own eccentricities, but her intellect, intense curiosity and sense of humour were incredibly attractive. It is therefore not hard to imagine her chagrin at her situation in Connecticut, running the neurophysiological research laboratory, underpaid and facing another northern winter. You can almost see her grim determination as she began writing Tim – she was going to create a future for herself, no matter what.
And she certainly did that, with huge success. So much so, that her next quest was to find somewhere to get away from it all and be herself, on her own terms. Norfolk Island not only provided her with everything she wanted in a home and a place to write, but she also found romance. In 1983, Colleen married Bounty descendant, Ric Robinson and was welcomed into one of the foremost Pitcairner families on Norfolk Island.
Ric was also a member of the Island’s Legislative Assembly and Colleen became interested in the political issues of the island. Her point of view became sought after by journalists around the world when a comment on any situation on Norfolk was needed, but Colleen was most definitely not a limelight-seeker. She did a great deal for the community besides commenting on it’s political situation for the world media. However, her assistance and financial support was usually performed quietly, without fanfare, and frequently with only a very few knowing about it.
Ric and Colleen were both avid collectors and their home was extended to house their various obsessions. Those fortunate enough to be invited inside, were always spellbound by the furnishings, finishes and beautiful objects that filled ‘Out Yenna’.
In January 2015, Norfolk’s most famous, yet private citizen passed away at the island’s little hospital. In her final years Colleen had fought failing eyesight and ill-health by doing what she had done for decades – researching and telling great stories full of fabulous characters and spell-binding settings. She lies at peace in the beautiful heritage-listed Norfolk Island cemetery at Kingston, close by the others of her island family who claimed her as their own.
Her beautiful property, including her private study, where she wrote so many of her famous books is now open to the public on the ‘Colleen McCullough Home Tour’, available exclusively through Baunti Escapes. On this tour, you will be escorted through Colleen’s magnificent home, Out Yenna, which is otherwise completely hidden from prying eyes. There you will view Ric and Colleen’s priceless collection of artefacts, gathered on their world travels and you will experience an intimate viewing of the sanctuary that inspired so many great books. It is a special and unique way to learn about and gain a better understanding of this complex and fascinating modern day literary icon.
Image Credit: Robin Nisbet
Article content disclaimer: Article first published in YourWorld, Volume 06 Issue 01, 2016. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.