Colleen McCullough incited a cultural event with The Thorn Birds, a complex family saga pigeonholed as the story of a tempted priest. Her earliest books hit a newly liberated public in the 1970’s, when a TV miniseries was a STUPENDOUS MEDIA EVENT, not to mention her record-breaking paperback book deal. She pulled us forward with her story of shenanigans in the Outback. A thorn bird is explained this way:
The book’s title refers to a mythical bird that searches for thorn trees from the day it is hatched. When it finds the perfect thorn, it impales itself, and sings the most beautiful song ever heard as it dies.
This adroit choice of title plants the flag of “meaning” into what seems at first to be a rousing multi-generational romance novel. This is an earth-bound struggle for ultimate passion.
An earlier book, Tim is a consequential love story with bullies in the background (movie); and the other books that follow established her as a strong stylist with keen insight tracking the emotional impact of people on others.
Colleen McCullough was a complex woman, having achieved distinction in neurophysiology before her books blazed into publishing history, allowing her to “live on her own terms”. Competency and discipline cross both endeavors, her legacy is one of a forceful female with stories to tell. This lady knew how the brain works and had her characters live that out!
The kerfuffle over whether it is right or wrong to start an obituary calling a stupendously successful woman “overweight and plain” is more than a matter of taste. It’s about the significance of this person as a measure of their life. The game of author-as-personality exists; it is exploited by publishers and fueled by readers’ over-eager reverse engineering of a book based on a single photo on the back cover. Colleen McCullough didn’t need to pander for sales, she hit so big and hard at the start that she gained her freedom.
I do have a bias toward obscuring the writer to focus on the book itself. In college rhetoric classes, when we submitted work to be read out loud (by the professor), we were not allowed to introduce the piece, provide preview or backstory, let alone indulge in an author bio. Whatever we had to say had to be on the page. Show your work. Colleen McCullough painted her pages using her mind and her heart and her social experience. She lifts the words in sequence, stringing them together, and then lets them wrap around the reader.
Storyteller, start your next life in peace. Your characters live on.