Our colleague Margaret Rumford (top right) shared the following remembrance of a best-selling author at the Library’s monthly Writers Read open mike night in March. The Fairfield Writer’s Blog is pleased to present it here.
Over the years the impulse to write to Colleen McCullough (lower right), the renowned author, to congratulate her on her success came and went. When she died on January 29 this year, aged seventy-seven, her obituary upset me more than I would have imagined. When we met, The Thorn Birds, that blockbuster novel which sold more than thirty million copies, had yet to be written. One learned over the years that she, an Australian maverick, shunned publicity and eventually moved to the remote Norfolk Island, a subtropical paradise lost in the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Australia and New Zealand. The island had once been a penal colony. There she married a local man, a descendant of the survivors of the mutineers on the Bounty. To get in touch after she became rich and famous seemed self-serving. Besides, I respected her privacy and felt sure she would not remember me—our time together had been brief.
We met in 1972 at a summer party in Stratford, Connecticut, and, finding we both hailed from the Antipodes—she, Australia and me, New Zealand—there was a lot to talk about.
I remember her as a tall, well-built young woman, with thick brown hair, a broad rosy face and an infectiously raucous laugh. She had a way of listening intently, which invited confidences, and although she was three years younger, I thought her very wise. Despite that, my impression of her then was that she had a fairly run-of-the-mill lab job at a hospital in nearby New Haven—Yale.
What I didn’t know was that at the time McCullough was writing her first novel, Tim, later made into a movie starring Mel Gibson and Piper Laurie. While at Yale, the success of Erich Segal’s novel, Love Story, inspired her to write The Thorn Birds. When I read The Thorn Birds, I thought the first quarter of the book, when she writes about New Zealand and Australia, could become a classic. Once she gets to Rome, I wasn’t so impressed. But what did I know? She went on to write seven 1,000–page novels about the life and times of Julius Caesar.
Our hostess at the summer party was my friend Christine. After she had danced on the table to Johnny Cash’s “Ghost Riders in the Night,” wearing a mini-skirt, cowboy hat and boots and cracking a whip, the evening broke up. What could possibly follow that?
Before Colleen left she handed me her card. I was impressed to discover she was a neuroscience researcher at the Yale Medical School. Earlier on, I had told about my hyper-active daughter, Hilary. The child, then nearly three, was a handful and driving me to distraction. “Get in touch,” Colleen said, enveloping me a hug, “I think I may be able to help you.”
A week later, Colleen met Hilary and me on the steps of the Yale Children’s Hospital. She had arranged appointments for Hilary to meet with a battery of specialists. Hilary, taking to Colleen immediately, clutched her hand and skipped off alongside her, while I was told to amuse myself and meet Colleen in the cafeteria at noon.
The result of the tests was that Hilary maybe should take Ritalin. In those days, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) was something I’d never heard mentioned. After some discussion, I decided to keep her off medication and change her diet. The doctors agreed that could be a sensible first step. The most important memory I came away with at the time, however, was everyone agreed I was a wonderful mother and that Hilary was a delight—if a handful! The boost to my morale was life changing, for which I am eternally grateful to Colleen McCullough.
Some years later, after the movie and television series of The Thorn Birds, came out, Christine said, “Isn’t it great about Colleen’s success. Who would have guessed?”
I must have looked blank, for she followed up with, “Remember, you met her at our house?”
“I did?” not connecting the Yale Colleen with the famous author.
“Yes, she helped you with Hilary.”
If that wasn’t a mind-blowing moment, I don’t know what is.
Sadly, I forfeited the opportunity to thank Colleen McCullough for her compassionate intervention, which made all the difference to our lives, and also to congratulate her. I really do regret it.—Margaret Rumford
(Editor’s note: Margaret is a member of the Library’s Wednesday writing critique group.)