Message From The Author
BEST KNOWN FOR THE THORN BIRDS, COLLEEN MCCULLOUGH CALLS ON HER MEDICAL EXPERTISE IN HER FIRST MYSTERY NOVEL, ON, OFF
By Diane Snyder
Dr. Colleen McCullough puts her medical expertise to use in her 18th novel, and first mystery, On, Off (Jun., Simon and Schuster). And readers who know her only as the author behind the blockbuster epic The Thorn Birds are in for
a surprise. Instead of exotic Australian locales and sweeping romance, McCullough's latest
is set in 1965 in a Connecticut research institute for the neurosciences -- and instead of bodily lust, it's body parts that are at the center of this story.
When the remains of a mixed-race girl are discovered at the institute, Lieutenant Carmine Delmonico uses his wits to find
a killer who's already been busy for a couple of years. The Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn., where Aussie McCullough taught for 10 years, inspired the setting.
In recent years, McCullough, who turns 69 this month, has devoted her writing time to her Masters of Rome series (book
six, The October Horse, came out in 2003) and even musicals (she collaborated on an adaptation of The Thorn Birds) as she battles
an eye disease that threatens her vision. We caught up with her,
via fax, from her home Down Under
Where did the idea for On, Off come from? Did it spring from your experiences at Yale in the '60s? I had the idea for years but never had an opportunity to write it. One of the sine qua non aspects of a whodunit is that it must take place in a small, very contained environment. Thanks to my own years in neurology at Yale, I thought a research institute would be ideal as well as interesting for the reader.
Were there any other reasons for setting it in the '60s? It was such a time of social upheaval and loss of innocence. I thought the era was a fascinating one to write about -- in time, not very long ago, yet in the rapidity with which modern history changes and vanishes, nowadays almost forgotten. I was privileged to be in the USA during the years of black militancy, had many black friends and, for instance, I vividly remember the trial of Bobby Seale, when New Haven was boarded up and the National Guard rolled in. Stormy days, back then.
Did you encounter any challenges in structuring
a crime novel? I could structure a crime novel in my
sleep, I've read so many of them. No, I didn't encounter any
Is it true that you hate writing love scenes? Yes, I loathe writing love scenes! Scratching around like a demented chicken to find something fresh to say about the act of love is not my favorite occupation.
What sort of crime fiction do you like to read? Who are some of your favorite authors? I'm a fussy crime fiction reader. For sheer plotting whodunit ability, you can't beat Agatha Christie, but like most crime writers of her era, she's dated terribly and appears snobby and unrealistic to modern readers. My favorite modern writers are Michael Connelly, Jonathan Kellerman and Lawrence Block. The women writers don't do it for me, I think because they have a tendency to feature the characters' personal problems ahead of the crime itself.
At this point, do you feel any pressure from publishers to write a certain kind of novel? I have never not been under pressure from publishers to write "Son of Thorn Birds," "Road to Thorn Birds," "Return to Thorn Birds" and so
on and so forth, ad nauseam. So I write what I want to write on
the theory that it will probably find a publisher.
Has your battle with macular degeneration affected your ability to write? Oh, yes. Mine is not ordinary macular degeneration, which is a slow degenerative process affecting the retinas. Mine is a familial (i.e., genetic) type that manifests as hemorrhages in the retina -- it's sudden, dramatic and rapid.
I have lost all central vision in the left eye and have about half central vision in the right eye. However, I can still see to write. Reading is harder -- but I read!
What's next for you? A novel about Mark Antony, Cleopatra and Octavian. It's the seventh Roman book and will complete the project. After that -- who knows? A lot depends on whether I can read for research. If I can't, then whodunit crime novels are a definite option. They're fun to write and I can indulge my passion for blood. My novels always have plenty of blood in them, no matter what the subject.
Are you working on another musical? Yes, I'm
working on an opera about Cleopatra with a German composer, Gloria Bruni. It's upmarket and fascinating.
Speaking of musicals, will you see Hugh Jackman in The Boy From Oz in Australia this summer?
A) I don't dig Hugh Jackman and B) I didn't dig The Boy From
Oz. I never liked Judy Garland, you see. Too much vibrato in
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