Writer Colleen McCullough, one of Australia’s most successful writers of popular fiction has died at the age of seventy-seven. The Thorn Birds which was published in 1977 was her most well-known work, but she was known too for her historical series on the Roman Republic and her crime novels too. Here below is my interview from 1995 which explores McCullough’s interest in the crime genre, her life in science and the role of blood in her work.
Ramona Koval: It’s 1965 and at a university neuroscience research centre in Connecticut, USA, human body parts are discovered in a laboratory refrigerator. Then police lieutenant Carmine Delmonico finds that a string of similarly horrifying events has occurred around the state; there’s a serial killer abroad.
Hello, I’m Ramona Koval, and on ABC Radio National, this is Books and Writing. And that’s the opening scenario of Colleen McCullough’s latest novel, a crime thriller called On, Off. It’s her 18th book and her first go at writing a whodunit.
Colleen McCullough was born in western NSW in 1937. Her first novel was Time, published in 1974, followed by The Thorn Birds in 1977. She subsequently explored different genres in her writing, including historical fiction with her Masters of Rome series. She’s a tremendously successful writer, but her first career was as a neuroscientist which included ten years working at the Yale medical school, and that’s the background Colleen McCullough has drawn on for this latest book, On, Off. But in choosing to write a crime thriller, why set it in the 1960s?
Colleen McCullough: Because I wanted to write a classical whodunit, and that meant inflicting upon my detective the old way of discovering who did a murder or a crime, unaided by forensic teams, devices and all the rest of that stuff.
Ramona Koval: What’s a classic whodunit?
Colleen McCullough: Classic whodunit has to obey the rules, and I think they were set down by everybody from Wilkie Collins through Conan Doyle to Sayers and Christie and Marsh and all the rest of them…some very underrated American whodunit writers of the same period, like Emma Lathan, that nobody’s heard of. Anyway, you have to have a detective who is the major character in the book, you have to have a group of suspects who are inextricably intertwined, which means…for instance, Christie overcame this by setting her crime novels in a very small village, a country mansion marooned in the snow for the weekend, a dig in Mesopotamia and things like that. So it becomes very quickly obvious in a classical whodunit that it has to be one of this group of people, that it can’t be…as Patricia Cornwell will do, have somebody knock on the door with a parcel and he’s the one what done it and you never see him before or since, which is not classical at all.
Ramona Koval: Who set these classical rules up?
Colleen McCullough: Well, I think it just grew from the genre. But the thing is it’s a brain teaser. A whodunit is a brain teaser, and so you have to have rules about any game of brain teasing, and I appreciate the rules.
Ramona Koval: Have you been a reader of whodunits for a long time? Is that what you do for relaxation?
Colleen McCullough: That’s my aeroplane fodder, but I suppose it’s always been one of my favourite genres to read when I’m not studying, when I’m not reading for a deeper purpose…God knows what that purpose might be.
Ramona Koval: But you chose now to write this one; why now?
Colleen McCullough: It’s the first opportunity I’ve really had to do so, and to have a kind of maximum effect on my New York publishers who get so fed up with the fact that I won’t give them ‘son of Thorn Birds‘. They had been opposed to a whodunit forever, so I had just reached the end of my tolerance curve and so I thought, ‘Right! You’ve asked for it. Grrr! It’s going to be a whodunit.’ So I wrote a whodunit.
Ramona Koval: So you didn’t choose a country mansion or a little village, you chose an organisation or an institution for the scientific research of neurophysiology in Connecticut, in America in the 1960s, a place called the Hug. In this place, scientists…and of course you’re very, very familiar with these people because you used to work amongst them before you were a writer…
Colleen McCullough: Oh sure, for over 20 years, and ten years of them in the Yale medical school doing research in an institute that’s carefully enough different from the Hug that people are not going to mistake one for the other, and of course all the characters in the book, they are no resemblance whatsoever to the people I worked with. But it’s a field I’m very familiar with, and I was comfortable. The town and the university are mythical but everybody will know, especially those from the US, which town it really is and which university I really mean.
Ramona Koval: Why set it in America and not Australia?
Colleen McCullough: Because I haven’t lived in Australia since 1963…
Ramona Koval: That’s right, because you live on Norfolk Island, and you don’t regard that as Australia.
Colleen McCullough: Yes, which is not Australia. It’s very different. It is its own entity, so I wasn’t comfortable enough, whereas with Connecticut it was my spiritual home. I loved the place. It was exquisitely beautiful physically.
Ramona Koval: And you wouldn’t have thought of setting it on an island, something like the one you live on?
Colleen McCullough: No, no, that would have been boring. This is much more interesting because…and 1965 is a good year because it was not the beginning but close to the beginning of all the very, very real serious and effective black emancipation movements. When I was in Newhaven, Connecticut, for instance, I was there during the trial of Bobby Seale, when they brought the National Guard in. A part of the fascination and the vitality of the place was the 80% black population of the city, and the problems and the beauties that this carried with it, and I thought it made the whole book more interesting, because of course in that time, in that place you can’t avoid having a confrontation of some kind with the black population.
Ramona Koval: The book is set, as you say, in this place, at this time and amongst these people, and I guess when you describe some of the scientific experiments that are going on there with animals and then you also describe the sort of perversity of the murders…we’re not giving anything away because it’s in the first few pages. In the first few pages, part of a woman’s body is found in the freezer in one of the laboratories at the university, but there’s a kind of contrast between the horror of this description of the body parts and then the blasdescription of certain kinds of experiments to do with rat brains and monkeys. Anyone who’s been in a university laboratory with animals being experimented on has seen some pretty weird things. It’s a very weird kind of place, your physiology laboratory, isn’t it?
Colleen McCullough: I suppose because I was in a supervisory capacity and I was very caring of my animals and no animal was every hurt…but the other thing of course is that antivivisectionism is always a bugbear for medical experimentation, but it’s not like the cosmetic industry; you don’t do it for kicks or to make women beautiful, you do it because human beings are dying. You get very fond of your experimental animals which is the peculiar side of it, but you do get very fond of them, even rats. To this day I like rats, I can’t help it. I see a rat and I go, ‘hi’, and I must be one of the few people who can watch a rat scurry by and just grab it by the tail.
Ramona Koval: And then what do you do with it?
Colleen McCullough: Well, it depends, but I really can; I’m fast enough to grab a rat by the tail. You have to make sure it’s a rat and not a mouse because a rat can’t climb up its tail but a mouse can.
Ramona Koval: And you might find it in your neck.
Colleen McCullough: No, but if it can climb up its tail it can bite you.
Ramona Koval: I’ll have to remember that, Colleen, thank you for that.
Colleen McCullough: These helpful little household tips.
Ramona Koval: Helpful hints for living a good life. But what I’m trying to say is that rather a horrible description is put next to something that other people might find rather horrible too. These people are doing kind of butchery on humans…
Colleen McCullough: Well, not butchery, but…
Ramona Koval: Well, you know what I mean, the cutting up of bits of people and bits of animals.
Colleen McCullough: No, they don’t cut up the animals; they implant electrodes in their brains.
Ramona Koval: Yes, but I’m talking as if one was a reader, and there are dead animals in this freezer and dead people in this freezer. Is that what you meant to do, to put these things next to each other?
Colleen McCullough: Yes. There are all sorts of horrors for all sorts of people, and without giving the plot away, there’s one…it’s not very long but there’s one very evocative scene that will give anybody with a fear of being buried alive the heebie-jeebies. Thrillers are not horror books but there is a very, very strong element of horror, and especially today when people who read them are not content with an Agatha Christie, where everybody is very genteel, and she was such a snob that servants are almost things rather than people, which in its own way is a terrible indictment, but she was of her time.
Ramona Koval: So you are conscious of having to raise a certain level of anxiety in the reader, and you have to choose many kinds of anxiety provokers because you don’t know what actually will get your reader a little bit anxious.
Colleen McCullough: No, no, because I think everything gets the reader a little anxious. So you pile Pelion on Ossa in order to scale the Olympian heights of terror.
Ramona Koval: As I was reading this book, I found myself making notes about who I thought the serial killer was, paying attention to the clues embedded in the text, but of course in this genre lots of clues turn out to be red herrings.
Colleen McCullough: That is the true test of a good whodunit, is to have the reader guessing all the way though, and then wind up not realising who it is and when they find out who it is, suddenly they go, ‘of course’, because the clues were there-but it’s how to hide them. This whole thing is a tremendous intellectual exercise for the writer.
Ramona Koval: Is it important to give all of the main characters some weird characteristic? And then I thought to myself, what is a weird characteristic?
Colleen McCullough: Everybody has a secret, but the thing is that the secrets quite often sound or appear weirder than they actually are when you find out what the secrets are, and that’s the whole…it’s all part of the art of making each character a likely suspect, which you have to do.
Ramona Koval: It is true that when you set up a kind of horrible series of murders, then everything kind of looks a bit suspicious. One takes the part of the investigator, doesn’t one, and you start thinking, well, what’s normal, what’s not normal? And what is normal sort of behaviour in such a situation?
Colleen McCullough: Another reason I chose 1965 was that the word ‘serial killer’ didn’t exist; they called them ‘multiple murderers’. They were rare. There was no such thing as profiling, and consequently the detectives of that time were used to, as I think my detective, Carmine Delmonico…he’s used to an equation with the cops at one end and the crims at the other, and all of a sudden you’re in a world where the murder has been done by somebody who is totally invisible and it dawns upon everybody that this person is, to all extents and purposes, an ordinary, normal person because so many of these killers are. Their neighbours like them, they seem to live inoffensive lives and I think that’s one of the fascinations about the serial killer, is that he (or rarely, she) lives such an ordinary life, and that makes them great in whodunits.
Ramona Koval: This particular version of a horrible serial set of murders-is that something completely out of your brain, or have you been reading up on all kinds of ghastliness?
Colleen McCullough: Oh no, it’s straight out of my brain. After all, I’m medically trained…
Ramona Koval: I know, but God! You’ve written some truly disgusting things, haven’t you?
Colleen McCullough: Yes, but you see, every book I’ve ever written, if you look at it closely, has blood in it. Even Angel Puss, which is one of my favourite books that I’ve written…
Ramona Koval: Also set in the 60s.
Colleen McCullough: Also set in the 60s but set in Kings Cross in Sydney, and it’s very funny, very light-hearted, but there’s a murder in it.
Ramona Koval: Why do you think that blood plays such an important role in your writing?
Colleen McCullough: I was always attracted to medicine from as far back as I can remember, and it was the surgical side of medicine that really interested me. So perhaps, you see, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to go to a place like Yale and do a lot of neurosurgery and also write books and get rid of it on paper without harming anyone, who knows, I might have been the world’s greatest serial killer.
Ramona Koval: But what about you as a…you know, you were a neurophysiologist, you were a scientist, but you say you were attracted to medicine; did you want to be a doctor?
Colleen McCullough: Oh I wanted to be a doctor but unfortunately I have a terrible skin ailment that means that I’m completely allergic to soap, so I couldn’t scrub, so I couldn’t intern, so I couldn’t do medicine. And of course surgery too, I mean, you’re scrubbing all the time. I could never have done it, never, never, and so I suppose all of that…but it didn’t lessen my interest in surgery and the world of the surgeon. I can’t tell you why. Because I’m a war buff and wrote all the Roman books which are bloody, they really are. My editor, I remember, said…I think it was The Grass Crown, that she had never in her entire editing career read a book with such a bloody ending. I can’t tell you. I am fascinated. I suppose it’s to the fact that it seems to be such an integral part of humanity.
Ramona Koval: But you’re supposed to keep the blood on the inside, aren’t you?
Colleen McCullough: No, but every emerging nation buys…they don’t buy food for the starving kids, they buy flipping 105-millimetre guns and blaze away at each other. That’s what I mean. There’s a gene in there somewhere that says; shed blood.
Ramona Koval: So you didn’t have to read a whole lot of serial killers or multiple murderer stories to…
Colleen McCullough: Not to invent my own method of murder because that’s…I don’t want anybody else’s method, it had to be mine, and it had to be awful, of course, because they always are. One of the things about some murders, real ones I’m talking about, is that they’re so awful that the newspapers cannot print the details. In Australia there are murders like this where literally the general populus never knows how bad they were. What people do to other people is appalling. And that was one of the interesting things about writing this book was very simply that, unlike most whodunits, I do give some space to the poor families of the victims. I try to point out the tragedy and the effect that the death of this victim has on those who have to survive and carry on because they’re overlooked, nobody remembers them.
Ramona Koval: In fact, I think Carmine says, ‘It’s hard to be in my line of work and believe in God,’ and he says, ‘I’ve gone a long way beyond disbelief in God. I believe that the world belongs to the Devil. I believe that the Devil is infinitely more powerful than God, and the soldiers of goodness, if not of God, are losing the war.’ Is that what you think too?
Colleen McCullough: Probably. I’m in character writing that for Carmine, so that’s all right. My belief is that humanity has lost the plot but never had the plot because we haven’t learned from our historical mistakes, we’re still making the same old historical mistakes…
Ramona Koval: We’re not even learning any history much any more, are we? We’re not teaching it either.
Colleen McCullough: No, we’re not teaching history, and unfortunately politicians tend to be lawyers who have the worst tunnel-vision in the entire world and the least heart, unlike Shakespeare; ‘Kill all the lawyers.’
Ramona Koval: This from a woman who’s got a very perverse way of inventing murders, so if you’re a lawyer I think you should be shaking in your boots. How important is a love interest in a whodunit?
Colleen McCullough: You have to have it. If you don’t, your publisher screams blue murder.
Ramona Koval: So did you have to put one in after the first draft, or…?
Colleen McCullough: No.
Ramona Koval: You knew that rule.
Colleen McCullough: This is novel number 16 or 17, something like that, so I’m well aware that you have to have some sort of love interest in a book, and I congratulate myself when I manage to wriggle out from under being obliged to write love scenes, which I hate writing. Describing a non-verbal activity is terrible. I didn’t really have to put in any big love scenes in On, Off which was great. You want to see at least one of your major characters involved on a human level that has very little to do with the problem on hand.
Ramona Koval: You want to give a bit of a respite too, don’t you, to everybody. But everybody likes a bit of romance, don’t they?
Colleen McCullough: Well, they like a bit of a love interest, yes.
Ramona Koval: It’s interesting when one is looking at a group of serial murders…you pose an interesting problem of pattern recognition, that if you see number one, number two, number three, number four, and there’s a certain pattern, that is actually going to limit what sort of clues you’re going to be looking for. But the more you find, the pattern actually changes a bit, and then you think, well, if you were set on the road by the first four or five to look in a certain direction, you may have missed a whole lot of things because at the beginning the pattern doesn’t look…you don’t know really what the pattern is. It’s an interesting intellectual problem, isn’t it?
Colleen McCullough: Yes, and of course in 1965, before they understood that serial killers tended to be ritualistic and to have certain benchmarks in their killing methods, if you like, it became more important but less known. I don’t know whether ‘toyed’ with the problem is the right way to put it, but certainly I had ideas about would or could one of these people change their pattern, and if they did, why would they and how would they? And that you don’t find out until the very last pages. In the last few pages you find out lots and lots of things.
Ramona Koval: One of the characters talks about being blind and actually doesn’t want to really talk about all the obvious things people ask, and is just sick of talking about it, and I wondered whether that’s the way you feel about your situation.
Colleen McCullough: No, not at all. This character is just one of the many suspects in the book, and it irritates her that people ask her these questions.
Ramona Koval: But it doesn’t irritate you?
Colleen McCullough: No, it doesn’t because I have a rare form of macular degeneration which is haemorrhagic rather than sclerotic. There are 800,000 Australian sufferers from macular degeneration of all kinds, and I feel that high profile people don’t often get these things, or if they do they hide it. My feeling is that I can do more good by being completely out in the open about it, letting fellow sufferers know that it’s not the end of the world.
Ramona Koval: So how does it affect your daily life?
Colleen McCullough: I, for instance, can’t gauge the height of a step or see a jog in a floor, so I’m forever tripping up, unless I walk hanging on to somebody. This has retarded my walking so that I don’t walk as well as I used to because I can’t stride out because if I do I’m going to be flat on my face. Reading and writing I can still do but with a great deal more difficulty than I used to because I’ve lost all central vision in my left eye, so I’m flying on one wing, the right eye.
Ramona Koval: What about thinking about how you are going to cope with, say, reading material or research, for example? You must have thought of ways to get around it.
Colleen McCullough: Well I don’t think there is any way to get around…if the blindness gets that I can’t read, then I can’t ever write the kind of books that I have written from time to time, like the Roman books that require so much reading. I think it’s perhaps one reason why I’ve written this crime novel because I think, well, if I do go completely blind this is a much easier kind of book to write because I can keep all the threads in my mind, it’s not immensely lengthy, any research that has to be done I can get off the internet or something like that, which you can’t if it’s a very serious subject. It’s a genre that if I can do (and this book will prove whether or not I can) and then if I do go blind I’ve got somewhere to go as a writer. So you see, the old mind is ticking over all the time.
Ramona Koval: Colleen McCullough, and her crime thriller On, Off is published by HarperCollins. That’s Books and Writing for this week, which is produced by me, Ramona Koval, and Amanda Smith.
- On, Off
- Colleen McCullough
- ISBN: 073228161X