Irascible islander gets out her scalpel

You'd think that interviewing an author who's going blind would be a grim affair. But speaking with Colleen McCullough, it's impossible to discern a hint of self-pity about the retinal eye disease that will soon rob her of vision. 'One of the reasons that people get depressed is that when they're done insult or injury they suffer it, and I don't,' says the 69-year-old resident of Norfolk Island, 1,500km off Australia's east coast, who's 'in exile' in Sydney for medical treatment.

McCullough isn't allowing going blind to affect her spirit, just as she recently refused to suffer being ignored by the staff of a Sydney department store. 'I stood in the middle of the floor and I roared, 'Is there anybody here to serve me?' They came running from all directions. Most people would stand there and grow internally angry.'

It's this plain-speaking that she says lies at the root of the public's adoration of her. It's also why she jokes that, if she ran for prime minister, 'all Australians would vote for me'.

McCullough likes her food just as unembellished as her speech. She recalls eating at a traditional steak-and-chips establishment that backed onto a slick chichi restaurant. 'I said to the proprietress, 'This is fantastic. Next door is absolute crap'. She said, 'Oh, I own that, too'.' McCullough roars with throaty laughter. 'I said, 'Well, it's still crap'.'

It takes a while to reach the subject of her new novel, On, Off, an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit that opens with the disfigured corpse of a girl discovered in the freezer of a medical research institute.

On, Off draws on the decade that McCullough spent working as a neuroscientist at Yale Medical School, before becoming an international publishing sensation with The Thorn Birds in 1977. McCullough loved working at Yale, until her relationships with her colleagues soured after the success of her 1974 debut, Tim. 'The most ambitious ones, who hoped to win a Nobel Prize, began saying things like, I was going to be more famous than they were.'

On, Off is set in 1965 - an opportunity to kill off some former colleagues, perhaps? Not so. 'None of the characters remotely resemble people I worked with,' she says.

McCullough set the novel in 1965 because she's familiar with the laboratory technology of that era. 'If I had set it in a medical institute today, I would have had to do a lot of research. My eyesight is very poor, so it would have been extremely difficult.'

Don't expect On, Off to resemble one of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta thrillers, which McCullough disdains. 'Her heroine is so into her personal problems and she's got a passion for computers,' says McCullough with a sneer. 'The killer is usually the delivery boy who knocks on the door and delivers the parcel, and that's the only time that the killer appears in the book.'

There's a romantic subplot in On, Off, but she's not about to go misty-eyed discussing it. 'Oh, God! I hate love interest of any kind. Boooooring.'

McCullough chose a medical research institute as her setting because, she says, a whodunnit requires a small, self-contained community, in which there can be only a limited number of suspects. Would Norfolk Island qualify? 'No. It's too big. There are 2,000 people there. You need 20 or 30.'

McCullough's husband, Ric Robinson, is a native Norfolk Islander ('a whacking great bloke') and is the one person alive, it seems, who can intimidate her. 'All I can tell you is that when he says, 'Hush your mouth, woman', I do.'

Last year, McCullough made headlines by denying that an islander could be responsible for the murder of 28-year-old Australian mainlander Janelle Patton. Her reasoning smacked of parochialism - 'I know the islanders and it's not their style' - but was vindicated when, in February, a New Zealander was charged with the crime. 'We all knew it wasn't an islander. The only ones who didn't were the expatriate Australians.'

'Expatriate', that is, because McCullough doesn't consider the island part of Australia. She's always been fonder of the US than Australia.

'It's the little things of daily life. I like the American kitchen appliances better. They're better designed. American woman are so much better educated. I know women in Sydney who don't know who Stalin or Queen Victoria are. I haven't asked them, 'Do you know who Hitler is?' ... yet.'

On-Off, by Colleen McCullough (HarperCollins, $202)