Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Josephine Damian's Celebrate Reading Pick: THE THORN BIRDS by Colleen McCullough

Today, we welcome Josephine Damian as our Celebrate Reading Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Josephine Damian is published in lurid noir and hard-boiled short fiction. Her WIP, A STUDY IN FEAR, is a psychological suspense thriller. She's also a grad student writing a thesis on the neuro-biological basis of psychopathy and in December 2008 she'll earn a master's in Criminal Forensics Studies: Behavioral Analysis.

First, thank you Moonrat, my huckleberry friend, for letting me sit in today and guest blog. I hope you’re making progress on that writing project.

I was first published at the age of thirteen. By the time I got to high school I was not only spending my allowance on bestsellers, but reading them with an eye to learn exactly what elements make a book a commercial success. In 1977, when a novel by an obscure Australian author, Colleen McCullough, leapt to the top of the bestseller lists, I had to buy it.

Reading The Thorn Birds as a teenager taught me an important, early lesson as a writer: force your main character into making a complex and difficult choice - a choice with huge and dire consequences whichever way they chose. Besides creating high drama and inner conflict, this allows the reader to become more engaged with the character because the reader puts him or herself in the same position and asks: What would I do if I were forced to make such a choice?

This book opens with such a choice. Older, wealthy widow and ranch owner, Mary Carson, the original “cougar,” lusts after her young and handsome local priest, Father Ralph de Bricassart. His poise, intellect and charm are clearly wasted in this rural Aussie outback setting. Sensing not just his weakness when it comes to matters of the flesh, but his incredible ambition to escape from the confines of his exile in an obscure post, Mary decides to give the priest a choice: one that will damn him to hell.

Mary’s brother Paddy, his wife and many children are the lawful heirs to Mary’s ranch and considerable fortune. Her first will rightly bequeaths everything to them. Aware that her days on earth are numbered, Mary decides to have a second will drawn up, one that invalidates her first. In this second will, she bequeaths the bulk of her estate to the Catholic Church, but under the control of Father Ralph, thus giving him the clout to demand a seat of power in the Vatican – his life’s ambition. Mary doesn’t completely cut out her brother and his family in this second will, it provides a modest income for them as caretakers of the ranch (Mary knew Ralph’s choice might have been easier if Paddy and his family were to be left destitute and homeless).

On the night Mary dies, this second will is delivered to Father Ralph along with a taunting letter from his diabolical benefactor: He can do the right thing and tear up this second will and let the first will stand. By transferring Mary’s estate to her brother and his family, Father Ralph will seal his own fate - a wasted life lived in desolate, small-town exile. In other words: his own idea of hell on earth. Complicating Ralph’s choice is his genuine fondness for Paddy Cleary’s family, especially his young daughter, Meggie. Or the priest can produce this second, valid will and claim Mary’s fortune for himself and his church: basically steal Mary’s fortune away from her true heirs. A sin if ever there was one.

Whichever choice he makes, he’s damned. Remember, he’s not the villain. He’s at heart a decent, loving, yet flawed and complex character – ambition is his greatest strength as well as his greatest weakness. The choice he makes does not come easy.

In a character–defining moment, Ralph produces the second will and ensures his future at the Vatican, thus damning the rightful heirs, the Cleary clan, to a modest, working-class life. But what price does Father Ralph pay for his choice to pursue his ambition? What conflicts, what consequences for all the players ensue as a result of this choice? At the end, when Ralph looks back, did he do the right thing? Was it worth it?

Wanting to find out is what kept a teenaged aspiring author, along and millions of others turning the pages, and helped put this novel at the top of the bestseller lists.

At the end of 2007, thirty years after reading The Thorn Birds, I looked back at all the book I’d read that year and picked what I thought was the best of the bunch. You can read that post here.

In this book, the character is also faced with a dire choice. Yet, unlike Father Ralph, this book’s main character waits until the end of the novel to make her choice; the conflict stems from her weighing one awful option over the other. In the end, for better or worse, she makes her decision.

Either option: a choice made early followed by the consequences, or spending a novel weighing the consequences of making this choice or that choice makes for compelling story telling.

So, writers, in your books have you forced your character to make a damned-if-they-do-damned-if-they-don’t choice? Have you made your character chose between the rock and the hard place?


Conduit said...

Interesting choice. I remember my mother reading this when I was a kid, and of course the massively successful TV adaptation. You observations tie quite neatly into other discussions around the blogosphere at the minute involving character, conflict and plot, and how they are all really one and the same thing.

Merry Monteleone said...


I haven't read this one, but now I want to! Though I wonder if you were easier on novels when you were a teen ;-)

Josephine Damian said...

JD is in the house and her hair is pretty.

Conduit: While it's Aussie set, it is decidedly an Irish book about an Irish Catholic clan, and the church plays a huge role in the plot. I can see the appeal for you Ma.

The TV mini-series based on the book is still the highest rated here, after ROOTS.

Yes, very good observation of Mary and Ralph's character being the catalyst for the plot.

Merry: As a teenager, I read the trashy bestsellers. I devoured the latest Judith Krantz and Sidney Sheldon in late spring, and sabotaged my studies for final exams in order to read those books instead.

It wasn't until I dated a much older, literary guy - a fellow aspiring scribe - and he turned me on to the classics (I wrote about this sea-change in my reading life on my blog).

Even so, it's only been in the past 5 or so years that I've become hyper-critical of books, probably because in that time the quality of books has greatly declined.

Also, reading as many writing advice books as I have these past years, I now can get a handle on exactly what a writer did wrong - I can see it easily now that I know what to look for.

John said...

[JD: an aside -- the link you provided to your "best of 2007" post doesn't seem to return a valid page. (It did, however, make me wonder who Mark Salzman is/was.:)]

Thanks for the THORN BIRDS pick. I haven't (alas) read this one, like apparently 99% of the other Celebrate Reading titles, but Lord knows I remember the mini-series. (Rachel Ward: yeeeow!)

Just out of curiosity, did you read THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA, too? Was THORN BIRDS a one-hit wonder sort of situation?

And, per your comment to Merry: Do you really think the quality of books has gone down in the last five years? Or is it just getting harder to find the high-quality ones?

ChrisEldin said...

AWESOME review!!!
This is going on my must-read list.

Great characterization and high stakes--my kind of book.

ChrisEldin said...

Oh, and congrats on the hair.
I need some highlights myself.

Josephine Damian said...

John: Try this link to read the review on my new book review blog:

I also have a long list of recommended books there.

Like a lot of mege-sellers, THORN BIRDS was not known for it's great writing, but more so for a great story.

Then and now, I read the huge sellers to try to see exactly what made it so popular. DA VINCI and LOVELY BONES are not my taste as a reader, but as a writer I wanted to study them. There are all kinds of one-hit wonders out there, books that came out at the right time, and for whatever reason resonated with a large audience.

FLAME TREES was read by my (now defunct) book club before I joined, and they all raved about it. It's on my TBR list. Looks like a good one.

I'll blog about this more on my own blog after my hiatus is over, but I absolutely believe the quality of books has declined.

Writers are getting published more because of their personal platform (translation: their ability to tap a large group of people whom ordinarily don't read books), and not because of their books.

It seems publishers want writers who can guarantee an audience who will buy a book not because of the quality of the book, but because who - what - the writer is (for example, someone who works in forensics and writes forensic type mysteries). The forensics background of the author is the selling point, not the book.

I recently found an article in a writer magazine that supports my theory: it's the writer, not the writing that matters these days.

Linda said...

Jeesh, I read this years ago but can only remember the mini-series. But your vivid description brngs me back. I'll have to give it a rewhirl. Great review, and thrilled about your do. I'm scheduled for Friday, along with a pedicure - thinking of going with hot pink on my little piggies. Peace, Linda

Josephine Damian said...

Chris: No highlights for me, just covering up the gray with a dark brown.

Another thing about THORN BIRDS was the author has this huge, threatening fire scene where you think at least one character has got to get killed. Only they don't. In the aftermath of the fire, just when the reader thinks everyone is safe, the author kills off not one, but two hugely likeable characters, back-to-back. Boom-boom.

Totally blind-sides the reader, and puts the reader in the shoes of the other characters who are reeling from the unexpected loss. It was a great sequence in the book, and very dramatic in the mini-series as well.

A bold choice for the author to kill off two characters like that, but packed a real emotional punch.

Linda said...

JD, you posted the same time I did. Response to your theory that it's all about the writer, not just the writing... the two conferences I've attended the last 2-3 months support your hypothesis. In agent panels, and in my one-on-one meetings, it's all about platform, once the province of NON-fiction writers. The abilty to speak in public, to market, and to have a built-in fan base seem crucial. I've had agents review my m/s, tell me it's beautifully written, but not 'big' enough for a debut. Then they ask me about my next projects (and thank goddess I have them).

This is one reason I've decided to approach small press first. While I'm perfectly comfortable yakking before crwods small and large, I'd much rather have it be about my stories than me. I'll keep my eyes out for your future pontification on the topic. Peace, Linda

Josephine Damian said...

Linda: Back in the day when they had those long mini-series, they stayed pretty true to the book.

Brian Brown sure was sexy, and lots of real-life chemistry between him and Rachel Ward (which went against their relationship in the book since she was supposed to be hot for Richard Chamberlain's character, not Brian's character), but who can blame her?

As soon as that book came out I bought it (the mini-series was years later). I even took it along to restaurants when my parents went out to eat - I could not put the book down for those few hours it took to eat a meal out.

Josephine Damian said...

Linda: My hairdresser chided me for not having my toes polished,
so I bought a nice coral polish today to make my tootsies pretty.

So very many new releases of the past couple of years have been awful. The business model supports people that create mini-celebrities of themselves, usually based on something personal, and they disregard the writing. I think the biz is responding to the fact that true readers are diminishing in number (each new generation, raised on technology, is reading less), so the goal seems to be to tap the people who don't read, who don't love books, but who will buy a book out of interest in the author.

Because these folks aren't widely read, they frankly don't notice if a book is badly written, and don't care if it is if they do notice.

And by putting the promotional responsibilities onto the writers who have a large platform, they increase their profit margin because then the company doesn't have to pay to promote the book.

I'll be back blogging in JD Land after Labor Day.

Peace and good luck with your books!

ChrisEldin said...

I hope you didn't tell me the ending!!
I'm going to erase the last two minutes from my memory.....

I've also heard it's more about the writer than the writing.
For an average joe like me, that really sucks. What hobby can I take up? Think of something good for me, JD.