Suna Chang
February 16, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

Colleen McCullough is like the Sylvester Stallone of popular fiction: She switches literary genres the way he switches fiancees. First it was a love story, then an epic (her 1977 megahit, The Thorn Birds), then a cookbook, and even a whodunit. Her current passion? The politics of ancient Rome.

While historical novels — the recently released Caesar’s Women is the fourth installment in McCullough’s ongoing series set in Rome — may seem an unusual choice for the Aussie author, it’s all part of her grand scheme to publish in as many different categories as possible. And if that isn’t enough to qualify McCullough, 58, as a serious woman of letters, this surely is: She’s a Scrabble fanatic.

If she doesn’t get enough game time in each day, her ”blood-Scrabble level gets dangerously low,” McCullough says with a chuckle. ”I go away on a trip, and each time I have to buy another Scrabble set. I’ve got dozens of the damn things.”

So on this January day — stranded in her Manhattan hotel room by a nasty East Coast snowstorm — McCullough uses the chance to get in a quick game on one of her deluxe boards — and talk about fame and life after The Thorn Birds.

”I’m what is called an icon in Australia,” says McCullough, who lives with her husband of 11 years, landscaper Ric Robinson, in a large home on tiny Norfolk Island off the coast of her native country. And while the author loves traveling the world for book signings, she says that back home ”doing publicity is hardly necessary.”

Working under the shadow of Birds isn’t always easy. Her first three books on Rome — 1990’s The First Man in Rome, 1991’s The Grass Crown, and 1993’s Fortune’s Favorites — didn’t match Birds‘ profits. Add to that the still fervent interest in the Cleary clan: Beginning on Feb. 11, CBS airs The Thorn Birds: The Missing Years, which spans the years that the blockbuster 1983 mini-series left out. (Although McCullough was not involved in this follow-up, Avon Books plans a coinciding paperback pressrun of her original novel.)

Because of her literary genre hopping, ”there are a lot of [Thorn Birds] fans that I haven’t got anymore,” McCullough says as she uses obscure words like aa and ae to chalk up triple-word points. Winning new fans may be a challenge, but the author has no trouble winning at Scrabble. The final tally of this wintry day’s bout? McCullough 339, Chang 263.

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