Bryce Courtenay ... died aged 79. Photo: Peter Stoop
EACH November for the past 20 years or so, Bryce Courtenay has produced a bestselling blockbuster that has delighted many thousands of loyal readers. This year's offering, Jack of Diamonds, is little different in style or content. But it will be his last.
Courtenay, who has been suffering from stomach cancer, died in Canberra late on Thursday with his wife Christine, his family pets, Tim, the dog, and Cardamon, the Burmese cat by his side. He was 79. He knew he had little time left, but approached his final chapter with his characteristic cheerful spirits and brave face.
Courtenay at his Canberra home in February. Photo: Kate Leith
"We'd like to thank all of Bryce's family and friends and all of his fans around the world for their love and support for me and his family as he wrote the final chapter of his extraordinary life. And may we make a request for privacy as we cherish his memory," Mrs Courtenay said in a statement released by Penguin publishers.
Courtenay recorded a farewell message in October in which he said his "use-by date has finally come up". He said he didn't mind that he had only a short time to live because "I've had a wonderful life" and he added: "All I'd like to say as simply as I possibly can is thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you."
In a final interview for Penguin, the man who has regularly been Australia's most popular novelist said he was going to die at precisely the right time, while he still had his intellect and energy. "The time is right, it's beautiful, it's gorgeous."
His long-time publisher and friend, Bob Sessions, who will deliver the eulogy at the writer's funeral, told Fairfax when Courtenay let him know him that Jack would be the last book he was stunned and saddened. And there was the question of the book – the plan had been for there to be two.
"I said to him, but what about Jack? And Bryce said 'don't worry, I'll tell them what happens'. And he also took the opportunity (in the book) to say farewell to his readers."
Sessions said Courtenay's strength as a novelist was that he was a marvellous storyteller. "I often likened him to Charles Dickens and I don't say that lightly. He tells sweeping stories and he had larger-than-life characters. And the readers had a sense of learning something about the world."
Courtenay had always wanted to be a storyteller and writing The Power of One, which was published in 1989, "changed his life". Courtenay, then 50, was in advertising and, according to Sessions, "overstressed, drinking several bottles of wine a day, and smoking a hundred cigarettes". He realised his lifestyle would be the death of him and he changed it to write. Courtenay always said becoming a writer was the proudest moment in his life.
Bryce Courtenay's reputation for storytelling in print extended to the telling of his own story, which was frequently embellished. He was born in South Africa in 1933 and brought up partly in an orphanage. There he told stories to avoid being bullied and also learned to box. When I interviewed at his former home in Bowral he said a schoolmate told him: "If you can't bullshit your way out then you better know how to fight." Courtenay added that he had been bullshitting ever since.
He got a scholarship to a smart school in Johannesburg and when he left opted to study journalism in London. He paid for that by becoming a "grizzly" man doing dangerous work with explosives in the copper mines of the then Rhodesia.
In 1958 he left London for Sydney and the beginning of what he called his love affair with Australia. But he didn't manage to get into journalism and started writing advertising copy. His plan was to work until he was 35 and then write novels. But with his son Damon a haemophiliac, he needed a regular income and eventually reached the top of the advertising business. Signing a $1million publishing deal for The Power of One when he was 55 changed all that.
He followed up the story of Peekay the orphan with the heart-rending April Fool's Day, the story of Damon and his death from Aids, which he contracted from a tainted transfusion in April Fool's Day.
Courtenay wrote a further 19 novels, including Jessica, Tommo & Hawk, and Sylvia, starting each one on the last day of January and completing it by August. He delivered the book to Penguin chapter by chapter so the book could be in the shops in time for Christmas. But he didn't stop there: he also had a serious say in how they were marketed.
Courtenay loved Australia. He loved what it had given him. "It's the only country where you're entitled to reinvent yourself," he told me in Bowral. "Look at me – I've reinvented myself as an author."