RIP BRYCE COURTENAY

Photo: Fairfax media – Sahlan Hayes


Australia’s most popular writer died last night.

I had lunch with him once. He was pleasant company and I was flattered by the encouragement of someone so successful. I never met him again.

We met at the KOALA (Kids’ Own Australian Literature Awards) presentation, a very worthwhile occasion on which young readers are invited to vote on their favourite Australian book of all time. Bryce won that year with The Power of One. This was no mean achievement, since the book was intended for a general readership. Kids usually vote for books which are short, easy reads, but this time Bryce’s story obviously gripped them.

As part of the presentation I recited/performed the story from my childrens’ picture book Mr Biffy’s Battle. ‘I wish I could write like that,’ said Bryce, as we sat beside each other at lunch afterwards. ‘You can, of course,’ I replied, ‘but thanks all the same.’

After our meeting I tried and failed to get through reading The Power of One. I found it all action and no character, and it didn’t engage me enough to hold my attention. But Mr Biffy ain’t no Pride and Prejudice either and many kids seem to like it.

A year or so later I saw (on video) a lecture Bryce Courtenay gave to the Australian Society of Authors. He was well aware that although he was a huge bestseller, his fellow writers would always sneer that he was a downmarket writer.

His argument to his peers was, as I recall, ‘People accuse me of writing down to my readers. I don’t. I know others write better prose or break new ground in pushing the boundaries with their avant garde writing. I admire that, but I can’t do it myself. I’m not writing down to anybody; I’m writing the best I can. Is it my fault if that’s so bloody popular?’

Good point, I thought. You do what you do, write what you know and if people like it, count yourself lucky. Kurt Vonnegut, in a radio interview I enjoyed, claimed he knew wonderful writers who never had any success, because they were perhaps too clever to connect with a readership.

Bryce Courtenay, with his advertising background, was a skilled self-promoter and had a superb eye for what his readers would enjoy. He had 71,000 FaceBook followers. He was a driven fitness fanatic, marathon runner and a very hard working writer. His output of 21 novels was prodigious, particular since his first only appeared when he was 55.

I presume he earned a lot of money. He could have stopped writing any time. But he plugged on, doing the best he could and becoming bloody popular. Along the way he encouraged writers like me.

I noticed the flags on the Sydney Harbour Bridge were flying at half mast today. I’d be surprised if that was because of a writer’s passing, but maybe it was. It would have been appropriate.

Bryce Courtenay was 79. His books have sold over 20 million copies.

15 Comments

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15 responses to “RIP BRYCE COURTENAY

  1. Nice obituary Richard. I have just found ‘Mr Biffy’s Battle’ on Amazon!

  2. He won me over when he actually sang Louie the Fly live on TV when he was asked to do so.

    • I read that he claimed to have invented Louie, but that the Louie campaign actually began before he came to Australia. He was responsible for the musical version however. I’ll forgive him such discrepancies – he was an ad man and a storyteller.

      • I think it was just the song he claimed, and it was a great ad. I can remember laughing a lot when that ad came on ( I was young at the time )
        He didn’t really have a good singing voice, but he tackled the song with gusto.

  3. You have spiked my interest……!

  4. I have read several of his books but that was a long time ago, the series that started with the Potato Factory actually put me off reading his books. I admired his ability to stay motivated and as you said, he was a very active man and I always enjoyed watching his interviews. Now I shall have to track down a second hand copy of Mr Biffy for my niece :-)

  5. Nice write up, Richard. I’m sure he enjoyed meeting you, too. I have nothing but admiration for people who succeed at writing whatever kinds of books they set out to do, whether it is considered high brow or beach reading. I don’t restrict my eating to vichyssoise or listen to nothing but classical music. Why not read every sort of book?

    • I echo John’s thoughts. I have only read The Power of One, which I understand drew from some of his childhood experiences. I am one who has always enjoyed that book, and in fact recently re-read it for my book club, enjoying it almost more the second time around. In fact, I had planned one of the quotes from the book for a post later this week in Courtenay’s memory. My 16 yr old read the Power of One and found it to be one of his favorite books, and he said the same of Steinbeck’s “East of Eden” this summer. I bet Courtenay was an interesting lunch companion – and I am sure he found you the same! ~ Kat

      • Courtenay received some criticism for ‘fictionalizing’ his undeniably difficult childhood, but nobody questions his ability to tell a good yarn.

        There was an interesting documentary screened on ABC TV last night, showing Bryce Courtenay and his family discussing the difficulties of being so driven to be a winner.

        His kids called his stories ‘Dad facts’. Courtenay admitted others called them ‘bullshit’.

      • I would think being a family member of any author who uses family or personal experiences for public storytelling sets onself up for some unhappiness along the way. I will have to look up that documentary sometime online — sometimes the story behind the story is more fascinating still. Thanks, Richard.

  6. Pingback: In Memory of Bryce Courtenay and The Power of One: It’s Never Too Late to Start Writing | Travel. Garden. Eat.

  7. Well said Richard! As a not so good writer, what I really want an author an author to do is tell me a story. Sometimes I would like the story to be complex, other times I just want to read a good yarn. Sometimes I just want the story to talk to part of me. From that perspective, Bryce Courtenay was a great writer of stories – he will be missed.

  8. Now and again there is someone who can toss his pearly net over a tumultuous sea and drag up sands of the past and golden specks of light. With twinkling blue eyes smiling, he is the one who got away. I shall miss you Bryce Courtenay.

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