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.