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Obituary: Bryce Courtenay

Bryce Courtenay
Bryce Courtenay with his second wife and former publicist, Christine Gee, at their Canberra home.

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With more than 20 million worldwide sales, Bryce Courtenay was Australia's most popular author when he died.

Since his 1989 debut, The Power of One (which netted Courtenay $1 million even before it was published), he produced a book almost every year and dominated local best-seller lists.

It has been estimated that most households owns a Courtenay book, but the former ad man remained unpopular with what he called the "literati".

While he countered their criticism with sales figures and clever quips ("People say I don't write books, I make Christmas presents," he once said), Courtenay was less assured when responding to accusations that he had embellished his life story, which reads like his epic novels of triumph over adversity.

Arthur Bryce Courtenay was born in South Africa on August 14, 1933, the illegitimate child of dressmaker Maude Greer and clothing salesman Arthur Ryder.

They already had a daughter, Rosemary, but Ryder lived with his wife and their five children. Maude was briefly married to a man named Roberts, but gave the surname Courtenay to her children.

According to Bryce Courtenay, he was placed in an orphanage for several years almost from birth. He overcame bullying and beatings by learning to box and tell stories, and won a scholarship to Johannesburg's prestigious King Edward VII school. Courtenay claimed he was "one of the most applied and academically gifted children the school has seen", and gave literacy classes to black people until the police shut them down.

After being offered a place at the London School of Journalism, Courtenay worked in Zambia's copper mines to raise travel funds. He had the dangerous job of setting explosives, and carried a gun or knife into the showers, "otherwise you got raped", he told ABC Radio.

Courtenay met Australian Benita Solomon in London, and followed her to Sydney in 1958. They were soon married while he worked as an advertising copywriter then creative director at leading agencies such as George Patterson. He ultimately established his own agency.

Among those who knew him, Courtenay was recognised as a "storyteller, a bullshit artist", as advertising colleague Owen Denmeade described him - "but he's not a hurtful bullsh*t artist." In March 2012, Jane Cadzow's Good Weekend feature highlighted "strange inconsistencies in his life story."

Among the alternative views were Courtenay's sister Rosemary's claims that he was only in an orphanage for "a matter of weeks or months", and that there was no scholarship; their father had paid Courtenay's school fees.

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Other anomalies raised in the article included Courtenay's often-told anecdote about creating Mortein's famous Louie the Fly in a taxi.

The character appeared before Courtenay arrived in Australia, though he certainly helped to introduce a singing Louie to television in 1962.

Later questioned about such inconsistencies on ABC TV, Courtenay said that his job was "to dress the naked truth, to make it interesting, to make it viable, to make it seem like something you understand and feel and love." Asked if that applied to his own life as well as his novels, he replied: "I couldn't answer that."

Undoubtedly Courtenay built an impressive advertising career, during much of which he was known for long lunches.

At age 45 he gave up drinking and smoking and started running; according to Courtenay he ran 37 marathons (though his anecdote about meeting Stephen King during the Boston marathon is in doubt, as King claims never to have run the Boston marathon).

At 55 Courtenay began his second, even more successful career. What he regarded as his "practice novel" became an international hit. The Power of One was translated into numerous languages and made into a film of the same name.

He soon retired from advertising and established a gruelling writing schedule: 12 hours a day, six days a week for seven months each year - after which he threw himself into marketing campaigns unrivalled in Australia.

As well as countless book signings and interviews, Courtenay also oversaw everything from consumer surveys about book covers, to publicity stunts including sky-writing and specially branded beer.

Courtenay produced a best-seller year after year, streaking ahead of every other Australian author in sales and library borrowings (he wrote 12 of the 50 most-borrowed books at Australia's public libraries, including the top two, Tommo & Hawk and The Potato Factory). He became a fixture on BRW's Top 50 Entertainers rich list.

Australia's literary scene, including many critics, was generally unimpressed.

Courtenay claimed he could write a literary novel if he chose to, and that it was "a lot harder to make it into the top 100 fiction writers in the world than it is to write a book which the local literati feel is splendid and sells 2000 copies."

He was stung by what he called "literary snobbery", but arguably had the last laugh - such as at the Melbourne Writers Festival event that pitted him against five critics. "I guess I have to suffer your slings and arrows", he concluded, "but would you mind if I kept the outrageous fortune?"

The only non-fiction work among Courtenay's 23 books was written after his youngest son, a haemophiliac, contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion and died in 1991.

According to Courtenay, Damon begged his father to write a book about AIDS sufferers' ostracism. Courtenay often described writing April Fool's Day, which controversially exposed his family's private suffering, as "the single most difficult thing I have ever done."

Courtenay said that after Damon's death, "Benita and I never quite were the same again". He also admitted to "some indiscretions" during their marriage. They divorced in 2000 but remained on good terms, with Courtenay at her bedside when Benita died of leukaemia seven years later.

Courtenay had several relationships after separating from his wife, including with literary agent Margaret Gee. However it was her identical twin, Christine Gee (his publicist and an adventure travel company pioneer), with whom Courtenay spent the last several years of his life.

They married in 2011, the same year he was diagnosed with gastric cancer, and had most of his stomach and part of his intestine removed. He was also troubled by shingles, serious heart and back problems, and arthritis in his hands so debilitating he was reduced to two-finger typing.

For the first time in decades, there was no Courtenay book ready for Christmas in 2011. He was deeply upset by this failure to meet his annual deadline: "When you have one of those A-type personalities where achievement is important, and you have my kind of background, then ... failure is unthinkable," he said.

On September 7, 2012, Courtenay announced on Facebook: "It is with great sadness that I am writing to let you know that Jack of Diamonds my new book due out in November this year shall be my last ... I have been diagnosed with terminal gastric cancer".

Courtenay was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1995, and given an honorary doctorate by the University of Newcastle a decade later. He was one of six authors celebrated on Australia Post's 2010 'Literary Legends' stamps (among his fellow legends was Peter Carey, whom Courtenay described as an "unpopular novelist" and foremost among Australia's "literary snobs").

Courtenay was an active and generous supporter of several charities, including his second wife's Australian Himalayan Foundation, and established The Power of One Australian Hero Award with his publisher, Penguin. A self-described "fanatical gardener", he endorsed environmental causes such as saving Tasmania's old-growth forests and The Thin Green Line Foundation.

Bryce Courtenay is survived by Christine and his sons Brett and Adam.

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