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BRYCE COURTENAY

Bryce Courtenay Writing his first novel at the age of fifty-five, South African-born Bryce Courtenay set an all-time Australia record by receiving a $1million advance for the manuscript in 1989.

His publisher's confidence was justified when, after publication, 'The Power of One' went to the top of the bestseller's list in Australia, England and South Africa and stayed there for a considerable period.

Courtenay was no stranger to writing. He studied journalism in England, met an Australian girl there who later became his wife, and migrated to Australia in the late 1950s. He worked in Sydney-based advertising agencies as a copywriter and creative director, first with McCann-Erikson and later with J Walter Thompson. In 1971 he, with a partner, helped found a new agency which bears his name.

"I had been telling stories since the age of five and had always known I would be a writer one day," Bryce Courtenay tells his readers, and at fifty-five, "I realised it was now or never."

'The Power of One' is set in South Africa during the 1940s, with the central child-hero, Peekay, growing up in an isolated mountain community and being sent to a boarding school where his white skin and English language set him apart from his predominantly Boer fellow students. He is frequently tormented, and learns boxing as a tool to defend himself.

Peekay has a succession of older mentors from whom he learns a lot about life and self-belief. One of them, Doc, had a counterpart in Courtenay's real life. He was "a drunken German music teacher who spent the next few years filling my young mind with the wonders of nature as we roamed the high mountains," Bryce Courtenay recalls, "His was the best education I was ever to receive."

In 1992, 'The Power of One' was adapted into a full-length movie by Warner Brothers.

Courtenay's next epic novel was 'Tandia' (1990) in which Peekay again appears, this time playing opposite the eponymous heroine in a sombre tale of legalized apartheid and brutality.

His more recent novels include The Potato Factory , 'Tommo and Hawk', ' Jessica', and the highly successful 'Matthew Flinder's Cat', which was the most popular book held in Australian public libraries during the three years to June, 2004.

'April Fools' Day', one of Bryce Courtenay's few non-fiction titles, tells the sad story of his son, a hemophiliac, who died after becoming infected with AIDS.

Borrowings from Australian public libraries have served this author and his readers splendidly over the past fifteen years. Of the twenty most popular titles that were held in libraries to June 2004, seven of Bryce Courtenay's works are included. One of them, 'Tommo and Hawk' had more copies on library shelves than any other Australian book in the thirty years since the survey began.

Bryce Courtenay's latest release is 'Brother Fish' (2004). It revolves around three unusual characters who appear to have nothing in common: Nicole is a refugee from the Russian Revolution who lived in Shanghai (a woman with strong inner strength), Jimmy (from a black orphanage in New York), and Jack (an Australian).

"I have always been astonished by human beings and the capacity they have to hate," Courtenay says, "and the capacity they have to love." This fascination is one of the major themes in this book.

In keeping with literary convention, Bryce Courtenay's writing is shunned by the literati, ignored by academia, and adored by his legion of fans. He is by far Australia's most popular writer.

Bryce lives in Sydney, which he regards as "The nicest place on earth".

© BARRY JOHN WATTS 2004

   
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