Bryce Courtenay writes stories about people, for people
Article from Brisbane's Courier Mail:
by Madeline Healy
November 20, 2009
WHEN Bryce Courtenay began his writing career at the age of 55, he had a big decision to make.Would he become a literary author analysing every word or would he become a storyteller who simply let the tale tell itself? After much agonising, Courtenay decided to follow his heart, a decision that has led to him becoming Australia's all-time bestselling author.
"I've had an education that would allow me to be a literary writer but I am a storyteller and that is the important thing for a writer. It's about the telling of stories about your people, for your people," Courtenay says.
Perhaps best-known for his sweeping family sagas including The Power of One and The Potato Factory, Courtenay's latest novel The Story of Danny Dunn (Viking) is the story of a Balmain boy living in the aftermath of the Great Depression on the eve of World War II.
It is a saga of three generations of family touching on themes familiar in all Courtenay's 19 books – poverty, ambition and tragedy, with the effects of post-traumatic stress at its centre.
"I didn't want this book to be about silly stuff," he says of the book's sometimes tragic outcomes."Life doesn't always work out the way you want it to."
Courtenay should know. Born out of wedlock and brought up in an orphanage in Africa, much of the suffering and poverty he describes in his books is written from personal experience.
He was beaten, neglected, ignored and bullied by the older boys in the orphanage, and the nurses looking after him. But he knew he had a talent."One day I said to the other boys 'If you don't hit me today, I'll tell you a story'. They agreed but I never told them the ending so they wouldn't beat me again," Courtenay said."They always had a reason to leave me alone."
Then one Saturday night, while he was out collecting wood to heat water for his one hot bath of the week, Courtenay severely cut his finger with an axe.He was ordered to walk 7km to the nearest hospital where, after many hours of waiting, the doctor stitched his finger up and told him to go home.Too weak to go back from the loss of blood, Courtenay instead curled up underneath the doctor's house."I was leaning on a box which turned out to be a crate of books. I picked up one and took it with me because it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen."
It was while he was in the orphanage that he met Ms Bornstein, a teacher who was visiting from Johannesburg. He showed her the book and asked her to read it to him Within a couple of months, he had memorised every page and Ms Bornstein began sending him four books a month to read.
He took his exams at the age of 11 and was awarded a scholarship to a prestigious private school, a move that would take him from the depths of poverty to selling millions of books throughout the world."I'm constantly reminded of her and amazed that it can take just one person to change a life."
When he spotted Ms Bornstein on the train platform as he arrived at his new school, she gave him a kiss on the cheek."I fell in love," Courtenay says. "She was the first woman who had ever touched me in a loving way.""I love women," Courtenay laughs. "Until my mid-20s I was terrified of large, fat women because all of the nurses at the orphanage were like that."
Courtenay finished his school years in Africa and then moved to London to study journalism where he met his former wife. The pair then moved to Australia.He went on to have three children before tragically losing his son Damon from medically-induced AIDS in 1991.
During this time, Courtenay was writing his first novel The Power of One, which went on to sell seven million copies around the world. However, the book that elicited the biggest response was his tribute to Damon called April Fool's Day.
"He died in front of my eyes, begging me to write that book. It took everything I had to write it and it was the hardest thing I've ever had to do," Courtenay says."When I wrote April Fool's Day I got 32,000 letters. Everyone had a story to tell. We are not the only ones that suffer and life is not easy."
Women feature prominently in his new book, no doubt pleasing the majority of his readers, who are females aged 18 to 80. There is Brenda, Danny's mother, a tough Irishwoman who runs the Balmain pub The Hero, and Helen, who becomes Danny's wife while rising to the top of Australian academic life.
"People have no concept of how bad it was during the Depression," Courtenay says. "It was too awful for words. It really ended when the Second World War started but people were doing it extraordinarily hard – but they got out of it because of the women, not because of the men."
Courtenay says Australians think of themselves as a masculine society but he believes strong Australian women are the ones who "keep it together".The Story of Danny Dunn also looks at the heartache of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by many people returning from war zones.
After six or seven years researching the topic and after writing Smokey Joe's Cafe, which dealt with Vietnam veterans, Courtenay says he felt he had to write a more substantial book about the condition to highlight the problems it creates.
"Between 25 and 30 per cent of males who have been to war zones are affected physically and mentally, which is more than enough to permeate an entire society – we are all damaged goods," Courtenay says. "We're all involved one way or the other."
Another theme is Australia's obsession with sport and our desire to succeed.In The Story of Danny Dunn, Courtenay has created Danny's daughter, Samantha, who is driven by her father's desire to see her enter the Olympic Games as a swimmer.
Courtenay touches on the saga surrounding Dawn Fraser and the stolen flag during the 1964 Olympics, which led to the Australian Swimming Union suspending her for 10 years."She could have been the greatest athlete that the world has ever known but she was stopped. She was a working class girl and the swimming elite decided to put her in her place," Courtenay says."Samantha is pushed by her father to be someone he wants her to be. But children should be able to have a life and live the life of a kid."Parents who push their children in to the sporting life are robbing them of their childhood."
When he is not trying to save the natural environment from government development, Courtenay spends most of his time at his home in Sydney's Southern Highlands.He has a 40-year-old garden which he says has been carefully tended by "real gardeners" over the years and spends time walking, feeding the chooks and ducks, before he sits down to write at about 6.30am.
He writes until 6.30pm with a goal of 6000 to 8000 words a day."I need to write that much eight months of the year to produce a new book every year. That is my goal," he says.
"When I used to run marathons – and I've run 37 – I used to start a book and by the end I would have the complete outline to work on."
Courtenay has also competed in 15 ultra-marathons but for now, his back and knees have made walking a little more realistic.At 75 years of age, though, Courtenay has no plans to slow down in any other area of his life.
He will be in Brisbane next week for his annual lunch with eight of his biggest fans, who won the privilege to dine with him through a Facebook competition.
"I just love these lunches because I get the chance to really talk to people about their lives and what they do," he says."Everyone has a story to tell."
Brisbane's Courier Mail has an excellent book review section, check it out here.
Dear old Bryce.He has created a complete biography for himself and it is as fictional as anything he has ever written: a fantasy life.
Not wrong Hayden!
And, while he is a storyteller, he's a bloody awful writer=
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