Australian Authors

Bryce Courtenay Featured


Arthur Bryce Courtenay AM is a South-African-born naturalized Australian novelist and one of Australia's most commercially successful authors. Born in Johannesburg, Courtenay spent most of his early years in a small village in the Lebombo Mountains in South Africa's Limpopo province. In 1955, while studying journalism in London, Courtenay met his future wife, Benita, and eventually emigrated to Australia.

They married in 1959 and had three sons, Brett, Adam and Damon. Courtenay entered the advertising industry and over a career spanning 34 years was the Creative Director of McCann Erickson, J. Walter Thompson and George Patterson Advertising. In 1991, Damon (who was born with the blood condition (haemophilia.) died at age 24 from AIDS related complications, contracted through a blood transfusion. Courtenay divorced Benita in 2000 and has acknowledged some indiscretions during their 42-year marriage.

He now lives in Bowral, New South Wales, with his partner, Christine Gee. Benita Courtenay died on 11 March 2007, at the age of 72, four months after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. His novels are primarily set in either Australia, his adopted country, or South Africa, the country of his birth.

His first book, The Power of One, was published in 1989 and, despite Courtenay's fears that it would never sell, quickly became one of Australia's best-selling books by any living author. The story has since been made into a film—as well as being re-released in an edition for children.

Bryce Courtenay - Life and Times
I was born illegitimately in 1933 in South Africa and spent my early childhood years in a small town deep in the heart of the Lebombo mountains.

It was a somewhat isolated community and I grew up among farm folk and the African people. At the age of five, I was sent to a boarding school which might be better described as a combination orphanage and reform school, where I learned to box - though less as a sport and more as a means to stay alive.

But I survived to return to a small mountain town named Barberton in the North Eastern part of the country.

One day the school hall was raided by police who then branded me a Communist as they considered educating Africans a subversive act."

Here I met Doc, 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. His was the best education I was ever to receive, despite the scholarship I won to a prestigious boy's school and thereafter to a university in England where I studied Journalism.

I came to Australia because I was banned from returning to my own country.

This was due to the fact that I had started a weekend school for Africans in the school hall of the prestigious boy's school I attended.

One day the school hall was raided by the police who then branded me a Communist as they considered educating Africans a subversive act.

While studying journalism, I met a wonderful Australian girl.

"Come to my country!" Benita invited.

I did, and soon after arriving in Australia, married her. Benita gave me three splendid sons, Brett, Adam and Damon. Brett, who married Ann has given me three lovely grandsons, Ben now 14, Jake is about to turn 12 and Marcus is almost 6 years old.

I have lived all my Australian life in Sydney (the nicest place on earth) and, until I started writing fiction, made my career in advertising working as a copywriter and creative director.

At the age of 55 I decided to take the plunge. I had been telling stories since the age of five and had always known I would be a writer some day, though life kept getting in the way until I realised that it was either now or never.

In His Words - Interview
How well researched are your books? Can we trust them?
Bryce Courtenay: Despite all the care in the world, errors do occur. In Solomon's Song, Tommo was buried facing the rising sun in the West!

Even though the copy went through a regiment of Editors, Proofreaders and final publishing edits (about 50 people all told!) the mistake was not seen and went through. However, within a month of publication I received approximately 500 letters from readers pointing out the error of my ways. Oops! However, I try very hard for the history of my novels to be accurate.

Why aren’t you published in America?
Bryce Courtenay: I am, but only with The Power of One. American publishers for the most part have difficulties about Australia, they are interested in books in their own country first and foremost.

However, we receive many e-mails and letters from Americans who have read my books and I am hoping in the future that publishers will recognise that there is a market for all my books in the U.S.

Why do you mostly write Australian books?
Bryce Courtenay: I wouldn’t say that. I have now written 4 books on Africa (The Power Of One, Tandia , The Night Country and my latest book, Whitethorn), one set in Russia (The Family Frying Pan) and Brother Fish, which deals with characters and events from the U.S and Asia.

That said, writers tend to write on the material they have, and having been in Australia for 44 years, it’s only natural. Besides, whilst only 200 years old, Australia has a totally fascinating history - most of it untold - and to a writer, this is a treasure trove of opportunity.

Do you think April Fools Day affected the way people thought about AIDS?
Bryce Courtenay: In the countries where it was published, it unequivocally changed the public perception of AIDS. Prior to April Fools Day, AIDS was thought to of been some sort of punishment from God for people who are perceived not to behave in a socially accepted way. When in reality it is a virus that can, and does, affect many of us.

AIDS is the biggest pandemic the world has ever seen with millions of people now infected.

Did April Fools Day have any consequences for the medical profession?
Bryce Courtenay: April Fools Day is now mandatory reading in a number of medical faculties and of the 100,000 letters or more received from readers, several thousand were from doctors and nurses.

Is The Power of One the story of your life?
Bryce Courtenay: It’s roughly the story of my life, in that many of these things happened, but remember, Peekay is ‘larger than life’ - as fictional characters need to be. So think of it as the things that happened to me, but the character is rather better than I ever was!

Is there a sequel to The Power of One?
Bryce Courtenay: It’s interesting that you mentioned that, many people don’t realize that there is a sequel called Tandia, which I wrote in 1991. Without spoiling it for you, Tandia continues Peekay’s adventures as well as introducing some very interesting new characters. Many people who have read it say they’ve enjoyed it more than The Power of One!

Why did you only start to write books at the age of 55?
Bryce Courtenay: I guess life gets in the way somehow. I really should have started writing in my mid-thirties. But Damon was born and he was chronically ill with Haemophilia so that set the pattern for the next twenty years.

I finally decided, at the age of fifty-five, to start writing or I’d never do it! Being a writer has been an ambition of mine since I was 5 years old.

How long does it take you to write a book (say, the length of The Potato Factory or Jessica)?Bryce Courtenay: Because I am getting incredibly old and I have so many books that I have to write, I can’t do it like most writers. Most writers take about 4 years to write a book the size of mine, which is roughly about 800 pages. I haven’t got that much time, I’ve too many books to write!

What I have to do, is take 8 months of the year and work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. I take Sunday off and just smash through it until I finish it. In a sense I do 4 years work in 8 months. It’s not easy, but if I’m to write all the books I need to write, that’s the only program I can think of adopting.

How much of Jessica is true?
Bryce Courtenay: That’s a difficult question to answer, Jessica existed, she was a real life person. The things that she did were exactly as they happened because we researched that very carefully, but of course the dialogue is my own as Jessica is long dead. So when you start inventing the speech patterns and the dialogue in somebody’s head you obviously need to create a fictional character. However, there is no doubt that Jessica was a phenomenal person.

By the way, you may be interested to know that Jessica was made into a two part mini series which was recently aired on Australian TV. The Jessica movie also was voted best Mini Series at the 2004 Chicago International Film Festival.

Where do you get the subject matter/inspiration to write your books?
Bryce Courtenay: Books are more perspiration than inspiration. I know that sounds like a cliché but writing a book is such a difficult thing to do. It can be a long desperate exercise that halfway through you often think “Oh God, what’s going to happen?”. People are going to think this is a load of codswallop, they’re going to find out about me - that I’m no good!

But somehow, putting one foot in front of the other, finally, eventually, you work it out and that’s how I do it. So far it’s worked out pretty well, but it’s got very little to do with inspiration, it’s just dogged hard work.

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Australian Author
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New South Wales
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Fortune Cookie
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The Power Of One
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The Potato Factory
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Tommo And Hawk
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