Bryce Courtenay: A vision for Australia
Bryce Courtenay: Feature Interview
Bryce Courtenay: Feature Interview
Bryce Courtenay: I know this is going to sound awfully dumb but I'm quite excited about dying because I watch people get older and lose their intellectual acuity, you lose that sharpness, that cleanness, that brain that you worked so hard on and that you were gifted with and lose the gifts that were given from and become old people, frail people, they get Parkinson's Disease and they get dementia and I'm going to be spared all that. I'm going to probably be dead in six months and I've been spared all that and I'm going to die with my mind intact! And to me that is the most exciting way you could possibly die.
Vanessa Stoykov: On The Bottom Line we had the pleasure of spending a sunny afternoon with Bryce in his garden. The conversations he had with Alex Malley will change the way you look at loss, life and leadership and the difference on man can make.
Whilst Bryce was dying that wasn't his focus, for what truly matters to him was how we lived.
Bryce Courtenay: I have this thing about being buried by the way. I'm having a real problem here. I want to be buried that way, horizontally and I want to be buried without a tombstone and I want them to plant a tree on top of where I'm buried, no notice, no "here lies Bryce Courtenay", none of that crap, just I want a tree. Now 20 years ago I was in Sherwood forest and I picked up an acorn and I put it in my pocket and it stayed in a draw in my study for 15 years or something and when I was at my last home I planted it. It's now 6ft tall. I want that oak tree to be put on top of me and I've got to be in a cardboard box because the cardboard will decompose and I'll make good manure.
The idea of a tree losing its leaves and then in the spring everything happens again and it reaches higher and higher and higher into the sky to me, to me, what better way to use your body.
Alex Malley: It's amazing that you've got such enormous hold of where you're at in your life at the moment. I look back at your life, it looks like a man in control all the way through. Now you're at this point where there's no longer that perfect control and yet that transition you're making seems rather gracious really.
Bryce Courtenay: I have been so fortunate Alex. I've had the most fortunate life. I got kicked in the arse very early. At three months I was placed in an orphanage, I was born illegitimately and so I really started life at the really bottom of the heap so there was nowhere to go but up. I can remember there was this big guy in the orphanage and he was coming to give me my daily thrashing and they used to take turns. I was the smallest kid in the school and my name was Courtenay so therefore I had to be English. I couldn't even speak English by the way but I had to be English and I was the hated Englishman amongst the Afrikaans boys in this orphanage.
At seven I had already dislocated two discs from being kicked on the ground.
But one day one of these huge monsters came up and said to me, he was about to give me my daily hiding and I said "stop! I tell you what if you don't hit me I'll tell you a story" I'm using an accent now and he said "Ah, it better be a good story or I'll tell you (4.04)" which means I'll beat the shit out of you and I just kept telling stories until I finally got to high school".
Alex Malley: We both had mums who had depression and those sorts of things and there would have been, I'm sure for you, magic moments with her when she was well that you held onto and made really positive memories.
Bryce Courtenay: This is going to be difficult Alex, this is going to be very difficult. I had a mother who was obviously bipolar and had frequent nervous breakdowns and occasionally she'd take my sister and I out of the orphanage and then we'd have to go back again, so it was a pretty rough sort of, there and back. But unfortunately she also at the same time got a charismatic religion of the worst possible kind, you know when the holy spirit descends on you and you speak in tongues and the combination was crazy, it was just crazy.
The only thing that I can say that is wonderful about my mother is she forced me to learn three versus of the bible every day of my life and I've read the bible now five times and it taught me the English language.
Alex Malley: And to your dad who you never met, what have been your reflections over the years?
Bryce Courtenay: I wanted more than anything else in the world was to be a dad and again that's the privilege I had. I had three sons and unfortunately lost one of them but that too was in a sense a privilege because I could be a dad in the truest sense of the word.
Give your kids all the love you possibly can because you never know what's going to happen. To lose a child is the most horrific thing that will happen in your life but if you have loved them and cherished them and enjoyed them and allowed them to think and be whatever they wanted to be you have given them the gift of life and if they go early you've done the best you possibly could but you will never ever get over it. I wake up at least once a week howling. So yes, being a father, hugely important and I wished I'd had one.
Alex Malley: Of all the books you've written, the toughest one was "April Fools Day" about your son.
Bryce Courtenay: Oh Alex, I mean that …
Alex Malley: What wisdom can you give them from the experience of losing your own child?
Bryce Courtenay: When Damon was dying I had a lot of notice of Damon's death. He was born a haemophiliac and he had to have four blood transfusions a week and so I was with him, one of the reasons also I learnt to work long hours because sometimes I'd go 42 or 72 hours without sleep because he'd had to go to hospital for blood transfusion in the middle of the night.
At 2 o'clock in the morning I would get in the car and drive him to hospital and at 7 o'clock I'd go back, get the other kids up, iron their clothes, get them to school and then go to work and sometimes go 40 hours without any sleep. But I had a closeness with my children that was just enormous.
This darling little boy is 27 years old and I know it's all over for him and he's on my lap and he weighs 26 pounds and he was 5ft 10 inches and he says to me "Dad you have to write the book and tell them age is just a virus, it's not a punishment from God, it's just a virus" and I said "Damon, I can't, we're to private. I can't tell the story of our lives" and he said "Dad if you'll do it you can even sing Summer time".
Now let me explain to you what that means. Summer time with me because I got so beaten as a child, so severely beaten as a child every day of my life, I never laid a hand on my kids, I wouldn't dream of hitting them but their punishment if they were bad is I would sing to them and the song that they hated the most was Summer time. and here is this darling boy and I know he's going to be dead, it's his last day, last few minutes and he says "dad please, please write the book and you can even sing Summer Time" [singing] "Summer time and the living is easy. Fish are jumping and the cotton is high. Your daddy's rich and your mamma's good looking, so hush little baby don't you cry. One of these mornings you're going to rise up singing then you'll spread your wings and you'll reach for the sky but until that time why nothing can harm you because daddy and mummy are standing by". And Damon died in my arms.
Alex Malley: Do you believe you'll see him again?
Bryce Courtenay: No Alex, I'm not a religious person in that respect at all. I see him every day in my mind, I talk to him, I feel him, I sense him because he is a part of me, he is part of my blood, my bones, my very being.
But when I wrote April Fools Day it changed how people felt about AIDS. Damon was right, it's not my book it's his book. It is still taught in medical schools but here is the point, I got 35,000 letters from people who had lost children and they all had a story to tell. It's a common story, we all do it and we all have to go through it and it's terrible and there is no piece of wisdom that can fix it.
Alex Malley: So this is a test of credibility question. Have you read your own books?
Bryce Courtenay: Good God no. Why would, I mean the closest I've ever come to reading one of my books is I happen to think I've written one good sentence in my life and it's the opening three words to "The Power of One" and it simply says "this is what happened". But no I've never even picked up one, opened a page or read it because it's done, it's something for somebody else.
In my head Alex I have this woman who is my reader, I call her my fourth protagonist. She is a character in my book. I write for her all the time because 79% of people who read today are female and she's had a tough day at the office and what I want her to do is pick up my book and read maybe 9 or 10 pages, go to bed and say "gees, I can't wait to see what happened". Now if I can achieve that, that is my total ambition and that's what I want my books to do.
Alex Malley: If you were to give this lady that you write for one book, the favourite book, which one is it?
Bryce Courtenay: If it were for her I suppose, I'd like to give her "Four Fires" because Four Fires is the book, I loved writing.
I was gifted this country and when you're gifted as enormous as a whole country and I can remember coming through the heads and looking and the harbour was like a millpond in Sydney and the whole thing looked as though as it was happening in a crystal glass and I looked up and the sky rose higher and higher and higher and higher and I said "I'm never going to leave here, I'm never going to leave here. This is where I was meant to be". And occasionally people would say to me "well of course Bryce, you're a South African, you wouldn't understand" and so I wrote Four Fires.
Four Fires is to my mind the great Australian book, as much as I can make it so. It's the story that I'd like us to be and who we've been, where we've been, who we are and where we might be going and I loved writing that book.
One old lady wrote to me and said "if you keep writing books like this I'm going to stop reading you because one dropped on me the other day and nearly broke a rib".
But Four Fires is probably my favourite. But of course The Power of One is the one that sold 27 million copies of something, I don't know how many and I used it as a doorstop for a year because I just didn't think it was good enough.
When I finished The Power of One it was about that big and the screen door had been going "whack, whack, whack", every 10 minutes, driving me f'ing crazy and you know you never do anything about that door, I don't know why you never do anything about screen doors that bang but I didn't. So finally I took this manuscript and I used it against the screen door and it solved the problem and my daughter-in-law a year later came and kicked the door stop and the twine came loose and she started to read the book and she said to me "Mr Courtenay, this is a lovely book" and I said "yes darling, you can marry him, we love you, put it back" but then an agent heard that I'd written a book and she said "can I have it" and I said "it's all brown and turned up and I'm not going to copy it, it's over a thousand pages" and she said "just send it. I'm going to the AMA, the American Book Association meeting" and she sold it for a million dollars and that's' the story of The Power of One.
Everybody doesn't have the right to be the same. Everybody has the right to be different, that's the whole point. That's how I've spent my entire life, exercising the right to be different not the right to be the same.
Alex Malley: I'm going to take you to the beginnings of your creative career in advertising and I'm going to blame you for something because if I'm on my death bed and I still know the words to Louie The Fly I'm going to blame you. How did you possibly come up with that?
Bryce Courtenay: Well like most things, the chairman of what was then McCann Erikson and I was the creative director, called me in and I was the film studios shooting a film and he said "Mr Graham's here, get your arse into gear and get over here". And Mr Graham was the head of Mortein, the biggest client in the place and everybody was scared of him and he was a religious zealot and he never smiled and Sim Rubinson was a small little Jewish guy, very irritable and harrassable, he said "get over here!" and so I jumped into a cab and he said "and you better have an idea for Mortein!" I didn't have a clue and I said to the driver "driver what's your name" and he said "Louie" so I wrote Louie on the back of an envelope and then I just wrote a few lyrics as we drove from North Sydney to Caltex House and when I got there, there's Mr Graham sitting there stentoriously looking at me not smiling and Rubinson said "well what you have you got!" and I said "well, ah, I've got, there's this fly" and Mr Graham said "what's he look like?". I hadn't any idea and Rubinson shoved an ink blotter at me and said "draw him!". So I drew this funny looking little fly thing and Sam said "what's he say" and so I had this paper and I said "I'm Louie the fly, I'm Louie fly straight from rubbish tip to you. I'm bad and mean and …" I can't even remember the other words …
Alex Malley: "Afraid of no one except for the man with the can of Mortein. I hate that word Mortein"
Bryce Courtenay: There we are Alex, you've got it. And Graham thought for a moment and he said "If you can get another Mortein in there I'll buy it".
But I have to say Alex that when you do something like Louie The Fly you've got a lot of help. I mean there was a great animator who did the animation of the fly, a guy called Brian Henderson, not the announcer, fixed up my lyrics and made them work well and Jimmy White did the music and so really when people say "you invented Louie The Fly" I say "yeah well I invented the name and sold the concept and wrote a few words here and there but lots of very good people worked on it and made it famous and today it's in the Museum of Modern Art as the world's longest playing television commercial.
Alex Malley: It's extraordinary.
Bryce Courtenay: Which is amazing.
Alex Malley: And of course well beyond that, the RTA "Stop Revive Survive", another one of those moments in a car on the way to the pitch.
Bryce Courtenay: This is sounding predictable but we had worked for six weeks on the road safety campaign and I was creative director of George Pats and I wasn't happy. Sometimes you work and you work and you work and it just doesn't come out, it sounds like everybody else sounds and I was going to the pitch that morning driving in the traffic thinking "I'm going to bullshit and stand up there and deliver and do my dance and I haven't got any good stuff at all". And I thought "I've got to have an idea" and it just came to me "Stop Revive Survive".
So I wrote it on an envelope again and got into the room and there was the whole agency, we had everything setup, all the mock ads, the mock television commercials, everything was going, it was a huge campaign and I had to start the thing and I said "Gentleman look I'm terribly sorry but what we've done for the last six weeks is a load of horse shit" And Alex Hammel who was the managing director of George Pattison just went, it was the first time I saw him come close to fainting and I said "but I had an idea coming in, would you be interested in that?" and they just looked at me and I dug this envelop out and fortuitously it fell out of my hands so I had to lean down and pick it up and I picked it up and I said "it's only got three words on it and it says "Stop Revive Survive" and the chairman of the Road Safety Committee said "You've got the campaign. "
That's just sheer luck you know, just sheer luck and that's been on the roads now for 20 years or something.
Alex Malley: That sounds like pretty solid luck when you go for at least 20 years on campaigns.
Bryce Courtenay: But it's what I said a little earlier I think Alex and that is you have to trust your own judgement. In the end you have to dare your genius to walk the wildest unknown way, you've got to be prepared to make the mistakes if you're ever going to win and I've got to promise you I have made every mistake in the book.
Well you see when I talk to kids I always say "you can't learn anything by being taught anything, you can only learn stuff by making mistakes. So if you want to be ordinary just learn the stuff they teach you. If you want to be extraordinary decide to do something that everybody says "you're an idiot. Don't do that you idiot" Try it and see what happens. It may be a terrible mistake but if it isn't it's new ground and if it's new ground it belongs to you and if it belongs to you, you can start making decisions about it. Making mistakes is absolutely critical to our lives.
One of the things that bothers me most about my beloved country, Australia, is that we're getting too scared to make mistakes, to be individuals, to be original.
Alex Malley: To our future as a country, taking that on board, what are the keys issues you see for Australia now as a country and as we look into the next 20 years what do we need to be better at?
Bryce Courtenay: You see I think we have an opportunity to, I'm now going to say something that's going upset a lot of people but if I were king of the world, which is the game I used to play with my kids "today you are king of the world, you can change anything you like" and they'd decide what they're going to change.
Now if I were king of the world there wouldn't be boat people, there would be people coming in boats. I would mix us all up so that we were all exactly one shade of each other, nobody knows who anybody was, we were all Australians. and so I would say we're a small country, we can accommodate a lot more people, let's share it and be the most brilliant small country on earth instead of what's going on right now, getting dumber and dumber and dumber and better qualified dumber. You know you can be dumb and brilliant qualified because dumb, it's not an intellectual idea it's an emotional one and we are becoming emotionally dumbed down.
Alex Malley: You know it's interesting, I mean you migrated to Australia, my parents did, we had a hunger to be part of society, we had a hunger to do things and to create. I'd like to know because the way in which we can resolve this is to find out where this process began. But where did we start to punish creativity. When did that start?
Bryce Courtenay: You know in a curious way we made it a little too easy for everybody. We now have a national superannuation fund, we have free health. I'm not against any of these things, they're all valid, they're all perfect, they're all a very good idea but we started talking "entitlement" rather than "earn". We started talking "everybody has the right to be the same". Everybody doesn't have the right to be the same. Everybody has the right to be different, that's the whole point. That's how I have spent my entire life exercising the right to be different not the right to be the same.
Forgive me, I'm carrying on a bit but the differences are what matter not the samenesses and we're trying our best to give everybody the same education, the same everything. We're not the same. Bring them all in, let's have them, let's use their culture, they can use ours, we will make something brilliant out of all of this and we will be a nation of maybe 40million people and everybody will say "holy melenska, look at that bunch of people. They can do anything, they don't have any racism, they don't hate each other, they enjoy each other and they're the most inventive people in the world.
We are the one country in the world who is poised to be able to do that and what are we doing, we're sending people to Nauru. For Christ's sake, what are we doing?
Alex Malley: I think you're an extraordinary character Bryce and your passion for life, the journey you've taken which has had the highs and the very lowest points make you a really exceptional character and I trust that the ends of your life will be as wonderful as they have been all the way through.
Bryce Courtney, thank you so much.
Bryce Courtenay: Alex, thank you it's been a pleasure talking to you mate, it really has.
Alex Malley: You too.
Vanessa Stoykov: Great story telling, stories that can move and change us is truly a gift and Bryce Courtney amongst the most gifted of us all. In fact Desmond Tutu rated Bryce as one of the 15 wisest men in the world.
Leadership comes in many forms and the legacy Bryce has left with his novels remains forever.
We'd like to hear about how Bryce has changed your life, how his novels have affected you and why life wouldn't have been the same without Bryce Courtney.
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