Courtenay, who revealed his battle with stomach cancer in September, thanked his loyal readers for their support throughout his career.
“I don’t mind that, I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said. “But part of that wonderful life has been those people who have been kind enough to pick up a Bryce Courtenay book and read it and enjoy it and buy the next one and be with me in what has been, for me, an incredible journey.”
His voice cracking, the tearful author then went on to pay tribute to his faithful fans.
“All I’d like to say is, as simply as I possibly can, is thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
It was a simple, moving goodbye from a man who shaped Australia’s literary landscape and was adored by millions.
AFTER being delayed because of his battle with stomach cancer, Bryce Courtenay’s 21st book, on sale today, bids farewell to fans.
“It’s been a privilege to write for you and to have you accept me as a storyteller in your lives,” he writes. “Now, as my story draws to an end, may I say only, `Thank you. You have been simply wonderful’.”
His words appear on the promotional flyer with his new book, Jack of Diamonds, a novel which has taken him nearly two years to write because of his battle with stomach cancer.
When he was advised in June that the cancer was incurable, Courtenay discontinued further treatment and dedicated his last book to his doctor, Koroush Haghighi.
The South African-born author’s Facebook page is awash with tributes from fans and friends who make up his 56,000 followers around the world, including environmentalist and celebrity Mimi McPherson who wrote:
“You are one of the greatest Australians for so many reasons. I love your books immensely and read them time and time again. They continue to bring me much joy and will for years to come. The Power of One is my favorite book of all time and I recommend this book as a first to anyone who has not really discovered the joy of reading and I am pleased to say you are the reason many of my friends now love to read. I commend you for all you have done to create a more loving and understanding society in many ways, including your outspoken support of our aboriginal people. My heart aches. I dearly hope you will enjoy your time with your wife and family, and feel peace with the incredible mark you have made on this earth. God bless to you and your family and friends. XX”
And on her own website, American singer/songwriter Taylor Swift posted: “I’ve always loved reading his books. He’s a brilliant author and I’m saddened by the news of his illness. His book Jessica I read a couple years back, and it’s one of my all time favourite books. I cried, a lot, while reading it. It was heartbreakingly beautiful.”
Bryce Courtenay and his wife Christine in September 2012. Picture: Penguin Books
Thousands of other readers have voiced their gratitude to Courtenay for the joy his books have brought them as well as their sadness and sympathy for his prognosis.
Courtenay’s longtime publisher, Bob Sessions says no other author has ever come close to the sales or popularity of the former advertising executive, who wrote his debut novel at the age of 55.
“It’s extraordinary how his readers respond to his story telling skills and how they wait for his next book and rush out to grab it,” Sessions says.
“For many, many years, we all in Australian publishing knew that 100,000 copies was a huge best seller and some big names from overseas like Wilbur Smith would sell that many at Christmas time. Bryce sold 200,000. He is a phenomenon. There’s no other word to use. He outsells any other writer by an enormous margin and has done ever since (his first book) The Power of One.”
Courtenay soared to the top of the bestseller charts with his 1989 debut, The Power of One, which was subsequently made into a film starring Morgan Freeman.
At the time, he was married to his first wife, Benita, who he met while studying journalism in London in 1955. He followed her to Australia, the pair were married in 1959 and had three sons – Brett, Adam and Damon.
Bryce Courtenay in Sepember 2012. Picture: Penguin Books
Damon, who was born with haemophilia, contracted HIV/AIDS through an infected blood transfusion in 1991 and died at the age of 24. Courtenay’s 1993 bestseller April Fool’s Day, was a tribute to his youngest son.
Courtenay has continued to churn out bestsellers almost every year for two decades including The Potato Factory, Tommo & Hawk and Jessica.
As with most of his books, his latest novel features a talented young protagonist fighting the odds to reach great personal and professional heights amidst adversity.
In Jack of Diamonds, it’s Jack Spayd who was born in a Toronto slum and who rose to fame as a jazz musician in America only to end up working in a mine in the Belgian Congo and becoming embroiled in a German-run gambling ring.
This novel – Courtenay’s 21st in 24 years – draws on his love of music and his own experiences working in a Rhodesian mine as a teenager.
“I first discovered Beethoven, Verdi and Wagner when I was working in high explosives underground in the Rhone Antelope Copper Mines in what is now known as Zambia, then Northern Rhodesia,” he says.
“The detritus of the world washed up there, ex-Nazi SS troops and officers, the scum of the earth. It was a dangerous job, but I needed the money for university in England. And it gave me an enormous lust for life; every night I faced the prospect of not coming out alive and it paid handsomely.”
How Courtenay ended up mining in Rhodesia at the age of 17 has been the source of some contention in recent months with his sister Rosemary Anderson, aged 80, disagreeing with some her brother’s claims about his childhood.
Courtenay has publicly stated that he was born illegitimately in 1933 to dressmaker Maude Jasmine Greer and spent the first five years of his life in the small town of Barberton in the Lebombo Mountains of South Africa. He says he never knew who his father was until well into adulthood.
When Maude hit tough times as a result of the depression, Courtenay was sent to an orphanage which combined as a reform school for boys in Duiwelskloof. There, he was bullied badly and discovered the power of story telling as a means of survival.
“I was beaten up every day until one day I said, ‘Ach man, I’ll tell you a story if you stop.’ Then I threatened not to tell them the next episode if I got beaten up again. It was tough, but it could have been tougher if I hadn’t been born with blue eyes and white skin,” he says.
It was also there that Courtenay says a kindly relief teacher taught him to read English – he only knew Afrikaans up to the age of 11 – and who suggested he sit a scholarship exam for the prestigious King Edward VII School in Johannesburg.
He passed, though always felt different from his classmates who came from wealthy backgrounds. Eager to help the less fortunate, Courtenay says he started teaching African children to read English in the school’s hall, only to have the police raid the building, accuse him of being a communist and threaten to place him under house arrest if he didn’t leave the country. Hence, he headed to Rhodesia.
But Rosemary Anderson, who lives in the United States, says while she and Courtenay had a “difficult start in life”, her recollection of their childhood differs from her brother’s.
She says they spent about six months at a school in Duiwelskloof but, for the most part, lived with their mother. She also says they were aware from adolescence that their father was the man they knew as their godfather, that he paid for Courtenay’s boarding fees (rather than a scholarship) and that the pair grew up speaking English, not Afrikaans.
There’s been reports of confusion over some of Courtenay’s other claims too: that he created Mortein’s iconic Louie the fly commercial during his 32 years as an advertising executive, that he was offered a scholarship in medicine to Johannesburg Hospital and that he graduated from school amongst the top of his class, to name a few.
Courtenay has, in the past, conceded to embellishing the truth and acknowledged that he can get carried away but he insists he has never meant to mislead anyone.
Sessions says Courtenay is ‘a show man, an actor’.
“Essentially, he is a story teller and sometimes, if the lines are a little bit blurred, that’s life,” Sessions says.
“He knows who he is and he’s very comfortable in his own skin. Bryce’s memories are his memories.”
Regardless of where the line lies between fact and fiction with Courtenay, the writer’s skill lies not only with his capacity for storytelling but also with his ability to market himself.
Because of Courtenay’s health, Sessions flew from Victoria to Adelaide last week to receive the first copy of Jack of Diamonds off the press. He then flew to Canberra to deliver the hardback to Courtenay personally.
In the past, however, Courtenay has staged much grander events for his new books.
“The printer we used to use was up in Maryborough and on one occasion, we flew up in a helicopter and landed on the school oval and had a mayoral reception,” Sessions says.
“Bryce’s skills as a marketing and advertising man keep us on our toes all the time – he is always testing us and pushing us.”
Combined, Courtenay has sold more than 20 million copies of his books around the world, beating other top selling Australian novelists Matthew Reilly and Di Morrissey, according to Nielsen BookScan.
But now that Jack of Diamonds has been released, Australia’s favourite author intends to live out his final days peacefully at his Canberra home with his wife Christine, who he married last year. He and Benita divorced in 2000.
Jack of Diamonds was the first book in Courtenay’s 24-year writing career that did not deliver to the publisher on time, the result of health issues.
He has always taken seven months to write a novel, beginning 12-hour days the day after Australia Day and finishing on August 31 to ensure the book can be edited and published and in shops for Christmas.
He missed last year’s deadline but Jack of Diamonds is on sale from November 12.