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Bryce Courtenay

I spoke in parliament yesterday on the passing of my most famous constituent, Bryce Courtenay.

Bryce Courtenay, 27 November 2012

A little over 12 months ago Paul Keating told Leigh Sales during a Lateline interview:

‘Well, it’s all about telling the stories. You gotta be able to tell the stories, I think.’

Today I pay tribute to one of our greatest ever storytellers. Australian author Bryce Courtenay lived in the suburb of Reid in my electorate, a few kilometres from my electorate office. Last week he died of stomach cancer, aged 79. He was a prolific author. In his 23 years of writing he wrote 23 books—almost one a year. I say ‘almost’ because the only time he missed his annual deadline was last year. He was upset by this even though the arthritis in his hands were so severe he could only perform two-finger typing.

As somebody who has a couple of books with my name on the spine of them I can only marvel at a man almost 40 years my senior who worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, for months on end to tell us his stories. I remember once reading a book about fiction writing which said that if you want to be a good fiction writer you have to be at the desk every day: some days the muse will come and sit on your shoulder and you will write beautiful prose, while other days the muse will not come and nothing will come out. But you have to be there, otherwise the muse will turn up and you will be off somewhere else.

Bryce Courtenay was there day in, day out, waiting for the muse to land on his shoulder and produce those wonderful stories. Great storytellers like Bryce Courtenay can inspire us. They fill us with vision and sometimes even tell us things we do not want to hear. Bryce Courtenay’s power to tell a compelling story saw him sell more than 20 million books worldwide—nearly a book for every Australian. He wrote 12 of the most borrowed books in Australia’s public libraries. It is estimated that one in three Australian households have a Bryce Courtenay book on their bookshelves.

What was it about Bryce Courtenay the man and the writer that so enthralled us? I believe it was his ability to tell stories about the strength and triumph of the human condition. His own life was testimony to that. It is hard to read The Power of One or April Fools’ Day without being touched by how he spoke to us on this eternal theme. In The Power of One he wrote:

‘The power of one is above all things the power to believe in yourself, often well beyond any latent ability you may previously have demonstrated.’

These are powerful words from storyteller who could reach out and grab the heart of the reader.

Bryce Courtenay, like all of us, was very much human—a man with his own imperfections—and he showed us through his life and his writing that we should not hide from them; the imperfections and hardships of life are what makes a story worth celebrating. Two weeks ago Bryce Courtenay posted a final message on YouTube to his readers. Here is part of what he said:

‘Well kids, here we go. The book coming out this year, Jack of Diamonds, is my last book. It is my last book because my use-by date has finally come up, and I’ve probably got just a few months to live. I don’t mind that—I’ve had a wonderful life—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.’

He paused before continuing:

‘All I’d like to say is, as simply as I possibly can—’

with his voice now starting to break—

‘thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.’

I say here to Bryce Courtenay that it is we who should thank you. Vale, Bryce Courtenay.

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