IT’S been estimated that one in three Australian homes have a Bryce Courtney novel on their bookshelf.
The South African-born author, who will one day make Canberra his home, boasts 21 books that have inspired audiences around the world.
The Power of One, Courtney’s epic debut novel about a young boy growing up under apartheid, has sold more than eight million copies, been translated into 18 languages and made into a major motion picture starring Morgan Freeman.
Now, for the first time, the remarkable and little-known personal life of the author who inspired his beloved stories is told in a memoir written by his wife, Christine – a book that also marks a decade since his death.
“I think he knew that one day a biography would be written about his life, but he never wanted to write one,” says Christine.
“He was warm, funny, generous and had a voracious appetite for learning.”
Christine still remembers the moment she met the man who would later become her husband.
“I had a marketing company, and I went to this writers’ group, and I remember there was this not-so-tall guy in gray flannel pants and a sports jacket, and he was bouncing around the room like a grasshopper on steroids, and I thought, ‘I bet that this is bryce.
“He came over and said, ‘Oh, you must be Christine,’ and I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Courtney, it’s a great honor to meet you,’ and he said, ‘Oh, just call me Bryce, just think of me as someone who sits down every year and writes a book.
That same memory would inspire what would one day become Bryce Courtney: A Storyteller, a memoir that Christine put two years of research into.
“It started with an essay I wrote about how Bryce and I first met. I sent it to a friend and she said, ‘That’s really good, why don’t you keep it going?'” says Christine.
“And I said, ‘Well, go ahead with what?’ and it was one of those weird things. I don’t know if you would call it a coincidence, but in June 2020 I was clearing out some stuff in my garage and found a box of letters.
“I started reading them and burst into tears. They were letters written by Bryce, I think 141 of them.
“They were mostly to and from his mother and family and some of them were written when he was a very young child growing up in and out of institutions living in South Africa.”
Through Bryce’s own voice found in his letters, Christine discovers stories that read eerily like one of his epic novels: a tough childhood, risking his life in the mines before heading to London to study journalism, finding love and docking in Australia with just a suitcase , while clinging to my dream of becoming a writer.
“If someone was going to write a memoir about Bryce’s life, then something told me I should try,” she says.
“I remember thinking that would be the heart of the book.”
Christine would research dozens of interviews, pull tapes from overseas and track down family members and friends from whom she had heard “a lot of wonderful stories.”
“Bryce started telling me a lot about his early life, can you believe it, in the last days of his life. He seemed to have this desire to talk about it and I had a book and wrote it all down,” says Christine.
“With all that, I had almost too much material. It was like a race to get it all done. I fell across the finish line on my belly to make it in time for Christmas.
“Bryce used to say that his books went with the stockings and the chocolate under the Christmas tree. He was always very proud that they were seen in this way.
Although Christine says writing about Bryce’s early years wasn’t easy, telling the story of their time together at their home in Reed was something she found much more seamless.
“Bryce loved Canberra for its natural beauty. He was always walking up Mt Ainslie with the dog,” she says.
“He loved the intellectual life of Canberra, the cultural life, the fresh air and he loved his rugby and the Brumbies embraced him. Canberra was so welcoming.”
Although Christine believes there will be more biographies written about her husband, she says for now this is the one Bryce would like.
“I think he’d find it sweet and dignified, but I also think he’d like that it’s not sugar-coated,” she says.
“Perhaps a more scholarly work will emerge one day, but this is a love story written in Bryce’s honor.”
Bryce Courtenay: Storyteller is available November 1.
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Ian Meikle, editor