I first heard Bryce Courtenay speak back in 1993 when I was 21 and had never read any of his books. I had enjoyed the movie “The Power of One” and when my future in-laws offered me a chance to join them to hear Bryce speak, I jumped at the chance. Little did I realise the impact that night would have on me.
Bryce Courtenay didn’t only tell a story with his words, he told it with his whole body. I had never witnessed such an energetic, enthusiastic and captivating speaker, and would probably say in almost 20 years I have never seen anyone better. His passion for life was evident in every word he spoke. It became clear to me quickly why he had had a successful career in advertising, but his way of “selling” his stories that night was based on an incredible genuineness and honesty that is often lacking in other salesman. Bryce Courtenay had the ability to take you to another world merely with his words. I later found this to be the case in his books as well, but it was his live speaking engagements that always stuck in my memory.
Bryce wrote a tiny book called “A Recipe For Dreaming”, and that night in Ballarat in 1993, he inspired me to keep dreaming. Many times over the following years his books continued to inspire me to believe in the good in people, to follow my passions, to live a full life and stand up for what I believe in. Most of his books’ protaganists were flawed heroes who did all these things and more. They were relatable to me and hundreds of thousands of others who read Bryce’s books, and I think that was due to how relatable the man himself was. He was an everyday bloke with an incredible gift – many gifts really. And his willingness to not gloss over his negative attributes made him all the more real.
That night in 1993, I purchased my first Bryce Courtenay book, which he was plugging at the time. I mainly bought the copy of April Fool’s Day that night so that I could line up to get it signed, and in the process get a chance to speak to this man who had so touched my heart and inspired my mind. I can’t remember what I said exactly, but I think it was something along the lines of how I wanted to write a book someday myself. I don’t remember his words (because I was so over-awed), but I remember he was encouraging and kind.
April Fool’s Day was not an easy read from an emotional point of view, but I couldn’t put it down once I started it. The remarkable honesty displayed by Bryce, his then-wife Benita, and other people close to his son Damon, who the book was about, blew me away. The courage it took to not only write a book about his son who had died of AIDS, but to write so candidly about his sometimes-flawed ways of dealing with this tragedy, was what I most admired. This raw honesty was what elevated Bryce Courtenay to hero status in my world. Ironically he would have hated to be anyone’s hero as he wouldn’t have wanted anyone elevating him above themselves.
I saw Bryce Courtenay speak one other time in the following 19 years – another visit to Ballarat where he once again captivated myself and everyone in attendance (and also signed all my books I’d brought along!). I read every one of his books that were released almost religiously every year up until recently (a promise he had made to his son Damon). Admittedly some of the characters and storylines over time started to sound similar to earlier ones, but I still loved the way Bryce could turn a simple phrase into a work of art. Many a page in my books is marked or noted somewhere because of some brilliant piece of phrasing that summed up my own feelings and thoughts in a way I couldn’t possibly have done the same justice to.
Tonight just after I heard of Bryce Courtenay’s death, I also found out the father of one of my best friends also died this week. Beautiful, down-to-earth, gentle Bert would have fitted perfectly into one of Bryce Courtenay’s books. He might have even been the lead character – the everyday hero who beat the odds and lived a life of integrity and passion. So to Bryce and Bert, tonight I say thank you to you both. Two amazing men who inspired myself and many others with the heart and soul they put into life and the great example they showed us of how truly great people live their lives. Vale Bryce and Bert.