Australia lost a man of determination and character when Bryce Courtenay died, aged 79, about 10 days ago. I was saddened to hear of his death, but looking into his life and achievements, you couldn’t wallow for long. This was a life to be celebrated.
Something like one in every three Australians have one of Courtenay’s 21 books in their homes. He sold more than 20 million copies of his novels – and he only put pen to paper in his 50s. Courtenay’s strategic approach to writing – churning a new book out every six months, on average – demonstrated an enormous self-discipline that stretched beyond the page. He ran more than 40 marathons, mostly aged 50-plus.
When I heard of his death I was immediately reminded of an interview I had with the man they are calling a “latter-day Charles Dickens”. I was a smidge nervous about interviewing such a well-known author, so my questions were ready, voice recorder and notepad at hand. What I wasn’t prepared for was when I had exhausted my questions (with enough material to write a small book) and was winding up the conversation.
Courtenay turned the questions on me. He asked about my life, my loves, my hopes, my family, my home. He listened and laughed and encouraged. Now, that’s virtually unheard of.
This bestselling author probably had several other interviews scheduled that day. I would hate to think how many journalists over the course of his life had drilled him with much the same questions. Yet, he took time for this journalist in that moment.
Courtenay was interested in people and their stories.
Even in his dying days, the video message marking the publication of his final novel demonstrates this man’s love and respect for fellow man.
“…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. All I’d like to say is, as simply as I possibly can, thank you.”
When I dug up the aforementioned article, dated September 8, 2008, I found more evidence of Courtenay’s innate interest in others.
“There is no more important thing than to one day put your darling little head on a pillow and say I gave more than I took,” he told this fledgling journalist as she madly scribbled it down because even in her inexperience she knew a quotable quote when she heard it.
Those words hold more meaning four years on because we know that Courtenay has laid his head on his pillow for the last time, and we know he could say, “I gave more than I took”.
It has echoes of Jesus’ words, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). We’re not only talking money here either. I think Jesus was spruiking generosity of all our human resources; time, compassion, expertise, finances and so on. Courtenay’s generosity seemed to spring from his love and interest in other people. He didn’t count himself better than others, despite all the accolades.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,” Philippians 2:3 reads in the same vein.
I, for one, hope that one day I can lay my “darling little head” on my pillow and say, I gave more than I took.
As printed in The Examiner Newspaper for Keeping the Faith column on Monday December 3.