Bryce Courtenay: Advertising executive who went on to become a blockbuster author

He was known to exaggerate. 'I take a fact, put a top hat on it, a silk shirt and a bow tie,' he said

Bryce Courtenay was well into his fifties when he published his first novel, The Power of One. Intended to be a "practice book", it sold more than six million copies worldwide. Over the next two decades he pumped out a blockbuster each year, earning sneers from some in Australia's literary scene but single-handedly boosting the fortunes of local publishers and booksellers.

South African-born Courtenay saw his role as "essentially that of an entertainer, no different to that of a musician, no different to that of an actor. I just happen to be an author." His gift was storytelling, and he unashamedly embellished his own life story, too.

A consummate professional, he wrote for 12 hours a day, six days a week, delivering a doorstop-sized novel to his publishers each November, in time for Christmas. On 12 November this year, his 21st book, Jack of Diamonds, was published. Ten days later, Courtenay died of stomach cancer after recording a farewell video message to his fans.

Tributes to the author, who regularly topped Australian bestseller lists and enjoyed sales of more than 20 million worldwide, came from all quarters, including the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. The Booker Prize-winning author Thomas Keneally said writers such as Courtenay and JK Rowling enabled "thousands of flowers to bloom", with their works financing "the publication of books that might sell more humbly".

Courtenay's boyhood could make a racy novel, although elements of it are disputed. The illegitimate child of a dressmaker mother, he was born in Barberton, a small town in the mountains of north-eastern South Africa, in 1933. He spent part of his early life in an orphanage – years, he says; according to his sister, Rosemary, it was weeks or months.

He later attended the prestigious King Edward VII School in Johannesburg. (He said he won a scholarship; Rosemary says their father, a married clothing salesman named Arthur Ryder, paid the fees.) He then worked in the copper mines of what was then Rhodesia, where, he claimed, he never showered without a knife or pistol, to avoid being raped.

With the money he saved he travelled to England, where he studied at the London School of Journalism. He also met an Australian, Benito Solomon, whom he married in 1959 after the couple moved to her native Sydney.

In Australia, Courtenay embarked on a 30-year career in advertising which saw him become one of the industry's most successful creative directors. He also worked ferociously long hours and by his mid-fifties was "drinking several bottles of wine a day and smoking 100 cigarettes".

Health concerns prompted him to sell his agency and begin running marathons. He also embarked on The Power of One, about a boy's journey to adulthood in apartheid-era South Africa. Published in 1989, it was made into a film starring Morgan Freeman. It earned Courtenay a million-dollar advance, and although none of his subsequent novels was quite as successful, they each added more than A$10m to the Australian book trade's turnover, according to his long-time publisher at Penguin, Bob Sessions.

One of Courtenay's only two non-fiction works was based on personal tragedy: the death in 1991, aged 24, of his youngest son, Damon, a haemophiliac who contracted Aids from a contaminated blood transfusion. April Fool's Day, a memoir, was published two years later, and is credited with helping to transform public attitudes towards the disease.

While Australians loved his books – reportedly one in three households owns at least one – it rankled with Courtenay that he never enjoyed critical acclaim. He branded Peter Carey a "literary snob" after the award-winning author rebuked Australians for "forgetting how to read". And, Courtenay claimed, it was much harder "to make it into the top 100 fiction writers in the world than it is to write a book which the local literati feel is splendid and sells 2,000 copies."

The former adman was always closely involved in promoting his own work, devising stunts such as sky-writing and branded beer. Always gracious to his fans, he would request the address of anyone who stopped him in the street and send them a signed book. He was generous with advice to younger authors, and supported numerous charities.

Of his propensity to exaggerate the facts of his own life, Courtenay once declared: "I take a fact, put a top hat on it, a silk shirt and bow tie and striped trousers and a tailcoat and a pair of tap shoes and I do a Fred Astaire with a fact. But I don't ruin the fact ... I'm just giving it life."

Although he divorced Benito in 2000, the couple remained close, and he was at her bedside when she died of leukaemia in 2007. He married Christine Gee, the twin sister of one of Australia's best-known literary agents, Margaret Gee, last year. (Courtenay had also had a relationship with Margaret.) He was made a member of the Order of Australia in 1995, received two honorary degrees and was one of six authors celebrated on a collection of "Literary Legend" Australian stamps issued in 2010. Carey was among the others.

Bryce Courtenay, advertising executive and author: born Barberton, South Africa 14 August, 1933; married Benita Solomon (divorced 2000; two sons, and one son deceased); Order of Australia 1995; married 2011 Christine Gee; died Canberra 22 November 2012.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments