EACH November for the past 20 years or so, Bryce Courtenay has produced a blockbuster that has delighted many thousands of loyal readers. This year's offering, Jack of Diamonds, is little different in style or content. But it will be his last.
Courtenay, who has been suffering from stomach cancer, died in Canberra late on Thursday with his wife Christine, son Adam, and his family pets, Tim the dog and Cardamon the Burmese cat, by his side. He was 79. He knew he had little time left, but approached his final chapter with his characteristic cheerful spirits and brave face.
Courtenay recorded a farewell message in October in which he said his "use-by date has finally come up". He said he didn't mind that he had only a short time to live because "I've had a wonderful life". He added: "All I'd like to say as simply as I possibly can is 'thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you'."
In a final interview for Penguin, the man who has regularly been Australia's most popular novelist said he was going to die at precisely the right time, while he still had his intellect and energy. "The time is right, it's beautiful, it's gorgeous."
His long-time publisher and friend Bob Sessions said Courtenay's strength as a novelist was that he was a marvellous storyteller. "I often likened him to Charles Dickens and I don't say that lightly. He tells sweeping stories and he had larger-than-life characters. And the readers had a sense of learning something about the world."
Writer Thomas Keneally said the title of Courtenay's best-known book, The Power of One, had entered the English language as a phrase for good reason: he was a good narrative plotter who knew how to market his books "when other writers were stumbling around".
Keneally said writers such as Courtenay and J.K. Rowling have allowed "thousands of flowers to bloom", their bestsellers financing "the publication of books that might sell more humbly".
Author Di Morrissey said: "What I loved about Bryce was his passion - for everything . . . He was such an advocate for popular fiction, puncturing the puffed-up pretensions of the literary establishment."
The chief executive of the Australian Publishers Association, Maree McCaskill, said: "There's been much criticism about his literary merit but I don't think it's worth a pinch of salt. He sold millions and encouraged people who wouldn't normally read to pick up a book."
Courtenay had always wanted to be a storyteller and writing The Power of One, which was published in 1989, "changed his life". Courtenay, then 50, was in advertising and, according to Sessions, "overstressed, drinking several bottles of wine a day, and smoking a hundred cigarettes". He realised his lifestyle would be the death of him and he changed it to write.
His reputation for storytelling in print extended to the telling of his own story, which was frequently embellished. He was born in South Africa in 1933 and brought up partly in an orphanage. There he told stories to avoid being bullied and also learnt to box. When The Saturday Age interviewed him at his former home in Bowral, he said a schoolmate told him: "If you can't bullshit your way out then you better know how to fight." Courtenay added that he had been bullshitting ever since.
He got a scholarship to a smart school in Johannesburg and when he left opted to study journalism in London. He paid for that by working with explosives in the copper mines of then Rhodesia.
In 1958 he left London for Sydney. But he didn't manage to get into journalism and started writing advertising copy. His plan was to work until he was 35 and then write novels. But with his son Damon a haemophiliac, he needed a regular income and eventually reached the top of the advertising business. Signing a $1 million publishing deal for The Power of One changed all that.
He followed up the story of Peekay the orphan with the heart-rending April Fool's Day, the story of Damon and his death from AIDS, which he contracted from a tainted transfusion.
Courtenay wrote a further 19 novels, including Jessica, Tommo & Hawk, and Sylvia, starting each one on the last day of January and completing it by August. He delivered the book to Penguin chapter by chapter so the book could be in the shops in time for Christmas.
Courtenay loved Australia. "It's the only country where you're entitled to reinvent yourself," he once said. "Look at me - I've reinvented myself as an author."