Saluting Bryce Courtenay

December 6, 2012 in Best Of, On Writing

I’ll admit, I’ve never read any of the 20 or so books written by Aussie legend Bryce Courtenay, who passed away late last month. I haven’t even seen the movie based on his first and most famous book, The Power of One. All I know is that there the film launched the career of Stephen Dorff, that Daniel Craig played a young Nazi in it, and that there is a “young reader’s edition” of the novel, which must mean it’s a pretty big deal.

A young Daniel Craig as a Nazi in The Power of One

What has prompted me to write this post is the Walkley Award (the highest journalism award in Australia) winning article by Jane Cadzow in the Good Weekend, which provided some fascinating insights into the life of this professional writer and the amount of dedication it requires getting to and staying at the top. Hard work and determination are common themes seen in almost all the success stories I have come across, and it has me wondering if I’ll ever be able to be even half as dedicated as some of these people.

The article paints Courtenay as a fascinating fellow who is probably one of the biggest bullshit artists Australia has ever seen. Even the people closest to him admit that he embellishes (to put it in the kindest way possible), but Cadzow effectively tears apart most of Courtenay’s fanciful claims about his life.

It may be his ability to lie that makes Courtenay such a brilliant storyteller, but it’s his background as an advertising guru that helped him break out from the pack in the first place. As the article says:

When Courtenay decided to become a novelist, his marketing nous stood him in good stead. “There are writers in this country who are better than me,” he says, echoing the words of many a reviewer. But no one disputes that when it comes to pitching a book to the paying public, the former adman is in a class of his own. Who else tests cover designs with focus groups, distributes sample chapters at railway stations and hires sky-writers to emblazon titles high above cities? With one of his novels, he went so far as to launch a tie-in beer (Tommo & Hawk Premium Ale). “Bryce is, beyond anything else, a promoter,” says Hamill. “There are some great authors in Australia, and I know many of them, who won’t get off their bums and sign books in shopping centres.”

Whereas Courtenay is never happier than sitting in-store with a pen in his hand and a queue of fans in front of him. Owen Denmeade, another of his old advertising mates, salutes him for the enthusiasm he brings to the task. How many title pages has he autographed over the years? Denmeade hates to think. “We used to say, if you’ve got an unsigned copy of a Bryce Courtenay book, it’s worth a lot of money.”

Sometimes all you need is a break. Off the back of the success of The Power of One, which he was apparently terrified would fail, Courtenay became one of Australia’s most successful writers, with his books selling 9.5 million volumes (including almost 8 million in Australia) since 1997. In better times, a new Courtenay book would apparently sell 250,000 copies, whereas now it’s around 200,000. That’s simply incredible considering what a small market Australia is.

The other thing about Courtenay that impressed me was his tenacity. He apparently worked 12 hours a day, from 7am to 7pm, seven days a week. For you mathematical geniuses out there, that’s 84 hours of writing a week, 4,368 hours of writing a year. Of course, it’s likely he bullshitted about that as well, but the fact of the matter is that he had been launching decently-sized books just about every year. As the article says:

Courtenay takes seven months to write a novel. He starts work the day after Australia Day [January 26] and finishes on August 31, delivering each chapter to Penguin on completion to ensure that the book can be edited, printed and in the shops for the Christmas rush. “The last six books I’ve finished within an hour of each other,” he says, “right to the point of having a courier waiting for the last chapter at the front door.”

To help him keep to such a tight timetable, he employs a full-time researcher, his brother-in-law Bruce Gee. “Like a lot of people, he’s not a terribly quick reader,” says Bruce. “My job is to get information to him in a predigested form.” Also entrusted with checking each day’s output for errors, Bruce points out that he isn’t the only one on the payroll. “People advise us on music, for instance, and on esoteric things like historical railways. All sorts of stuff … Bryce is almost a cottage industry.”

Courtenay’s deteriorating health prevented him from delivering his final book, Jack of Diamonds, on time last year, and the disappointment he expressed is remarkable for a guy who supposedly wouldn’t have had to make another dime had he lived to 100.

Courtenay was inconsolable about missing his first deadline in two decades. “I know how stupid it is,” he says, “but when you have one of those A-type personalities where achievement is important, and you have my kind of background, then … failure is unthinkable.”

Then again, it could be because Courtenay needed the money (though he says money doesn’t interest him), which is a frightening thought for all struggling writers out there. According to his brother-in-law, Courtenay was not as wealthy as might be imagined.

“He’s lost it, given it away, made bad business decisions, whatever.”

So the moral of the story, I suppose is to work really really hard, be a perfectionist, spend extra time marketing your work and take care of your money if you ever make some. In any case, I salute Bryce Courtenay for all he has achieved throughout his life and for being such a great inspiration to all aspiring writers out there.

Cadzow’s full–length article can be found here.

Bryce Courtenay’s final book, Jack of Diamonds

Class with James Bradley, bestseller author of ‘The Resurrectionist’

April 15, 2010 in Book Reviews, On Writing

Last night for our narrative class we were fortunate enough to have Australian author James Bradley speak to us about his international bestselling novel The Resurrectionist and the writing process.

The Resurrectionist is Bradley’s third book, and it tells the somewhat morbid story of a young anatomist in early 19th century London who spirals into grave-robbing, and eventually, murder.  Inspired by the real life “Burke and Hare” murders, The Resurrectionist was shortlisted for The Age “Fiction Book of the Year Award” and the “Christina Stead Award for Fiction” at the NSW Premier’s Awards.  However, it wasn’t until the book was included as one of Richard & Judy’s Summer Reads in 2008 that it really took off, going on to sell over 250,000 copies and was translated into various languages.

Anyway, the first thing that struck me about James Bradley was how young he looked!  Mid-to-late thirties was my estimate, though I found out from Wikipedia that he’s actually almost 43.  From the parts of The Resurrectionist I had read, I imagined the author to be an old eccentric with silver hair, a hunchback, and possibly a goiter.  For some reason, I always picture authors who write period novels as oldies, especially those that can write elegant prose and seem to have a way with words.

James Bradley

Bradley began his talk by telling us how he came to write The Resurrectionist.  He had been fascinated by the Burke and Hare murders and the period in which they took place (the 1820s), where people lived in crowded, suffocating slums, and life had little value.  Even though the story was set in the past, given the horrors of today’s world, it does have a contemporary edge to it.

In the book Bradley sought to examine two universal themes: (1) what happens to people when they do terrible things? and (2) how much of our past can we truly leave behind?

The most fascinating part of the talk for me was when Bradley discussed his research techniques for The Resurrectionist.  Research for the book was a must, not just from a historical standpoint, but also because Bradley needed to know what corpses and body parts looked like, and how people handled them.  Accordingly, Bradley went to observe dissection classes with medical students, but the staleness of the preserved bodies didn’t feel realistic enough for him.  And so he went and observed live autopsies, and the image of the coroner peeling off the face and removing the brain, he says, is one that sticks with you forever.

I also found it interesting that even writers as successful as Bradley have incredible amounts of self doubt.  He kept saying how horrible he thought his latest drafts are for his new book (he currently has two new novels in the works, Black Friday and The Penguin Book of the Ocean) and how he hates his characters right now, which I thought was rather amusing.

Here are some other writing pearls of wisdom Mr Bradley dropped during the talk:

General

  • Voice is imperative to a story.  Once you figure out the voice, everything becomes easier.  Changing the voice could change the book completely.
  • There are a few things in every story that a writer knows he/she has to get right, and in order for the story to work, needs to get right.
  • Good writing comes from taking risks.
  • Write what you think is interesting.  People may often find what you think is interesting to be boring, so if even you think it’s boring, there’s not much of a chance others will find it interesting.
  • Write honestly — don’t tailor your writing to suit a particular market.  Write what you want and hope it finds a market.
  • Write about what you want and what you believe it.  Otherwise you may lack the motivation to finish it.
  • There is a moment a writer just knows that their book is complete, whether it’s adding a scene, taking out a scene, or something else.

Characters

  • It always helps knowing in advance where a character will end up.
  • Create characters you don’t ordinarily meet in real life, or put characters in situations that they don’t usually find themselves in — but most importantly, make them feel real.

Research

  • Do enough research to make yourself confident enough to write about the subject, but not too much to the extent it restricts what you want to write.  It doesn’t have to be completely realistic — the important thing is to make others believe it is realistic.

Lastly, just a few of interesting factoids.  First, Bradley writes on a computer and not by hand (for those who keep wondering whether writing by hand is always advantageous).  Second, Bradley was a lawyer before becoming a writer (like me!).  Third, The Resurrectionist was rejected by Bradley’s publisher and he lost an agent because of it.  Now, it’s by far his most successful book.  As he told us last night, “You just never know.”

[PS: Ever since I read the first chapter of The Resurrectionist for our class readings about a month ago, the book has been on my “to read” list.  There was something about the detailed yet detached descriptions of very confronting images that captivated me.  After last night, I may have to move it up the list.]

[PPS: For more information on the book, click here.  Also, check out James Bradley’s WordPress-based blog, City of Tongues.]

[PPPS: The Burke and Hare story is being adapted into a new feature film, a black comedy starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis as the murdering duo, set to be released in 2010.  Interesting they have it as a comedy.  I guess we’ll see.]

 
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