Times Staff and Wire Reports
6:01 PM PST, November 23, 2012
Best-selling Australian author Bryce Courtenay, whose debut novel, "The Power of One," was made into a popular 1992 movie starring Morgan Freeman, has died. He was 79.
Courtenay died Thursday at his home in Canberra, Australia, according to his publisher, Penguin Group Australia. The cause was stomach cancer.
The South African-born Courtenay launched his fiction-writing career at age 50 and considered his first novels "practice books." But "The Power of One," the powerful story of a young boy's difficult journey to adulthood under the shadow of South Africa's apartheid regime, was an instant success when it was published in 1989.
"I was absolutely staggered when somebody wanted to publish it in the first place," Courtenay said in his official Penguin biography.
"Now it's a worldwide success and the fact that it's available in 12 languages still amazes me," he said. The book, which drew on Courtenay's own tough childhood, earned him a $1 million advance and garnered glowing reviews.
Courtenay explained the philosophy behind the book's title in a 1989 Times interview.
"The power of one is that thing that makes all people who have a tendency to succeed, succeed," he said. "It is the highest level of [personal] survival. I really believe that life is a question of letdowns and broken contracts. We can exist within that situation or we can prevail.
"The power of one is the person who insists that he will prevail."
The illegitimate son of a dressmaker mother, Courtenay was born Aug. 14, 1933, in the mountain town of Barberton in northeast South Africa. Part of his childhood was spent in an orphanage.
By age 17, he was working in the dangerous copper mines of what is now Zimbabwe. He eventually saved enough money to make his way to Britain, where he studied journalism in London. He met an Australian, Benita Solomon, and married her in 1958 after moving to her hometown of Sydney. The pair divorced in 2000.
Courtenay began a career in advertising with McCann-Erickson in Sydney, rising quickly to become creative director, then repeated the ascent at J. Walter Thompson.
At age 40, he had an epiphany: Courtenay decided to quit his job and start his own advertising agency with the idea of selling it at a profit within 10 years, when he planned to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a novelist. He did both.
A dedicated writer who was said to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, Courtenay fell into a pattern of publishing a book nearly every year, just before Christmas. Most were bestsellers in Australia.
After "The Power of One," Courtenay dedicated its sequel, "Tandia," to his youngest son, Damon, who died of AIDS at 24 in 1991 — two months before the book was published.
His son's death inspired Courtenay's only nonfiction book, 1993's "April Fool's Day," about the public's early ostracism of those with AIDS.
Courtenay, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2010, had known since June that there was no hope of a cure. In his last book, "Jack of Diamonds," which was published Nov. 12, he addressed his readers in a moving epilogue:
"It's been a privilege to write for you and to have you accept me as a storyteller in your lives. Now, as my story draws to an end, may I say only, 'Thank you. You have been simply wonderful.' "
Courtenay's survivors include his wife of seven years, Christine, and his sons Brett and Adam.
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