A new Courtney for Christmas

The new book by Christine Courtney.

By Tania Phillips

It’s been 10 years since the death of Bryce Courtney, the man whose books became an Australian Christmas present staple, but for the first time in a decade a Bryce Courtney book might once again join the socks and chocolates under the tree.

This time around though, Bryce will be the subject and not the author, thanks to the new book, Bryce Courtney – Storyteller. The biography would come as no surprise to Bryce, he often said someone would write it one day – even had offers from other authors in his lifetime.

But the person who finally wrote it might be the surprise. The author is none other than his widow Christine, who sat down to write her own fascinating story and suddenly found herself writing a chapter or two about Bryce. And just as she thought maybe she might not continue; she made a discovery in her garage that ensured the new book would come to life.

Christine Courtney, who started her working life at the Canberra Times in advertising earning $3 an hour while still at University and went on to co-found Australian Himalayan Expeditions in 1975, met Bryce in the 90s and they became friends, eventually falling in love in the 2000s and marrying in 2011.

“I started out writing memoire of my own life because in the 1970s I started a pioneering travel company called Australian Himalayan Expeditions which later became world expeditions and during that amazing period of my life we travelled everywhere, we met some amazing explorers and adventurers and a lot of great things happened,” she explained.

“I’d been asked years and years ago to write the story of how that company was founded and when you’re running a business you don’t have time to write a book. So, when I came home from England and just missed the lockdown being cooped up in hotel, I thought I might sit down and write a book.

“You know when you’re writing, it wasn’t sort of a writing exercise but one day I was sort of thinking I’d just have a write about how Bryce and I first met, so I wrote this sort of an essay really and I called it our first chapter. It was about how I first met Bryce, which was in 1993 and then we eventually came together as a couple in 2005. I thought that’s not bad and sent it to a girlfriend and she said I really like that it’s great. So, I wrote another chapter and then another chapter. And then I thought oh-dear what am I doing – even then I didn’t think I’d write a book about Bryce’s life.

“And then, its almost serendipitous if that’s the word, I came back from Europe in late March 2020 and I was writing my memoire and then in June 2020 I was clearing out some boxes of stuff in my garage. I’d relocated from Canberra in 2015 where Bryce had passed away. I found this box of letters I honestly think much of them – maybe they were business letters or something like that, I came close to throwing them out.

“Instead, I took them upstairs and looked at them – oh my goodness these were written by Bryce, I never realised they were there, he’d never mentioned them. Then I started to put them in some sort of order – many of them were handwritten on very flimsy, rice paper almost, some were typed on a manual typewriter, and they were from very early one, when he was a small child right through to when he was at school at the very posh boarding school he eventually managed to get into. Then when he worked at fruit farm after leaving school, then working down the mines in Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, then his time studying journalism in London, travelling out to Australia by ship and then starting off in advertising, his family life and sitting down and writing The Power of One and other books.

“I thought oh my god, plus there were whole swaiths of information in those letters that I’d not heard about, some I had. It was like diary of his life. “

Suddenly it was almost like Bryce was telling her to write the book.

“It really was,” she said. “You don’t want to sound too self-absorbed, but I thought maybe I am meant to write this.”

However, it wasn’t quite that clear cut for Christine who wondered if she really should do it.

“I felt conflicted, Bryce had been asked by his publisher, they begged him to write an autobiography, I had asked him to write an autobiography and he always said no. Before he passed away a couple of people came to see him, or they’d ring him. They’d say can I come and sit with you Bryce and record your story. He was very sick by then and just couldn’t deal with it.

“He said anyway I don’t want one. I was asked to write one as well by a publisher not too long after Bryce passed away. I rejected the idea out of hand.

“But I began to think – you know what, Bryce knew a biography would eventually be written about him, he told me that and I thought, it is now ten years nearly since he passed away. As the queen once said I remember in the fullness of time perhaps, he wouldn’t mind if a biography was written now.

“I’m in a unique position to write one, because we spent those years together and I knew him previously, so I knew a bit about those years and now I had this cache of pure gold and I thought these are going to be at the heart of the book.

“Then when I reread his books, 21 books written in 23 years, I began to identify aspects of his life he’d woven into the books. They jumped out at me even more than they had done previously, especially books like obviously The Power of One but also White Thorn, Bryce often said White Thorn was the most autobiographical of any of his books, most people think it’s The Power Of One.

“Bryce never threw anything out, so I had boxes and boxes of files – every book that came out there seemed to be dozens dozens of interviews so I read all of them. I remembered there was quite a few documentaries made with him.

“Again, he’d never told me he’d done this but in 1991 he sat down with Diana Ridge at the National Library in Canberra Oral history unit, and she interviewed him for what seemed like hours. I thought this is amazing material.”

She also talked to old friends and family, doctors who treated him, family in South Africa and with her own memories in a sense she probably had too much material.

“I was given a word count, but I wrote 22,000 more,” she laughed.

“I had enough – remember it’s not an academic work, it’s a memoire. I just tried to write it in a way that was interesting and reflected Bryce’s personality, his personal courage, his resilience, his humour, his generosity of spirt and also to honour his literary legacy, often which I think was a bit undervalued, and also just as a tribute to my darling husband as we commemorate the 10th year since his death.

“It felt like I couldn’t not do it in the end, even though there were times when it was very daunting. You are writing about someone’s life, I wasn’t with Bryce for many of those years, there are people are still living that you are writing about, and I had never written a book before. I’d written chapters of other books and I was always, like Bryce had been, writing in my working life writing press releases and travel brochures. In a sense I’d been writing all my life, but it was a big responsibility and sometimes I’d think, I can’t do this but in the end, I was also very fortunate in that I had a wonderful editor, Racheal Scully who had worked with Bryce on many of his books and who knew him. That was really fantastic to have that support and encouragement. She loves the book and feels that it’s gracious, dignified and a wonderful read.

“She said Bryce’s readers are going to love this and so that was a great compliment but now all I want is for people to enjoy it and I can’t wait to know how they find it.”

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