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Ripping yarn ends for the master story seller

Date

Steve Dow

Millions of readers will feel sadness at the passing of Australia's biggest-selling author, Bryce Courtenay, at 79, but ''literary'' writers owe a great debt of gratitude to him too, publishing figures say.

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 the Harry Potter series author, J.K. Rowling, have allowed ''thousands of flowers to bloom'', their bestsellers financing ''the publication of books that might sell more humbly''.

He said it took ''guts'' that Courtenay - who succumbed to stomach cancer in Canberra late on Thursday with his wife Christine, his family pets, Tim, the dog, and Cardamon, the Burmese cat, by his side - had finished his book when he was so ill.

Courtenay recorded a farewell message last month in which he said his ''use-by date has finally come up''.

The writer said he did not mind that he had only a short time to live because ''I've had a wonderful life'' and 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.''

''There's no doubting readers will feel sadness and I hope they will raise their glasses for a toast to Bryce as they unwrap their presents of his latest book on Christmas Day,'' Keneally said.

Keneally acknowledged that many so-called literary writers were dismissive of Courtenay's work.

''I'm not so certain we authors can afford to be so sniffy about each other, because who says any of our works will survive long after our deaths?''

Best-selling author Di Morrissey said: ''What I loved about Bryce was his passion - for everything! But he was most passionate about writing and reading.

''He was such an advocate for popular fiction, puncturing the puffed-up pretensions of the literary establishment.

''He always told me that being a storyteller was a great and noble profession. And that it is a gift and how lucky he felt that he could entertain people, enthuse non-readers to read, and that becoming a writer had changed his life.

''He approached every book - as indeed he embraced life - with enthusiasm, excitement and exuberance.

''He encouraged so many people to read, to tell their own stories, and he helped countless people in so many ways.

''He was generous, outrageous, loveable and there's a huge hole left in the Australian publishing industry but his legacy will live on. But I'll miss him.''

Author Matthew Reilly said: ''I think we've lost one of Australia's greatest storytellers. He single-handedly paved the way for mass market authors like me and I thank him for that.''

Chief executive of the Australian Publishers Association Maree McCaskill said there was no doubt Courtenay was one of the country's most popular authors. ''There's been much criticism about his literary merit but I don't think it's worth a pinch of salt,'' she said. ''He sold millions and encouraged people who wouldn't normally read to pick up a book. He didn't have any literary snobbery and he was about getting his books read by as many Australians … We owe him a huge debt in Australia for making reading popular.''

Christine Gee said in a statement released by Penguin publishers: ''We'd like to thank all of Bryce's family and friends and all of his fans around the world for their love and support for me and his family as he wrote the final chapter of his extraordinary life. And may we make a request for privacy as we cherish his memory.''

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