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Day 4: Bryce is Back

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Oahu
Sep 01, 2008

A little Paul Newman, a little Johnny Carson.  By the close of the Maui Writers Conference, all the women in the audience had fallen in love with Bryce Courtenay.  Or, at least, co-director Shannon Tullius and emcee Sam Horn.  Truth is I think I did, too.  My love didn’t come from his antics Friday night.  My love developed this morning, as Bryce shared with a ballroom of writer wannabes just how he became Australia’s best-selling author ever.  It’s a classic Kleenex story.  Tears rivered my face.

Of course, Bryce started his story with roaring lions and bare bums and bamboo spears through the chest.  Then, he got serious.  Then, he got in his storytelling groove.  And he stood still, with his arms wide.  (Indeed, I thought, he must have made a good monkey.  He has seriously long arms.)

He took us back to Africa, the smallest boy at the orphanage where he received daily thrashings and where he befriended a Zulu who told Bryce stories of his people.  Bryce was enthralled.  One day, he delayed his daily tormenting by trading a story–borrowed from his Zulu friend–for a beating.  “If you don’t hit me, I’ll tell you a story,” he said.  “But I didn’t tell them the ending, and I didn’t do anything but bullshit the rest of my life.”

A real-life Scheherazade.

Bryce jumps forward in his story several decades.  He’s married.  He has two healthy sons.  When his wife gives birth to his third son, the doctor informs Bryce that his newborn son has hemophilia.  When his son is 16, after a lifetime of blood transfusions, he is diagnosed with AIDS.  At 25, the young man dies.  On his death bed, the son turns to his father and says, “Thank you, dad, for a wonderful life.  Please tell the world it’s not a punishment from God; it’s a virus.”

The tears were flowing freely then.

So Bryce writes his book.  Only it turns into a doorstop.  Literally.  He wraps string around the manuscript and uses it to stop a screen door from knocking in the wind.  He’d done research, you see, and figured out no author gets published on his first manuscript.  Indeed, they don’t get published until their fourth manuscript, he reasoned.  Bryce starts on another story.  Time goes by.  His first book continues to serve as a doorstop, sitting there, its pages crinkling and yellowing.

Eventually someone who knows someone who knows an editor at Bantam publishing house hears about the book and convinces Bryce to submit it.  So, he does.  But before he sends it off, he plucks a hair from his head and slips it between pages 7 and 8.  (He’s a wily one, yes?)  When it comes back a few weeks later with a rejection letter that, according to Bryce, goes something like, “This is the biggest piece of crap we’ve ever seen in our lives, please break all your fingers and don’t darken out doorstep again.”

Thing is, though, the hair is still snugly tight between pages 7 and 8.

The manuscript goes back to life as a doorstop.

More time goes by.  An agent calls.  She wants to shop Bryce’s manuscript at the annual Book Expo convention.  He thinks he’s being setup by his friends.  But the agent is insistent.  She takes his manuscript and a short time later calls him in the wee hours of the morning.  She shopped his book.  Bantam is now offering a $175,000 advance.

Bryce says no.  (Actually, he strings a few expletives, but the gist was that he didn’t appreciate the way the publishing house had treated him the first time and wasn’t about to let them publish his book now.)

A few days later, the agent calls back.  Random House bid $1 million dollars.

Bryce says yes.

The Power of One is published to international success.

“You’ve got to have a dream,” Bryce says.

Bryce’s dream led him out of an orphanage, out of brutality, out of poverty.  And it led to his notoriety today as Australia’s all-time, best-selling author.  It led him to Maui Writers Conference on Oahu.  It led him to my heart.

And, now, I have some reading to do.

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