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Australian author Bryce Courtenay, writer of 'The Power of One' and 20 others, dies at age 79

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CANBERRA, Australia - Bestselling Australian author Bryce Courtenay, whose first and final books drew on his tough early-life experiences in Africa, has died of stomach cancer. He was 79.

He started writing in midlife and called his first novels "practice books," but his debut was a success. "The Power of One" was published in 1989, translated into 12 languages and became a hit movie.

His publisher Penguin Group said Friday that Courtenay died at his family home in the Australian capital Canberra late Thursday, surrounded by his family and pets.

His 21st novel, "Jack of Diamonds," was published Nov. 12 and included a moving epilogue to his readers.

"It's been a privilege to write for you and to have you accept me as a storyteller in your lives," he wrote. "Now, as my story draws to an end, may I say only, 'Thank you. You have been simply wonderful.'"

Courtenay was born the illegitimate son of a dressmaker on Aug. 14, 1933, in the mountain town of Barberton in what is now the Limpopo province of South Africa.

By the age of 17, he was working in the dangerous mines of what is now Zimbabwe. The work paid his way to Britain, where he studied at the London School of Journalism. He met an Australian, Benita Solomon, whom he followed to her hometown of Sydney in 1958 and married.

He fell into a career in advertising with U.S. agency McCann Erikson at the age of 26 and rose to creative director. He had an epiphany at the age of 50 when he decided to fulfil a lifelong ambition to be a novelist.

"The Power of One" was to be the first of three "practice books" Courtenay planned to write over three years before taking two years to write a fourth book which he hoped would find a publisher.

"I was absolutely staggered when somebody wanted to publish it in the first place," Courtenay said in his official biography released by Penguin.

"Now its worldwide success and the fact that it's available in 12 languages still amazes me," he said. It became a movie starring Morgan Freeman.

Courtenay dedicated its sequel, "Tandia," to his third son, Damon, who died of medically acquired AIDS at the age of 24 in 1991 — two months before the book was published.

That tragedy inspired his third book, "April Fool's Day," that deals with the public fear of AIDS and was published in 1993.

In June, doctors told Courtenay that there was no hope of curing his stomach cancer.

Bob Sessions, Courtenay's longstanding publisher at Penguin, said the author would produce a 600-page book in six months, sometimes writing for more than 12 hours a day.

"He was a born storyteller and I would tell him he was a latter-day Charles Dickens with his strong and complex plots, larger-than-life characters and his ability to appeal to a large number of readers," Sessions said.

Courtenay divorced his first wife, Benita, in 2000. She died in 2007 aged 72.

He married his partner of seven years, Christine Gee, last year. He is also survived by his sons Brett and Adam.

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