As a child I was instructed to be seen but not heard. As a writer I’ve accepted it is my role to be heard but not seen. It is the lot of writers to produce memorable lines and have others take the credit for them. It’s not fair. It’s the way it is.
Cast your mind back to the golden era of movies. We all know who said, ‘Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!’ And, ‘Here’s looking at you, kid.’ And, more lately, ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.’ Of course it was Sidney Howard, Julius J. Epstein (or Philip G. Epstein or Howard Koch) and Peter Benchley (or Carl Gottlieb). They were the writers and the words were theirs. Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart and Roy Scheider were merely the mouthpieces. It’s history who got the credit and enjoyed the fame.
I have been a fan of Jimmy McGovern from the time he wrote Cracker and The Lakes. He was recently in Australia working on Redfern Now. The truth is if I’d passed him in the street I wouldn’t have recognised him. One of my favourite novelists is James Lee Burke. If he’d walked by I wouldn’t have recognised him either. Writers have to accept that, while their names may become famous, they never will.
Of course there have been exceptions. A few have succeeded in making their faces as familiar as their names; Ernest Hemingway, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and J.K. Rowling to name a few. And our own Bryce Courtenay.
I happened to be in Noosa when Bryce was speaking at the writers’ festival. I thought he might appreciate a break and took him down to the Sunshine Surf Club for lunch and a bit of whale-watching. It was kind of odd to sit there as a writer of 12 books and be as anonymous as the hamburger I was eating while Bryce patiently signed napkin after coaster after napkin for fellow diners. I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if fame had touched me instead.
It didn’t take long to find out. Shortly after returning to Sydney I was invited to talk at a nearby retirement village/nursing home. My job was to entertain a group of people removed by age and circumstance from the mainstream of life and help fill their day. But nothing had prepared me for the audience that greeted me. If you rate age and infirmity on a scale from one to ten, these people were definitely all nine-plus. Those who were able scratched their way into the auditorium on walking frames, those who weren’t were pushed in on wheelchairs. The hard of hearing lined up on my right with the deafest closest to my lectern. The visually impaired lined up on my left with the blindest closest. I sensed this was not going to be an easy audience.
I started telling them the story of my brush with Hollywood, how my third novel came within a couple of weeks of being turned into a major movie. It was a story that had always worked for me in the past. It had drama, humour, pathos. On this day it had nothing. There was a lot of shuffling of walker frames and squeaking of wheelchairs. Somebody on the deaf side began snoring. The only encouragement I got came from the entertainment coordinator sitting down at the very back, and she looked as desperate as I felt. Something had to give. And it did.
‘Who are you?’ The question, shouted for the benefit of the deaf, came from the blind side. My interrogator turned out to be an elderly woman with pebble-thick glasses leaning heavily on her walking frame. The deaf side responded in a way that was inevitable.
‘What did you say?’
‘Who is he?’
‘What did you say?’
These exchanges continued for a couple of minutes, while I kept on trying to be jolly and witty. Suddenly there was movement and to my dismay I saw that my interrogator had risen to her feet and was pushing her walking frame steadfastly towards me.
‘Who are you?’ she shouted.
I felt like a fly trapped in a web, watching the advance of its captor. Like a mouse dropped into the cage of a hungry snake, recognising with instant horror the nature and certainty of its demise.
‘Who are you?’
She’d stopped, her face 30 centimetres from mine, her eyes magnified to twice their normal size behind her bulletproof lenses. I could not ignore her any longer.
‘Who are you?’ she demanded.
I drew myself up to full height, looked directly into her goldfish bowl eyes and replied, ‘Bryce Courtenay’.
A reverential hush descended over the gathering. The deaf regained their hearing, the blind their sight. OK, this Bryce Courtenay might look a bit different to the Bryce they knew from television but it didn’t matter. They hung on every word, laughed at all my jokes, revelled in all my lies. I felt the awe, the admiration and, yes, even love, that Bryce inspired in his readers and audiences. I had them eating out of the palm of my hand for the remaining 20 minutes that I spoke. Of course, at the conclusion of it all I had to sign a few books. In for a penny…
The entertainment coordinator still had a stunned look of disbelief when she took the mic to thank me. Not knowing what to call me, she referred to me as ‘the speaker’. She was not impressed but I didn’t care and neither did anyone else. I’d done my job and entertained, indeed, entertained as only Bryce could. And I’d experienced fame — albeit Bryce’s — for a few moments and that kept me smiling all the way home. When I told my wife what I’d done I thought I’d have to turn on the hose to stop her laughing. When I told Bryce he could hardly stop laughing either. Even today, copies of my books signed ‘Bryce Courtenay’ turn up in second-hand bookstores. Who said fame was fleeting?
Derek Hansen is the author of nine novels and three volumes of short stories. derekhansen.com.au