Archive for June, 2010

“Nothing Venture” 8

June 28, 2010

Somewhere around two years after our purchase bid failed I worked for Shell Oil at a gas processing plant, and looking for something to occupy slack time on shifts and free time at home I started writing the story of our attempt to buy the Imperial refinery. Since I was most familiar with the view from the sec/treasurer’s seat I made him the protagonist of the novel. As I recall it followed the actual events quite closely, except the background life of families and the pressures on them were fictionalised.

The protagonist was younger than me and more handsome – no point in making things more difficult than they already were. The union man who became our VP was treated very sympathetically and became a mentor figure. The president – Bill in real life – didn’t get such glowing treatment – I hadn’t forgiven him for leaving and making our PR effort more difficult. The toadies in the refinery and an antagonist figure representing the big bad oil company were the villains.

When I finished the draft I took it to the writer in residence at the UofC, western Canadian novelist Rudy Weibe at the time, for some criticism and advice. A few weeks later I received the criticism all right and a sheaf of handwritten notes. His comments started very gently, with quite a bit of encouragement – but the quantity and severity of the observations increased as he grew more impatient with the author. At the end he hardly wrote a thing – perhaps it was a lost cause by then.

I know he read the whole novel because his words to me when I went to pick up my manuscript were of my climactic scene. For some reason I had steered away from the actual ending events – perhaps it was still painful enough I didn’t trust myself to go there. I had my protagonist and family on the Bow River, of all things, and almost drowned. Perhaps I had a woolly idea that drowning was a good metaphor for the washout we’d suffered at Imperial’s hands.

I was told that the ending of the novel was hilarious – if I’d been writing a comedy it would have been a terrific close to the story. However, he said, I know you meant it to be serious. I was, of course, thunderstruck. How could my writing say something entirely different to the reader than it did to the author? I’d never heard of such a thing. I went away and mulled over this second washout.

The scene involved the characters on a Sunday afternoon outing in canoes. Don’t ask me – today I have no idea why I thought the scene belonged in the novel. They were despondent over the loss of the refinery and … I think it was protagonist’s wife who lost her paddle … and the characters who had been so fractious and full of recriminations had to work together to rescue her before she was washed away on the flood. Rudy mentioned he was reminded of being up the creek without a paddle, and I have to admit it seems pretty funny to me as I try to remember the details.

A lot of good lessons in that failure. Don’t attempt to go somewhere other than where the story leads. Don’t attempt to build up something quite trivial – in novel terms – into the greatest tragedy of the age – it’s called melodrama. Learn to be honest in your treatment of the story – if something hurts, let the reader see it. Above all, don’t try to write around the edges of a painful experience – let it all hang out – let the blood soak the page.

It took some gritting of teeth and introspection, but I set to work a little time later for version 2 – a whole new novel rather than a revision of the first. Version1 was beyond fixing. I’ll tell the story of the next novel attempt when I post again.


New Review of The Wildcat’s Burden

June 21, 2010

Hi All:

I’m interrupting the posts of Nothing Venture with this new review. I will follow it with post 9 within the week.
The Wildcat’s Burden by Christopher Hoare — Book Review

In The Wildcat’s Burden by Christopher Hoare, Gisel Matah, is now the military governor of the city of Skrona in liberated Tarnland. Married, and pregnant with her first child, she knows her enemies are waiting for her to go into labor so they can pounce. A leader in a dangerous game that pits Gisel against spies, thieves and murderers, her enemies seek to steal Plan Zero and perhaps rid themselves of the Wildcat for good.

In this well-written fourth installment of the Iskander series, Hoare has given Gisel a new side–that of mother-to-be. Unlike many women in her position, Gisel is not able to sit back and enjoy this time. There are too many issues that need her attention: enemies to thwart, plots to uncover, and peace to keep in a world filled with cheats, liars, spies, and worse. Her husband, Yohan, worries over her, all the while being annoyed, knowing Gisel doesn’t share everything with him.

We also meet two other strong women in The Wildcat’s Burden: Lizzie and Bluebell. Lizzie’s unfolding story is perhaps my favorite, and she is vital in uncovering a plot that could change the world as they know it.

This is the first book of the Iskander series that I’ve read, but Hoare includes a Foreword that discusses the series up to the point where this book begins, so I didn’t feel a bit lost picking up the series with Book 4. Even without the Foreword, The Wildcat’s Burden is an excellent stand alone, but it is nice that the author included this for the the reader; especially since there are so many characters to keep track of. Also included is an extensive Afterword that brings the reader into Gisel’s future and discusses the unresolved storylines of characters that did not appear in The Wildcat’s Burden.

Hoare definitely created an interesting and diverse set of characters in this book. Having not meet Gisel before now, I’m curious to know more about her past and others I met along the way.

While I can’t say I would go out of my way to fill my shelves with books of this nature, I enjoyed tackling a genre I rarely read. With The Wildcat’s Burden, Hoare has written a science fiction/alternative world story that will draw in lovers of this genre.

Title: The Wildcat’s Burden
Author: Christopher Hoare
Publisher: Double Dragon Publishing
ISBN-9: 1-55404-729-3
ISBN-13: 978-1-55404-729-1
SRP: $5.99 Available in multiple electronic formats

“Nothing Venture” 8

June 16, 2010

After we settled the debts of Calgary Refining and went our separate ways, it took something like two years before I contemplated writing about the attempt to buy the doomed refinery. Doomed it was, because the plant was put to the cutting torch and the buildings levelled. Nothing was ever built on the site except a couple of bridges and a city freeway.

I did speak to people about keeping the story in the public memory, of our being led on and then hung out to dry, but of the words I received most were against a book of any kind. In the great scheme of things and the cutthroat business of moiling for oil, one failed project is neither here nor there. “At most,” one reporter suggested, “it might make a short magazine article.”

I never considered turning the action into a magazine or newspaper article – read once and consigned to the G file. I’ve never really considered the medium worth spending much blood and sweat upon. To turn the action into a novel that might stick in a few people’s memories and even last upon a few dusty shelves would take more than mere reportage. If others were ever to read of our attempt and failure, and perhaps be better prepared for a future action of their own, the whole story, emotional as well as factual, needed a stage on which to play out. Not an easy task for a new writer who’d never published anything but a few local interest columns.

The principal characters were the first big issue. I felt certain I would never produce a worthwhile novel unless I placed myself at as much distance as I could manage. There needed to be a secretary treasurer of the employee company, but he could not resemble me lest he tried to steal the reader’s sympathies for his own solace. At this distance I have to wonder if that was the best idea – there’s nothing more gripping than hot blood on the page, if the writer could handle it. I don’t think I could in those days and am not too sure how successful I’d be today.

The other main characters were no easier. Bill, our company president, had blotted his copybook in a number of ways during the action. For me personally he presented a problem as we were cut from far different cloth. He was greedy, boastful, and selfish – in all respects an ideal man to be a captain of industry – if only he had the industry to captain. The refinery project was likely his best chance of ever reaching business success, because he had no money behind him and no great intellect to compensate for it. He had dealt our project a serious blow halfway through the action when he quit his job at the refinery to go into real estate. Our detractors lost no time in labelling him an outsider.

I only met him once after the end of our project. His real estate career had ended badly when he became collateral damage in an extensive mortgage scam. He lost his real estate licence, but others went to jail. He was selling used cars a few years later. I felt I could not use his real life character in my novel, but again in hindsight, I think I made a mistake. He should have been the protagonist in all his envy and unscrupulous longing for riches and success, but I’m not sure I could have done his gutter fighting personality the justice it deserved.

Our company vice-president, Jack the long time union man, was never at ease on the other side of the boardroom table and hardly made a mark in our discussions with Imperial or our joint venture partners. He was invaluable as our point man for keeping the other refinery workers on side through all the trials that beset us along the way. Much was made of the possibility of some workers getting more than others – talk about Orwell’s “Animal Farm”. I know he spent many hours working to convince our fellow workers that no animals were more equal than others – not easy once the disruptive social patterns of commerce took control. In our economic system everyone at the bottom is equal, and the ones at the top supposedly unique and special.

Next time I’ll have to look at the two drafts of the novel I came up with, and the hilariously funny ending a writer in residence enjoyed. It was supposed to be serious.

“Nothing Venture” 7

June 7, 2010

When I began to think about our contact with a second independent (that is, one unconnected with BIG Oil) oil company to facilitate buying the Calgary Refinery I couldn’t recall whether Turbo Resources contacted us or the other way around. It seems to me I received the first phone call from them, but whether we’d announced we had abandoned the joint venture with Mohawk or they’d heard on the grapevine, I’m not sure.

We three ‘musketeers’, Bill, Jack, and myself – the officers of our worker owned company – met with a vice president and a senior engineer at their downtown offices. I hate name dropping, especially if the ‘name’ hasn’t been asked to participate, so I won’t identify the Turbo people, except to say the vp became very well known later in Calgary in another endeavour.

They were completely up front. “We don’t have a good relationship with Imperial,” we were told. “We will go first to Toronto to speak with them before making any further arrangements for a joint venture.” I later became aware that the then president of Turbo ( who I’ll call BB) was very active in the Canadian oilpatch – particularly in the direction of breaking in on the majors’ stranglehold on refinery and supply.

About a week later we received a call to come and see them after they returned. Again, they were very up front. “Imperial’s people told us that Turbo Resources is the very last company in the world that Imperial will sell the Calgary Refinery to. We’d still like to have it, but the situation is – you people will have to do all the political pressuring and financial dealing, and we’ll be behind you with the money.” We agreed to that. Of course, Imperial wouldn’t be fooled.

Time was now quite short, just months to the announced shut down date. There was a Provincial election coming up, and I think a municipal one as well. We plunged into the political scene and worked on all the local media to try to drum up support from the general public. If you know anything about Calgary you’ll probably know how it went. Nothing interests Calgarians unless it’s on skates or horses, and you can drink beer while watching it.

I think I got the most positive response politically, but not in the direction I was looking for. I stuck my nose into the NDP campaign and was asked to be a candidate in a constituency where they didn’t have one. Even today I’m not sure if I was the first sucker to come along or whether they wanted to learn how serious I was. I was serious about the refinery, but told them I didn’t have enough hours in the day to take on anything else as well. We did have a young fellow in the refinery who decided to run as an independent, but he was not only independent of political parties but of us as well. He naturally turned out to be independent of the voters, too, when election day came around.

To cut a long, sad story short, our attempts to carry the purchase of the refinery on our own shoulders was a dud. We did discuss a last ditch plan to refuse to shut the units down and keep it running – besieged in the refinery by Calgary’s finest and all the quislings Imperial could recruit from the taverns.

When the day arrived our resolve didn’t. We shut it down as ordered and after my shift that day I went to the Alberta Federation of Labour conference being held downtown and earned a welcome ovation for my little presentation on the demise of the refinery and a bitter denunciation of all the help we received from city, provincial government, and industry to gain these lost opportunities. It took me a couple of years or so before I felt cool enough to think of writing about it.

I’ll start on the lessons and the novel writing next time, but I want to add a short postscript to the Turbo saga. After failing to get control of the Calgary refinery they went ahead to build a brand new refinery of their own a few miles north of the city. As the refinery neared completion and during the time thereafter, the whole of southern Alberta became the scene of a bitter price war. All the major oil companies participated, not just Imperial. Gas was cheaper in Calgary and area than anywhere else in the country. Turbo, with a brand new facility to troubleshoot and pay for was the hardest hit by the cutthroat competition. The price war lasted until the president of Turbo, who I named as BB, stepped down from the board and resigned. The very next day the gas prices went back up and the war was over.