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.