In my last post, the bloghop post, I gave a brief answer to the question, how did I start writing “Red Gold”? Some of what happened that was left out might also be of some interest, because it introduced me to self-publishing, even back then. As I wrote previously, my first book, “Gemina” was written as a response to a bet, and after I sent it off, I got, I think, four rejections. I gave up on that, but the writing bug must have stuck because next summer I tried another. This, I decided, would be more literary, with as much as anything, the objective of which was to record experiences of a young student during the early 1960s. That too ended up in the trunk, and I gave up, as my career, aka day job, took over. About fifteen years later, I reopened the scripts. The first one, I felt, was genuine trash at the start, but half-way through I was reasonably pleased with it. The book was written in four parts, so I totally rewrote Part 1, made some significant changes to Part 2, I left Part 3 totally untouched, and Part 4 was rewritten only to accommodate necessary changes made earlier. Now what? I sent it off to one publisher and got the standard rejection. However, about this time I was reaching a crisis in my life.
I had been employed as a scientist at the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in New Zealand, and in response to the first oil crisis, I was involved with energy-related matters. This climaxed when I was asked to a meeting to decide the government’s response to a proposal to build a synthetic fuels plant. As part of the background, New Zealand had found a massive field of natural gas offshore and by previous contracts, the government had a “take or pay” agreement to consume the gas. There were two major proposals for synthetic fuel on the table: a German group offered to build a Fischer-Tropsch plant for something like $800 million, plus site development, while Mobil Corporation offered to build their methanol to petrol process for $290 million, plus site development. (The reason for “plus site development” was that nobody knew where the plant was to be constructed.) A meeting was called, at which I was by far the most junior, and I advocated the German plant, because it was cheaper. I was asked what I meant, and I said the Mobil proposal would cost at a minimum, $1100 million plus site development. I was ridiculed, after all, how would I know better than Mobil Corporation, and never asked to come back. I became persona non gratia with the officials who recommended the plant, and who promptly received very significant roles in it. Motunui was built, using the Mobil process, and I gather it cost something around $1300 million. You might ask, how did that happen? The answer was deploringly simple: Mobil corporation gave a perfectly good quote, but it was for a process to convert methanol to petrol; you still had to build the plant to convert gas to methanol. My estimate was based on adding the cost of the methanol plants to the Mobil quote.
There was one further point about the Mobil process: the petrol it made had a component in it called durene, which, unlike other petrol components, is a solid, so it could crystallize out from petrol on a cold day and block a carburetor. On the other hand, since it crystallized out, it could be separated, and if it were, it would be a raw material for a class of chemicals called dianhydrides, from which you can make fire-resistant plastics. Since the official role for DSIR was to assist and promote industrial development in New Zealand, I set out to promote the use of durene, which in principle could be made in this plant ten times cheaper than anywhere else. Such efforts started with proper channels, and got immediate rebuff from the same certain officials who had been promoting the Mobil process. Why? Who knows. It could have been rank incompetence, or it could have been to protect their positions. However, I took what opportunities that were available, and one turned up in the form of an invitation to go on a nationwide TV program to discuss the flammability of plastics. I had mentioned to the producer that it as possible to make flame-resistant plastics, so I was invited to make some and bring them along. I did, and found myself on the set facing one of the leading interviewers in the country, and a small gas torch. At the end, I was asked to prove what I had made was flame resistant, so the gas torch was lit, I placed this slab of home-made foam in the palm of my hand, fired it up, and hoped this would work. It did; the plastic became yellow hot, but apart from minor ablation, remained more or less the same. I held it there for thirty seconds, until the interviewer decided that this had some similarity to drying paint and cut the flame.
As the plastic cooled down, he remarked something like, “Yes, but it still gives off obnoxious gas doesn’t it?”
We had already discussed the poisonous fumes given off by burning polyurethane, so I knew where this was going. So I held my nose over it and gave a huge sniff, and held my face and said something like, “Nothing too bad.”
The interviewer gave a wry smile. He knew I had acted, but he also knew there was nothing to be gained by his calling me.
The relevance of all this is, of course, I was starting to build up something of a public image. I had to get that novel out! I decided to self-publish, because there was no time to lose, or so I thought.