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Short: The Tales of a Veteran Energy Trader

Novelist and trader Cortright McMeel raises the stakes in Short, his high energy account of commodities trading.

We all know that commodities traders drink, gamble, scream, swear, gobble steak and pizza, drink, go to strip joints, drink, and risk big chunks of money on contingencies like a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia or a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. But do they also post fake trades and hire off-duty pilots to wreck transmission lines?

They do in Short, a debut novel by Cortright McMeel, a veteran energy trader who works at Rainbow Energy in Denver.

“The plot had to be this over-the-top, James Bond-esque world to garner interest,” McMeel explained in an interview with Institutional Investor. “The reality of trading is pretty boring. Ninety percent of the time you’re sitting in front of a screen.”

Over-the-top indeed. The novel also squeezes in Russian mobsters, a ménage a quatre, and a psychopathic trader’s jaunt to a shooting range with a hooker, an assault rifle, and a midget bartender. Oh, and Hurricane Katrina.

Still, McMeel says he put a lot of the real world of Wall Street in the book, based on “my thirteen years’ experience in the nuts and bolts of the trading industry.” One key plot line -- short-selling Texas energy – is probably ho-hum in McMeel’s field. Readers will learn about the relative clout of traders versus brokers versus weather forecasters and whether going long or short is riskier. Even the idea of a pilot’s dropping a chain across power lines in order to jack up energy prices had a basis in reality. “You hear linesmen talking about how fragile the infrastructure is,” McMeel says.

For that matter, another central plot is hardly unheard-of in any sector of business: an office turf struggle when a new boss tries to undermine the guy he replaced.

But McMeel claims that the well-known image of hard-drinking, loud, Type A traders is unfair. “There are a lot of really brilliant, quiet, reserved traders who are extremely polite and never swear at all,” he says. Including him? “If you give me a couple of beers, I might tell some dirty jokes,” he allows.

And in his professional strategy, McMeel says he’s much more conservative than his characters are. “Having seen people burn out and make a bunch of money and lose it, I learned you have to pace yourself,” he advises. “One of my trading things to live by is: Don’t over-trade. Only put on trades when you really believe in it.” On some days he will trade little or none at all.

McMeel began more on the writing side than finance, with a master’s of fine arts in creative writing and a job doing advertising for Miller beer. When that account “went asunder,” as he poetically puts it, friends connected him with an over-the-counter brokerage in New York. He spent a year there, then switched to the trading side, working at Cargill’s trading arm, Constellation Energy Group in Baltimore, and another small trading firm in Colorado before landing at his current position at Rainbow Energy. The interest in writing continued, and in between trades and his two children, in the wee hours of the morning, he’s been writing and publishing short stories.

Now McMeel has no intention of leaving his day job, which - no surprise - supports his writing habit. On the other hand, with his next novel already written and the following two planned out, he doesn’t foresee writing about the finance world in the near future. The topics of those three books? Zombies, martial arts, and a baseball player who burned out young and ultimately got involved with the Mob.

Hmmm. Sounds a bit like the financial world after all.

Fran Hawthorne is the author of the award-winning “Pension Dumping: The Reasons, the Wreckage, the Stakes for Wall Street” (Bloomberg Press) and “Inside the FDA: The Business and Politics behind the Drugs We Take and the Food We Eat” (John Wiley & Sons). She writes regularly about finance, health care, and business ethics.

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