Invermoriston author's 700-year-old story sounds familiar
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When Graham Bullen wrote his first novel with its setting as Venice in 1348, he did not anticipate such a close parallel with the events of 2020.
While he had anticipated the political intrigue and human vices and virtues of 14th century Europe to be not so dissimilar from those of the 21st century, there was one aspect he had not considered would reflect contemporary concerns.
"I tried to find something that would resonate with today, even though it was set 700 years in the past, not realising for a moment that the last part of the book would be looking at the Black Death and would be coming out in the middle of a global pandemic. That was just really spooky!" he said.
Even the title, The Quarant, has taken on an unwanted topicality – it is drawn from quarantena, the Venetian expression for 40 days and from which we get the English word quarantine.
Graham was originally inspired to choose an Italian setting by a documentary recreating lost buildings of its greatest historic cities, and especially by its revelation of a secret political prison within the Doge's Palace.
"I wondered what sort of society could produce something like that, and then I found Venice was basically the origin of the secret police in modern Europe back in the early 1300s," Graham said.
It was a period which also saw tremendous growth as Venice established itself as a maritime power, but what sealed the setting as 1348 was an eventful start to the year, beginning with an earthquake and tsunami and followed by the arrival of the Black Death in April.
"If you are looking for an interesting period to set a novel in almost real time over 40 days, you could do a lot worse than fitting in the drama between those two events," he explained.
Graham's careful research is blended with a suspenseful narrative as English merchant Malin Le Cordier arrives in Venice and is embroiled in an attempted coup instigated by England's King Edward III and Venice's great trading rival, Genoa.
While this takes The Quarant into historical thriller territory, Graham originally envisaged the novel as a personal drama, centring on Malin's complicated family relationships and unrequited love.
"That was the starting point and all the thriller and conspiracy elements were there to give it an added narrative drive," he added.
Graham, who has lived in Invermoriston for the last 10 years, has finally been able to achieve his long term ambition of becoming a published writer after taking voluntary redundancy after a 31 year career in the oil and gas sector which left little opportunity for writing.
With the support of his wife Joanne, he enrolled in some courses at Moniack Mhor writing centre near Kiltarlity, learning not only about writing, but making close friends among his fellow writing students.
He also received encouragement from the Highland Literary Salon which, pre-pandemic, held monthly meetings at the Glen Mhor Hotel in Inverness, as he knuckled down to a disciplined schedule of five hours of writing five days a week, to eventually complete his debut novel.
Although the planned launch event has fallen victim to Covid-19 restrictions, The Quarant will be available at a number of local retailers and the main online bookshops. He also hopes that the ebook version will find an audience in the USA.
His second book, The Broch, takes Graham closer to home and almost up to take with the story of a widower coming to terms with the loss of his wife as he holidays in Harris. However, his current work in progress takes him back to Italian history, this time the 16th century, for a novel partly inspired by seeing life-size puppets while on holiday in Scilly.
But he has not entirely abandoned the world of The Quarant, and has ideas for both a prequel and sequel.
"I got quite upset when I finished the book because it doesn't end well for everyone," he revealed.
"It was quite a strange feeling putting the pen down. It's another reason for writing the prequel."
The Quarant by Graham Bullen is published by Matador.