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700-year-old story sounds very familiar!

By Calum MacLeod

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Graham Bullen at the Bridge of Sighs and Doge's Palace in Venice, the inspiration for his first novel, The Quarant.
Graham Bullen at the Bridge of Sighs and Doge's Palace in Venice, the inspiration for his first novel, The Quarant.

When Graham Bullen wrote his first novel with its setting as Venice in 1348, he did not anticipate such a close parallel with 2020.

“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 come 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.

Invermoriston resident Graham was originally inspired to choose an Italian setting by a documentary which revealed the existence of a secret political prison within the palace of the Doge, the ruler of Venice.

“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 followed by 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.

Graham took voluntary redundancy after a busy 31-year career in the oil and gas sector to pursue his writing ambitions.

With the support of his wife Joanne, he enrolled in some courses at Moniack Mhor writing centre near Kiltarlity.

He also received encouragement from members of the Highland Literary Salon as he embarked on a schedule of five hours of writing five days a week. That work rate seems unlikely to diminish.

He has already completed a second book, The Broch, set on contemporary Harris, and is currently at work on a second historical novel, one again with an Italian background, thistime set in the 16th century.

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.

The Quarant by Graham Bullen is published by Matador.

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