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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dempster

Graham Bullen presents his first novel, The Quarant

The Quarant was published on 28 October 2020, and is available through online providers Amazon, Waterstones, The Telegraph Bookshop and WH Smith. Graham's website is here and his HighlandLIT Members' Showcase page here. You can watch Graham reading from and discussing the novel here or via links below.

HighlandLIT member Graham Bullen spoke at last night’s on-line session about his first novel, The Quarant, published by Troubador in October. Set in Venice over 40 days in early 1348, this meticulously-structured work features intense political intrigue, the aftermath of tsunami and the onset of plague. On one level, it’s a thriller but more than anything it’s a novel of character, scrutinising the damaged soul of the main protagonist, Malin Le Cordier an English-born maritime trader. He has hitherto survived with the support of friends, and father-figures who compensate for the toxic influence of his own father.

Graham’s readings from The Quarant left us in no doubt as to the quality of the writing – the graphic scene where Malin’s father discovers that his wife has died was particularly memorable. Some of us had already read the book – the rest of us, I’m sure will be ordering a copy.

Graham was born in Lowestoft, but now lives in the North West Highlands. Retiring from a career in the oil and gas industry in 2016, he turned to writing. I am hugely impressed by the quality of The Quarant, and by Graham’s meticulous approach to researching and writing the work. He spoke of writing 80,000 words of ‘back-story’ for characters before beginning the novel; he described the drafts through which the book reached completion. He told us that, in putting words into his character’s mouths, he only used vocabulary which was in contemporary use – curiously in mercantile context, for example, there was no word for ‘risk’ though ‘peril’ was used.

He told us about the enormous amount of research he did in preparation for the work – and about the fact that 40-50% of it, though fascinating, was never utilised. He told us about pouring over on Google Maps every street in Venice which his characters traversed, and of later visiting Venice with his wife, spending time at each location featured in the novel and absorbing both architectural detail, and atmosphere. He told us of the spreadsheet he agonised over when he was struggling to see a way of drawing together all the storyline’s compex threads.

Interestingly, Graham told us that the research to the novel was not peripheral to the plotting but enhanced, and helped to shape it. When researching 14th-century trade in Venice, he discovered ‘the quarant’ – the name for a forty-day period during which imported goods were held in government warehouses on the quayside while checks were made on the paperwork and the level of tax assessed and paid. Only after forty days was the cargo released to the purchaser, and the ship cleared to sail. This discovery was crucial to Graham as he devised the plot-arc of the novel – it gave Malin a reason to wander round Venice liaising with those who were plotting a coup, and set in motion a tension-winding ‘ticking clock.’

Someone asked Graham if he empathised with his characters. He described the deep sense of responsibility he felt to Malin and his woman friend Lucia – who to others were clearly in love, but had never mutually declared their feelings. Graham had to put words in their mouths, and he really cared that he got it right for them, he said, not messing up their communication. And more generally, he spoke of the ‘real sense of bereavement’ he felt in coming to the end of the first draft.

The Quarant was submitted to twelve publishers in all, and about 10 agents. One publisher showed an interest, but was not moving the project forward in a timely way, and so Graham explained that he decided to self-publish using the trusted self-publishing firm Matador, an imprint of Troubador publishers.

At the event last night, Cynthia Rogerson gave The Quarant fulsome praise. She is ‘so impressed by the book,’ she told us. ‘It’s incredibly complicated and credible and hugely accomplished for someone’s first novel.’

Graham’s second novel The Broch appears in June 2021, and he is working on the third. He thanked HighlandLIT for the encouragement he’d received over the last few years. ‘It genuinely gives the sort of stimulation I appreciated and really need.’

The blurb for The Quarant captures the crackling tension in Graham's plot-line:

The day after an earthquake and tsunami have ravaged Venice, Malin Le Cordier, a successful English maritime trader, sails into the city with plans to mature a coup on behalf of Edward III and Genoa. His time? Short. His guilt? Strong. Keeping the coup a secret from those he loves most weighs heavy on his soul. But Venice is a place with secrets and revenge flows through the city like its canals. For his sake and those he is bound to, it is best he learn to navigate it. And quickly. Unbeknownst to Malin, there is someone powerful in the city who seeks revenge on Edward III on behalf of his family. Well-situated, he operates under covert circumstances, monitoring Malin’s every move - and playing his own long game, merely waiting for the perfect time to strike. Combining greed and guilt, revenge and undeclared love, this is one trip that Malin may not live to regret.

Below - Graham introduces The Quarant

Below - Graham reads from The Quarant

Below - Further reading from The Quarant by author Graham Bullen


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