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A Chat with Sam Coull

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Sam CoullQ:  You have written one of the most interesting books I have read in a long time. Please tell our readers where you learned to write?

A:  My writing style comes naturally, but it was also tailored in style to suit a modern readership.  History can be a dry subject, so it was quite deliberately written in a way that was fast moving, in an almost newspaper way, in order to bring it to the reader as a novel rather than the serious historical biography it was always meant to be. We currently have a lot of British television programmes where various professors stalk old battlefields and tell the viewers how it all happened with relaxed insights into the main characters…I tried to do the same in print.

Q: You have developed an easy writing style. Do you write as you talk or is this your writing style?

A:  I pretty well write much as I talk. It can’t be done any other way for my readers otherwise the story would not flow coherently.  I’m like most people, I guess, when my writing flows, I just have to go with it until it dries up on me, and that can mean sitting at a word processor well into morning.

Q: Tell us a little about your writing history. What publications or other books have you written?

A: Nothing But My Sword was my first book and was taken up by the first publisher I approached with the manuscript. It got to number five in the best-seller list of Waterstones, one of Britain’s biggest booksellers.  Previously, my only attempts at writing were a column for my local newspaper.

Q: Unfortunately, there is no mention in the paperback of Nothing But My Sword of your background or what you do, and our readers would like to know more about you. Would you be kind enough to supply us a brief sketch of your life?

A:  I left school to become a joiner/carpenter, met my wife while repairing windows at the school where she taught and got married nine months later with our only daughter, Jenny, already on the way. We bought an old house and during evenings, holidays and weekends tore the old house apart and remade it to suit us, doing it all myself over a two-year period. I then joined the Post Office which allowed me to both be a part-time joiner, Regional Councillor/District Councillor and a Union rep, apart from being very active politically. Having retired from the Post Office at the same time as my wife, Ann, retired from education, I also managed to lose my Council seat and, with nothing much to do, decided to write a book as a way to usefully spend my time. The book took two years to research and write, and I recovered my Council seat shortly before it was published.  At the beginning of my authorship, relatives would ask solicitously, “And what are you doing now?” and, on getting an unexpected answer, replied, “Ah, yes, a book…a book.”

Q: What was it about James Keith that made you want “to restore him to his rightful place as one of Scotland’s “greatest soldiers and greatest men”? When did you first decide to set out on this task, and how long did it take you to complete it?

A:  I chose James Keith because his story had never been written and, since I don’t read fiction, there was no way I could bring myself to write it. Besides, it seemed at that time most of the research would be a simple matter to put together (Just how wrong can you get things?).  Writing and researching the book became an obsession and an everyday chore, which began shortly after my unemployment in 2000 and went on for the next two years. It also helped to have a subject who was larger than life and who miraculously survived a lifetime of battles and escapades that Hollywood would be hard put to match - and it was all totally true and factual. That apart, my task was made easier because I was able to understand, respect, empathise and take a strong liking to my long dead subject.  

Q:  What book are you working on now?  Please tell us a wee bit about it.

A:  Field Marshal James Keith was born and brought up just some two miles from where I live and, incredibly, Tsar Peter the Great of Russia had another soldier who was born just some five miles from where I live as his right hand man…his name was General Patrick Gordon. Most of my research on Gordon has been completed, and I have made a few false starts on his story, perhaps because I have been re-elected to the Council and do not have the same amount of time and because Gordon has yet to come through to me as a person in the way that James Keith did.  It has been quite a bit more difficult to research in that Keith was born in 1696 and Gordon 1635.  The farther we go back in time, the harder it gets to find out the facts and crosscheck them.

Q:  Thank you for being so cooperative with me regarding the book review and this chat.  Is there a final word you would like to leave with our readers?

A:  I suppose everyone at some time or another feels they have a book to write, a story to tell.  My advice is to just get on with it and don’t be distracted or put off from the task by either a seemingly blank wall in the research or the relatives who look knowingly at each other across the room and murmur, “Ah, yes, of course, a book…”  (1/10/2004)

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