Rowan, in her own write
It's a bit of a fairy-tale: dyslexia sufferer gets job with a book company and goes on to become a published author herself. Rowan Coleman tells STEVEN RUSSELL how it happened - and why 47 pairs of shoes still isn't enoughSHOCK! Rowan Coleman is cutting down on the soaps she watches - even going cold turkey with Hollyoaks, on which she's a bit of an expert.
It's a bit of a fairy-tale: dyslexia sufferer gets job with a book company and goes on to become a published author herself. Rowan Coleman tells STEVEN RUSSELL how it happened - and why 47 pairs of shoes still isn't enough
SHOCK! Rowan Coleman is cutting down on the soaps she watches - even going cold turkey with Hollyoaks, on which she's a bit of an expert. Emmerdale has also been jettisoned from her list of must-sees.
You can understand why: as well as having a daughter and lively poodle Polly to care for, book deal has followed book deal - so there's a need to seize some quality time.
“I think British soap is brilliantly written, especially EastEnders,” says the author. “The last few months have seen some of which I think are the top episodes. I would so love to write for the programme, but I suspect the speeches I would write would be much too long.
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“And I love Coronation Street, because it's so funny. But for some time I have known I should watch less.”
This is a busy time for Rowan, who's 34. Her fourth adult novel, The Accidental Mother, is out in a fortnight. Woman Walks into A Bar is one of 12 Quick Reads published for World Book Day - shorter stories aimed particularly at people who have lost the reading habit, don't have time for a long tome, or who struggle to plough through 10,000 words.
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Then, at the end of the month, she has a date with an invited audience in Colchester as part of Essex Book Festival. And, for good measure, summer sees the launch of a sequel to her children's book Ruby Park Hits the Small Time, about a child star who has grown up in the glamorous soap Kensington Heights and who is now off to her first major movie audition.
“Yes. She's me. I make no pretence about it. I was desperate to be an actress when I was young. Fame (the film and TV series) was around and I dressed in leg-warmers and hairband. But it was never going to happen. But I could daydream . . .”
Bearing in mind that Rowan's success came through her efforts in adulthood, it's fitting that her Essex festival appearance is presented in partnership with The Adult Community College, Colchester - with its focus on lifelong personal development.
Rowan grew up in Hertfordshire and for a long time it didn't look as if she would go on to university. In fact, she scraped into the sixth-form after gaining only three O-levels. “I think they just wanted me for the school play,” she quips.
“Nobody thought I was dyslexic. People just accepted I was extremely untidy in my work and that my punctuation was out of synch. My English teacher said I had very good ideas, and was quite bright and imaginative, and if I could manage to get that over then I would pass.”
In the event she worked hard, got an A for English, and won a place through clearing to read humanities at the University of Hull.
What would have happened otherwise? “I don't know. I worked at a pub in the holidays before I went. Perhaps I could have been a pub landlady!”
As a child she'd enjoyed creating stories, often about a girl highwayman, “but it was a bit hard because of my writing skills. I was more of a 'head-writer'. I couldn't spell and my handwriting was terrible. I'm still really bad at spelling. I still can't spell a word like necessarily, which is a shame as it's such a useful word. Even my computer can't recognise what I've written!”
Her dyslexia wasn't confirmed until she was in her 20s and at university. Coping strategies she's since used include trying to see a word as a 3D image and striving to commit its shape to memory.
Upon graduation in 1993, Rowan wasn't sure what she wanted to do. She certainly wasn't scribbling in an attic, dreaming of literary fame and fortune. In fact, she admits - unnecessarily - to being “sorry and embarrassed” that she didn't have a tough apprenticeship.
She got a job in a bookshop in Hemel Hempstead and then became manager of a quirky independent bookstore in the City of London. “I was awful at it for four or five months, realised I'd lose the job if I didn't improve, and managed to raise my game.”
She then spent three years in a secretarial and administrative role with publishing giant Random House. An odd choice for someone struggling with words?
“I was really awful and got by because of people liking me,” she giggles. “I disciplined myself and practised writing and spelling. I would take half an hour on a couple of paragraphs and make sure I'd got it right.”
Random House's Ebury Press imprint came next, where she was editorial manager.
Along the way, Rowan saw a short story competition advertised in Company magazine and decided to give it a whirl. Her 2,000-word tale, about a parallel universe where women aspired to be fat and single, proved the winner.
Unsurprisingly, more than a few literary agents were quite interested in her at this point. “If that was the case, I thought it would be better if I had a novel to show them!” So what would become Growing Up Twice was written in her spare time.
She hooked up with an agent she liked, the manuscript was sent around, and found favour with Arrow Books - part of the Random House empire for whom Rowan worked . . . Fortunately, it had been submitted under an assumed name. Colleagues were pleased for her when the truth emerged.
Since then there's been After Ever After and River Deep. And daughter Lily emerged in between the first and second book (mum having left work).
“Because I'd just had a baby and had to write at the same time, I didn't really have a brain and I was tired,” she admits. “I started when she was about six weeks old and it took about a year to finish.”
River Deep, her last published novel, is about a woman called Maggie whose life is turned upside down when her boyfriend and boss drops a bombshell: “It's over.” She moves back to her bedroom, still decorated with posters of a-ha and Take That and sets out to win back her boyfriend.
The Accidental Mother features an independent career-woman called Sophie who unexpectedly finds herself in charge of two children under the age of six. Woman Walks into a Bar, the 115-page Quick Read, focuses on single mother and supermarket worker Sam, who reluctantly agrees to a blind date organised by her friends.
Rowan says some folk have slapped the “chick lit” label on her work - and she doesn't care for it.
“I think it is terribly demeaning. I write books along the lines of Nick Hornby and no-one refers to his books in the same kind of way. I think we (female authors writing about real women's lives) tend to get put down.
“But if you can write a 120,000-word book that people want to read, you're no bimbo!”
(The Accidental Mother, £6.99, is published on March 16. Woman Walks into a Bar is £2.99. Both are from Arrow.)
EAST Anglia is a bit of a magnet for Rowan Coleman.
“I know Suffolk very well,” she says, “and really like it. We spend a lot of time in Aldeburgh, and were in Southwold just last week. Our little girl really likes it; going to the beach in the winter is one of our big things.”
When she comes to Colchester at the end of the month, it's likely she'll ask husband Erol to drive her from Hertfordshire. Rowan only relatively recently learned to drive - figuring she'd soon have to start transporting Lily to ballet classes - and last summer passed at the fourth attempt. A trip to the unchartered territories of Britain's oldest recorded town is a bit daunting for a novice.
The couple, both Arsenal football fans, met after Rowan started work in a Stoke Newington pub to earn some extra cash. Erol was a customer. “It was a stalwart Arsenal pub,” she explains. They're now on the waiting list for season tickets.
Favourite player? - as if we couldn't guess . . . “Thierry Henry. I love him! And also Fabregas; he's coming on well.”
Finally, that shoe collection. Forty-seven pairs? “True.” Why? I just love shoes. Even if you are having a fat day, you shoes will always fit you. They can just lift your mood and make you feel good.”
Rowan will admit to owning shoes she hasn't yet worn. How many. A slight hesitation. “Maybe 10.” No! “Well, shoes are almost a work of art. You can have them simply for the sheer pleasure of the way they look, I think.”
Footwear for all occasions, then. “Yes - although I wanted to buy a pair of red shoes the other day and Erol said I'd already got two pairs. But I'd like some with wedges.”
Mind you, she does draw the line at other excesses. “When we were in Southwold I saw a lovely dress by Vivienne Westwood. It was £400. I didn't buy it.”
(Essex Book Festival runs throughout March. For full details see www.essexbookfestival.org.uk)
WORLD Book Day was marked in over 30 countries last year. The origins lie in Catalonia, where roses and books were given as gifts to loved ones on St George's Day ? a tradition started some 80 years ago.
Here, it is a partnership of publishers and booksellers who unite to promote books and reading. A key aim is to encourage children to explore the pleasures of books. Many schoolchildren will receive a £1 book token.
Alongside Rowan Coleman, writers to have penned a Quick Read book include Ruth Rendell, Maeve Binchy, Richard Branson and Joanna Trollope. There's also a book looking at football behind the scenes.
More details: www.worldbookday.com
ARE you having trouble getting your youngsters excited about books? Waterstone's children's books buyer Debbie Williams has some advice on getting kids hooked.
1. Let them read what they want to read: If they are forced to read what is 'good for them' they will soon be turned off. If they are reading only magazines, newspapers or joke books, at least they are reading.
2. Let them read below their reading age: Parents often worry that their children are reading books that are too babyish. However, forcing children to read a book they find too difficult will put them off reading. Older children often like to read picture books and this shouldn't be judged as bad for them.
3. Read aloud to them every day: A bedtime story or a story round the dinner table. Parents can act out the characters in the books and talk about them during the day. This really brings reading alive and gives children something to look forward to. Reading is associated with positive feelings.
4. Always keep a book in the car and pack a few favourite reads when going on holidays: Reading is a great way to while away any time spent in traffic jams.
5. Encourage them to listen to audio books or radio that talks about books: Parents sometimes don't have the time or the confidence to read to their children. Audio books can be great substitutes. Many are dramatised and children who are avid TV watchers will find these particularly entertaining. Once they have listened to the audio version they can be shown the book or, if it's possible, they can read along.
There are now many radio channels with slots for children. BBC Radio 4's Go For It and BBC Radio 7's Big and Little Toe Radio Shows are particularly good because they have children in the studio talking about what they're reading.
6. Never test them on their reading in an obvious way: Testing them will make them equate reading with exams. Reading should be thought of as a pleasure and not a chore.