Paul Howard: Why I'm 'sooo' not done with Ross
From a weekly column in a Sunday newspaper, the southside legend that is Ross O'Carroll-Kelly was born. Now 15 'Ross' books later, his creator, author Paul Howard, says that while he enjoys other projects crossing his path, he is far from ready to give up on the rugby-loving rogue
Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30
Ross O'Carroll-Kelly and rugby: the two are so indelibly linked in the Irish consciousness that it comes as quite a shock to learn that the man who created the character has precious little interest in the oval ball game.
It's the fortunes of Liverpool FC, rather than Leinster or Ireland, that stir Paul Howard's heart. "I can see why people appreciate it on an aesthetic level," he says, "and the physicality is appealing for some, but it's not a sport that I go out of my way to watch."
Howard used to work as a sports journalist, so the admission compounds the surprise. "If I was growing up now, it would be a very different story," he says, "but rugby wasn't a big deal where I grew up in Dublin in the 1980s. It was something that the private schools played and it didn't really filter down. It changed when the game turned professional.
"You have people going to matches now who don't understand what's happening on the pitch," he adds, "but the culture around it appeals to them."
He is quick to point out that rugby doesn't feature in the Ross books now as much as it once did even though the latest in the series, Seedless in Seattle, features a cover with our hero's three youngest sprogs sporting Ireland jerseys.
It's the 15th Ross novel. Fifteenth. Where does he get the time? When the fresh-faced 44-year-old opens the door to the house in Avoca, Co Wicklow, where he writes the books, it almost comes as a surprise to find there's no paid-up army of collaborators, diligently turning out the heightened southside Dublin patois that makes the writing such a hit with readers.
Instead, Howard commutes from his home he shares with his solicitor wife Mary in Stillorgan, Dublin, to this house in a small and appealing estate almost every morning - often as early as 6am - and does a full day's work, before driving back to the city. It's a commute he feels is worth the effort.
"I'm not one of those people who can write in cafés," he says. "I have to be somewhere I can really concentrate, and I find that I'm productive down here." He bought the Wicklow house several years ago - "because I was priced out of Dublin" - and he's glad he held onto it.
Ross, Sorcha, Charles, Fionnuala and all the other characters come alive in a lovely room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on either side and a large window in front of his desk. His five-year-old Bassett hound, Humphrey, is brought from Dublin every day, and has a big back garden to play in when he's not lying at his master's feet.
"I work hard at it," Howard says, "but it's work that involves a lovely view and a nice big cup of coffee. I remember my father going to work early in the morning and coming back in the evenings and he'd look so tired. That was what I imagined work meant when I was a child. Maybe it's that working class thing, but I don't really feel as if it's 'work' unless I put a decent shift in."
Class. It's the oxygen that has sustained Ross O'Carroll-Kelly since his first appearance in the now defunct Sunday Tribune in 1998. Howard, who was born in England, and moved with his family to Dublin aged eight, was acutely aware of class in his formative years.
"I went to St Laurence's College in Ballybrack," he says. "The odd time you'd meet a girl who went to Holy Child Killiney and she would never have heard of my school even though it was only a mile or so away. For many privately educated kids, the only schools that figured were the other private ones."
He jokes that any boy who arrived into St Laurence's with a Holy Child scarf was afforded instant respect, the inference being that they were seeing a girl from the private school, and some enterprising lads took to buying said scarf in a drapers in Dun Laoghaire in order to boost their street cred.
Howard has often talked about the genesis of Ross: he was covering a school's rugby match and was more taken with the tics and behaviours of the crowd than anything that was happening on the pitch. But there were other formative experiences too, such as his memory of posh women in Killiney and Dalkey who vowed to clean up a local beach and, he deadpans, "cobbled enough money together to buy a JCB".
Ross started off as a tiny column in the sports section, before being expanded and moved to the main paper. Several publishers rejected his overtures to print his first novel - how they must wince at the missed opportunity today - and he was forced to self-publish.
"I'd no idea what 5,000 books looked like until a lorry pulled up in the laneway outside the Sunday Tribune [off Baggot Street] and they started unloading pallets," he says. Fortunately for him, the photographic department had just gone digital and the former dark room was turned into a makeshift store for the novels.
Howard initially found it hard to interest bookshops, despite the fact that the column had been in existence for two years at the time.
"I can understand their reluctance," he says. "After all, this was a book about a jock that might mainly appeal to male readers and they just didn't read in the sort of numbers that women do."
One buyer, some weeks after taking a few copies off the writer's hands, quipped that the book was becoming a cult classic. He laughs heartily. "A cult classic, this guy told me, is a book that is only bought by parents and friends of the author - and they haven't got around to reading it yet."
But it soon transpired that people were reading it. Another bookseller told him that he used to see groups of teen boys "wearing sailing jackets - Helly Hansen, that sort of thing" and they would be tittering as they stood together reading aloud from The Miseducation of Ross O'Carroll-Kelly. "They'd read something and go" - and here he puts on his best Dort accent - "'that's sooo like Tiernan'." He mimics their laughter, which is part stereotypical jock, part Beavis and Butthead. "They didn't realise that it was so like them too."
Howard realised the character had really taken off when he was invited to speak at one of the societies at UCD.
"When I got there, I was told that too many people had turned up and it was in breach of health and safety. I'd had an idea Ross was finding an audience, and this showed me that it was often those from the very world I was satirising that were liking it best." He's convinced they knew it was satire, but acknowledges that Ross's antics are celebrated by such people.
The Ross books are nothing short of a cultural phenomenon and have sold more than a million copies in Ireland. Most have topped the charts too. In fact, Penguin Ireland is so confident that Seedless in Seattle will do the same that it has slapped 'The hilarious number one bestseller' tag on the cover.
Such sales put Howard into very rarefied company - only the likes of Cecelia Ahern, Marian Keyes and, perhaps, the children's author Eoin Colfer have sold as many books in their own country over the past couple of decades. Yet, unlike those three, the Ross books haven't connected with non-Irish readers overseas. None have been translated, although, strange as it may appear, a Russian translation was in the works only for it to be canned at the 11th hour.
It's this commitment to time and place that has made Ross such a success. Howard is remarkably attuned to this world and he continues to pump friends and acquaintances for anecdotes and insights. When he first started writing the column, he would feed off journalist colleagues who had been privately educated or were familiar with the tropes of privileged Dublin. "I was on the outside," he laughs. "I needed an in."
His non-fiction volume, Ross O'Carroll Kelly's Guide to (South) Dublin, arguably gave the greatest insight to this milieu of all his books, and it's something of an essential text for those who might have forgotten just how mad the spend, spend, spend Celtic Tiger years were.
It wasn't just about 110pc mortgages, he says, it was also about paying to use an 'oxygen bar' at Brown Thomas's little sister BT2, and bank ads that "sort of said it was okay to lie to us about why you want to take out a loan - we'll give you the money anyway". The Bank of Ireland commercial he recalls was from the early 2000s and featured a girl straight out of Ross O'Carroll-Kelly who told the bank manager she wanted "ching ching" for dental braces, when in fact, as the subtitle told us, she needed the cash to buy shoes.
The early Ross books capture such an Ireland well although, by his own admission, Howard says there would only have been so much he could do with the character if the boom had continued. He set one of the books, Rhino What You Did Last Summer in Los Angeles, and he now realises it was a mistake. "Taking it outside of Ireland didn't really work," he says. "Ross needs to be here in an environment that he - and the reader - knows well." The new book, incidentally, is not set in Seattle; only a chapter is.
Then when the recession hit, the author realised there would be a silver lining beneath this darkest of clouds.
"Now Ross would find himself in an environment where all the old certainties had been turned on their heads, and it would be interesting to see how he would cope." He believes the last few books have been the best in the entire series.
And Ross - his fans will be delighted to hear - is set to continue for the foreseeable future. Cynics might argue that it would take a brave man to abandon such a sure-fire cash cow, but Howard clearly relishes a task which doesn't just involve four months of the year writing the Ross books, but also keeping him alive in a weekly column and on social media.
The 16th book is largely written and will be sent to the publishers before Christmas, with a view to bringing it out next August or September.
Howard plans each book carefully - not just writing out what will happen in every chapter, but breaking the plot down from one set piece to the next. He's full of praise for an editor at Penguin, Rachel Pierce, who would think nothing of telling him to lose 20,000 words if she felt it would improve the book.
Howard quit his journalist job 10 years ago, not just because the books had taken off, but because he had become disillusioned with sports writing.
"I remember those days when you'd get up at 4.30 in the morning to catch a flight to England to interview a football player and you'd get to the training ground and you'd feel like a real pariah there. Sometimes, the player might slip away and say he forgot you were coming, or you might get the briefest chat in the car park. After three questions, he'd be going, 'Have you enough there?'. He couldn't wait to get away. Then your editor would call and asked how it went and you'd say it went badly and he'd say, 'Grand, give me 2,000 words."
Howard has penned non-Ross books too, and says his ghost-written George Hook memoir, Time Added On, is the project he's most proud of. "If you're going to ghost a book, you really want the person to be as honest as possible. George was brutally honest about every aspect of his life."
They would meet twice a week for a four-hour stint over coffee and biscuits in which the pundit and broadcaster would unburden himself. "I remember sending him the text and thinking when he sees it in black and white he might want to tone it down. But that didn't happen. In fact, there were certain parts where he said I had gone too easy on him."
He would consider ghosting a book again, but only if the right opportunity came along. It's not superstar names that he's interested in working with - "they have their brands to maintain," he says - it's more people like Buster Bloodvessel of the ska band, Bad Manners. "Douglas Trendle [his real name] has had such an intriguing life. After the band, he ran a hotel called Fatty Towers - which was aimed at fat people - but it was a disaster because no matter how fat someone is, do they want to admit as much?"
The work that's obsessing him now is the biography of Guinness heir Tara Browne that he is currently writing having spent eight years in research and conducting 120 interviews for it. Browne was famously alluded to in The Beatles' song 'A Day in the Life' - "he blew his mind out in a car, he didn't notice that the lights had changed" - and led Howard into Swinging London of the 1960s and a world populated by aristocrats.
"There's that class thing again," he says, with a laugh. "I do write about other stuff you know!"
...his 'biography' of Roy Keane's dog, Triggs: "I don't think Roy was too happy about it. I was asked if I'd chair a discussion between Roy and Roddy Doyle [who ghost-wrote his biography] and I said, 'Does Roy know it's me who'd be doing it? Ask him if he's okay with it.' They phoned me back a while later to say my services wouldn't be required after all."
...dealing with 'rugby dads': "Calls would come into the paper from fathers who were angry that their son's name was spelt incorrectly in the school match report, or there wasn't reference to the try he'd got in the scorer's section at the bottom. And before they'd hang up, they'd say, 'By the way, the 'it's' has an apostrophe."
...why so few Irish literary authors have tackled the recession: "Some of them seem to be more interested in setting their books 50 or 100 years into the past for some reason. Maybe it's very difficult to write about the recession - or the boom, for that matter - in a way that doesn't satirise it."
...his reading habits: "I read a lot of non-fiction. When that Observer list [on the 100 best novels ever, as chosen by literary editor Robert McCrum] came out, I went through it and found that I had read 12 of them. You could say I've quite a lot of catching up to do."