Paul Howard – Ross O’Carroll-Kelly
Few names are as synonymous with the Celtic Tiger as Ireland’s greatest uncapped rugby player, Ross O’Carroll-Kelly. Paul Howard has created an era defining character; nobody embodies the excesses of the Celtic Tiger quite like Ross. With the upcoming release of ‘Nama Mia’ we have been following Ross from his days as a teenage dirtbag to the dawn of his thirties, with countless tales of scandal and intemperance along the way. Kevin Massey spoke to Paul about the origins of Ross, what the future holds and a writing process that found him pretending to be Jim McDonald.
Ross owes his origins to culture shock. As a young sports-writer, Paul Howard was given the job of covering the schools rugby matches for The Sunday Tribune. Paul did not attend a rugby playing school and so was not expecting the coliseumesque spectacle that unfolded before him; ‘players held up as demi-gods with proud dads in the crowd and the mums standing around in the mud of Belfield or Skerries in all their finery and a full face of make-up’. He equated the setting to that of an English Public school or an American High school event, with crowds of up to 4,000 at some games.
Paul’s initial plan was to write a ‘fly-on-the-wall piece for The Sunday Tribune, following around a victorious schools rugby team, from the moment of the final whistle, through to the following morning’. This was deemed unpublishable from a legal standpoint, as it contained accounts of various underage activities, so Paul began to keep a spoof diary of a schools rugby player as a means of recording the events he was witnessing.
The emergence of Ross coincided with the acknowledgement of the Celtic Tiger. Irish society began to change as the money began to flow, credit became king, property became the must-have commodity, and affluence became a way of life. Ross was very much a product of this new environment and the column evolved to reflect this; ‘it became less about sport, and more of a backhanded commentary about the changes that were happening in Ireland at that time’.
When the fortunes of the nation have risen and fallen, so to have the fortunes of Ross. As with any long-running series, there have been times when the story seemed to have ended, when Paul felt he had run out of storylines, ‘I think since the recession happened it’s been mostly the latter. I think the recession has forced me to completely reimagine Ross and his world and the relationships between the various characters that populate it’.
Despite 12 books, 2 plays and a travel guide, the success of Ross came as a surprise to Paul. ‘To be honest, for the first couple of years, I didn’t take it very seriously at all. It was something I used to spend about half hour writing on a Friday afternoon while I was waiting for the sports editor to read my main feature piece. I don’t think I imagined there was an audience for it. The people I was sending up, I really thought they would hate it. I never expected them to embrace and become the audience.’
Paul cites George Mac Donald Fraser’s ‘Flashman’ series as the main influence to his work on Ross. The parallels are easy to draw, with Flashman described as ‘a scoundrel, a liar, a cheat, a thief, a coward—and oh yes, a toady.’ Ross is an anti hero in the same mould, inherently likeable despite a litany of character flaws. Other inspirations are ‘Less Than Zero’ and ‘American Psycho’ by Bret Easton Ellis. The books share the themes of vanity, shallowness and commercialism with the world that Ross inhabits. As a writer, Paul was inspired by Damon Rynyon, author of ‘Guys and Dolls’. ‘Like me, he began his writing life as a sports writer and took the characters he encountered at racetracks or in boxing gyms and parlayed them into his fiction. I suppose I did something similar. Except my characters tended to be not shady hoodlums but posh women in fur coats’.
When it comes to writing, Paul describes himself as a lark rather than an owl. After a decent breakfast he will be at his desk and ready to write by seven am. He acknowledges that novel writing is much more relaxed than his days as a sports writer. Previously, he would write wherever there was space to open his laptop; ‘planes, buses, hotels lobbies at five in the morning. Sitting in airport terminals while stealing the electricity from Starbucks’. His early start is part of a generally disciplined approach to writing, aimed at controlled output and avoidance of any deadline day scrambles.
These days, he enjoys the luxury of his office, complete with familiarity of a comfy chair, a hot cup of coffee and a bookshelf within reach. Coffee is a vital component of his writing process, ‘I find it really important to find my optimum caffeine level. Not enough coffee and it doesn’t happen. Too much and I might as well spend the afternoon staring at Home and Away, drooling.’
We heard from Adrian White last week on the topic of ‘method writing’, whereby you fully immerse yourself in a character to completely understand their motivations and thought process. Having spent years developing the character of Ross, Paul finds it quite easy to access ‘his’ voice when he starts to write. Sometimes, it is a little too easy. ‘Often, getting out of character is the difficult thing. Ross talks in an aggressive, bombastic kind of way. If I’ve spent twelve hours, say, at my desk, thinking in that voice, whilst drinking too much coffee, my wife sometimes feels it necessary to remind me that I’m not actually Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’.
In recent years, it has been Rory Nolan how has been playing the part of Ross O’Carroll Kelly in ‘The Last Days of the Celtic Tiger’ and ‘Between Foxrock and a Hard Place’. Seeing the characters brought to life on stage affected the way Paul envisaged the characters, particularly Rory’s portrayal of Ross and Lisa Lambe as Sorcha. ‘I can’t write either character now without envisioning their stage personas. Which is a huge credit to them as actors.’
It is language that is one of the standout features of the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly books. The language used by Ross seems both familiar and alien at the same time; the phrases, the staccato speech pattern, punctuated with ‘basically’ and ‘like’ and the pompous delivery are instantly recognisable to anyone who had ever boarded the 46A. While the phonetic format of writing jars initially, within two pages the voice of Ross and those around him becomes clear; you will replace every A with an O, ‘Arts’ becomes ‘Orts’, ‘Right’ becomes ‘Roysh’ and so on. It is written to be said, be that aloud or in your head.
Paul went to a talk by Maeve Binchy as a teenager where she commented that she would frequent coffee shops and jot done overheard snippets of conversation. Paul adopted the same idea for his research into Ross’s world. ‘I would keep my ears open if I was on the Dart or the 46a (which was a great source of material in the early days). Or I’d hang around in UCD for an afternoon or spend an evening in Kiely’s’.
Regular readers will know that written accents are a pivotal part of Paul’s writing style; with the unique phonetic’s of each side of Dublin represented throughout his work. He believes that the most effective way of capturing the accents for the page is to sound them out. So he sits in his office and chats to himself, in an unusual accent. So it is effective and an enjoyable pastime. And no more evident that in his latest novel, Nama Mia, where he had a new accent to tackle, ‘In the current book, NAMA Mia!, there’s a new character called Regina Rathfriland – she’s Ross’s new sixty-year-old love interest – and she’s from Belfast. I found it really challenging to write in Northern Irish phonetics. For about three months, I was like Jim McDonald from Coronation Street sitting at my desk, reading the dialogue out loud until I was finally satisfied that it sounded and read correctly’.
Advances in social media and technology have been embraced by Paul; Ross has around 25,000 followers between his Facebook and Twitter accounts. It has allowed ‘Ross’ to establish a dialogue with the people who are reading the books, who are by and large the people whose lives are being writing about. It also helps keep Paul up to date with the ever evolving English/Irish language; his followers are quick to correct him when he uses a phrase that is not ‘de rigeur’. Having recently spoken to a teenager, I realised that they have completely misappropriate most of the words in the English language. And a few other languages to boot. The result is that Ross’s speech is littered with a series of idioms, rhyming slang and wordplay. Ross never gets a taxi, he gets a ‘Jo Maxi’, and your face is, in fact, your ‘boatrace’.
‘Ross O’Carroll-Kelly’s Guide to (South) Dublin: How to Get By On, Like, €10,000 a Day’, went as far as to include a glossary of terms, a ThesauRoss, to ensure that readers were up to date on the evolution of the English language. The contemporary language and background mentions of national events serve to ground the books in our reality and remind us that the character of Ross is as much fact as he is fiction.
Paul Howard does have a life beyond Ross, he has written extensively as a sports writer and non-fiction. He still considers himself a ‘sports writer on sabbatical to write fiction’ and has plans to return to sports writing in the future. He does not have a preference between writing fiction and non-fiction because he strikes a balance between the two. For the last three years he has been working on an unnamed historical biography. ‘It’s meant interviewing almost one hundred people and travelling the length and breadth of Ireland and Britain. But I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. It’s a welcome break from the madness of sitting at a desk all day dreaming up situations for Ross’.
As for Ross’s future, that is less clear. There are some medium term plans for him but Paul tends to work on a book to book basis. This allows him to take into account what is happening in Ireland and how it will affect Ross rather than having a rigid storyline in place. So we will have to keep reading to see how Ross adjusts to post-Celtic Tiger Ireland.
To round off, Paul Howard offers some advice for budding writers, ‘It sounds facetious but just write. The pubs in this country are full of people who will tell you they have a book in them and yet don’t have the will or the discipline to sit down and do it. So just sit down and do it. It’s not easy. That blinking cursor on the blank page is the most difficult obstacle of all’.
© Kevin Massey, September 2011.
Nama Mia is available in shops now.