In recent years, ‘X Factor’ has made the Christmas Number One a foregone conclusion and taken all of the fun out of the annual race to the top of the festive singles’ chart.
If you’re looking for a more interesting contest this year, the Irish best-sellers’ list could well provide it. In a battle between two of our country’s literary titans, Cecelia Ahern’s new novel looks set to battle it out for the title of favourite stocking-filler with ‘Mr S and the Secrets of Andorra's Box’, the latest instalment in Paul Howard’s Ross O’ Carroll Kelly series.
Howard’s residency in the best-sellers’ list is no doubt a great source of anguish to the various publishers who failed to see the potential in the author’s creation eight years ago when he pitched the idea of a book based on his RO’CK column in the Sunday Tribune.
“I wrote to every publisher in Ireland but nobody thought there was a market for the books,” Howard says. “The consensus was that women buy popular fiction and that women would never buy books about a rugby asshole, the kind of guy they were trying to avoid in pubs and clubs at night.”
Spurred on by mounting positive reaction to his weekly column, Howard decided to self-publish the first two books. With sales figures for the series now totalling 600,000 copies, his perseverence certainly paid off.
Howard’s writing career began after a summer job found him composing the 50-word blurbs on the back of postcards. From here, he moved on to a local newspaper before being recruited by the Sunday Tribune as a sports writer, where he started off reporting from schools’ rugby matches.
“I had quite a working-class background so it was quite a culture shock for me to turn up to somewhere like Belfield or Donnybrook to see these girls wearing two grand’s worth of jewellery throwing themselves at horrifically ugly rugby players.”“When I was 17 or 18, I had very little self-confidence and I think I was quite a normal adolescent in that regard,” Howard says, “ but these kids had absolutely gargantuan, unshakeable egos. What really interested me was how these guys are heroes within their peer-group and the way they don’t seem to answer to anybody.”
Howard decided to write a serious piece of journalism that would explore the schools’ rugby culture but The Tribune’s legal team took issue with the prospect of an article depicting underage sex and drinking. It was then that the idea for Ross O’ Carroll Kelly occurred to Howard. “I invented this character as a way of venting my spleen about these kids without naming names or libelling anybody,” he says.
Eleven years later, Howard is still writing his weekly RO’CK column (albeit for The Irish Times these days) and has penned a total of nine books based on the character. He credits the success of the brand to Irish society “needing someone to hold a mirror up to their ridiculousness” in the days of The Celtic Tiger and the surge of interest in rugby in recent years.
Howard says the response to the character is “very gratifying” but reckons he will write two more books in the series before moving on to other projects. “I wouldn’t do anything as gratuitous as kill him off,” he says. “Who knows, maybe I’ll come back to Ross in thirty years’ time when he’s old and like his dad.”