Monday, February 18, 2019

Marlon James

I interviewed Booker Prize winner, Marlon James, for the Age. We talked for about 2 hours about everything from Skippy Dies to Star Trek. You can read all about it here.

He's good people is Marlon.

and here's the full version of the interview in the Irish Times:

Friday, February 8, 2019

more than 13 ways of looking at a blackbird

you might be familiar with the anonymous 9th century Irish poem "a blackbird over Belfast Lough"
which has been translated many times, perhaps most famously by Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson amongst others... A pencil sketch of the Lagan valley blackbird is now the symbol of the Seamus Heaney centre.
Anyway I love this little fragment of a poem and I thought I would offer up my own translation for your approval. The male pronoun works I think because in general only the males have a yellow nib to their beak. There's a little bit of invention with the use of "mudflats" but I figured that was ok because most of the translators of this poem use the word "Belfast" and Belfast as a concept didn't exist until the seventeenth century whereas the muddy "Black mouth" of the Lagan clearly did exist as a place back in the 9th century. I also didn't completely cheat in the rhyme scheme - in Ulster English beak is pronounced bake and round my way sometimes beagh which sounds a bit like lough.
This poem is a little bit like Basho's famous frog haiku which has inspired MANY translations, because, I think, it is so simple.

Anyway here's my version of the poem followed by the Irish itself...

a little bird 


from the tip of his yellow beak 

a blackbird amongst the gorse blossom

throwing music

over the mudflats of Belfast Lough

nt én bec

ro léc feit

do rinn guip, glanbuidi

fo-ceird faíd

ós Loch Laíg

lon do chraíb, charnbuidi

-anon from the Irish c.9th century

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Don Winslow The Border

I've just begun this but can recommend it already. This is top notch crime writing by a master of the art. A trilogy that began in 2004 now ends in 2019. Winslow's Cartel trilogy is a goddamn American contemporary hardboiled classic up there with Ellroy's American Underworld trilogy & Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy. Read this or listen to it on audible. Full review to follow from me in the Sydney Morning Herald

Monday, January 28, 2019

Being Various

I've got a story in this volume coming out in April from Faber and Faber. I don't write a whole of lot short stories but I think this is one of my better efforts. My story is called Jack's Return Home and is a nod to the famous Ted Lewis novel of the same name. The first 3 paragraphs of said story are below:

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Todd Purdum's Something Wonderful

a real little gem I reviewed last year & now out in paperback:

In early 1942 Richard Rodgers, the composer, realised that he might have a problem on his hands, when, one night after dinner, he watched his lyricist, Lorenz Hart, drink 14 whiskies in a row. Rodgers was clearly in need of a new partner for the musical he was cooking up about the Oklahoma territory. Rodgers and Hart, two Jewish boys from Harlem had been so successful they had appeared on the cover of Time magazine but a series of flops and Hart’s alcoholism could have meant the end of Rodgers’ dreams of reinventing American musical theatre.
Into the breach stepped Oscar Hammerstein another gifted Jewish kid from the neighbourhood (he lived literally round the corner from Hart and Rodgers) who had had some moderate Broadway hits of his own.
The partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein would last from 1943’s Oklahoma! to 1959’s The Sound of Music. The pair would dominate Broadway for twenty years, win thirty-four Tony Awards, fifteen Academy Awards and the Pulitzer Prize.
Todd S. Purdum’s well written and very well researched Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution unpacks not just the personalities of Rodgers and Hammerstein but also what made the musicals themselves tick and how and why they were so ground-breaking.
Before Oklahoma! Broadway shows had talky bits and singy bits that didn’t really gel together. Oklahoma! was a complete musical vision with unity of book, score, ballet and performance that would set the template of how to do musical theatre until 2015’s Hamilton sort of changed the game again.
Something Wonderful will cure you of the notion that tunes are somehow composed in the ether and simply written down on sheet music. Oscar Hammerstein worked from dawn to midnight on the book and lyrics for his shows and Rodgers, who had a gift for melody, would trim, re-arrange and brutally cut songs and interludes that failed to connect with the audience. Just how much blood, sweat, tears, cutting and editing went into these productions is astonishing.
Oklahoma! was followed by Carousel which was followed by State Fair, South Pacific and The King and I. Every one of them was a winner. Housewives, factory workers, presidents and kings found themselves ‘Whistling A Happy Tune’ or singing ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’. By the 1950’s Rodgers and Hammerstein were a musical producing factory who had become such a juggernaut that even their flops became hits. Who now remembers Allegro,  or Me and Juliet? Yet both of those pulled the punters in in their tens of thousands.
Both men had happy marriages to women called Dorothy who were interior decorators. Australian readers might be surprised to learn that Hammerstein’s Dorothy was from Tasmania and he seems to have spent a surprising amount of time relaxing in Melbourne.
But, into each life some rain must fall (not a lyric by Oscar Hammerstein alas) and this would be a dull book if it was a merely a record of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s upward trajectory of triumphs. Pipe Dream, an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, is the first of their flops to actually flop and it’s fun to read about Henry Fonda ghastly croak of a voice and Hammerstein’s starchy and confused attempt to write a musical set in a brothel but not actually set it in a brothel.
After the failure of Pipe Dream and the moderate hit Flower Drum Song the final collaboration of Rodgers and Hammerstein is the undeniably brilliant The Sound of Music which has hit tune after hit tune, a charming book, witty lyrics and just enough darkness (the Anschluss) to leaven the pudding.
Hammerstein was diagnosed with stomach cancer and did not live to see the superb film version starring Julie Andrews. He died surrounded by his family (including sort-of adopted son Stephen Sondheim) at the top of his game.
Sometimes it’s best to know when to leave the stage. Purdum points out that Richard Rodgers lived long enough to see his work considered to be ‘middlebrow’ and ‘unsophisticated’ and sadly Rodgers seems to have been believed some of these criticisms and he too began drinking heavily like his ex partner Lorenz Hart. He died in 1979 a man baffled and out of touch with his times.
Today, however, the work keeps going strong. Five thousand Rodgers and Hammerstein productions take place each year and it’s a good bet that someone somewhere is singing ‘Edelweiss’ or ‘Happy Talk’ on a stage as you read this. Purdum isn’t interested in literary criticism or Marxist deconstruction or semiotics (thank goodness) he just wants to tell the story of the plays and the personalities and he does this with breeziness, cheerfulness and aplomb. Something Wonderful is one of the most enjoyable books this reviewer has read in a rather depressing year for non fiction and that, surely, is something to sing about.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Darryl Jones Sleeping With The Lights On

my review of the new Darryl Jones book Sleeping With The Lights On from last week's Weekend

Sleeping With The Lights On, The Unsettling Story of Horror

The scariest film I’ve ever seen was Ben Wheatley’s Kill List (2011). In truth it’s not that terrifying but what put the willies up me was sitting down to watch what I thought was one of kind of flick (a thriller) and then about two thirds of through being plunged into a graphic occult horror movie with a brilliantly, sickening ending. After watching Kill List I found myself worried that my back door didn’t lock properly and I slept with an axe under my bed for the next week.
            That’s the difference between horror and other genres. Horror works on the deep recesses of your mind. Horror turns on switches that kept our ancestors alive long enough to procreate and pass their genes onto us. Flight or fight is something even an amoeba seems to understand.
            Darryl Jones’s Sleeping With The Lights On – The Unsettling Story of Horror is a nice primer and guide to the history of horror fiction in literature and film. At 181 pages it’s not going to be terribly comprehensive and those looking for, say, Neil Gaiman or James Herbert in the index are going to be disappointed. This is not to knock the book, Jones isn’t writing an encyclopedia, he’s attempting to give us a breezy summary of the genre from the Epic of Gilgamesh and Greek tragedy all the way up to Get Out (2017). In this he largely succeeds.
            With so much material at his disposal, Jones, a professor of English at Trinity College Dublin, must find some grand organizing principle. He has decided to split his book into five sections: monsters; the occult and supernatural; horror and the body; horror and the mind; science and horror.
            Monsters is a lively section taking us first through cannibals then early vampires, classic vampires and finally annoying teen vampires. Jones is particularly good on how Bram Stoker, Anne Rice and Stephen King use the vampire idea for very different ends. Twilight I suppose needs some cultural unpacking but I wished there had been space too for my favourite vampire film the bleakly creepy, Swedish classic Let The Right One In. The monsters section concludes with zombies and rightly there is a lengthy analysis of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead “somewhere between a Swiftian satire and a Frankfurt School treatise”.
            The occult section begins with Max Weber’s “disenchanted world” and covers ghosts, The Exorcist and The Blair Witch Project in a chapter that zips along a bit too quickly for me. Horror and the body is primarily about werewolves and there’s a wonderful bit on Angela Carter whose genius is sadly overlooked these days. David Naughton’s transformation to wolf is rightly praised in An American Werewolf in London and this brings Jones somewhat obliquely to torture porn. Jones finds a paragraph to talk about The Human Centipede but, amazingly, not here or anywhere in the book do we get a mention of Alien one of the best and most influential horror/science fiction films of the last fifty years.
            Horror and the mind brings us to Lovecraft, Poe and good sections on doppelgängers, madness and serial killers. Lovecraft’s prose drives Jones to distraction although he has nice things to say about Poe, Roald Dahl and Robert Louis Stevenson.
            The science and horror chapter covers Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in its many incarnations and this leads Jones rather nicely into one of his best sections on technophobia in books and movies. We race through all those radioactive giant insect films of the fifties and sixties, get a few paragraphs on the masterpiece that is The Day The Earth Stood Still and get an extended look at James Cameron’s brilliant The Terminator and Terminator 2. For some reason this is the place where Professor Jones also looks at comic books though they seem a bit shoved in at the end of a chapter.
            A concise Afterword takes us all the way up to the beginning of 2017. The print deadline allowed Jones to wax lyrical about Get Out and its obvious Stepford antecedents but alas Guillermo del Toro’s maritime monster movie masterpiece The Shape of Water did not make the cut.
            This is a good little book and it will delight someone who is new to all this but hardcore fans will probably find themselves, like poor doomed David Naughton seeking meatier fare.  

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Friday, December 28, 2018

November Road

my review of Lou Berney's November Road from last week's Melbourne Age and Sydney Morning Herald...

In the second week of November 1963 Frank Guidry, army veteran, charmer and skillful lieutenant of
New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello is given an unusual assignment: go all the way to Dallas and leave a getaway car in an underground garage for another one of Marcello’s men.
Assuming it’s a bank job or something Guidry thinks nothing of it and leaves town. A few days later back in the Big Easy Guidry hears about JFK’s assassination in a club and immediately figures out what’s going on. Marcello’s pathological hatred of Bobby Kennedy has got the better of him and he’s organized a hit on the President of the United States. People connected with the hit start turning up dead and Guidry, realizing he’ll be next, flees for his life.
Meanwhile Charlotte Roy has made the impulsive decision to leave her alcoholic husband and start a new chapter in California. She grabs her two young daughters and heads west out of dreary Oklahoma City along Route 66.
Back in New Orleans Marcello puts a sinister hitman named Barone on Guidry’s tale. Barone, we discover, is terrifying and brutally competent at what he does.
When Charlotte’s car breaks down Frank realizes that traveling as a family man is perfect cover so he manoeuvers his way into Charlotte’s confidence. Frank and Charlotte’s emotional and physical journey together is the crux of the book.
Lou Berney was conceived the night Kennedy was shot and he was born not far from Caddo County Oklahoma where the great crime writer Jim Thompson’s father was the disgraced Sheriff. Berney understands this terrain and these archetypes and Charlotte and Frank’s western odyssey is as perfect a representation of Mikhail Bahktin’s notion of the artistic chronotope as we are likely to see in contemporary crime fiction: geography and character and time fusing to give us a complete pictures of a broken America reeling at the end of Camelot.
Berney has been praised as an inheritor of Elmore Leonard’s mantel and this is fair enough, but November Road lies somewhere in a more provocative territory between Don DeLillo’s Libra and James Ellroy’s American Tabloid. It’s an ambitious, literary crime novel that takes seriously its characters, milieu and philosophy.
Berney is dealing in the tropes of Americana here and he gives us an embarrassment of riches: conspiracy novel, noir thriller, western, road movie. In a recent interview Berney said that after completing November Road on time for his publisher he let the book sit for a month, re-read it and decided that the tone and characters were all wrong. He decided to scrap the whole thing and start again. In a genre where publishers pump out disposable novels to a yearly schedule and authors boast on twitter about how many words they wrote today, Berney binned and then rewrote his entire book because he wanted to give his readers his very best work.
We are grateful. The leads are deep and three dimensional and you can see Berney’s care in the economy of the prose. No information is repeated, no dialogue is extraneous, every scene either reveals character or moves the story forward. This is twenty-first century American crime fiction at its apogee.
In this type of novel there is only one kind of story logic and end-game that will complete the arcs of Frank, Barone and Charlotte. But while the reader is playing by the rules she or he knows Berney is Spock playing three dimensional chess. He’ll end the novel the way he needs it to end.
Like Tom Stoppard in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or Akira Kurosawa in Hidden Fortress or George Lucas at the beginning of Star Wars Berney has figured out that the story of great events can sometimes be told in a more interesting way through peripheral characters.
Berney shares Stoppard’s erudition, Kurosawa’s cinematic eye and it’s appropriate that November Road is being adapted and directed for the screen by Lawrence Kasdan who wrote the best of the Star Wars movies: The Empire Strikes Back.
If you are au courant with what’s trending in crime fiction, then you already own November Road and are reading this review merely to echo your feelings about the book. If you’ve never heard of this author I can only envy the enjoyable couple of weeks you have ahead of you as you buy this book and then plough through the back catalogue.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Merry Christmas Everyone

Merry Christmas everyone. Thank you for sticking with me through a non publication year. Yeah I wrote a LOT of books reviews but I know what you guys are really here for. 
So here's the news: 

I am publishing TWO novels next year and TWO short stories next year as well as the usual book reviews in the newspaper, the vlogs on books and the occasional review essay. So please stop calling me lazy on Twitter...It's all coming and it's going to be bloody amazing...
Meanwhile my favourite Christmas song: 


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Lee Child

my interview with Lee Child for the Sydney Morning Herald...
I’m running late to interview Lee Child at the Viand Café on New York’s Upper West Side. It’s the day after the US mid-term elections and I get caught up in some kind of protest outside Donald Trump’s building on Columbus Circle ten blocks to the south.

I’m actually glad that I’ll be a little tardy because every single interview with Lee Child begins with the same hackneyed lines about the author’s height. He’s six foot five and because he’s so thin he looks even taller. If he’s already here, I’ll tell him not to get up, I’ll never actually have to see him standing, and we can get this article going without any hack work.

Unfortunately, I arrive first and Lee comes in behind me looking like a Big Friendly Giant amongst the little old ladies who seem to be this place’s primary clientele.

We find a booth and Lee says that he’s starving. He’s in the middle of a promotion blitz for Jack Reacher #23, Past Tense. Bill Clinton interviewed him about the book on Monday and he’s just back from TV gigs in New Hampshire. It’s the BBC later in the week. Such is the hectic life of a man who has sold 100 million copies of his thrillers. Despite all the pressure Lee seems relaxed and happy with his lot.

He orders a large strawberry milkshake and a grilled cheese sandwich with bacon and French fries.

“Do you eat like this all the time?” I ask him.

“On the road, yeah,” he says.

“And you never put on weight?”

“Nope. And I don’t even work out,” he quips.

I get a coffee and help him with the fries.

Child at 64 is well preserved. He’s tanned and lean and with his trench coat there’s a passing resemblance to Cary Grant in Stanley Donen’s Charade. Child, of course, was christened Jim Grant although everyone now calls him Lee. Cary Grant (then

humble Archie Leach) and Jim Grant both came to America to make their fortune after England rejected them.

In Jim’s case he had just returned from a holiday in Spain to a message on his answer machine from his boss at Granada Television telling him he had been fired because of company restructuring. Jim Grant was 40 years old, he’d been in TV since leaving Sheffield University with a law degree 19 years earlier, and knew no other type of work.

He liked to read and he considered a job as a night security guard in a warehouse where, presumably, he could sit at a desk and while away the hours with a good book. But then he decided that maybe he should try writing a novel instead. He invented US Army Military Policeman, Jack Reacher, set him travelling through Georgia (somewhere Child himself didn’t visit until many years later) called the book Killing Floor, adopted the name Lee Child, and the rest is history. In 1997 Child and his wife moved to New York City and he bought an apartment with a view of the Empire State Building.

We chat about the new book. In Past Tense Jack Reacher is hitch-hiking through New Hampshire when trouble, as it usually does, finds him. I like how the seeds planted in the first act of the narrative all pay off at the end. The talk starts to get technical. Lee is famous for saying that he never redrafts but I don’t see how this is possible in Past Tense. “Surely when the book was done you went back and reworked the early chapters to lay the groundwork for the ending?”

Lee denies it. He says that he wrote the book, the way he does all the others, seat-of-the-pants-style finding out what’s happening in the story as he goes along. There was no rewriting or second draft. I shake my head in amazement. “Don’t you ever write yourself in a corner and can’t get out?”

“That’s part of the fun of the whole thing,” Lee explains.

We talk about dialogue. “Realistic dialogue has ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and pointless repetitions. Mine gets to the point quickly,” he says.

“And no swearing,” I say.

“Exactly. I decided early on that either I would have the characters swear all the time or not at all.”

“Do Americans get the fact that Reacher is actually quite dry and sardonic? I was chuckling reading this book on the subway.”

“I think Americans might miss some of that. I’m not a fan of comedy thrillers but I think you can slip some humour into dialogue here and there.”

We talk about Lee’s early life. His very first memories are of playing in the bombsites in and around Coventry Cathedral which was destroyed by the Luftwaffe on November 14 1940. After Coventry, Lee’s father, a civil servant, moved the family to Birmingham where Lee attended the prestigious King Edward School. The KES was where JRR Tolkien, Jonathan Coe and Kenneth Tynan, amongst others, learned to write and Lee remembers his time there mostly with affection, though he is a bit dismissive of Coe’s novel The Rotters Club about those school years.

“It’s one of the things that annoys me most about British contemporary fiction. So many sentimental novels written by middle aged blokes about the halcyon days of the lower sixth.”

“It’s not just a current ailment. George Orwell made that point reviewing his friend’s Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise. He thought it a defect in the English character to feel that your life somehow peaked at seventeen.”

“Yes!” Lee replies with animation and he wonders out loud how contemporary British literary fiction got so introverted and dull.

“Crime fiction though seems to be in rude health these days though?” I ask.

“Definitely. And it’s good to see the women back in charge the way they were in the 1930’s.”

We talk about writers we like and then I change tack. “There’s an in memorium to your parents at the start of Past Tense and one of the major themes is Reacher’s

quest to visit his father’s house. Your dad is originally from Belfast. Did you ever attempt such a quest?”

“I have a story about that. My father was born just off Cyprus Avenue in East Belfast and when they moved to Birmingham they sold the house to the Morrison family whose first son Ivan became pretty famous.”

“Wow! Have you ever met Van and told him that?”

Lee hasn’t in fact met Van Morrison but his other celebrity stories are fantastic: as a teenager he helps move a drum kit for John Bonham; outside an awards show Charlize Theron bums a cigarette; Paul McCartney and he discuss song lyrics; Bill Clinton bugs him for novel writing advice late at night. . .

This is all great stuff but I can see that Lee is maybe getting bored with his own schtick. I ask him about Aston Villa and his eyes light up again. We talk football for a long time. I tell him the story of how I once scored a goal at Villa Park. (Too complicated to go into here.)

“I always got picked first for football because of my height,” Lee says.

“Let me guess: a lanky, intimidating central defender?”

“Yes,” Lee laughs. “But if I couldn’t be a footballer or a musician I always sort of wanted to be a story teller.” He credits his Irish background for that. “Everybody in Ireland seems to be a natural teller of tales; I wonder if that’s some kind of oral bardic tradition that has survived into the present?”

I put to him a few questions from Twitter and that’s pretty much our time.

“What’s next for you?” I ask as he puts his coat back on.

“Two more interviews tonight and tomorrow, European TV and then I’m off to Australia, I think. What are you working on next, Adrian?” he asks.

“I’m doing a standalone called The Chain.”

“Standalones are great. You never know if the protagonist is going to live or die right to the final page!” Lee says.

I thank him and he slips out. The newspaper is picking up the tab for this so I leave a generous tip.

When I get back to the apartment that night I throw away my intricate book plan and try some seat-of-the-pants writing. But two hours later I have, predictably, prosed myself into a corner with no way out. Adrian McKinty is at a complete loss, but I know that the peripatetic, ever resourceful Lee Child and his creation Jack Reacher would definitely know what to do next. I resist the urge to email Lee in the wee hours asking for he

Monday, November 26, 2018

Kafka's Old Office

a LitHub piece from last November...
At the beginning of November I found myself in Prague with enough loyalty points at the Accor Chain to get myself a room in a fancy hotel way out of my usual league. There was one particular room in one particular hotel that I had been eyeing for years and much to my amazement I found that it was available.
The hotel was the Sofitel Century Old Town and the room was the Franz Kafka Suite. The Century Old Town occupied the former Austro-Hungarian Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute and a second floor office of this building was the place where Kafka had toiled as a lawyer from 1908 - 1922. This office and the room behind it had been converted into the Kafka Suite.
Kafka’s childhood home was long gone but for Kafka fans like me it was incredibly thrilling that for enough cash or Accor Reward Points you could spend the night in his old office.
I checked into the Century Old Town at two o’clock on a brisk November Tuesday in Prague to find that the room was not quite ready. Housekeeping was doing a quick final vacuuming I was told and I was given a voucher for a free beer at the bar which suited me just fine.
When the room was all set I walked up the wide, restored nineteenth century stair-case and found myself outside the Franz Kafka Suite where a little plaque confirmed me that this was indeed Kafka’s actual place of work. I put the key card in and opened the door.
The first thing that confronted me inside the room itself was pitch blackness. The outer door closed behind me and rather like – I fancied –Gregor Samsa I too was trapped in a bourgeoisie hell of the indoors.
“Aha!” I thought, you need to find the little slot to put your card in to get the lights to come on. I fumbled around and I did find the slot, but when I inserted my card the blackness remained.
I began to feel a little buzz of excitement. The Kafka Suite was deliciously Kafkaesque already. What fresh thrills and terrors lay ahead? The exhilaration began to dissipate when I turned my phone light on and realized that I wasn’t in a fiendishly difficult psychological maze partly of my own making, no, I was in an ordinary hallway and there was a problem with the electricity.
After a bit more fumbling I discovered the fuse box and although everything was in Czech it was pretty obvious which circuit had been blown by the vacuum cleaner. I flipped the switch and hey presto the lights came back on.
Out of the hallway I discovered that the Kafka Suite was gorgeous. The back room contained a generously proportioned bed, a huge bath, a luxurious shower and dual washbasins. But the front of the suite was definitely where the action was. The front room was an enormous light filled chamber with a sofa, a dining table and a writing desk that looked out onto the street.
This had been Kafka’s actual writing office. He had mostly prepared legal briefs here (the book to read on this is Franz Kafka: The Office Writings edited by Stanley Corngold) but you could imagine him working on short stories and letters in his lunch break or doodling away at ideas in the margins of his jotter.
The room was minimalist and contemporary, painted a bright umber with a portrait of Kafka himself lying against the wall in one corner. There was a bookcase containing mostly French hardbacks by second tier novelists of the first half of the twentieth century, but there were also a few modern paperbacks as well presumably left there by previous guests. I had no qualms at all about leaving a copy of my novel Rain Dogs on a high shelf where hopefully it will remain unnoticed for years.
I unpacked, showered and then made a beeline for the writing desk. I had been to Prague as a student backpacker years ago so I wasn’t that interested in sight-seeing, rather, I had come here to work.
The theory of literary osmosis is dubious at best but for a writer it is hard to resist the lure of attempting to compose something in the place where great literary icons did their thing.
 I have tried this game before and it hasn’t exactly worked out. In the old British Museum Reading Room I found what was allegedly Karl Marx’s seat while I was studying philosophy at University College London. The Marxian seat didn’t help me at all with my essays which were uninspired and generally terrible. A couple of years later at Oxford I frequented the Eagle and Child pub where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis used to read and write. The epic fantasy novel I began there mercifully disappeared into a crashed hard drive never to be retrieved. 
A few years after that in Paris I toiled as a plongeur during the day while spending my evenings at the Deux Magots café. I was trying to emulate Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir’s philosophizing while drinking enormous bowls of coffee and attempting to smoke Gitanes; but all I got from that experience was a massive jittery headache and a hacking cough.  
My most notorious attempt at literary osmosis was in the piano bar of the Ambos Mundos hotel in Havana in 2008. For most of that year I’d had writer’s block and with a deadline looming I took the drastic step of flying to Havana via Mexico City so I could work in the place where Hemingway supposedly wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls. Maybe I too could write my magnum opus here I thought and initially things went quite well. I got a notepad and paper and the ideas flowed. Half a dozen mojitos later I was writing gibberish and after a couple more cuba libres and mojitos I was attempting to push the deft piano player off his stool so that I could give the well heeled clientele my version of All The Little Puffer Trains Down By The Station.
I wasn’t going to let that happen again. This time I was going to write at Kafka’s desk (sort of) in Kafka’s office over looking the bustling Na Porici Street.
The Kafka Suite had generously provided its visitors with paper, pens and a rather nice mechanical pencil.
I took out the pencil and a sheet of paper and stared at the blank page for a long, long time.
Then I did a little Kafka portrait in the corner of the page, then another little doodle of a cockroach. I did a pretty good drawing of myself scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Final. Then I went to the book shelf and tried to read Georges Bernanos’s Journal d'un curé de campagne for a bit but found it pretty hard to get into.
Back to the dreaded blank page. I wrote a couple of opening lines and crossed them out and got a fresh sheet of paper and stared at that for a while.
I looked through the window at the building opposite. This must have been Franz’s view when he was writing those bloody insurance reports. It was an attractive building and on the third floor there was a large, peculiar sheep bas relief highlighted in gold paint. If it was there back then Kafka must have stared at that sheep for hundreds of hours. He did in fact write one short story about a sheep: ‘A Crossbreed’ which is a story about an animal that is half-cat, half-sheep with odd eating habits and dietary restrictions. It’s not his best work if I’m honest.
The sheep did not inspire me. I wrote a spoof Raymond Chandler short story once set in Ireland called The Big Sheep. It wasn't a great story and The Big Sheep Part 2 didn’t seem like a very good idea.
Unlike a lot of fancy hotel rooms in the Kafka Suite it is possible to open the window and let the city smells and street noise come pouring in. I pulled a chair close to the window ledge and watched the trams, cars and tourists go by for a while. There were more tourists and cars than the Prague of a hundred years ago but I imagine the citizenry riding the #26 tram was much the same.
It began to get dark. I noticed a beer cellar across the street called La Republica. I found my laptop and Googled it and discovered that it served liter steins of Czech beer and pre war staples of Czech cuisine such as pork ribs, schnitzel and pretzels.
“Maybe I’ll just go over and have one stein and a pretzel and then I’ll come back and do some serious work,” I thought.
Unfortunately that decision put an end to the possibility of the McKinty Magnum Opus getting started in Kafka’s office, for La Republica was a very amenable beer cellar indeed. It was full of Irish people, one of whom, as is the way of such things, knew my sister.
I had a very good night with a bunch of new friends. The bar wasn’t that far away from the salon where Kafka, Max Brod and Albert Einstein used to hang out, booze and chat, so I think they would have approved. When I got back to the Kafka Suite I was in no fit state to write anything at all.
But eventually the room did stop spinning which was nice and I settled down in the enormous, ridiculously comfortable bed.

After a night of peculiar dreams I woke up next morning transformed into a middle aged bibliophile who had written nothing at all in Kafka’s room but who was maybe finally over his literary osmosis addiction and was sort of ok with that.