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Saturday, March 22, 2008


As far as I am concerned, there are two kinds of clowns in the world:

- incredibly professional artists who have worked long and hard to master an ancient and revered form of theater art, which includes extensive physical training as well as a wide repertoire of acting skills

- people who want to kill you and bury you under their house

While there are no clowns in any of my books, per se . . . anyone who has ever read or who ever will read Suite Scarlett will know that there is falling and fighting and unicycle riding . . . basically, many of the skills that a clown from the first category would know about.

Because I always try to do my best to get these things right for you, I got in touch with a former Ringling Brothers clown named Steve. For a while now, Steve has been my point man on all questions relating to HOW TO FALL DOWN.

I have been running around the New York office, because tomorrow I am going to London, and from there, I am going with Scott and Justine and Holly and Cassie to the Bologna Book Fair . . . which is all very exciting, but it means that things are in a bit of a tizzy. Scarlett’s coming out, big contests are happening, this website is being redone, Alan Rickman is still not free . . .

But when Steve dropped me a line and told me that the circus was coming to New York, and would I like to go and see it, and he could show me around and take me backstage . . .

Flashback: a tiny mj. Age four. I have gone to the circus. Mostly I remember that I liked it, and that it was really dark, and I got a program and a big yellow SPARKLE SHOOTER. I really think this yellow sparkle shooter was the thing that made me want a stun gun so much, and was obviously a precursor to a lifetime of loving shiny things. I loved my yellow sparkle shooter, but my mom had to take it from me because I wouldn’t stop sparkle shooting for love nor money, and it was seriously upsetting the cat.

I PINED for my genuine Ringling Brothers sparkle shooter.

(I just found one on ebay. The seller claims this is from the 1950s, but I was in no way alive in the 1950s, and I promise you, my SPARKLE SHOOTER looked EXACTLY like this, down to the color!)

I kan has my sparkle gun back?

So at 9:30 AM this morning, I was at the circus at Madison Square Garden. Packing be damned. I had research to do, for you! For Suite Scarlett 2! I was IN NO WAY SIMPLY TRYING TO RECOVER THE LOST JOY OF MY SPARKLE GUN.

Here is the excellent thing about going to the circus with someone who used to work there . . . you feel like a insider at the coolest and weirdest club in the world. As we walked around during the pre-show, men in leotards, clowns, handlers . . . everyone came up and said hello. At one point. Steve said . . . “I’m going to hook us up, don’t worry.”

And I said, “Hook what up?”

But it was time for the show.

The show itself was pretty good. I got very nervous for the people on the trapeze (obviously), and very much wanted to go down and see the tigers, the elephants, the dogs with the Frisbee tricks, the tiny white horses, and the porcupine. But I was often enchanted by the many NEW SPARKLING TOYS that were all around me, in the hands of the thousands of kids who had turned up. (We were at a school show.) These NEW SPARKLING TOYS are totally princessed-out. They are pink, they have stars on top, glitter flowing from the sides, and they kind of look like hand blenders. Still, tiny mj was in my head, saying, “WANT.”

I mentioned the hand-blender thing to Steve, who agreed, but said they would probably short out mid-smoothie.

When the show was over, Steve used his special powers to get us on to the stage floor. Another clown, a very nice guy named Gabor, came and got us and I went BACKSTAGE AT THE CIRCUS!

For reals.

And the first thing I saw? Elephants. Like, just there. Elephants. Hanging out. Not wandering around and buying coffees and reading the paper, but in their own special area . . . and just THERE. Right in front of me. All of the stuff was there . . . the trapeze stuff, and the little motorcycles . . . all of it.

“The clowns are over here,” Steve said. “In this box.”

He was right. In the middle of this big open area, next to the elephants, a makeshift room had been set up. Each side was lined with open trunks, each one a dressing table.

“Welcome to the alley,” Steve said.

This was the Clown Alley, the place where (as far as I can tell) the clowns get dressed and put on their makeup and have their coffee. It had a little refrigerator and a microwave. There was a curtained off area so the girl clowns could change in privacy. It was all very relaxed. The clowns were all really nice and low-key, taking off their noses and makeup and talking about getting lunch and running errands. The most excitement was when I noticed a dog cage over in the corner which housed the littlest dog from the dog-Frisbee act. It was one of those really fancy dog cages, and the dog was all decked out in a little sweater, and it weighed about three pounds. I walked near the cage and was saying, “Oh, he’s so ador . . . “


I usually get along really well with dogs, but I know when to leave well enough alone, even when the dog is no bigger than a sandwich. I backed away, and one of the clowns apologized and said, “Yeah, he hates girls. Sorry about that. Girls and Cricket.” (Cricket being one of the other clowns.)

Cricket confirmed that the dog did indeed hate him, for reasons unknown.

Steve asked me if I wanted to join them all in grabbing some lunch. Five of them were going. The answer was, of course, yes. Yes I want to go to lunch with five clowns. Because that is awesome. “What did you do for lunch today, mj?” “Oh, you know, went out with five clowns, grabbed a bite.”

Awesome. I mean, even more awesome than this picture of Abba dressed in tin foil standing in front of the Swedish flag, which has long been my benchmark of awesome.

The bar was high.

It turns out . . . the clowns? Pretty much the most laid back people imaginable. Honestly . . . sub in the table full of YA authors, talking about a good day we had writing, or how it’s not going so well . . . same thing. A fall turned out better than expected. Something went wrong with a prop. Just another day at the office, except their office has people riding motorcycles around in something called the Globe of Death. And the YA gang is kind of louder.

They all really seem to like what they do, but they have some horror stories as well. Sometimes, tigers pee on their things. Elephants sneeze on them. They accidentally bust their cell phones in bizarre accidents and have to run and get them swapped out between shows.

Some circus goers sometimes don’t treat them like people—they get pulled into photos, or get jabbed or whacked with toys or pens. Some people see them and spontaneously start crying. Sick or well, good day or bad, they have to look happy. They live on a massive train and go from town to town—so every stop brings new audiences, and all kinds of little challenges, like where to get new eyeglasses, or find a bookstore for some stuff to read, or get lunch, or get that cell phone fixed because the tiger peed on it.

Which, frankly . . . is all pretty much the coolest stuff I have ever heard. I mean, if my iPhone has to go, that’s what I want to have happen. “Oh yeah,” I want to be able to say to the nice folks at the Apple store as I hand over the shorted remains. “Tiger pee.”

But the long and the short of it was that they were all very nice, very professional, very cool people. So if you go to the circus this year, please be really, really nice to the clowns, because they are awesome. And I’m not saying that tigers have peed on ALL of their phones.

So you would THINK that would be the end of my circusing for the day, right? You’d be wrong.

I had another meeting, later in the day, with another writer . . . someone who has nothing to do with any of this. And I was trying to work in my “What did you do for lunch today? Because I was out with five clowns, you know, they’re all really laid back and cool and . . .”

You know. Because I want to be cool. And she just stared to nod and said, “Oh yeah, I know. Aren’t they the best? I was with the circus for four years. I did silks.”

Aside from the fact that in that very sentence, “I did silks,” I felt a new obsession coming on . . . I was really wondering what it all meant. Where did all of these circus folk come from? Had they always been in my life? Has everyone been in the circus but me?

Even I’ve kinda sorta had my brush with circusdom, when I worked on a show for a week in Las Vegas that turned out to involve Cirque du Soleil and live tiger and I almost got into a fight with a chorographer who was really mean and a man dressed as a bird flew across the room into a panel of huge balloons loaded with explosive charges (long but true story).

Maybe we are all a little bit circusy.

Are we all in the circus? I have no idea. But I really do have to finish typing this blog and eating this mango (I’ve been eating a mango) so I can finish packing.

In the meantime, please keep sending in your applications to be in SCARLETT'S ELEVEN. They are coming fast and furious, and they are excellent. Soon, the Eleven will be stealthily bringing Scarlett to the world and even more stealthily freeing Alan Rickman by wearing this shirt:

ALSO . . . the new website is coming THIS WEEK. So if you have any questions that you think I need to answer in my HUGE NEW FAQ, please leave them in the comments.

As ever . . . Free Alan Rickman! (Update: as part of the Scarlett's Eleven applications, people have been doing many things, including making Free Alan myspace pages, Free Alan Facebook groups, and this Free Alan Rickman website. Please join! Keep the applications coming! We will get him out of the basement yet!)

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Anonymous Danica said...

That sparkle shooter sounds dangerous.


11:00 AM  
Anonymous Danica said...

I totally just joined that Facebook group.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Halle said...

Okay, so if I wanna join Scarlett's Eleven do I click the Contact Maureen button?

I am in dire need of assistence.

9:56 PM  
Anonymous Haddy said...

that sounds so awsome the Ringling Brothers's and Barnum and Bailey trains stay out side my dads house when their in new york he lives on long island

3:00 AM  
Blogger Heather♥ said...

wow. so cool. THE CIRCUS. Even though clowns kind of freak me out it sounds fun...? Yeah, it does. I like the circus, just not the clowns so much. But I could handle them without their makeup. It's really the makeup that freaks me out (and I saw the movie It when I was 2)

4:58 AM  
Anonymous Jessica said...

It just so happens that I have a handheld blender, and it is fantastic.

Being a smoothie-aholic, it is great, but you have to be careful.

I nearly exploded raspberry yogurt and honey all over the kitchen.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

questions...oooh i like asking questions.

um. what are your pet peeves?
what's your least favorite question to answer?
what's your advice to aspiring writers?
how exactly do you plan to keep scarlett's eleven out of jail?
what is your favorite type of cookie?

all good questions for FAQ...

12:25 AM  
Blogger Tami said...

So, did you end up getting a new sparkle toy or did you resist temptation??

1:15 AM  
Anonymous Danica said...

Just send an email to maureen(at)maureenjohnsonbooks(dot)com explaining why you should be in Scarlett's Eleven.
Good luck! I want to be a part of this so badly...

7:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've got a couple questions for you Maureen.

Who is your favorite Abba member?
What is your favorite Abba song?

8:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mmm, sparkle!
Boo, clowns.

12:48 AM  
Anonymous Sarah said...

As usual, I love hearing all of your stories!!! Your blog is so entertaining to read. Also, I can't wait for Suite Scarlett!

1) What was your brush with circusdom? Please expand on that story someday!
2) What if you successfully free Alan Rickman, but he is so grateful to you that he decides to hang out in your house and eat all your food like JK Rowling does?
3) If you only had one day to spend in London, where would you go? What about in NYC?
4) What is your favourite Jimmy Stewart movie?

2:43 AM  
Blogger Erin said...

FAQ questions:

How can I be you when I grow up?
Will you make more funny videos with the YA gang soon?
Did you ever manage to fit THE SWEET FAR THING in your mouth?
Will you mail me a magical unicorn band-aid, if they are not all gone?
What are your thoughts on anorexic lyricists (I am not one)?

8:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

sparkile (druling) almost as good as Chocolate

9:06 AM  
Blogger limeywesty said...

First, that is an amazing picture of ABBA.
Secondly, I am heading off to join the Save Alan Rickman website.
Thirdly, I have lots of circussy friends, my friend Kaity sword swallows, and does trapese, and all the circussy things...
and my Mum's friend does the music for the Cirque de Solei show in Las Vegas.
Fourtly, I love Sparkler-y things, but yesterday, one accidentally sparked two holes in my pyjamas pants.

Have fun in London with Justine and Scott and co.

1:30 PM  
Blogger Sara said...

I'm confused. What's the matter with Alan Rickman?

6:32 AM  
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