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Monday, January 26, 2009


Here is a question every author* hates: “Where do you get your ideas from?”

The answer is: MY HEAD, but people want something more specific than that. They want something authorly and evocative that makes me seem smart. “I pull them out of my a$%,” is not the kind of thing that sounds good when quoted in a fine publication read by members of the American Library Association. So when I am asked this, I just smile enigmatically and then blind the questioner with a high-powered flashlight I keep in my purse expressly for this situation. By the time they regain sight, I have escaped through the fire exit or a window. (It’s okay. Authors are known to be shy and often a little squirrely. This is why editors have us all fitted with tracking chips when we are signed. Mine is in my head, right behind my left ear. I tell people it is a “backwards earring.” During a deadline, it emits a high-pitched frequency whenever I leave my desk. I tell people this is my “theme music.”)

But there is one book that has a genuine background story.

In late 2003, I applied for an international writing fellowship. I did this ENTIRELY to escape from the noise of the ice cream truck that was circling my neighborhood. It was early fall, and it was hot, and they had just built a school down my block. The ice cream truck came and circled, like a soft-serve shark, once every ten minutes. I started to DREAM the music that came from it. I started asking people for the most quiet and deserted place they knew of to get any writing done. I was told of a writing fellowship at a castle in Scotland, just outside of Edinburgh. The fellowship was offered by a very ritzy literary organization, with a list of impressive names of former winners. All of your needs were taken care of—the writers were fed, their clothes washed, their rooms cleaned—all so you had time just to write. There was no internet, no television. Just quiet and castle and books and smartness. The application required that you explain why exactly you wanted to go, so I described the ice cream truck for two pages. “It’s a migraine set to music,” I explained. “I MUST ESCAPE THE FIENDISH DAIRY PEDDLERS AND THEIR PLINKY-PLONKY TRUCK.”

I was more surprised than anyone when they accepted me. Adding to the surprise was the fact that my acceptance letter had been lost in the mail, so instead of informing me in November, as they meant to, I got a call six days before I was meant to show up. So on very little notice, I picked up and went to Scotland, with the notes for a new book entitled 13 Little Blue Envelopes. And it was there, in the castle in the Scottish woods, in a cold and dark February, that the book was started.

What seemed like an excellent idea (no television or internet!) quickly became a shocking reality. Unhooked from the world, I wrote an eighty page account of my time, during which I clearly go insane, like something out of The Shining.** I called this account The Badger Diary, and I sent it to just three people (including my agent, Daphne) on disks which I would burn and mail out once a week, when I would escape to the post office. It was never intended for publication (this was before I kept a blog)—it was simply a record of what I was sure would be my death. Aside from them, no one else has seen The Badger Diary. For five years it has remained hidden from the world in the depths of my hard drive.

For reasons that will soon become clear, it is now relevant for me to return to the world of The Badger Diary. And I decided to share selections from it with you, here on this blog. Even though it makes me sound like a bit of a nut. I become paranoid, insecure, and have many strange scrapes.

I have changed the names and removed the details of the other writers who were at the castle with me.

Because this is ALREADY WRITTEN, I’ll be publishing them every day for a little while! Like, a week at least!

So, dear readers, for the first time ever . . . THE BADGER DIARY.

11 February 2004
11:15 PM

So I am here. The cab ride from Edinburgh was about fifteen or twenty minutes—not so far out. There’s a long drive, and then—hello. It is actually a castle. A small castle, but a castle. I was greeted at the door by Hubert, who is a PhD student in his late 20s or 30s. He was very nice. He carried my terrifying bag up the several sets of stairs.


As it turns out, I’m not late. There’s only one other person here. Her name is Agatha, and she was asleep when I arrived at 9:15. (I later heard her going down the hall to the bathroom, and I had my door open. She slipped right by without my seeing her (I was under the desk—plugging something in, I wasn’t hiding down there.) She didn’t stop by.) I’m told that there is actually someone else here named Petunia, but she had to go to London for a conference. There are two guys coming on Friday. I am the only American. This is all I know.

So, my visions of being greeted by four other writers sitting around the fireplace drinking whiskey or grog or something have been dashed.

I told some of you that all the rooms had fireplaces except one named Boswell. Well, meet the newest inhabitant of Boswell. Who’s surprised? (It’s really not necessary, anyway. It’s nice and warm. But I did go into the other rooms (except that of Agatha, Ms. Elusive Earlytobed) and gaze in envy at the fireplaces. Still, my room is nice.)

After I arrived, Hubert took me down to the kitchen, which is lovely and large. They had dinner warming for me in the over. Then he bid me good night. I set to work unpacking and setting up The Boz. I snooped around those other rooms and took some pictures (before more people are here, thus increasing my chances of getting busted with the camera).

Bed of The Boz. Note yoga mat in corner. That is going to be “exercise” for next three weeks. [Note from 2009 mj: never used it. Not once.]

This is the view down the hall of the fellows floor. That room at the end with the bag on it belongs to Agatha, with whom I have already developed an adversarial relationship with in my head. I mean, who goes to bed before 9:00, anyway? Maybe she was really bored. I don’t know. But she didn’t even stick her head in when she came back from the bathroom. In my mind, Agatha is 80 years old and hates me.

Note the pencil sharpener. Next to that, just out of view, is a tray of salt and pepper shakers. A whole tray. I know that’s what’s in there because I checked.

Time for bed soon. I have decided I must have a bath. I have no idea why, but I do know that just the mere idea of drawing this bath caused me acute fear. Everything in here makes a lot of noise, and I was pretty sure that the running water (which is down the hall and around the corner) would have Agatha awake and chasing me with a fire poker. It’s not too bad, though. I am drawing it slowly. At this rate, it should be ready by Friday.

While I was just out there, I had a look at some of those books in the hall. All pretty good, but I couldn’t decide on any. Actually, it occurred to me that that probably wouldn’t have been a great time for Agatha to come out, as I was crawling around on my hands and knees reading the spines. It kind of makes sense to do that, but it’s not the way I should meet someone I’m already convinced is some kind of sleeping monster that lives in the room next to mine.

Number of badgers spotted: 0

12 February 2004


So, this morning I had a little battle with the shower attachment, which does not like attaching to the spigots, and ended up soaking the entire bathroom. Washed hair in sink. Vowed revenge on shower attachment.

If you look out my window, you’ll see what looks like a grassy lawn. It’s actually the roof of something (possibly the dungeon—seriously) which is covered in a thick moss. It’s like a really old patio. There is a well in the middle of it that goes way down. Here’s the view:

That big brown door is the library door. The library is really nice, but at the moment the heater is missing. Right next to it (a little hard to see) is a metal plate on the ground. That’s the entrance to the dungeon. Right below the castle are what I am told are Pictish caves. I have no idea what that means, except that they are old, and there are drawings in them that I have heard are thousands of years old. That’s two olds. Old squared.

The castle itself is from all kinds of periods. It kind of sounds like the building plan was, “Hey. I’ve got a few bucks, Let’s go buy a stone and stick it somewhere.” It may have been a bit more organized than that, and I think it’s actually been flattened a few times, but there you go. History with Maureen: totally inaccurate.

Anyway, there are a lot of rooms that I didn’t see last night. There’s a gorgeous formal dining room with a circular table where we eat on Sundays. There’s a huge drawing room, which I did sneak into last night. Here it is. I took these in complete darkness. I really was creeping around, literally:

[Note from 2009 mj: this is the room I would spend EVERY SINGLE NIGHT in for the duration of my stay at the castle. This becomes relevant later. I just didn’t know the significance of this room when I was first writing. Back to 2004 mj . . . ]

Okay—I’m getting off track here. So, Hubert showed me around . . .

OKAY—I’m getting WAY off track here, but I must report something. I just got up after typing the word “around.” Out in the hall, I spotted a few things. One, this:

My lunch. Note the tag that says “Boswell” and the salt and pepper.

Then I turned and saw THIS!

This is Agatha’s door again. Her lunch is on the windowsill. The two things in this photo, however, are more interesting. One, see that bag? That’s her laundry bag. She seems to refuse to take it in. It was there last night. It is there now. I know she’s been out of her room because Hubert says he saw her this morning. The fact that Agatha will not take in her laundry only adds to her mystery.

Two, see that box? It’s marked “flowers.” Someone loves Agatha. Considering the difficult relationship I have had so far with Agatha, I find this difficult to believe, but there you go.

Everything is very low-tech. For example, if I want to use the copier, I use it. Then I write down in the little book how many copies I made. If I want to take a book from the library, I fill out a slip and put it where the book was. Then I write down in the library record what I took and when I took it. We have plenty to read here. If I don’t catch up on some serious reading, the only person to blame will be me.

Anyway, once we went through everything (it was really low-key), Hubert said, “Well, okay. Bye!” And that was kind of that. All I know is that someone comes and finds me at 7:00 for dinner.

So, I went back to my room and my room (which is already neat) had been made neater. Also, my laundry (all two pieces of it) had been removed. When my laundry comes back, I will actually take it into my room. That’s the difference between me and Agatha. We’re cut of a totally different cloth.

There are a lot of walking trails, but I just went around the immediate outside of the castle and up the path to the road. I’d estimate that the drive is maybe 1/5 of a mile long, but my powers of estimating distance on foot are not great, so it’s probably ten miles or something. I walked it in about ten or twelve minutes, up and back. Does that tell you anything? Right at the end of the drive, there are houses, so we really aren’t so far out.

Oh, something else about Agatha . . .(I am building her profile, fact by fact.) She has a car. Hubert mentioned this when I was asking how to get to Bonnyrigg, which is where I can easily get online. I told some of you that I had decided that I had to become best friends with whoever had a car. Obviously, this is a problem. However, I think Petunia has returned from her meeting in London. Now there are two cars outside. I’m guessing that Hubert has a car also, but I have no proof of this. All I know is that there was one red car outside last night when I got here. This, I must presume, is Agatha’s. When I came back around the path, there was a white car. That, I presume, is Petunia’s. Maybe I can be best friends with Petunia. Petunia and I do not have the troubled past that Agatha and I share.

I’d read something about badgers before I came here—that they were supposed to be all around, and that they were vicious. I laughed at this until some of you told me that badgers were not the small, feeble, groundhog-like creatures I was imagining. You told me that they were big, and that they had big teeth, and that they were mean. I began to joke about how I was afraid of them. In fact, when I arrived at Heathrow, Trevor and Grace were waiting there for me holding up a sign that read: RABID BADGER TOURS. We all laughed.

Well, as I was walking around outside, I started thinking about the badgers and I smiled. Then I heard something move, and I swear to you it was instant Blair Witch Project in my head. I was suddenly imagining badgers everywhere—badgers that wanted to find me just so they could sink their teeth into my neck. I looked for them everywhere, There were strange dug-up mounds on the lawn, which I suspected were the work of these dangerous badgers. I was really kind of scared. It was really kind of pathetic.

No badgers. Lots of really loud birds and a very timid squirrel.

Just went out of the room again. I notice that Petunia, in the room next door (called Evelyn) has not only eaten her lunch, she has put her container outside of her door. Agatha has not even picked her lunch up. Is there anything to indicate that Agatha is human? If so, I haven’t seen evidence of it.

I’ve also realized that it’s possible—possible—that I’ve gotten the rooms the wrong way around. It may be the Petunia is really in Jonson, which is the room with the laundry and the flowers and the lunch, and that the reason that these things haven’t been taken in is because she is still in London. And maybe the person sneezing and eating lunch in Evelyn is Agatha. Still, I think I have it right. I could have sworn that Hubert indicated Jonson when he mentioned Agatha, and I heard no movement in Evelyn last night. Also, I swear that white car just got here, so I think that is evidence that Petunia is back.

MOVEMENT IN THE HALL. I couldn’t get up quickly enough to see who it was, but I heard footsteps and then a door closing. I figured it would not be a good idea to spring out and say AHA!, no matter how curious I am. I don’t think it would be good if people thought I just hung around by my door all day long, waiting to leap out whenever someone passed by. They might not think I was entirely stable.

Okay. I think I am going to relocate myself now to do some work. You might be asking yourself, “Maureen, shouldn’t you have been working all along?” Well, I am working. I’m writing. This is all part of my process. Besides, they don’t appear to care what I do. Hubert suggested that I sleep until Friday if I wanted.

Tune in for Chapter Two, in which I have adventures and the paranoia truly takes hold . . .

* Or, me and my friends. Certainly Justine Larbalestier.

** If you've read 13 Little Blue Envelopes, you'll know that one of the rules of the trip is NO TRAVEL JOURNALS. This eighty-page (single spaced) document was probably what made me include that rule.

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Anonymous kaylasturner said...

This was highly entertaining to read!

It made me think about when I went with my friend to a very small town in Ohio(Loudonville) and we stayed at this Bed and Breakfast. It was an old Victorian house that had really thin floors and stubborn doors that you had to slam shut. Whenever we'd hear footsteps, we'd crack open our door and peek out, in hopes that there was someone interesting staying in the room beside us. It was such a fun stay and we ended up meeting a few people from Philadephia.

I know Ohio is no Scotland. I can't even begin to imagine being that far away from home, staying in a castle with nobody you really know.

All of sudden, I find myself craving adventure...

6:28 AM  
Blogger ReaderGirl said...

lol I love you Maureen.... This trip sounds like it was quite an adventure! Can't wait to hear more about it, and I'm super glad that you must immerse yourself in the Badger Diarys once more, as it will hopefully make you miss a few certain charicters *coughcough* Keith, Ginny *cough cough*, that we must hear for from asap... x)

6:34 AM  
Blogger simplywhitney said...

i love this so much! i can't wait for the next chapter!!

6:43 AM  
Blogger Hollishillis said...

Oh Maureen, i'm really looking forward to the rest of these! I can't wait to see if you and Agitha become friends...apart of me feels like you will...but I'll just have to keep tuning in.

6:44 AM  
Blogger Zach said...

when is the next chapter coming out?

this is pure genius!

6:44 AM  
Blogger DoreMifa said...


6:45 AM  
Blogger Brittany Ann said...

MJ, you are crazy. In like, a totally awesome good way, that makes me want to bring you on every trip I go on, just so you can provide narration and make me laugh.

6:45 AM  
Blogger hannah said...

this just made my weekend even better! i missed your bolgs and then you give us this! its great and i cant wait to here more of your adventures!! :D

6:45 AM  
Blogger Khy said...

Why don't I get to go on awesome trips like these? Your trip sounds amazing.

7:01 AM  
Anonymous Gabriella said...

That just made my day awesome, by the way. Thank you very much.

7:04 AM  
Blogger Chelsea said...

I really needed a laugh. I feel like I say that every time, but I really did tonight. This was great. You are so crazy.

I can't wait to read more! :D

7:41 AM  
Blogger slowtrain said...

After having read this, I am unsure whether I'm excited for the prospect of badgers appearing, or absolutely terrified that one should attack and subsequently injure you... what I do know, is that it will be an interesting and no doubt highly amusing read regardless!

7:49 AM  
Blogger Little Willow said...

I am jealous of the castle. I've always wanted one. With or without badgers.

8:03 AM  
Blogger K. said...

Maureen, you are absolutely fantastic. You win (?) one of my few fangirl-shrieks for "for reasons that will soon become clear..."

8:12 AM  
Blogger Colt said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:12 AM  
Anonymous The Queen said...

We are not amused.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Colt said...

HAHA!!! Badgers scare me 2...on a lighter note Scotland sounds like fun

11:15 PM  
Anonymous Nadia Murti said...

That's pretty awesome. I wish I could go on awesome trips like that.
By the way, you're halarious and Agatha sounds...scary.

Can't wait to read more!

2:09 AM  
Blogger angela said...

THAT, Maureen was highly entertaining and lifted my spirits a tad, from a very very extremely cloudy day.

2:53 AM  
Blogger Callidora said...

Wow, this is amazing! What happened next? :o)

2:58 AM  
Anonymous shaylaluna said...

Very entertaining...almost makes me less upset it took you almost a month to blog.

7:55 AM  
Blogger Mitsie Did A Number On You :) said...

OK, so I'm supposed to be reading about 14 poems by William Blake right and I decided to check your blog on a lark, and I am so happy I did!
This really made my day! :)

8:11 AM  
Blogger Kylie said...

Oh Maureen. Forget about ideas. I need to learn where you get your smoothie-for-the-insanely-humorous. The fiendish dairy peddlers? Ahhh... I totally love it. And totally am jealous, since I would kill to get to Scotland. To write, to explore, or merely to be bitten by a badger. Any of those are fine by me.

1:13 AM  

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