Spotlight on historical fiction author Lesley Downer

Spotlight on historical fiction author Lesley Downer

I am pleased to have author Lesley Downer on my blog today! Her travels brought her to Japan, inspired her to learn the language, and eventually write historical fiction and non-fiction books about the country she’d fallen in love with.

I enjoyed her novel Shogun Queen, a captivating and engrossing novel set in age of the samurai, and can attest to her extensive knowledge of the country and its history! Rich in detail, Lesley creates a world of princesses, shoguns and emperors that lives and breathes.

I hope you enjoy learning more about Lesley, her writing, and passion for everything Japanese.


Please tell me a little bit about yourself, your books and writing career.

I’ve always been a traveller and I’ve always loved stories. My parents are Canadian – my mother is Chinese Canadian, my father Irish Scottish Canadian. My father was a China specialist and spent a lot of time in Laos and Vietnam. I grew up surrounded by Chinese books and my parents’ friends – like ‘Uncle’ Lao and ‘Uncle’ Liu, whom I only realised in my teens were Chinese.

As soon as I finished university I hitchhiked to India. My travelling eventually took me to Japan, initially to teach English. I ended up living there for five years, by which time I could speak the language and was completely caught up in the culture – literature, art, theatre, pottery, food. I loved the delicacy, the precision, the temples, the shrines, the passionate history and legends that were retold in poetry and kabuki and Noh plays and the warmth and friendliness of the people.

Being able to speak Japanese gave me the key to looking glass land. Suddenly I was inside, not outside. I ended up falling completely in love with the place.

Lesley Downer Jennifer S. Alderson blog
Lavish carving at Nijo Castle, Kyoto, which helped Lesley imagine what a glorious place Edo Castle must have been. Photo by Lesley Downer.

When I eventually came back to London I discovered that British people didn’t know anything about Japan and I wanted to spread the news. I’ve written cookbooks, non-fiction and fiction, all dealing with Japan, and also spent ten years as a journalist, writing about all sorts of places and subjects.

My first book was a travel book. I wanted to follow the seventeenth haiku poet Basho’s journey around northern Japan. In those days I was time rich and money poor and stayed far more longer in farming villages and roaming around the north than was strictly necessary to research my book. I spent many hours pondering the best possible words to translate Basho’s Zen-like seventeen syllable haiku.

Lesley Downer Jennifer S. Alderson blogI was thrilled when On the Narrow Road to the Deep North was shortlisted for the Somerset Maugham Travel Book of the Year Award. It was also filmed and shown on WNET and Channel 4 with the title Journey to a Lost Japan.

My next book was the story of the Tsutsumi family, in those days the richest family in the world. Like the Rockefellers they were a dynasty with a larger than life father who built a business empire out of nothing and feuding sibling sons. Researching the book was an excuse for many more months in Japan and involved encounters with Japanese gangsters and a night’s vigil on a hillside cemetery outside Tokyo to spy on a secret ceremony. To my great delight The Brothers was chosen as a New York Times ‘Book of the Year’.

By now I’d caught the journalism bug. I spent a decade visiting Japan, India, China, Egypt, South Africa, Ghana, writing travel articles, food articles, interviews, investigative pieces. I wrote for the Wall Street Journal, the FT, the Sunday Times Magazine. I had a lot of fun.

Then I got a commission to write a book on geisha. I lived for months among the geisha of Kyoto, Tokyo and other cities, got to know them and felt as if I was being transformed into one. I finally wrote Geisha: The Remarkable Truth Behind the Fiction.

Lesley Downer Jennifer S. Alderson blogMy next book was Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West, the story of the real-life geisha whom Puccini modelled his Madame Butterfly on. I tracked down her relatives, visited the places where she performed – in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Paris, Bonn, London – saw the place where she was born and the temple where she died and unearthed her career and poignant love story from yellowing clippings in Japanese and English. I was amazed to discover how famous she had been. She inspired Isadora Duncan, danced for Edward VII and was painted by Picasso four times.

Then I turned to fiction. I’d discovered that the shogun, the feudal period military ruler, had had a harem of three thousand women. In all my time in Japan I’d never even heard of it: the women had been sworn to secrecy. I also discovered that there was no word for ‘love’ in the Japanese of those days and wondered what kind of society that could have been. So I let my imagination go to work.

My first novel, The Last Concubine, is the story of Sachi, a young girl caught up in the last days of the women’s palace and forced to flee as civil war rages. My research sent me travelling all over Japan and trekking along the Nakasendo, Japan’s Inner Mountain Road.

The second, The Courtesan and the Samurai, moves the story on a few years. It’s the tale of Hana, forced to work as a courtesan in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, the heart of the Floating World, and of a marvellous tall ship called the Kaiyo Maru, commissioned in Holland and sailed back to Japan by a bunch of intrepid samurai. That one took me to Japan in the depths of winter to see the Kaiyo Maru, which sank but was recently found and brought back to the surface.

The third, The Samurai’s Daughter, is the Romeo and Juliet story of Taka, the daughter of the legendary ‘last samurai’ and Nobu, whose family is on the wrong side in the civil war.

But there was another story which I’d come across and couldn’t get out of my mind – the heart-rending story of Princess Atsu. But it seemed too late to tell the story, which had happened before the events of The Last Concubine. Then I realised it was the lynchpin to the whole series. And so I wrote The Shogun’s Queen.

Lesley Downer Jennifer S. Alderson blog
Sakurajima volcano in Kagoshima where Princess Atsu, the heroine of The Shogun’s Queen, grew up. Photo by Lesley Downer.

I also give lectures on the history behind my books – at Asia House, the Royal Geographic Society, the British Museum, the Ashmolean, even the Royal Opera House, and on a vast residential ship called The World that circles the globe forever like a modern-day Flying Dutchman. I teach the MA programme in Creative Writing (non-fiction) at City University in London. I live in London with my husband who is a scientist and also a writer. And when I’m not writing you’ll find me doing yoga.


If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?

I get bees in my bonnet about a place. The itch to go there gets stronger and stronger and finally I just have to go. Ethiopia is one place I was desperate to go and I did finally go there a few years ago. It was a marvellous place, with a history stretching right back to Lucy the first human, through the Queen of Sheba, to the rock hewn churches of Lalibela.

The current bee in my bonnet is Papua New Guinea. It seems like the last unexplored place on earth. Many years ago I saw a film set there, called The Valley Obscured By Cloud. I too would like to trek through the jungle, meet dancers who wear mud masks – though I have the feeling that after I’d traversed hills and valleys and reached the top of the mountain and looked down, the valley would still be obscured by cloud.


Do you prefer to write in silence or with background music? Why?

I write in silence. For me writing is like meditation. I need to enter another world, not be distracted. My study is totally silent. When there’s noise outside the window – road digging for example – I turn on a little air conditioner that makes a humming noise to drown out the noise outside.


Where do you do your best writing?

I write in my study – not Starbucks, not the kitchen. When I travel I make lots of notes but I don’t write till I’m home again. My study is full of the calm peaceful atmosphere of writing, full of quiet concentration accumulated over many years. When I married and moved, I furnished my new study so that it was almost exactly the same as my old study. I’m surrounded by books and bookcases and have piles of files all neatly labelled on the floor.

Lesley Downer Jennifer S. Alderson blog


Tell me something about yourself that has nothing to do with writing?

When I was nineteen I was madly in love with an older man (all of twenty three). He decided he was going to go and live in Peru. Broken hearted, I gave him my teddy bear to take with him. The boyfriend and the bear never came back. I can hardly remember the boyfriend but I still miss my bear (last seen at Lake Titicaca). One of these days I intend to go to Peru and look for him (the bear, not the boyfriend).


What is your usual writing routine?

I get up in the morning and do yoga. Then I make a cup of coffee, take it to my desk and start writing. I’ve usually printed out the previous day’s work. I try not to turn on the computer for as long as possible. I may look at my e mails on my phone but if they’re not urgent I don’t answer them. I edit the previous day’s work in pencil and may carry writing long hand in pencil. When I feel I’ve done I turn on my computer and enter my changes. I’m a terrible typist, I spell check nearly every sentence.

I stop when I feel I’ve done a good day’s work – which may be 4 or may be 7. The last thing I do is print out my work to work on the next morning.


What inspired you to be a writer?

I had two marvelous teachers at school, the English teacher and the history teacher. The history teacher taught history as stories. She described Stephen and Maud running away across the snow, the little princes drowning in a butt of malmsey, Charles I stepping out of the window of banqueting house to be executed and his long black hair and his red blood falling on the white snow. We were spellbound. It filled me with a love of stories and a love of the romantic and the dramatic.

I guess I’ve always been a dreamer. I’ve never wanted or had a proper job. I’ve also never made plans. My life has been a series of accidents.

When I got back from Japan I had no idea what to do with the rest of my life. I lived in a friend’s council flat and worked in a dead end job in Japanese TV, while saving for a mortgage. In Japan I had collected Japanese vegetarian recipes. On a friend’s suggestion I put them together, added stories, photocopied them and sent the whole lot off to five publishers. I never expected to hear back from anyone. I was amazed when first one, then another, letter arrived expressing interest. Then the phone rang in my council flat and a woman’s voice said, ‘I’m from Jonathan Cape. We think you can write and we want you to be a Jonathan Cape author.’ A light bulb went on above my head. From that moment on I knew I was a writer. Japanese Vegetarian Cooking has long since gone out of print but it changed my life.


What are you passionate about, aside from writing?

I’ve done yoga my entire adult life. It’s probably more important to me than writing. I’ve been to the Iyengar Centre in Pune, not with a group of European yoga practitioners but by myself. (I’m that sort of person). I joined a regular daily class for Indians. When I lived in Japan I did aikido until I hurt my back and couldn’t walk for a week. It didn’t bother me except for the fact that it prevented me from doing yoga. So I gave up aikido. I love tai chi, gym – any sort of exercise.

Lesley Downer Jennifer S. Alderson blog
Lesley in a palanquin. Photo by Lesley Downer.


Is it important to conduct research while writing fiction? Must fiction be historically and factually accurate?

I love history and in the books I’ve written I’ve done my best to make the history absolutely accurate. Part of the fun of writing is the research. All my novels are set in the same period.

When I first started researching I found marvelous books which I borrowed from the School of Oriental and African Studies library. Then one day I came across a book which I desperately needed. I looked it up in the online library catalogue and discovered it was so rare and valuable it couldn’t be borrowed. I would have to read it in the library.

On the off chance I checked Amazon. It turned out I could buy it for (I think) £10. So I did. After that I started buying rather than borrowing books. I now have an amazing collection of books on nineteenth century Japan which I’m always consulting.

When I read I like to learn, so for me it’s important that fiction is historically accurate. But there’s also plenty of place for fantasy. I read about one author who wrote a whole novel set in China without ever going there – and that’s okay too. The marvelous thing about fiction is that there are no rules. The most exciting fiction breaks all the so-called rules.


Thanks for sharing more about your life and love of Japan, Lesley!


You can connect with Lesley Downer via her website, Twitter, and Facebook.

You can buy her books – On the Narrow Road to the Deep North, The Shogun’s Queen, The Last Concubine, The Courtesan and the Samurai, Geisha and Madame Sadayakko – on Amazon worldwide and many other fine retailers.


Lesley is also a member of Travel By Book, a Facebook group dedicated to travel fiction and non-fiction. If you love to read or write books strong in setting, consider joining us!


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