My very special guest today (and fellow History Girl) is Lesley Downer who has had a love affair with Japan ever since she first went there 40 years ago. In her books she tries to take readers to this fascinating, rather mysterious place and to open up aspects of its culture and history that people often miss.
Her non-fiction book, On the Narrow Road to the Deep North, followed the haiku poet Basho’s journey through northern Japan three hundred years earlier. It was shortlisted for the Thomas Cook Travel Book of the Year Award in 1990, and televised by WNET and Channel 4 with the title ‘Journey to a Lost Japan’.
The Brothers, the story of a secretive and rather sinister real life Japanese business dynasty, was chosen as a New York Times ‘Book of the Year’ 1993. To research Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World (2000), Lesley spent months living among geisha. Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West (2003) is the story of the first Japanese actress who Puccini took as his model for Madame Butterfly.
Besides writing Lesley lectures on her novels, on writing and on all things Japanese at, among other places, the British Museum, the Royal Opera House and in Japanese in Japan. She’s consulted as a Japan expert and a geisha expert and appears on TV or radio when a great event occurs in Japan, such as the recent accession of the new Emperor. She also teaches creative writing on the MA course at City University in London. And every day she does yoga!
What or who inspired you first to write? Which authors have influenced you?
Thank you so much for inviting me onto your blog, Elisabeth. I’m much honoured.
I’ve always loved stories. When I was a child my father read myths and legends to me every night before bed. As an avid library user, I loved Alice in Wonderland and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – that feeling of finding a portal that leads to somewhere completely different. To this day I still look for portals. For me travelling, reading and writing are all ways of transporting myself to other worlds.
I love big books that I lose myself in, books that deal with huge themes – Hardy, George Elliot, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy. I also like dark, densely written books like The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles where you have to slow down, not gobble it up – books that change you. Books I’ve read recently and adored include Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh, set in the period I write about, the mid nineteenth century, The Secret River by Kate Grenville, on the early days in the settlement of Australia, and Taiko by Eiji Yoshikawa, the story of the larger than life people and events that led to the establishment of the Tokugawa regime in sixteenth century Japan.
As to what inspired me, the answer has to be Japan. I first visited 40 years ago and lived there for 5 years and have spent much of the rest of my life finding ways of getting back. All in all I must have spent some 15 or 20 years there. When I return to England I want to tell people about this distant and exotic place I know so well – its romantic history, marvellous literature and very different attitudes and perceptions of the world. I devour Japanese literature, from the epic Tale of Genji and the works of Tanizaki, to the poet Basho’s seventeen syllable haiku that encompass all of life.
What is the inspiration for your current book? Is there a particular theme you wished to explore?
On July 8th 1853, four mammoth American warships appeared, steaming towards the capital, Edo (now Tokyo). For Japanese of the time it was as horrifying and life changing as if aliens had landed – as indeed in a way they had. In The Shogun’s Queen I wanted to explore that pivotal moment when the entire world you know, which seems so solid and unchangeable – like Britain before World War II – suddenly shatters.
The Shogun’s Queen is also inspired by the true story of Atsu, a young woman who was thrust into a role she hadn’t chosen with a mission that she realised was virtually impossible. She was asked to give up everything, including love, and put duty and country first. I wanted to transport myself and my readers back to that era, to imagine how it must have felt to be a woman at that time with an impossible choice to make, between love and duty.
I was also staggered to discover that the shogun had a harem with 3000 women, where the only man who could enter was him – and where Atsu went to live. I hadn’t known such institutions existed in Japan. What could life have been like there? My imagination went to work …
What period of history particularly inspires or interests you? Why?
The four books of The Shogun Quartet are set in mid-nineteenth century Japan, a time of enormous change when the western powers, particularly the British, were carving up the world. In Japan the entire social order was shaken up. The arrival of the American ships led to 15 years of turmoil ending in regime change. But the story has largely been recorded by the winners. When I looked into the losers’ side of things I found an entirely different version of events, a poignant and heart breaking tale that cried out to be told.
What resources do you use to research your book? How long did it take to finish the novel?
The Shogun’s Queen is the fourth novel of The Shogun Quartet. I spent fifteen years immersed in nineteenth century Japan to write the entire quartet.
To research I absorbed myself in books both English and Japanese. There are many wonderful books by the first western travellers in Japan, from 1860 onwards, describing what they saw and experienced. SOAS library in London has one of the best collections of books on Japan in the world.
I also scoured early newspapers in the Diet Library in Tokyo. It’s important to be aware of how events looked to the people who lived them; they are often very differently reported in retrospect. There are marvellous woodblock prints, illustrations in The Illustrated London News and old photographs showing buildings, clothes and faces. I also read Japanese novels about the period and scholarly works, both old and recent.
It was also of course an excellent excuse to go to Japan – to breathe the air of places I was writing about, hear Japanese spoken around me, to be reminded of how Japanese carry themselves, react and behave. And I used my own knowledge of Japan, having lived there as a woman for many years.
There are also many marvellous Japanese movies set at this dramatic and romantic period in Japanese history and blockbuster Japanese historical TV dramas, all of which I sat through with great pleasure, again and again.
What do you do if stuck for a word or a phrase?
Leave a gap. I often start off writing in pencil, then when I transfer it to my computer the word leaps to mind. I’m always moving between Japanese and English, trying to find ways to express Japanese feelings and thoughts in English. I often go back to haiku which I love; the haiku of Basho embody so many feelings and experiences.
Is there anything unusual or even quirky that you would like to share about your writing?
I started off as a travel writer and try to bring places and people alive. Writing historical fiction, especially about as distant and different a place as Japan, is rather like writing science or fantasy fiction. I ask my readers to imagine themselves into a completely different world with different landscapes, different buildings, different ways of using your body, different values and different ways of thinking.
Some of my best ideas come when I’m about to drop off to sleep or doing something completely different like walking to the tube. You need to write those ideas down straight away, otherwise you’ll forget the precise words and what you remember won’t be as good. So I always have a pencil and paper to hand. I once totalled my car because I was busy writing a sentence in my head.
Do you use a program like Scrivener to create your novel? Do you ever write in long hand?
I’ve heard of Scrivener but I don’t know what it is. I often write in longhand, including the answers to these questions. I then enter and make changes. I’ve written some novels to plan though I usually end up veering away wildly but manage to get back to the ending I’d planned. The Courtesan and the Samurai grew organically as I went along which was also interesting. My backbone is the historical events which I try to keep strictly accurate. This is the world in which my characters move.
Is there a particular photo or piece of art that strikes a chord with you? Why?
Photographs, illustrations and woodblock prints bring a whole era to life for me. I look at them to get the flavour of the time and details of clothing, buildings, interiors and gardens. I also do illustrated talks on my books and on the period and use many pictures for these. The British Library has a Perry Scroll painted by a Japanese artist in 1853, depicting the arrival of the American ships, and the British Museum has one painted by Hibata Osuka in 1854, depicting Perry’s second visit. They both tell the story of what happened frame by frame, like cartoons.
There’s a haunting daguerreotype of Shimazu Nariakira, Atsu’s beloved uncle and an enlightened and brilliant daimyo warlord. He was the first to have a camera and the first portrait photograph in Japan and dates from 1857. It sends a tingle down my spine to see him looking back at me from 160 years ago.
There are also marvellous woodblock prints depicting the extraordinary changes that occurred in Japan after the Meiji Restoration, when Japan began to westernise with incredible speed.
What advice would you give an aspiring author?
You need to start by loving words and grammar, writing for the joy of it rather than in order to get published. It’s best to write every day and print out often and edit over and over again. So many revelations come in the editing process. Write in your own unique voice, write what yourself have to say and don’t worry about fashion. It also helps to read like a writer, forensically, analysing a particular scene and working out how the author makes that scene work. And always have a pencil and notebook to hand for sudden thoughts.
Tell us a little more about your series.
The novels that make up The Shogun Quartet are four women’s stories set in the tumultuous fifteen years after American ships arrived off Japan’s coast in 1853, sparking civil war. The first of the series, The Shogun’s Queen, is a woman’s Game of Thrones, set in the glittering and passionate world of the Women’s Palace, where three thousand women live in claustrophobic luxury and only one man can enter – the shogun. It’s the true story of Atsu, forced to leave the man she loves to marry the shogun. The Last Concubine is the story of Sachi, chosen as the shogun’s concubine and forced to flee the Women’s Palace as the civil war comes to its bitter end. It was short listed for Romantic Novel of the Year by the Romantic Novelists’ Association and translated into over thirty languages. The Courtesan and the Samurai takes us into the decadent world of the pleasure quarters with Hana, who has lost home and family and becomes a courtesan there. The Samurai’s Daughter is the Romeo and Juliet tale of Taka, the daughter of the greatest general on the winning side, and Nobu, whose family has lost everything in the civil war.
The year is 1853, and a young Japanese girl’s world is about to be turned upside down.
When black ships carrying barbarians arrive on the shores of Japan, the Satsuma clan’s way of life is threatened. But it’s not just the samurai who must come together to fight: the beautiful, headstrong Okatsu is also given a new destiny by her feudal lord – to save the realm.
Armed only with a new name, Princess Atsu, as she is now known, journeys to the women’s palace of Edo Castle, a place so secret it cannot be marked on any map. Behind the palace’s immaculate facade, amid rumours of murders and whispers of ghosts, Atsu must uncover the secret of the man whose fate is, it seems, irrevocably linked to hers – the shogun himself – if she is to rescue her people …
Thanks so much for being my guest today, Lesley. The history of Japan is fascinating and I’m sure readers will enjoy learning more by reading your novels and your wonderful blog.
Haven’t subscribed yet to enter into giveaways from my guests? You’re not too late for the chance to win this month’s book if you subscribe to my Monthly Inspiration newsletter for giveaways and insights into history – both trivia and the serious stuff! In appreciation for subscribing, I’m offering an 80 page free short story Dying for Rome -Lucretia’s Tale.