Lesley Downer is a novelist and journalist who has written numerous books, both fiction and non-fiction, about Japan and Asia. She is the author of The Shogun Quartet, four novels telling the stories of four different women who are caught up in the cataclysmic events when the shogunate collapsed and Japan leapt into the modern western world in the mid nineteenth century. The fourth of the quartet, The Shogun’s Queen, is out now in paperback.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I love setting out on big adventures to somewhere I’ve never been before. I’d love to trek across the Australian desert with three camels and a baby camel, as Robyn Davidson did. But seriously, perfect happiness is just being with my husband, at home or having adventures together.
When did you last cry and why?
I sometimes cry at scenes I’m dreaming up. I cried when I was writing the last part of The Shogun’s Queen and continue to cry when I read it and when I think about what happened to my heroine, Princess Atsu, in real life.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
I tend to identify with whoever I’m writing about. I did very much identify with Sadayakko, a feisty geisha who became Japan’s first actress and whom I wrote about in Madame Sadayakko. I would love to have been Algernon Mitford, the grandfather of the Mitford sisters. As a young man he was one of the very first visitors to Japan before it had been permanently changed by the arrival of the westerners. He travelled around by palanquin, narrowly escaped being ambushed by an army of samurai and wrote a wonderfully buoyant account of his experiences.
Which living person do you most admire?
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was little I wanted to be a model or an air hostess. In my teens I wanted to see the world and have adventures. I didn’t achieve the first but I did manage the second.
What’s the worst job you’ve done?
Changing towels in towel machines for Initial Services when I was in my anti-intellectual phase – though that was redeemed by thundering around the Oxfordshire countryside in a huge van, terrorising local motorists. I was also a waitress in a steak restaurant while vegetarian. But then I discovered Japan and writing and it’s been plain sailing ever since.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
To have survived. I’ve made my living by my own efforts and only ever done things I enjoy, been a writer and a journalist, met some amazing people, seen the world, and ended up settled down with a lovely husband.
Where is your favourite historical place?
I like dark mysterious places where the clouds gather even when it’s sunny everywhere else – Sekigahara outside Nagoya, in Japan, where Ieyasu Tokugawa defeated his enemies to become shogun; Glencoe, which is always overcast and gloomy whenever I’m there; and Bronte Country, the Yorkshire moors.
Where would you most like to be right now?
I’m pretty happy where I am but if I was going to be somewhere else I wouldn’t mind being in an outdoor hot spring in Japan, up to my neck in hot water.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Travelling. We went to Australia at Christmas time – high season – to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary. Outrageously expensive but worth it. I also regularly fly back and forth to Japan and New York.
Which book changed your life?
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 near the Oval and worked in a dead end job (Japanese TV, since you ask), while saving for a mortgage. In Japan I had collected vegetarian recipes. On a friend’s suggestion I put them together, added stories, photocopied the whole lot and sent it off cold to five publishers. I was staggered 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 what I was – a writer. Japanese Vegetarian Cooking is long since out of print but it was published and changed my life.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
‘When I was in Japan …’, closely followed by ‘In Japan they …’
What are your pet hates?
Historical anachronisms, like characters kissing at the end of a Jane Austen movie. They would never have kissed in public in her day.
What would your superpower be?
To be able to swim out of my depth and not be afraid of heights.
Who would play you in a film of your life?
What is your most embarrassing moment?
Too many to recount.
What is your most treasured possession?
Photographs of my parents and their parents and my family, my engagement ring and the opal necklace my husband gave me for our tenth wedding anniversary.
Which musicians are currently on your playlist?
I love classical music – Brahms’ symphonies, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, all the big emotional stuff. We were just at Latitude and saw Shame, who are rather good too (a different genre, of course).
What is your motto?
Rain and other South Sea Stories by Somerset Maugham. Now saving up for a ticket to Tahiti. Read it and you’ll see why!
Who is your favourite fictional character?
What is top of your bucket list?
To go to Papua New Guinea.
Tell us something not many people know about you.
When I was nineteen I gave my teddy bear to my then boyfriend, who was going to Peru. The boyfriend and the bear never came back. I can hardly remember the boyfriend but I miss my bear to this day.