Lesley Downer is the author of The Shogun Quartet, four historical novels about Japanese women - a concubine, a courtesan, and a woman samurai. Her new novel, The Shogun’s Queen, comes out this week in paperback and is a prequel, the first of the four.

Lesley Downer

Lesley Downer

I’m the product of a series of accidents. If my Chinese Granddad hadn’t happened to move to Canada and if my Canadian Dad hadn’t happened to sit next to my Chinese Canadian Mum on a train between Ottawa and Toronto, I wouldn’t exist. My Dad then moved to London and my mother followed him, making me British.

I’m obsessed with exploring the most remote and far flung places I can think of. Lying on the beach is not for me. When I lived in Japan it was a great hopping off point for Bali, China, India and all places east.

When I was nineteen I gave away 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 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).

When I finished university I travelled overland to India. I nearly ran out of money and had to swallow my pride and contact my father, who sent me a one-way ticket home. A few years later I arranged a teaching job in Japan. The real reason was to make money to get back to India. But then I fell in love with Japan.

I’ve lost track of how many years I lived in Japan. Let’s say fifteen. I learnt tea ceremony and flower arrangement, tried the incense game, made pottery. I also learnt Japanese. It’s a huge job. I’m still learning.

I did Zen meditation for three years, trying to find out what happens when you let your thoughts quieten down - a very tough form of mindfulness. But as I finally realised, I’m Taurus. I love good food and beautiful clothes and the pleasures of the flesh. In the end I gave up, came back to England and started writing and have been wildly happy ever since.

My first book, on Japanese cooking, won the Glenfiddich Food Book of the Year award. The prize was a medal and a crate of Glenfiddich whiskey. I thought I didn’t like whiskey so I gave all but one bottle away. Then I opened that one bottle and had a sip and discovered I’d made a terrible mistake.

I spent six months living in a geisha house in Kyoto. The great geisha skill is to twist a man around one’s little finger. I pride myself I’m rather good at it. That helped me dream my way into the mind of Princess Atsu, the heroine of The Shogun’s Queen. She had to operate as a woman in a man’s world, using all her feminine charms to get what she wanted.

I gave lectures on a huge ship travelling around the coast of Japan and was utterly thrilled when we sailed into Tokyo Bay and dropped anchor. Seeing the world from the sea was an amazing experience.

I spend a lot of time immersed in nineteenth century Japan, reading books and poring over woodblock prints by Hokusai and Hiroshige. When I have the chance I visit castles and palaces there, imagining myself gliding along the shadowy corridors in a multi-layered kimono, swirling perfume. Physically I’m at my desk. But in my thoughts I’m far away, in old Japan.