Author and Journalist


Author and journalist Lesley DownerI’m an author, novelist and journalist. My mother was Chinese and my father a professor of Chinese, so I grew up in a house full of books on Asia. I ended up almost by accident in Japan and became fascinated by the country, its culture and its people. I lived there on and off for some fifteen years and have written many books, non-fiction and more recently fiction, about it. It has been an ongoing love affair.

The Shogun’s Queen, my fourth novel, will be published in November 2016. It’s a prequel and completes my quartet of novels set in the most fascinating and dramatic period in Japanese history, the fifteen years when the country was convulsed by civil war and virtually overnight transformed from rule by the shoguns into a society that looked to the west. At the end of the war the Women’s Palace was closed down for ever and the three thousand women who had lived there, some of them all their lives, to serve the shogun, were turned out onto the streets. I wondered what became of them all, for most were from families on the losing side, who had been defeated in the war. But all were sworn to secrecy and few ever revealed anything of what had gone on behind the closed doors of the Palace. My imagination went to work and thus this series of novels was born. I’ve loved absorbing myself in the world of nineteenth century Japan.

The second novel in the quartet, 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. She travels through Japan, to discover who she is and the meaning of a term for which there is no word in her language: ‘love’. The critic Emma Lee Potter wrote that it ‘provides a fascinating glimpse into a mysterious world.’ The third novel, The Courtesan and the Samurai, is the tale of Hana, forced to work as a courtesan in the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters, the heart of the Floating World. ‘Historical romance at its best’ wrote one critic. The fourth, 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. ‘A really good novel suffused with the atmosphere of Japan in the late nineteenth century,’ wrote Jonathan Mirsky in the Spectator.

Author Lesley DownerMy non-fiction includes Geisha: The Remarkable Truth Behind the Fiction. To research it I lived among geisha for several months and little by little found myself being transformed into one of them. I also wrote Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West, the story of the model for Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

The Brothers was chosen as a New York Times ‘Book of the Year’. My first book, On the Narrow Road to the Deep North, was shortlisted for the Somerset Maugham Travel Book of the Year Award. It was televised by WNET and Channel 4 under the title Journey to a Lost Japan and by NHK as Journey of the Heart. I also presented and wrote A Taste of Japan, a six part series on Japanese cooking, shown on BBC2 in 1991.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the world as a journalist and also give lectures – at the Japan Society, Asia House, the Royal Geographic Society, the British Museum, the Japan Society in New York and Japan Societies and Asia Societies across the US and the UK and on a vast residential ship called The World that circles the globe forever like a modern-day Flying Dutchman!

And I am currently also a visiting lecturer, teaching on the MA programme in Creative Writing (non-fiction ) at City University in London – and much enjoying it.

I live in London with my husband, the author Arthur I. Miller.