I am absolutely delighted to welcome the wonderful Lesley Downer to Bloomin’ Brilliant Books today for this weeks Author Influences.
Which authors/books did you like to read as a child?
The book that springs to mind immediately is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I also loved Roger Lancelyn Green’s versions of the Greek and Roman myths and Norse myths. Also The Wind in the Willows, the Pooh books, Alice in Wonderland. I was a traditional child! There was a great little library near my house and I was always there discovering treasures.
Were you good at English at school? Did you like it?
I was lucky enough to have two amazing English teachers at school, which is probably why I did English at university and went on to write. I also had an amazing history teacher who told history as stories and had us all totally entranced – the little princes in the tower drowning in a butt of malmsey, Charles I having his head cut off …
What genres do you like to read? Have they had an impact on the genre you write?
For quite a long time I’ve been reading books and novels set in the period and place I write about – nineteenth century Japan. When I have a breather and can read anything I like, I love to read fiction. I also like to read history. And when I read fiction I like to learn something, so I’m not so interested in contemporary fiction but more in stories with a historical setting.
When I’m writing I like to keep myself engrossed in the genre of book I’m writing and the period and place I’m writing about. I started off writing travel books and had travel books on the floor all around my desk. Then I wrote non fiction and had books on my subject – geisha, Madame Sadayakko – all around. Now I write fiction and am surrounded by books on my subject (nineteenth century Japan) and by historical novels.
If you were to write a different genre what would it be and why?
I don’t really think in genre. I’ve written travel, biography (Madame Sadayakko), an indefinable ‘book’ (Geisha), and now write fiction. My subject as an author (though not as a journalist) has always been Japan. Now I’m thinking not in terms of another genre but another subject …
Did any author’s work encourage you to pick up your pen and write and if so who, what and why?
I’ve always been a reader and I’ve always been a writer. I love the great classics – Dickens, the Brontes, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Dostoevsky. I’d like to write great sweeping dramas like those myself that take you away to somewhere entirely different and make you see the world through new eyes.
I’m also really steeped in Japanese literature, which is by turns profoundly moving and achingly romantic (Tale of Genji), encapsulating the world in a few words (Basho), strange and subversive (Tanizaki), and has entirely transformed the way I see the world.
Are there any authors who, as soon as they publish a new book, you have to get it?
Peter Carey! I adored Oscar and Lucinda and went to Cheltenham Literature Festival a couple of years ago just to see him receive the Lifetime Award for Literature.
Which books have you read that have made you think ‘Wow, I wish I had written that’ and what was it about the book?
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. David Mitchell is simply another league. His use of language, the way he writes dialogue, takes you so deeply into another era.
I also adored Oscar and Lucinda which entirely breaks all the rules of fiction writing – so baroque, so many loose ends. Wonderful stuff!
The Sheltering Sky had me gripped from sentence one. I like dense, thought-provoking novels.
Have any of your plots/characters been influenced by real life events/people? (Be careful, I don’t want you getting sued!)
My plots are all based on true historical stories and many of my characters really existed. My most recent novel is almost entirely based on historical fact. But when I imagine a character, yes, I do also think of real people I know and of how they would behave in particular situations.
Thank you for taking part Lesley and for the wonderful answers. Like you, I am a fan of the classics too and adore Thomas Hardy in particular. I have never read Oscar and Lucinda and have now added it to my TBR list.
Lesley’s latest book The Shogun’s Queen is out now and I can highly recommend it (you can read my review HERE). Here is what it is about:
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 façade, amid rumours of murder and whispers of ghosts, Atsu must uncover the secret of the man whose fate, it seems, is irrevocably linked to hers – the shogun himself – if she is to rescue her people . . .
About Lesley Downer
Lesley Downer lived in Japan for many years. She tramped around Basho’s Narrow Road the Deep North, lived among geisha, interviewed sumo wrestlers and enjoyed the glitzy life of Tokyo. She is the author of many books on Japan, including Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World, Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West and The Last Concubine, short listed for Romantic Novel of the Year. Her most recent novel, The Shogun’s Queen, is a prequel, chronologically the first in the Shogun Quartet, and takes place largely in the Women’s Palace, a kind of harem in Edo Castle in what is now modern day Tokyo..