Having visited Japan in May this year I’m utterly thrilled to be interviewing Lesley Downer about her latest novel set in that country, The Shogun’s Queen. The Shogun’s Queen is published in e-book and hardback today, 3rd November 2016, by Bantam Press, an imprint of Penguin. The Shogun’s Queen is available from all good booksellers including Waterstones and also from Amazon.
I’m also excited to be able to offer a hard backed copy of The Shogun’s Queen to one lucky UK winner who enters the giveaway at the bottom of this blog post.
The Shogun’s Queen
Only one woman can save her world from barbarian invasion but to do so will mean sacrificing everything she holds dear – love, loyalty and maybe life itself . . .
Japan, and the year is 1853. Growing up among the samurai of the Satsuma Clan, in Japan’s deep south, the fiery, beautiful and headstrong Okatsu has – like all the clan’s women – been encouraged to be bold, taught to wield the halberd, and to ride a horse.
But when she is just seventeen, four black ships appear. Bristling with cannon and manned by strangers who to the Japanese eyes are barbarians, their appearance threatens Japan’s very existence. And turns Okatsu’s world upside down.
Chosen by her feudal lord, she has been given a very special role to play. Given a new name – Princess Atsu – and a new destiny, she is the only one who can save the realm. Her journey takes her to Edo Castle, a place so secret that it cannot be marked on any map. There, sequestered in the Women’s Palace – home to three thousand women, and where only one man may enter: the shogun – she seems doomed to live out her days.
But beneath the palace’s immaculate facade, there are whispers of murders and ghosts. It is here that Atsu must complete her mission and discover one last secret – the secret of the man whose fate is irrevocably linked to hers: the shogun himself . . .
An Interview with Lesley Downer
Hi Lesley. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing and today’s published book, The Shogun’s Queen, in particular.
When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?
Hello, Linda. Firstly I would like to thank you for inviting me to post on your blog today. I much appreciate it.
I’ve always written but, as Tom Wolfe said, it’s not enough to have a facility with words. You need to have a subject you’re burning to write about. I found mine in Japan. When I came back I discovered that British people knew very little about this country I’d come to love and I wanted to tell them what it was really all about. That was when I started writing in earnest.
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
I started out as a travel writer and I love to describe. I have to keep reminding myself to keep the descriptions short. The wonderful moment is when the characters take over and I find the story going off in an entirely new and unplanned direction.
Speaking of travel, I’ve recently visited Japan myself and found it a fascinating country. I know you come from a Chinese background so what drew you to Japan for your setting of The Shogun’s Queen?
You’re quite right. My mother was Chinese and my father was Professor of Chinese at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. I grew up surrounded by Chinese books and we had friends whom I called Uncle Lao and Uncle Liu, whom I only realised in my teens were Chinese.
But my father loved all of Asia, not just China. He’d been to Japan and told me about it. In his bookcase he had a book of Hiroshige’s prints of Mount Fuji which always fascinated me. When I got older I became interested in Japanese literature, its art, its theatre, its pottery, its food. Everything seemed to point towards Japan. And when the chance came to go travelling, that was where I chose to go. It was nothing to do with my roots at all.
I ended up living there for five years and fell entirely in love with the place. Partly it just felt like home. I loved the delicacy of the culture, the precision, the beauty, the temples, the shrines, the passionate history and legends that were retold in poetry and the kabuki and Noh theatres and the unfailing gentleness and kindness of the people. I know you understand that fascination, Linda!
(I certainly do. It’s an amazing country. I loved the precise balance of refinement and passion I saw everywhere.)
The Shogun’s Queen is a prequel in your Shogun Quartet. Why did you decide to write a prequel?
I’d come across the story of Atsu and been very moved by it. But it preceded the stories I’d told in my previous novels – The Last Concubine, The Courtesan and the Samurai and The Samurai’s Daughter, which move from 1860s to 1870s Japan. Then I realised that Atsu’s story was the cornerstone. It’s where everything begins.
The Shogun Quartet is set in the watershed years when Japan changed virtually overnight from a feudal country ruled by the shogun, the military overlord, to a modern western one. In my earlier novels I hadn’t mentioned the event that set the whole thing into motion – the arrival of the American Commodore Perry with his Black Ships. That entirely transformed Atsu’s life and she herself played a key role in everything that happened after that. I really wanted to tell her story and take my readers back to that fascinating period when Japan was hovering between old and new. And the more I found out about her the more I realised what an extraordinary woman she must have been.
I’d also become quite obsessed about the Women’s Palace – the shogun’s harem, where three thousand women lived and only one man, the shogun, could enter. Atsu disappeared into the Women’s Palace and I wanted to take my readers deep inside that dark intrigue-filled world.
How did you ensure The Shogun’s Queen had an authentic C19th setting yet was accessible to a C21st reader?
There’s a much bigger gap between Japan and England than between the 19th and 21st centuries. The gulf I had to cross was more between the two cultures than a time gap. I felt my readers could cross that gap.
Having written three books set in nineteenth century Japan I was already completely immersed in it. I lived and breathed it. I’d read wonderful books written by western travellers who went there at that time. It was alive for me, which made it easy to take my readers along with me.
I very much wanted to make The Shogun’s Queen as authentic as possible, to make sure my characters behave as they really would have done. To me historical fiction is time travel, like science fiction. It wouldn’t be believable to go back in time and find people behaving exactly as you do. What’s interesting is when they do something you would never have thought of doing but that’s entirely consistent and believable. I think readers are happy to step into all sorts of different worlds – back in time to the past and across the globe to a country they’ve never visited in reality. I felt if I could bring the place alive in my readers’ minds then they would happily step through the looking glass into the land I’d created for them.
The Shogun’s Queen has a very evocative cover. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?
I love the wistful, sad way the woman on the cover is looking at the castle and away from us. I thought it conveyed the mood of my story beautifully.
If The Shogun’s Queen became a film, who would you like to play Okatsu?
Someone beautiful yet feisty, delicate yet strong, and Asian – maybe Ziyi Zhang who played Sayuri in the film of Memoirs of a Geisha.
I know you teach creative writing. How far are you affected in your own writing by this role?
I didn’t study creative writing myself. In my day one just learnt on the job. I feel that at this point I have a great deal of experience to pass on to my students. My main concern would be that creative writing tends to lay down rules whereas I think the best writing transcends the rules.
Your husband is also a writer (Arthur I Miller whose website can be found here). How far do you critique one another’s writing or do you avoid sharing what you write at home?
We always read each other’s work – he is always my first reader. And as a result I know a lot more than you’d imagine about physics and he knows a lot about Japan!
Although you appear obsessed by Japan, where else would you like to set any future novels and why?
I studied Anglo-Saxon at university and love that culture, which is astonishingly rather akin to samurai culture. I’ve also thought of writing my own family history, which is to do with China, or about my father’s travels in South East Asia or my own travels around Asia. But I’m keeping my best idea of all secret at the moment!
(Oh! Sounds intriguing – I hope you’ll come back and tell us all about it when you’re ready!)
If you hadn’t become an author, what would you have done instead as a creative outlet?
I’m a language obsessive. I love words and love learning foreign languages. Whenever I go abroad I start trying to learn the language and chattering away to people. I’ve always painted and drawn; I learnt ink painting and calligraphy in Japan. I also used to be a potter. That was actually the very first thing that drew me to Japan.
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that The Shogun’s Queen should be their next read, what would you say?
It’s the true story of Atsu, beautiful yet feisty, delicate yet strong – a love story that immerses you in kimonos, intrigues and murder.
(And I’ll be reading her story very soon – I can’t wait!)
Thank you so much, Lesley, for your time in answering my questions.
About Lesley Downer
Lesley Downer’s mother was Chinese and her father a professor of Chinese. She ended up almost by accident in Japan and became fascinated by the country and its culture and people. It has been an ongoing love affair.
She is the author of The Shogun Quartet, a series of four historical novels set in Japan, beginning with the best-selling The Last Concubine, shortlisted for Romantic Novel of the Year and translated into thirty languages. The Shogun’s Queen, out in November 2016, is a prequel and the last in the series. Her non-fiction includes Geisha: The Secret History of a Vanishing World and Madame Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West.
There’s more from and about Lesley with these other bloggers too:
For your (UK only sorry) chance to enter to win a hardbacked copy of The Shogun’s Queen, please click here. Entry closes at midnight on 10th November 2016.