Lesley Downer: Love, war and geisha

by Victoria James

Special To The Japan Times

Lesley Downer’s seven books range widely in genre and subject. Here she reflects on their inspiration and her experiences writing them.

“On the Narrow Road to the Deep North: Journey into a Lost Japan” (1989): Downer’s first book, a travelogue, recounts a journey she made in the footsteps of haiku poet Matsuo Basho’s 17th-century work, “Oku no Hosomichi” (“The Narrow Road to the Deep North”).

“I was thinking about the book and I thought, ‘I don’t need to go to 1,000 farming villages, I need to go to one farming village.’ And the locals told me all the history of their village — that Basho had been there, and written haiku. They were all very into this. There was even a rock that [popular 12th-century folk-hero warrior-monk] Benkei had thrown in the garden of the headman.”

“The Brothers: The Hidden World of Japan’s Richest Family” (1994): There’s plenty of scandalous detail in this meticulous account of the lives and loves of two generations of the Tsutsumi family — scion Yoshiaki was at one time, in the late 1980s, the world’s richest man.

“The dad began with absolutely nothing and he kept a diary that was totally hilarious, full of disgusting stories about how he made his money. During the war he was sitting in an underground bunker, and as people were fleeing Tokyo he was on the phone saying, ‘Well, you won’t be wanting your land any more, why don’t you let me buy it?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh, thank you very much.’

“And after the war, when U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur [who oversaw the Allied Occupation of Japan] pared down the Imperial Family and all those uncles and cousins had to pay taxes, Tsustumi the father went to them and said, ‘I know you’re having trouble, why don’t you let me pay those taxes for you and you can live in your lovely palace for the rest of your life, then your land becomes mine when you die. How about that?’ And they went, ‘Gee, thank you.’ ”

“Geisha: The Remarkable Truth Behind the Fiction” (2001): During the period of geisha-mania that followed the publication of Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha” in 1997, Downer spent six months researching the reality of geishas’ lives in cities and towns across Japan.

” ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ came out, and I knew Liza Dalby had written a book about geisha that was canonical, but it was back in the ’80s, so I thought, ‘Is there place for another book about geisha?’ When you begin a project you think, ‘This is going to be really hard, will I get anything at all?’ With the geisha book, I asked absolutely everybody I knew, particularly those who I thought would know geisha, and they all said, ‘No, I don’t know any geisha at all,’ and I knew they were lying. Then I asked other people, where it seemed profoundly unlikely they would know geisha — but they did.”

“Madam Sadayakko: The Geisha who Seduced the West” (2003): Sadayakko was the real-life inspiration for Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, and the experience of telling her colorful history encouraged Downer to begin writing fiction.

“Sadayakko’s life was a story — a bit like a novel. You could see it: a problem; overcome; a bigger problem; overcome. So my agent thought I must have a go [at fiction].”

“The Last Concubine” (2008) and “The Courtesan and the Samurai” (2010): Downer’s debut novel and its follow-up are tales of romance and intrigue set in the turbulent civil war years of the 1860s.

“My first novel, The Last Concubine,” pivots on the fact that there was no word for ‘love’ until Westerners showed up. When the Japanese started translating Western books they had to find words for these concepts, often using ones that were just made up — initially they used rabu [as 'love' is pronounced in Japan]. ”

“Across a Bridge of Dreams” (2012): Just published, Downer’s third novel completes an informal trilogy, with a gripping narrative of star-crossed love between a Satsuma girl and an Aizu boy as the civil-war years reach their dramatic endgame with the rebellion of Saigo Takamori (whom the author veils as “General Kitaoka”).

” ‘Across a Bridge of Dreams’ fell together for me very easily. It had to be North and South, Aizu and Satsuma — it had to be Romeo and Juliet.”