Lesley Downer was one of 22 on the Wolfers Schemers, the programme that preceded JET. Lesley is now an author. Her most recent novel, the Shogun's Queen is available here.
Tell us about how your relationship with Japan started.
I went to Japan in 1978, on the very first year of what was then called the Wolfers Scheme, dreamt up Nicolas Wolfers. There were 22 of us. A few years later it become known as the BET Scheme, then the JET Scheme. I spent two years - 1978 to 1980 - in Gifu City, teaching English at Gifu Women’s University.
And after the Wolfers scheme, what came next?
By then Japan was home. I’d hitchhiked all over Honshu, fired a climbing kiln in Mashiko. I moved to Tokyo, then Kamakura and continued to study Japanese culture - Zen, tea ceremony, calligraphy, aikido - while teaching English four hours a week, which was enough to pay my rent and support me. Japan was a wonderful place to travel. I hitchhiked around Hokkaido and island-hopped in Okinawa.
When did you leave Japan and what did you do?
I went back to England in the mid 80s, but there were still thousands of journeys I wanted to make in Japan, primarily to travel around the haiku poet Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North. So I got a commission from the publisher Jonathan Cape and went back to Japan. I travelled partly by train, partly by hitchhiking, but mainly on foot, staying in farming villages in Tohoku, and wrote the story of my and Basho’s experiences in On the Narrow Road. I had discovered my career, which was also a way to get back to Japan.
How do you research your books? Do you visit Japan to do so?
The research is a large part of the fun. For me writing is a way to get back to Japan and I spend far more time than is strictly necessary there. For Geisha I spent months in Kyoto and also met geisha in Tokyo, Kanazawa, Fukuoka and Atami. I’ve researched each of my novels in the relevant places - the Nakasendo Way and Mount Akagi for The Last Concubine, the Yoshiwara pleasure quarters and Hakodate in deep snow for The Courtesan and the Samurai, the cities of Kagoshima and Aizu-Wakamatsu for The Samurai’s Daughter and everything that evokes the lost world of Tokugawa splendour - Nijo Castle in Kyoto, the refurbished Nagoya Castle - for my latest novel, The Shogun’s Queen. I also do vast amounts of reading in Japanese (with help) and English.
Would you like to have the books translated into Japanese?
On the Narrow Road, The Brothers and Madame Sadayakko have been translated into Japanese and did quite well. Of course I would love to have my fiction translated into Japanese, though so far it hasn’t happened.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
I would advise aspiring authors to write every day, without missing a day. It’s helpful to have a notebook or old envelope or piece of paper in your bag or beside your bed for those sudden flashes of inspiration that come at the most unexpected times. It’s words that count, not just the ideas. You have to love words and you have to love reading. You also have to be prepared to spend a lot of time alone.
Remaining dates in 2016 are in London. In 2017, in addition to several London dates, Lesley will also speak in Norwich, Leeds and Oxford.