Double life: Tokyo story

Hannah Langworth meets City lawyer Jonathan Lee, who was prompted by a secondment to Japan to write his first novel

Neither writers nor corporate lawyers are especially known for their relaxed demeanours, but when The Gateway greets Jonathan, he's calm and affable. Curious about his success as both a corporate litigator, and in the rarefied art of novel writing, The Gateway starts by asking for some background. Has he always written? And how did he end up in law?

"I was interested in writing from the time that I went to university, where I studied English literature. And like lots of English students I panicked towards the end of my degree and asked myself what I was going to do next. I had tried to write fiction at university, but wasn't writing anything very interesting. I had done some student journalism, which I enjoyed, and I thought quite seriously about trying to break into the profession. But the option of converting to a legal career was more appealing because the route seemed clearer. And so I ended up with a job at a City law firm."

Stranger than fiction

The Gateway knows how many hours and mental resources working in the City can consume, and so wonders how Jonathan's novel, described by the Guardian as: "an elegant and incisive examination of how history and our perceptions of the world are partial", ever got written. Jonathan recounts his own history: "I'd been thinking about writing a novel for a while. I came up with a plot about a solitary individual slowly coming out of himself, but I didn't have a good place to set it. Then I went to Tokyo for the final six months of my training contract, and found it incredibly vibrant and buzzing and, because my character is very withdrawn, it seemed like the perfect place to put him. It generated tension: how would he survive in this place of such bright lights, with strange stuff going on the whole time? And so when I got back from Japan, I had it all in my mind. I spent a couple of years messing around with it, but found it hard to get home from a full day at work and sit in front of a computer again. So I asked my firm if I could take six months off to write the book."

Doing so must have taken confidence; did Jonathan always know that his novel would be a success? "I'd no idea if it was going to be published. I didn't know anyone in the book industry. I didn't have any contacts. But I did know that I desperately wanted to give it a go. I was happy doing law, and happy at my firm, but there was an element of me that wasn't being fulfilled because I had this ambition to write." This dream came true when Jonathan's novel was accepted by a publisher a few months after he returned to work, and it came out in hardback this summer.

Wanting to delve a little further into the workings of Jonathan's dual identity, The Gateway asks if he sees any connections between his legal career and his life as a writer. "Experience of the City helped me with the fact that people will have comments on whatever you do. I'm used to it, and I don't take it personally. My editor is excellent - he made the book a lot better than it would have been otherwise. You need a fresh eye as a novelist, just like you do when you work all night drafting a long note for a client; by the time you've finished, you've no idea if it's any good." What about the craft of writing itself? Does Jonathan thinks fashioning literary prose is like legal drafting in any way? "A law firm is a good place to hone your writing skills. You're writing notes, opinions, letters, and I think it helps you become more precise with language as you have to produce something convincing. In other ways, being a lawyer hasn't helped my writing at all. When I started my six months off, a lot of what I wrote had a very businesslike tone. There was definitely a switch that had to take place, and the need to make this change might have been why I found it difficult to balance the two jobs initially - it felt like they used two very different languages. But I think now I'm much better at changing between the two."

Life in the round

Next, the ultimate question: recalling the title of his novel, The Gateway asks, who is Jonathan Lee? A solicitor or an author? He answers with the diplomacy of a lawyer, but with a novelist's élan: "Law is easier in some ways because I've been doing it for longer and there's more structure to it. But writing novels is exciting because it's new to me, and contains more of myself - you put more of your personality into a creative vocation than you do into a City job." Is Jonathan implying that he might leave the legal profession to concentrate on writing? He seems undecided: "I've wondered whether I'll be writing full-time again in the next few years, but then maybe I wouldn't have the life experiences to keep forming plots and ideas. It's a tricky balance, but I'm trying to not look too far ahead and just to see how it goes."

Given that Jonathan sees both legal practice and authorship in his life for the foreseeable future, The Gateway wonders how his colleagues feel about having a published author in their midst: "I think a couple of people might have been sceptical at the beginning, but law firms and other City employers are so keen to emphasise that people should have lots of hobbies and outside interests that I think they genuinely like the fact that I've gone and done something a bit different." And we're delighted when, unprompted, he then goes on to offer careers insight to readers of The Gateway: "When you go to an interview in the City, the one question you can always be expected to be asked is one about your interests. They don't want somebody who's just academic. They want a well-rounded individual. I think five or ten years ago law firms and other City employers might have been guilty of recruiting people on the basis of these interests, and then spending the next few years hammering them out of them so that people could focus properly on work. But now employers are wiser and encourage these things because they realise that if people are happier, they will stay at a firm for longer."

We end by discussing Jonathan's next writing project. As he has a two-book deal with his publishers, "there is a second novel being written at the moment." We can't resist asking what it's about: "It's in its early stages so I don't want to say too much, but I think it's going to be about London, and it will contain some strands about people who go missing." Locating one's identity in a modern metropolis seems set to become a motif of Jonathan's work; it's certainly a theme on which he can provide interesting perspectives.

Who Is Mr Satoshi? is out now in hardback with Heinemann, part of the Random House group.

For more information about Jonathan, see www.jonathan-lee.net

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