A man in Germany sent me this email recently after reading Dancing with Diana:
“I sat down, took your book, reading – tears coming – continue reading. I was kind of surprised how tense and how painful you was [were] willing (and able) to depict those scenes at school, and also their reverberations in later life. I also appreciate – and share – your empathy with Diana in her last days.
The reader grasps the possibility of change, at least in our mind and in what we remember, when Alex returns to his former school and speaks frankly. I think this is a literary vision of Playback beyond theatre, of a single – yet connected human being who is acting as a citizen.”
Alex and Michele’s experience with bullying is firmly based on Playback work in schools but I had not thought of this further connection. This reader is a filmmaker who is familiar with Playback Theatre. His comment illuminated something for me—the parallels between this story and Playback’s role in society of bearing witness.
Happy to see that someone posted Dancing with Diana on the Facebook page for Women With Disabilities Australia. “WWDA is a human rights organisation representing 2 million disabled Australian women and girls. We are run by and for women with disabilities.”
…why on earth did I write a novel about Diana? This is what I wrote at Codhill Press’s blog:
While painting my kitchen a few years ago I listened to CDs of Tina Brown reading her book The Diana Chronicles. Amidst the mostly familiar saga of ill-fated romance, pomp, glory, and rebellion, she recounted the story of Princess Diana’s schoolgirl visits to an institution for people with disabilities. There, while her schoolmates hung back in embarrassment, 15-year-old Diana was perfectly at ease. She would dance with the patients in wheelchairs, grasping the arms of the chair and moving backwards with her dancer’s grace.
I was struck by this story. It seemed to show that Diana’s extraordinary ability to connect with all kinds of people, particularly those dealing with illness or hardship, was present long before she was in the public eye. And I found myself wondering about the people she danced with. What was it like for them? Did any of them remember that moment later when she became the most adored person in the world?
That brief anecdote was the seed of Dancing with Diana. The unnamed adult patients inspired my imaginary Alex, a boy the same age as Diana. Alex has cerebral palsy. He also has guts and a sense of humor, and gains a kind of wisdom as he gets older. With his friend Michele, he endures severe school bullying from children who have no understanding of disability. Michele’s tragic fate leads him indirectly to his encounter with Diana.
Having involved myself with a main character who was disabled, I tried to learn about what his life might have been like. I visited the town in the west of England where I pictured him living and asked people there about how disabled children would have been educated in the 1970’s and 80’s. I listened to long interviews with individuals with cerebral palsy who would have been about Alex’s age. And in London I met a young man in a wheelchair who generously told me about his life.
Dancing with Diana is also her story. Diana’s life, of course, is highly documented, but I imagined thoughts and memories and aspirations that might have been in her mind on that final day before her death. And I gave her a big, wonderful project that (as far as I know, and the British government isn’t telling) is entirely fictional.