From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Rachel Swirsky

How did you choose Princess Diana for your story?

I didn’t do it consciously. I was going through a phase of trying to write flash pieces, and sometimes when I do that, the back of my brain starts churning out intriguing first sentences. One of them had to do with Diana, and that flowed into a story that was surprisingly easy to write–maybe because I actually own the paper doll book that’s mentioned in the story.

Why did Diana evaporate with the sunlight each morning? What limited her to the night?

The literal answer is I wanted to give her some ghostly features. I think a symbolic meaning emerged, but I’ll leave that to the reader.

Why is Diana, who spent so much time comforting the afflicted in her life, now in a situation where she can see so much suffering but can’t comfort anyone?

I suppose it’s an open question whether or not she was able to comfort the afflicted in her life. Certainly, she spent a lot of time working with charities. But how much comfort does one actually gain from a visit from a princess? I suspect the money was more helpful, in most cases, than the symbol. (Except perhaps for the moment when she touched an AIDS victim ungloved–in that case, a symbol was needed.)

The cultural discourse around Diana seems obsessed with seeing her (and the other members of her family) as a Symbol rather than a person, which I imagine was very hard to navigate.

“Voyeurism diverted [Diana] from the griefs of her own life.” Has Diana reversed her position from her lifetime, where she was once the object of so much voyeurism and is now a voyeur herself?

I wrote this story based on my memories and impressions of stories about Princess Diana, although I’m a bit young to have clear ones, so when I was first drafting, I found myself concentrating on the little I knew–her publicized wedding, her fashion, her death. Afterward, I went back and read biographies. One thing that struck me as I read a few of them–and I must note that these were obviously biographies written as sympathetic to Princess Diana, so I’m sure they weren’t great sources of objective information–was that the whole process of being royalty seemed to be harrowing and ruinous toward the actual individual people who were caught up in it. Diana, for one–who was forced to ask for permission to do things like bring her infant son with her on long trips. But also Charles himself who was unable to marry Camilla because of archaic rules, and who (according to one biography) grew up isolated from his parents’ affection.

I don’t mean to imply these people aren’t desperately privileged; obviously, they are. But it seems like the cults of celebrity that are built around them are inherently damaging to one’s ability to live and thrive, at least in the terms of modern Western society; in some ways, it seems as though we, the audience, are eating up royalty. The analogy at hand for me as an American is rock stars–did Michael Jackson, growing up as a celebrity–ever have a chance at healthy identity formation? These people benefit enormously, but they also seem to lose. It seems ambiguous to me.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Diana is a public figure and a symbol. One thing I encountered when I was sending this piece out to first readers was that everyone had theories about her. They’d picked details that appealed to them and assembled them into a personality with explanations and motivations and so on and so forth. Some of these were more supported by facts than others, and many of them were probably more realistic than mine.

I wasn’t attempting to do a realistic portrait of Diana. This isn’t the real woman made prose, or even necessarily her press image made prose. It’s just one set of impressions, thoughts, digressions.

And of course I know very little about the real individual Diana, who no doubt was significantly different, in important ways, from what the media was able to glean.

I imagined a personality into the symbol, I suppose. If what I imagined wasn’t your Diana, then I hope she was interesting to ponder. The only thing I’m sure of is she wasn’t the real Diana.

William Sullivan is a writer, computer programmer, and musician living in Austin, Texas. You can find his website at

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