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20 Years After Diana’s Death, a Happier Ending Imagined

By Katherine Rosman

Jim Wilson/The New York TimesPrince Charles and Princess Diana at the “Treasures of Britain” exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Nov. 10, 1985. The new novel “Imagining Diana,” which recounts Diana’s attempts to rebuild her life after surviving the 1997 car accident in Paris, is part of a wider wave of “fan fiction” about celebrities, living and dead.

In a new novel called “Imagining Diana,” readers find Princess Diana having lunch in Midtown Manhattan at Michael’s, nodding hello to Barbara Walters on her way in, dressed in an Oscar de la Renta suit, sitting at Table 1, ordering the gravlax.

Her date is Lois Shadley: a loudmouthed, four-Splendas-in-her-iced-tea literary agent who is pushing Diana to write a memoir, one that wouldn’t just be about the do-gooder stuff. One that would dish about the aftermath of the accident and whether it was true that her post-divorce friendship with Prince Charles was driving Camilla batty with jealousy. “I mean what I think would feel fresh — really come alive — is that this should begin on that terrible night in Paris,” the agent yapped.

“I wanted it to be true and to reflect how complex a person she was,” said Diane Clehane, author of the novel published by Metabook to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Diana’s death and containing scenes such as those above. “I wasn’t interested in doing anything that was cheesy or tawdry.”

The novel imagines that Diana survived the car accident in Paris that killed her on Aug. 31, 1997, and then tells of the princess’s efforts to rebuild her life. “Since her death, she has become even more fascinating,” said Clehane, earlier this week, sitting at Table 1 at Michael’s (from which she reports a frequent column called “Lunch” in Adweek), over a plate of chicken paillard and kale.

But back to our fairy tale: Diana, by then the stateside “People's Princess,” travels abroad often for the Princess Diana Foundation, and to London frequently to see her sons. She presents the best documentary award at the Academy Awards to a film about land mines in Cambodia and Laos, and harmlessly flirts with a star-struck movie star at the Vanity Fair after-party.

When in Los Angeles, she stays at the Hotel Bel-Air. But mostly she lives with Teddy Forstmann at his Fifth Avenue apartment and Southampton estate. She has a diamond engagement ring (a tasteful nine carats), and the $100 million prenup is signed, sealed and delivered. Diana is ours, again, if only for 208 pages.

Diana was famous before the internet, famous before millions of iPhones began to capture every sneeze of every celebrity pushing her cart in a Whole Foods parking lot. To observe her, the public relied on paparazzi, printed magazines and newspapers of varying quality, and television. Biographers, including the longtime editor Tina Brown, have documented how Diana tried to shape all this coverage by making herself selectively available and self-revelatory.

“She was the first global celebrity because she was authentic,” said Hilary Black, editor of National Geographic’s new book “Remembering Diana: A Life in Photographs” (whose foreword was written by Brown). “Once she realised she could master the media, she took a feminist stance and told her story the way she wanted to tell it.”

Back in her day, that sometimes was called manipulating the press. Today it’s called branding.

In our so-called curated, fake news era, it is perhaps inevitable that fact and fiction would begin to mingle in books, movies and television. “The best of fiction has always tried to get at truth where journalism cannot,” said Curtis Sittenfeld, author of the 2008 book “American Wife,” a novel that based the life of a fictional first lady on the life of a real one, Laura Bush.

Sittenfeld is getting more practice at considering the conjoining of fact and fiction, ego and alter. Last year, Esquire commissioned her to write a short story from the voice and perspective of Hillary Clinton. In it, a fictional Clinton reflects on her relationship with a fictional journalist who has covered her for years, at The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post and finally The New York Times.

“I expect to be burned by the journalist,” the Clinton character tells the reader. “No matter how friendly our encounter, how personal, even, I will at best be irritated by what she writes.”

Once Sittenfeld got Hillary in her head, she couldn’t easily dispense with her. Now she is at work on a novel that will portray the life of Hillary Rodham after she decides to reject Bill Clinton’s final proposal of marriage.

Sittenfeld said she would not be interested in writing a novel that imagined that Hillary Clinton was elected the 45th president of the United States. Despite the amount of press coverage devoted to Clinton’s career, Sittenfeld believes, what most Americans know about her relates to her marriage. Wiping that slate clear is what she finds compelling as a novelist. (She asked her social media audience to suggest titles for this book. Her favourite response came on Facebook: “Sliding Pantsuits.”)

Some exercises in reconsidering history are not so lighthearted. Last month, HBO announced that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, creators of “Game of Thrones,” would collaborate on a new project, “Confederate”: a modern-day drama based on a premise that slavery persists in the South after its successful secession from the Union during the Civil War.

The reaction was scathing. “This show is the brainchild of two white men who oversee a show that has few people of colour to speak of and where sexual violence is often gratuitous and treated as no big deal. I shudder to imagine the enslaved black body in their creative hands,” Roxane Gay wrote in The New York Times.

April Reign, a onetime attorney in Washington and hashtag activist who created the #OscarsSoWhite movement, joined with four others, including the film critic ReBecca Theodore, to galvanise internet opposition to the proposed series, with the hashtag #NoConfederate. “I wonder what has become of originality and creativity,” Reign said in a phone interview. “Why would we want to introduce more hypotheticals into a culture trying to grapple with what is fake and what is true? People are trying to force hypotheticals for their own profit.”

Alternate reality, though gaining prevalence today, is hardly new. The 2015 Amazon series “The Man in the High Castle,” based on a 1960s book, focuses on a United States that has been divided into Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States after the Allies lose World War II. In the 2004 novel “The Plot Against America,” which The New Yorker called “counterfactual,” Philip Roth wrote of a United States in which Charles Lindbergh, the Nazi sympathiser, is elected president in 1940.

The genre provides writers with a valuable literary device to contemplate our culture, Monica Ali, a novelist, said in an email. Ali is the author of “Untold Story,” a 2011 book in which a princess, based on Diana, escapes her life in order to find ordinary pleasures in U.S. suburban life.

“Novels aren’t ‘fake,'” Ali wrote in the email. “They’re fictional. Their purpose is not to deceive by making stuff up, it’s to illuminate by reaching for truths (about human nature) that aren’t about facts, but about the way we see the world and our place in it.”

Perhaps there is an element of wish fulfilment as well, at least for Clehane. “It was cathartic,” she said of writing “Imagining Diana,” a process that led her to surround herself in homemade “Diana mood boards” and to watch every piece of Diana footage she could find. (Clehane also published a nonfiction book about the princess, in 1998, called “Diana: The Secrets of Her Style.”)

With the new book, Clehane wanted to show that Diana would have found happiness and overcome her insecurities. “I believe the love she felt for her sons would have pulled her back from whatever precipice she felt she was on,” she said as her eyes welled with tears.

Clehane won’t be denied her happy ending for Diana, even if Diana was.