An Interview with Jo Salas

Dancing with Diana is based off a real story, but what pushed you to write your own spin on reality?

Two things, I suppose—what the story indicated about Diana’s qualities, and also the untold aspect of it—what that moment might have been like for the person (or people) that she danced with. I let my imagination go there.

Many times a writer does not get control over what readers see and interpret their work, but what do you want your readers to take away from Dancing with Diana?

I’m open to whatever readers may find. Some of their comments have shown me aspects that I was not yet aware of. I do hope that readers will feel that they’ve come to know Alex, and to like him. I hope that readers who live with disability will enjoy reading about him. And for readers who have been fascinated by Diana, I hope the story brings some light to what attracted so many people to her. There’s also the bullying story, which is informed by work I’ve done in schools: what Bronwen requests of her schoolmates is exactly what has to happen, according to the research, in order to end school bullying whether the targets are disabled or not.

Music plays a large role in your artistic and professional life, where do you think you gained this connection?

There’s not much music in the novel! But lots in my life, since early childhood. My family was musical and I grew up playing and singing with my siblings, as well as in orchestras and so on. Later I wrote and performed original songs. I still love to sing.

Alex and your Diana are the main characters of Dancing with Diana: How did you create them? Was either of them based off anyone in your life?

Alex was entirely imaginary. He began to take on a life as though he was a real person. When I was in England doing research for the book I interviewed a young man who was a bit like him and I gave Alex some of this young man’s thoughts and words. I never met Diana, though others in my family did. I was one of the millions of people who were intrigued by her. I let myself imagine her inner life, though I would certainly not claim that this is really what she was like. I can’t say I know anyone like her.

Every book is different, but what sets Dancing with Diana apart from your pervious work?

Just the fact that it’s a novel—a short novel, but still a novel. Previously I’d written only short stories and nonfiction.

How did it feel writing fiction rather than non-fiction? Were there any challenges?

I’ve always loved reading fiction but I resisted writing it for a long time, feeling that the world does not need more made-up stories. I was also daunted by finding an audience. I know there will be readers for anything I write about Playback Theatre but fiction is another story, so to speak. But once I let myself do it, I loved the freedom to imagine and create. It seemed like a different and powerful way to communicate ideas.

A few years ago you lectured for TedTalk, with a focus on Playback and how everyone has a story: do you believe you would ever carry that to literature and consider short stories rather than novels?

At the time that I did the TEDx talk I’d been writing short stories for a few years. I didn’t mention it in the talk, since it wasn’t relevant, though I do see a relationship between my fiction and my work in Playback Theatre. The connection is story—the communication of experience, vision, and perception in the language of story, which is a language of characters, events, settings, images, allusions. Sometimes I think that doing Playback Theatre for so long has been an apprenticeship in story—we learn a lot about what a story is, and how to form it. I’ve used that knowledge in my fiction writing, though I’ve never used actual stories told by tellers in Playback, which would not feel ethical.

You said in your TedTalk “The world needs dialogue,” are novels are dialogue for you? Or are they entirely separate beings from the communication made in something like Playback?

I haven’t thought of novels as dialogue, though I suppose one could argue that they can be, in the sense that they propose a point of view, to which the reader responds.

Do you have any new book ideas in the works, or new projects you want to talk about? Anything new with Playback or new book ideas?

I’m working on another novel, also based on a historical character. This one is inspired by the life of the novelist Thomas Mann’s translator, Helen Lowe Porter, who was a gifted but unfulfilled writer herself. She was my husband’s grandmother. I never met her but I have a feeling she would not approve of what I’m doing. She was a complicated and private person. I have to keep reassuring myself that I’m writing fiction, not biography.

In Playback Theatre one of my current projects is organizing performances in different parts of the world to bring attention to climate change.

Any advice for upcoming activists, actors, and writers?

Life is short. Do what is most important to you.