Trent Dalton, author, Boy Swallows Universe
Every lost soul can be found again. Fates can be changed. Bad can become good. True love conquers all ...
The inspiration behind Trent Dalton’s acclaimed novel Boy Swallows Universe started long before his heralded work as a journalist. Born and raised in the fringes of suburban Australia, Trent experienced hardships that few could imagine. Since forging a career and starting a family of his own, the drive to put his experiences to paper became overwhelming. Instead of opting to pen a memoir of his life to date, Trent put his imagination to work and created an enthralling story of love, friendship and coming of age amid personal strife and heartbreak. Trent Dalton will be sharing some of his stories and writing wisdom at the Brisbane Writers Festival, but before he takes the stage we had a chat about his career and how Boy Swallows Universe came to be.
Before penning Boy Swallows Universe you gathered years of experience working as a journalist. What drew you to that career path?
Growing up in Housing Commission Bracken Ridge, I read a Rolling Stone cover story on Pearl Jam, written by the esteemed journo/filmmaker Cameron Crowe. That story spirited a 13-year-old, kinda lost, dreamer kid from Bracken Ridge, Brisbane, all the way to Seattle, Washington, where, through Crowe’s rattling words, I was suddenly walking in the grungey footsteps of my musical Gods. I had somewhat of an epiphany in that moment about the transformative and restorative powers of longform journalism. To steal a line from those aforementioned Gods, I was alive.
You’ve said that over your 17 years as a journalist, you’ve constantly told the stories of other people’s hardship and tragedy. What inspired you to finally tell your own story in Boy Swallows Universe?
That’s the pact I made with myself. I’m profoundly honoured by these glorious Australians who allow me into their living rooms to tell their stories. That’s a trust exercise that should never be taken lightly and one that often makes me lose sleep at night. I promised myself that whenever it came time for me to share my story, I’d be all in. I’d give it everything, heart and soul, like all those kind people have given me everything in the name of journalism.
What drove your decision to fictionalise elements of your story as opposed to penning a memoir?
There were places I wanted to take the story that were bigger than memoir. I wanted to go to the outer realms of the universe and the meaning of life, which real life never took me to. I wanted a love story in there. I wanted to have adventure in there. I wanted a 13-year-old boy currently living in Housing Commission Bracken Ridge to want to read this and I was worried he might not if it was simply a misery memoir about my years being raised by drug dealers and drunks with hearts made of gold.
Boy Swallows Universe understandably touches on some heavy subjects, but there’s also an element of love and friendship. How important was it for you to weave in good amongst the bad?
It’s what the whole book is about, that no human is all one thing. We are a mix of many things, hopefully a lot of good. But we all have flaws and failings, we all have darkness and we’ve all done wrong somewhere. Some of the people who meant a lot to me in my childhood – one of them, a genuine father figure for a time – would be considered all kinds of wrong on paper, yet the man that is in my heart is a figure I cherish and love because he loved me back at a time when I needed him to. Are good wisdoms and good learning still valid when delivered by bad men? In my life, yes.
The story you’ve created is so intensely personal – was it difficult to offer up the completed effort for the world to see?
It was written quick in a fever dream storm of electricity borne from my past and when I was finished I turned to my wife and said, “What the fuck have I done?” The first person I sent it to was my mum and I said, “If there’s a single word in here that you’re not comfortable with then the whole thing goes in the bin”. She phoned me back a day later after reading it non-stop in one extended sitting. “Trent,” she said, in the way only she can say my name. “It’s beautiful.” I was good with it after that.
Post release, what has been some of the most meaningful feedback that you have received?
A kind-faced woman stood up at the end of a book event in Adelaide and said, “YOU ARE A WRITER. THIS IS WHAT YOU MUST DO!” She was cutting to the heart of my imposter syndrome, the fact my deep-seeded insecurities – and maybe elements of my past – make me feel that I don’t belong here, wherever here is. It was a beautiful thing for this woman to say and she said it with such conviction and heart that I had to believe it. She came up to me afterwards and reiterated her thoughts in private. “I know what you’re going through,” she said. “I’ve written a few books myself. My name is Mem Fox!” The very next morning, inspired by the words of Mem Fox, I cracked a deep narrative layer I had been mining for my second book. Best feedback ever. Love you Mem Fox, our magic possum.
What do you hope readers take away from Boy Swallows Universe, particularly regarding life in the fringes of Australian working-class suburbia?
Every lost soul can be found again. Fates can be changed. Bad can become good. True love conquers all.
There is a fine line between magic and madness and all should be encouraged in moderation.
Australian suburbia is a dark and brutal place.
Australian suburbia is a beautiful and magical place.
Home is always the first and final poem.
You’ll be speaking twice at the Brisbane Writers Festival, once about writing based on personal experiences, and again about the creation of your book. Without giving too much away, what advice would you give to budding writers trying to make headway on their own story?
Don’t worry about writing fancy. Worry about writing true. Truth comes from your heart, not from your head. Heart writes the book. Head edits the book. Feel the pump of your blood, feel everything in your veins, tap your feet on the ground 10 times because you can’t sit still because you have too much to get out, put on your favourite writing hat, feel that electricity pulsing through your fingertips, now change the fucking world!
Can we expect more novels from you in the future?
There is a treasure chest of novels inside my head that has grown bigger every day since I was that kid reading about Pearl Jam in Bracken Ridge. But I could never find the key to the lock on that bloody box of gold. The key was writing Boy Swallows Universe. That opened up the box.
Finally, are there any Australian writers currently inspiring you?
I’m currently reading The Girl on the Page by John Purcell. John is actually one of the nicest humans alive who happens to write like the wind and who also happens to work deep inside the book publishing industry and he decided some time ago to write a cracking book that gives a deep insider’s view on the publishing industry. I love a good downward spiral story and Purcell’s lead, Amy, is a wonderfully rich and detailed character to go south with into ideas about redemption, integrity and the importance of a bloody good book. Before that, I read People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks, who inspires me endlessly. Her mind, her knowledge built from her on-the-ground journo years, her words, her humanity. Pretty darn cool woman.