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A Conversation with Trent Dalton

By July 29, 2021 August 11th, 2021 No Comments

This article first appeared in Glass Issue 12# – Complicated.

Swallowing the Universe with Trent Dalton 

When Boy Swallows Universe was published in 2018, its author, Trent Dalton, was known for the flowery prose of his feature articles. Well regarded in the world of journalism, his debut novel put him in another spotlight entirely. One year  and 140,000 sales  later Dalton had four Australian Book Industry awards, a second novel on the way, and glowing reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post. 

So, it was a surprise when the QUT Literary Salon announced Dalton as a guest speaker last May. 

The teenage protagonist of Boy Swallows Universe, Eli Bell, lives a remarkable life — one soon to be immortalised in a sold-out stage adaptation by Queensland Theatre, and a small-screen adaptation headed by Joel Edgerton. In about 450-pages Eli navigates domestic violence, an international drug syndicate, and an infatuation with an older woman. But perhaps the most remarkable part of his life is the fact that it is based on Dalton’s. 

“When I was in grade six my teacher told my dad at a parent teacher night that she was convinced I was going to become the leader of an outlaw motorcycle gang,” Dalton later tells me, when after I ask how his life has deviated from his expectations.  

“It’s certainly turned out a lot different.” 

I’d been to a Lit Salon before and was familiar with the format; six readers, six pieces, a small crowd. On this particular night it was seven readers, seven pieces, and a healthier audience. Among the art students and introverts, Dalton’s straightforward style and labrador energy stood out. As his desire to personally meet everyone in attendance became more obvious, this energy became infectious. When I finally caught him, he was on his way out. But there was plenty more of Dalton to go around.

“Oh Tom! Of course,” he says like he’s known me for years. When I ask him if I could get in touch with him for an interview, he loudly shouts his personal email address and one of my coworkers commits it to memory.

When I do email him, his auto-reply defers me to his publicist at HarperCollins, who insists that “Trent is on a deadline” and “not doing any media commitments”. Half an hour later, Trent replies to my original email with his personal phone number, and asks me to text him any questions.

Dalton doesn’t feel like he needs to be managed.

“It’s from my twenty years as a journo. It’s that idea that if you can’t sit down at the desk and write for eight hours as a journalist you lose your job. And then the mortgage doesn’t get paid and your kids don’t go to school. These are very powerful motivations and I try to look at any fiction writing I do in exactly the same way. So, I usually start at about eight o’clock and I’ll go right to twelve. Eight to twelve are my best writing hours  I love those writing hours. I don’t really need any convincing or any external encouragement to do it because I feel like I’m the luckiest bastard on earth and I try to recognise that every day.” 

Dalton had come to the Lit Salon as a QUT alum and a Brisbane native. When I ask him about Brisbane writing specifically, the event is still firmly in his mind. 

“I just had the pleasure recently of going … to see the incredible creative writing students at QUT do an open mic storytelling night where they read stories about Brisbane from their own lives, and it was the most inspiring thing I think I’ve seen in a year and some of the most incredible stuff I’ve heard come out the mouths of young writers.

“I can’t wait to see what’s ahead for those young writers I saw.

“David Malouf, massive inspiration. Matt Condon, who’s a dear friend of mine, his work, particularly on Brisbane crime has been hugely influential. Kris Olsson  who was actually my QUT creative writing tutor  she was deeply influential in the fact that she got me my first writing job and that I wouldn’t be possibly alive without her.” 

He talks about writing from his life, and I glean a little more of the real-life story of Eli Bell. Half of Boy Swallows was “too close to home”, and Dalton came close to losing control. But he stresses that our role as writers is to speak with our own voices. 

“Whether we let people know that we’re writing close to home or not is a different story.

“And for me doing that was extremely, deeply cathartic, and it was that or drinking straight Burbon every Wednesday night. For me writing a 100,000-word novel is much healthier than that. I think it’s important for us to mine the things that are troubling us. And I think I’ll be digging down into that quarry of emotion for the rest of my life, because just because I wrote some of that stuff in Boy Swallows Universe doesn’t mean I’ve sorted it all out and I look forward to processing that in the future. 

“Not to sound like a Bruce Springsteen song or anything but when I was growing up … you don’t think of anything like what has happened to me as possible or for you, because there’s this invisible wall keeping you away from that and that’s called the outer suburbs of Brisbane. If you don’t know what’s beyond that invisible wall you don’t know that certain things exist. 

“That’s not just me being writerly or anything that’s just a fact. I thought for all money I was headed for the G James Glass and Aluminium factory on Kingsford Smith Drive because that’s where a lot of my mates went to work and that’s a good life and it pays well and you can buy a nice house in Bracken Ridge with a job like that and I was ready to go down that road. And I reckon I would have been happy enough. But I’m just so glad I saw some other things and I got to exactly where I think I belong.”

Underneath Dalton’s approachable, energetic exterior is a complicated person, characterised only in part by past trauma. Dalton has never stopped learning and has never lost his enthusiasm for life, which is  if anything  his biggest secret. 

“In life and in writing – be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is the most underrated human emotion,” Dalton implores. 

“I’m talking about the fricken way you get out of the bed … I’m talking about the way you treat your friends and your relationships and the way you listen to music and the way you look at birds flying in the sky and the way you talk to your mum on the phone. But particularly the way you approach your writing. Because what comes from enthusiasm is curiosity, and what comes from curiosity are answers. All the answers come when you’re enthusiastic.

“[I think that’s been] the thing that’s gotten me where I am today.”

But where he is today is not Dalton’s final destination, as he continues to grow up every day.

“Be careful not to lose yourself in your own fricken head. When you meet the love of your life and you’re in the kitchen cooking dinner and they’re talking to you about the important things that are in their head, don’t be in your head thinking about your fricken story! Make sure you listen to them and you open up to them and you remember that there’s a whole wide world out there that exists beyond your brain and your own little story bubble.” 

“I’m actively learning those things as we as peak.” 

Magenta background. Trent Dalton (man) stands behind microphone on stage, holding a self portrait.

Author Trent Dalton holds a portrait of himself on stage at the Grove Bar, during the May Edition of QUT Lit Salon on Thursday, May 27th. The portrait was presented to him after his reading, by QUT student Hannah Brown.

FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

What are some pieces of Brisbane writing that inform your work? 

  • Let me tell you, I just had the pleasure recently of going to an event in the bar at QUT Kelvin Grove to see the incredible creative writing students at QUT do an open mic storytelling night where they read stories about Brisbane from their own lives, and it was the most inspiring thing I think I’ve seen in a year and some of the most incredible stuff I’ve heard come out the mouth of young writers. It was incredible. So that was definitely right up there. It was young brilliant writers speaking from the heart and soul and just letting rip with no remorse and no regard for self-preservation. And I just thought that was so cool and I can’t wait to see what’s ahead for every one of those writers I saw. But David Malouf, massive inspiration. Matt Condon, who’s a dear friend of mine, his work, particularly on Brisbane crime has been hugely influential. Kris Olsson — who was actually my QUT creative writing tutor — she was deeply influential in the fact that she got me my first writing job and that I wouldn’t be possibly alive without her.  

When you write, how close to home do you allow yourself to go? Do you find this difficult or cathartic? 

  • Really good one, I go incredibly close to home. Half of Boy Swallows Universe was perhaps too close to home, to the point where there were scenes in it that I had to watch myself with. But I do think it’s our role as writers to speak with our own voices and to speak as close to home as we possibly can. Whether we let people know that we’re writing close to home or not is a different story. For better or worse I kind of decided to let people know that Boy Swallows Universe was inspired by real life things. And for me doing that was extremely, deeply cathartic and it was that or drinking straight Burbon every Wednesday night. For me writing a 100,000-word novel is much healthier than that. I think it’s important for us to mine the things that are troubling us. And I think I’ll be digging down into that quarry of emotion for the rest of my life, because just because I wrote some of that stuff in Boy Swallows Universe doesn’t mean I’ve sorted it all out and I look forward to processing that in the future. 

Do you feel like a writer who needs to management, or are you able to put the blinders on to work? 

  • No. Not really at all. And it’s from my twenty years as a journo. It’s that idea that if you can’t sit down at the desk and write for eight hours as a journalist you lose your job. And then the mortgage doesn’t get paid and your kids don’t go to school. These are very powerful motivations and I try to look at any fiction writing I do in exactly the same way. So, I usually start at about eight o’clock and I’ll go right to twelve. Eight to twelve are my best writing hours — I love those writing hours. Then I’ll have a ham-cheese-tomato Jaffal for lunch, and I’ll go back downstairs where I write and I’ll work from about 1 to about school pickup, when I have to go pick the kids up and with high school that’s been pushed back to about four o’clock these days so that’s a good little stretch. Anything after five my brain is made of mashed potato and I pull up. And so, I don’t really need any convincing or any external encouragement to do it because I feel like I’m the luckiest bastard on earth and I try to recognise that every day and so I put in the hours. 

You’ve become well known for feature writing and long form fiction. Do you ever challenge yourself with forays into shorter work? 

  • I do! I really do! I’ve written a lot of poetry and I just find myself writing a lot of song lyrics. I can’t sing, I can’t play guitar, but I write a lot of lyrics. No one’s ever seen these things of course and I may never let anyone see them but I find that extremely useful creative level because it’s a brilliant way to let your mind expand and take you into places and ideas that your brain otherwise would have gone to. So absolutely, it’s just such a great question Tom your questions are awesome because it’s important to write in those short mediums because there’s such a wealth of creativity inside them. 

What is the best piece of advice you wish you’d known when you were at uni? 

  • Be careful not to lose yourself in your own fricken head. When you meet the love of your life and you’re in the kitchen cooking dinner and they’re talking to you about the important things that are in their head, don’t be in your head thinking about your fricken story! Make sure you listen to them and you open up to them and you remember than there’s a whole wide world out there that exists beyond your brain and your own little story bubble. I’m actively learning those things as we as peak. 

What is the best piece of writerley advice you wish you had known when you were at uni? 

  • The heart will finish your book. Write with the heart, edit with the head. Don’t event worry about bringing that betrayer of a thing called the brain into your writing until the heart has written that first draft. Your voice is just as valid as the six billion other voices that are out there and you do not need permission to write a single word. You are allowed to write whatever the fuck you want. And you do not need to wait until someone gives you permission to do so 

How different has your career turned out compared to how you expected it? 

  • Incredibly different. When I was in grade six my teacher told my dad at a parent teacher night that she was convinced I was going to become the leader of an outlaw motorcycle gang. So, it’s certainly turned out a lot different. Not to sound like a Bruce Springsteen song or anything but when I was growing up at Nashville High (now Bracken Ridge High) you don’t think of anything like what has happened to me as possible or for you, because there’s this invisible wall keeping you away from that and that’s called the outer suburbs of Brisbane. If you don’t know what’s beyond that invisible wall you don’t know that certain things exist. It’s hard to find out about them. That’s not just me being writerly or anything that’s just a fact. I thought for all money I was headed for the G James Glass and Aluminium factory on Kingsford Smith drive because that’s where a lot of my mates went to work and that’s a good life and it pays well and you can buy a nice house in Bracken Ridge with a job like that and I was ready to go down that road. And I reckon I would have been happy enough. But I’m just so glad I saw some other things and I got to exactly where I think I belong. 

Do you ever feel you fall into ruts, and if so, how do you get out of them? 

  • I don’t tend to fall into ruts. And I think that’s another legacy of the Journalism thing. I think it’s just about the work and I just know for a fact, I’ve done it too many times writing journalism stories. You don’t know where you’re going to start but you just start. Like if I get in a rut, it’s the wide abyss of the blank page. That’s a rut every day. I probably do, but that rut you’re out of it the minute you write that first word or that first sentence. And if you can just be happy enough – you don’t have to write your first sentence and make it sound like Heminway and you don’t have to be Herman Hess or something on your first sentence. Just be happy enough and you can continue on and you can get out of your rut. But it’s often for me just getting the word on the page that will get you out of your rut. And remembering when you’re in some sort of actual narrative rut remembering that you are the creator. You are the one who can break down and dismantle the entire universe you’ve built on the page. You’re in charge. The story is not in charge of you, you are in charge of the story. And I’ve had to remember that a couple of times I can wield back and I can break down a wall and I can make a character do whatever the fricken hell I want I’m not being bullied around by the story. I’m the guy hopefully in charge of it.  

If you could tell young or emerging writers one thing, what would it be? 

  • In life and in writing – be enthusiastic. Enthusiasm is the most underrated human emotion. If you approach all of life with enthusiasm, I’m talking about the fricken way you get out of the bed – and I don’t want to sound like Anthony Robins on you or anything – I’m talking about the way you treat your friends and your relationships and the way you listen to music and the way you look at birds flying in the sky and the way you talk to your mum on the phone. But particularly the way you approach your writing. Because what comes from enthusiasm is curiosity, and what comes from curiosity are answers. All the answers come when you’re enthusiastic. It’s been, I think, the thing that’s gotten me where I am today. I think its an incredibly powerful thing to remember. Actively be enthusiastic. Actively write your own story; the one we’re living in. Take those narrative turns the way you want to take them.  

Find out more about Trent Dalton’s upcoming work here. 

Tom Loudon

Tom Loudon

Tom is Brisbane-based writer and an editor at GLASS Magazine. He has a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts (Creative Writing) and is currently studying Communications (Journalism) at QUT.

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