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It’s Trent Frickin’ DaltonRead Transcript
Trent Dalton’s debut novel, Boy Swallows Universe, has sold more than a million copies worldwide, making Trent one of Australia’s most successful contemporary authors. His latest book is called Lola in the Mirror, and it’s the third – and perhaps final – in a loose trilogy following young people in peril on the fringes of society. This week, Michael sits down with Trent to discuss this new work, where his boundless enthusiasm comes from, and his plans for the future.
Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton, 2014
All Our Shimmering Skies, Trent Dalton, 2018
Lola in the Mirror, Trent Dalton, 2023
The Opposite of Success, Eleanor Elliott Thomas, 2023
Boy Friends, Michael Pederson, 2022
You can find these books and all the others we mentioned at your favourite independent book store. Or if you want to listen to them as audiobooks, you can head to the Read This reading room on Apple Books.
Guest: Trent Dalton
Very early on with Read This we hit on the naming convention for episodes. Each one would reference the guest of the week, and it would offer an intriguing glimpse into what they’d shared with us. A tease, maybe even something that flew in the face of what you expect about your favourite author. So going into this week’s episode we were kind of hoping to come up with something counter-intuitive. “The darkness and sorrows of Trent Dalton”, or even “Trent Dalton is secretly mean”.
But here’s the thing. Shockingly, in person, he might be the most upbeat, effervescent writer I’ve ever met. Trent Dalton didn’t become one of this country’s best-selling, widely adored authors by faking who he is. The man is the opposite of a click-baity tease. It’s all there front and centre: what you see is what you get.
TRENT: People underestimate the value of enthusiasm. Like I say to journos all but just be enthusiastic. Be the person who gets the story and do that enthusiastically. But listen to your Beatles records enthusiastically. Listen, you know, look at the bird in the sky, enthusiastically greet your friends enthusiastically because you're fucking lucky to be here, man. You’re lucky to have friends!
I’m fairly confident you know who Trent Dalton is. At this point more than 1.2 million people have bought his books in Australia alone. But as a refresher, he grew up in the outer suburbs of Brisbane, established a name for himself as a journalist, and then in 2018 released his debut novel Boy Swallows Universe. It’s the largely autobiographical story of 12-year-old Eli Bell, who gets swept into a world of violent crime trying to save his mother from danger.
It was a sensation, to put it mildly. Not only was it everywhere, but it’s about to become a Netflix series. He followed it with a second novel, All Our Shimmering Skies, and a book of non-fiction where he sat on a street corner and interviewed strangers about their love stories and wrote them up on an old typewriter. At events for that book he’d lead audiences in a boisterous singalong of “All You Need Is Love”. I know, I know what you’re thinking, the grumpy old cynic in me is getting a sugar headache just from the whole idea. And yet, somehow it works. That’s just Trent.
I’m Michael Williams, and this is Read This, a show about the books we love enthusiastically and the stories behind them.
Trent Dalton’s new novel is called Lola in the Mirror, and it’s the third (and perhaps final) in a loose trilogy following young people in peril on the fringes of society. When we get the chance to sit and talk, I begin by sharing my first impressions of him:
MICHAEL: A few years ago I was at the Book Industry Awards and you won in a category and you went to the lectern and the energy in the room was electrifying. You delivered this impassioned, heartfelt speech, you name checked the people who matter to you, it was generous, it was funny. it was like vintage Trent Dalton and the audience you could feel were all with you. Two categories later you win again. Up you go again. And I had thought we'd seen the pinnacle of energy and joy and generosity, no, you were just getting started. It was the entree next one. But here's where I want to start: In those speeches one of the things I really remember was your like, you know, “I frickin' love you!”. You might be the only person I know who genuinely uses the word frickin' like doesn't swear, has modified that. And from what I know of your upbringing, from what I know of your teen years, there must have been a point at which you decided I don't want to swear anymore, I'm going to take that out of my repertoire. I don't want to say fuck, I want to say frick, and I want that to be the one that comes out naturally and instinctively. Do you remember that moment that frickin' became part of your lexicon?
TRENT: Oh, it's such an interesting place to start a chat because you know, where it comes from, that word. I mean, my old man's like, the fucking dinner's ready, you know? And, and you flip that word and it's like, I'll fucking kill you, you know? You know, I've heard people say that my mum. You’re just sort of shaving it off a bit and going, Now, okay, this is for people in that room in particular, right, at those ABIA Awards, it's like, I'm trying to tell them really quickly that you change everything. And that night is me getting up there and going, you, you people that I never thought I had the faintest clue that I would ever be up there doing something so powerful, like people kind of not saying that story's trash, not saying that that story is the work of a chancer from, you know, just a Queensland shit bag. And that's me just quickly saying, you know, it's like I'd love to just scream out, you know, “I fucking think you're the best”, but it's also me just going, I'm not that 12 year old shit bag anymore. So I just did refine it a little bit and say frickin'.
MICHAEL: That's why I opened there is that, you know, it's very Trent Dalton, it's genuine, authentic, it's full bodied, but it is also really conscious of how you're going to leave other people with your enthusiasm. Like you're not tempering your enthusiasm, you're not tempering the stuff that you want to say, but you are recognising that if you say, fucken, there are people in the room for whom that's going to conjure up violence, it's going to conjure up memories of hurt and confrontation and whatever. You're a very deliberate man Trent Dalton when it comes to wanting to make sure that you can deal with these hard or monstrous things in a way that leaves things better, not worse.
TRENT: You know, I've been a journalist for 23 years now, and I lost sleep at night for the stories I wrote, mate, where I didn't leave people better. I wrote for a weekend magazine a lot, and I’d dread Saturday morning when my articles would come out and I’d lose sleep on Friday night because I was terrified of the phone call where someone calls up and says, “You, you just ruined my life.” And mate, when I was in my twenties, I was really young and ambitious and I think I did ruin a couple of people's lives. I think I did. Like what you're saying is so beautiful, Michael, because I have worked on that. I have actively worked on that. Like, I am actively trying to be a better human and it's a work in progress. And it's like, you know, the whole book I just wrote is all about looking at myself in the mirror and seeing failings and seeing mistakes. And so I think it's really beautiful that you call me a deliberate man because it's true. It's true. You getting me really emotional. It's a deep, cool thing you're talking about.
MICHAEL: Part of what you do in Lola in the Mirror is, as you say, not just that thing of who we see when we look at ourselves in the mirror, but that question of past self and future self and how much of it is predetermined, how much we can make a series of choices that allow us to become a different person. Your first book of nonfiction that came out of your social affairs journalism was called Detours, if I remember correctly?
TRENT: Yeah! Yeah.
MICHAEL: And the kind of underlying premise of that, and it has a lot to do with the current novel, is about people who are without home, people who are kind of destitute one way or the other, and asking them to consider the moment of the detour, the moment when their life went down a track that they were still trying to find a way to kind of claw, claw back.
TRENT: Oh, Michael that was everything. And it was an incredible journalistic exercise. That book sold 500 copies. No one read it, but it was a beautiful process because the shelter that I wrote it for, it's this place called Third Space up in my home city, Brisbane. For 50 years, it's been serving 3,500 meals to the homeless every month. And I, you know, Michael Apted, 7-Up-style would duck in there and do it. Every two years or so, just catch up, “How's it going? What are you doing now? What projects are you working on?” And it turned into this book Detours, and I asked 20 regulars, “Just sit down, tell me the moment. Let's unpack that one moment that you think it was that set you on the path.” And we're trying to talk about that thing that we all sometimes say, a lot of people think it’s all drugs and drink related and drugs and drink will keep you on the street, but it's not often the thing that puts you on the street. And mate, it often came down to moments of mental health, moments of childhood trauma, moments of acute misfortune that any one of us could face. It used to be three steps to the street. It's now two. It used to be you reach that third step and you could rely on social housing, the housing register, you might be on there for maybe two or three months, right? You might jag a public house. That's the Dalton Boys. The Dalton Boys in the nineties. My old man Noel raised four boys on his own in a public housing home for less than $100. And it scares the shit out of me thinking that we would not get that home. And rightly so. We're four able bodied teenagers and with an able bodied dad, it would go to a single mum and a family with disability needs and you know, would go to them and that scares me.
But this Detours book was all about what is the moment? And Michael, I swear it comes down to two emotions, two human emotions that we all feel every day, it's confusion and sorrow. And the moments were really specific, like military tank driver explosion, loses an eye, drinks to cure the pain, starts drinking too much, gets on the street, no job. Woman has a sugar addiction stemming from a childhood trauma, um stems to a gambling addiction. And it's just incredible moments and you could really track back with each of these cases and realise it's people battling these emotions that you and I face every day, right? But we're just fortunate enough to not have to face them on a 24/7 daily basis. And I just think it's really powerful to think of these huge issues, 120,000 people sleeping rough each night. I'm not trying to sound all worthy or earnest or anything, but I just there's something to be said about remembering that we've all been there. We've actually been, we've felt what they're feeling out there tonight. That for me is the way through. Because when we realise that these are just human emotions, that is at the heart of it, then we can solve it and then we can share our own compassion and kind of collectively as community, wrap our arms around them.
MICHAEL: I was going to ask you about the detours for you, the moments when you knew you were on that different path. You know, I know that for you there were several of them, meeting the woman who is now your wife and..
MICHAEL:..the mother of your daughters. But another one of them was your dad's rating and your dad's reading habits and the ways in which that gave you a licence to imagine a different way.
TRENT: You know, this is the power of these people, you know, the power of these people that, you know, my great regret is my old man died of emphysema, right? Each morning he'd wake up and roll 20 cigarettes and read a doorstopper, and that's all he did. To be honest, I think he had some undiagnosed, like, you know, mental health thing. And, you know, he found it hard to stay in jobs, stay in work because of that. Incredibly beautiful man, Michael, terrible on the piss, but he was only pissed twice a week. But every other day, frickin' beautiful. And he's just tapping me on the shoulder and handing me Papillon or handing me Lord of the Rings and or handing my brothers Steinbeck or handing us Geraldine Brooks, you know, handing us beautiful feminine voices as well and just going, “Nah, she's brilliant, she writes beautifully.” The guy had the words fuck off tattooed on the inside bottom of his lip, and he looked like Keith Richards. But man, he was the most well-read…he could sit with you, Michael, and have a great conversation about your shared love of books…okay, now I'm going to get really emotional. Can I tell you something beautiful? I went up to my letterbox one day and this is just the heart of, I was writing for the Weekend Oz mag and and I just opened up the letterbox and there was a handwritten piece of paper, and it said, “Hey, Trent, you have been a revelation. You have done all the right things. So proud.” Sorry, I can't even get it out. “So proud, Dad.” Like, the guy wrote, like, Clint Eastwood speaks. That is now like it's on my desk when I write, you know, and it's like, it's the best fucking piece of writing I've ever seen in my life, you know, because it was just such a random thing. But what he was saying was, “You listened to me”, you know? You know, he's lucky saying, like, “You listened to everything I said”, because what he said was always like he always said, “I will kick your ass if you're following my footsteps.” And that's an incredibly humbling thing for a man to say to his son. And yet what he didn't know is that man up emotionally and character-wise, like, I'm still trying to follow in his footsteps. And so that's what that note reminds me of, you know?
When we return, Trent traces the path of his life, from a miserable 15 year old to the writer he has become today, and how raising his daughters helped shape the lead character is his latest book, Lola in the Mirror. We’ll be right back.
MICHAEL: The three acts of the life of Trent Dalton so far, you know, the first act growing up in that environment. Kind of being witness to that kind of violence, that kind of trauma. Second act as a journalist, trying to find ways to tell that story in a way that is a bit extractive.And then the third act is and it's kind of echoed by the path that your characters on in Lola in the Mirror, your new novel, is the possibility of redemption through art.
TRENT: To kind of cut my life up like that is really it's true. That's absolutely right. From 0 to 20 was really miserable, you know talk about mirrors I was looking in the mirror at 15, you know, and just I used to just say three words and it was like, “Fuck them all”, an incredibly negative kind of space. And then, and then for some reason the world said, we're going to do something with those years. You know, we're going to give you a job as a journalist where you might be able to use that and people maybe even sniff that out of your articles. You know what I mean? You might be able to write in a style where people can smell those years in the stories. So then you get all of this healing, like from 20 to the age of 38. That's 18 years of just listening and listening and listening and learning more about the 0 to 20 years through the stories of total strangers in living rooms across Australia. And then mate, as you so beautifully put it: third act. What am I going to do with all this now? And let's start looking in the mirror again and seeing what I see and what can I do with it? Okay. The only way you can, you can get your happy ending, the only way you can put some light on that is to go to the world of fiction. Because reality, the real story of Boy Swallows Universe, Michael, is just. It's as complex as real life. In reality, people go on and life plateaus and then it dips and then it goes up really high, and then it dips and plateaus and the struggles and awkwardness and lots of sorrow. But where's that going to get anyone? Where does that get anyone? If I was just to write some misery memoir about, you know, the Dalton Boys making their way in battling working class prison, you know, and it's like, well, let’s take all that stuff and and offer some magic to it.
MICHAEL: How would 15 year old Trent have felt about some 40 something bloke telling him that it was all going to mean something in the end? And love and kisses and deep hugs and it's going to be alright. Do you sometimes feel worried that if 15 year old Trent rejects it because it's too rosy? You're not going to break through to him?
TRENT: Well, and it's a thing about me people hate, you know, and people sort of, you know, “Oh he’s so optimistic and he's so sentimental.” And it is I am, you know, I am. And my wife's like, “Can you just turn it down a bit? Just turn it down.” But first thing is that that's a massive defence mechanism. That's nothing but that. But here's the truth of the power of optimism. So at 15, right. You know, the Dalton Boys, we grow up in the 90s, right? We become young men. So, so we can, we can rescue mom from the monster, right? This isn't my dad. This is. He saw the fellow she met after she did some time and…So one night, you know, my beautiful older brother, he’s like, “We're going, we're going to get mum.” And he knocks on the door in this fuckin giant of a horrible man runs up my brother and Joel gets down low, shoulder up, drives this guy across the yard, And then four Dalton boys, you know, one Dalton brother per limb. And we pin that guy down and Mum makes her escape and we get the train home, and I burst into tears, right? I'm just crying my freaking eyes out. And then my friggin beautiful older brothers immediately start telling me jokes. They immediately start making me laugh. And I'm not crying anymore. And that night now becomes this sacred night in my heart. And that's cheesy as hell. Four boys on a train laughing to overcome their fear. And so I try and tell people, “I promise you that that optimism comes from such darkness.” There's a line in Lola. She's an artist and she sketches her traumas and she puts Tyrannosaurus heads on her father and she puts a lion's head on her mum. And she's trying to process this strange world she's in and she makes this realisation you cannot physically draw light on a white piece of paper with a black ink pen. The only way to get the light is to enhance the darkness. The light comes from the darkness we place around it. And that's the thing.That's all I'm trying to do with those books that end brightly in a little bit fairy tale-like I'm just trying to say “There is light and magic within the darkness.” And because that's true for a lot of young Australian kids, you know, I swear to God that's true like that. They are seeing the magic.
MICHAEL: I think detractors aside, the authenticity of that, the genuineness of your voice, of your feeling of the stories that you're telling, that's what connects with readers. I reckon readers sniff out inauthenticity in a heartbeat.
TRENT: So true. It's the thing I've loved about early readers of Lola. They're just like, “Nah, I believe it. Like, I. I believe it. And thanks for showing me a world I didn't know that much about, you know? And that's the world of the street. But also, thanks for reminding me that there's light there for everyone as well. And nobody's invisible. Nobody's invisible in this country”, you know? And I'm glad I could say something so earnest…and I wasn't trying to shove it down people's throats, but I was just trying to do that sort of same thing Dickens did, you know, same thing Steinbeck did, which is just, please be conscious of the world outside your window, but please also give us a yarn, you know, and please also, like build in some crime and some mystery and maybe even some love. And maybe we will go all the way with you on that story. And that's what I love. But they won't go that far if they smell bullshit.
MICHAEL: On the question of authenticity and finding something that feels real, one of four boys, those key, kind of, teenage years with your dad…Would you have attempted what you've done in Lola in the Mirror and written about a 17-year-old girl before you had daughters? Or did you need to have daughters yourself to feel like you could get into that headspace?
TRENT: That's a beautiful question. It's funny that Eli Bell, the lead character of Boys Swallows Universe, was almost the exact same age my eldest daughter was when I wrote that book. Molly Hook, the lead character of All Our Shimmering Skies was about 14, around the age that eldest daughter was. And now my daughter is about to go into womanhood like she's almost turning 17, the absolute age of the lead character of Lola in the Mirror. And I don't even know wh–…I think I did all that unconsciously. And this is the end of a bit of a youth trilogy. I think I'm done like I think I'm done saying whatever I want to say about Australian youth. You know, I did feel like I had something useful or worthwhile to say about battling youth, you know, just frickin' Australian youths up against it because I'm drawing from that 12 year old I'm telling you about. But it's so funny, I don't even realise I'm doing these things and then I realise, okay, how can I write about a 17 year old girl? It's like, well, like I'm just trying to be a better dad by writing 400 pages of a novel about a 17 year old girl. And sometimes I wonder, should I have just not done that book for eight months and just gone and talked to my daughters for eight months? You know, what's the better productive thing for them? And I approached writing the character in Lola the same way I approach my daughters. And I have this thing I say about you've got to start from the inside out on everything, right? You want to find out about Australia, you work from the inside out and I mean, go to the centre of the country and explore this place, you know, from the red dirt to the hills and then go to the coasts, then go to the big cities, you know. You want to explore a human being, a young woman of 17, start with her heart, go to her brain. Understand that. And then listen to what she has to tell you. And I did exactly the same thing with the 17 year old here at the heart of Lola.
MICHAEL: You sneaky bugger. Look at your parenting on the page. What a party trick that is…
TRENT: Parenting on the page… [laughs]
MICHAEL: I could go for a bit of that…
TRENT: But it's also like it's for me. It's me trying to remind myself this is how you should be. I'm not always like that at all. Like I'm a really flawed freaking parent. My wife will tell you What might I promise you? I bring a lot of friggin 'heart and soul to that job, you know? And it's like, that's what I'm bringing up.
MICHAEL: Trent Dalton, I genuinely cannot imagine you not bringing your heart and soul to anything you do like anything at all.
TRENT: People underestimate the value of enthusiasm. Like I say to journos all but just be enthusiastic. Be the person who gets the story and do that enthusiastically. But listen to your Beatles records enthusiastically. Listen. You know, look at the bird in the sky, enthusiastically greet your friends enthusiastically because you're fucking lucky to be here, man. You're lucky to have friends. It's like…. You know?
MICHAEL: I love this because so much of the Australian psyche and the idea of who we are is wrapped up in this idea of she'll be right, laconic, laid back. Maybe don't show your feelings. Particularly Australian masculinity is about withholding. I'm very curious about for you how deliberately that's a reaction to the upbringing you had, a recognition of the stories you wanted to tell is rejecting the idea of half measures.
TRENT: Oh mate, huge and look, look where that got us. Aussie men, you know, look where that got us. You know, one of the worst countries for domestic violence, you know, depressed men in rooms, drinking instead of talking, writing, laughing, because we're just not willing to kind of emote. Mate my worst regret, longest, longest hug I ever gave my dad was when he was a cold, dead body. I went into his room up in this housing commission home on Bribie Island and hugged this beautiful guy, man, you know, just like rested my head on his chest for, like, you know, 40 seconds. And it was weird and a little bit creepy, but I fucking wept, man. It was so beautiful.
MICHAEL: It is that funny thing as you get older, you're kind of assessing the stuff that makes you who you are and then what imprint you want to leave on the world. Whether it's through creating art the way you do or through raising kids or whatever it is. Are you done for now? Like, are you stuck writing books and stories for the rest of your life because you love it so much? Or is there a version of you that suddenly going to be, “Oh, no, I think I'm going to be someone who does massive hikes across nature, and that's what I want to be for the fourth act of my life.”
TRENT: There's so much more I want to write, but there's nothing more I want to prove. But here's the thing. Not to use a cheesy mountain climbing reference, but it's like I went to the top of the mountain and realised, like, the view isn't as good as the view of my wife and kids back in the hut, you know? And so where I'm at now in fourth act is all about honestly fixing things in relationships. I think I have been highly ambitious, even if I try and shrug it off and make it look all cool and stuff. I've been very deliberate and dedicated and a little bit too much sometimes, you know, and that can come at a cost. And I just want to mate, you know, I want to be at 70. I want to be one of those people who has a whole bunch of human beings under a pergola and you’re cutting a pavlova and I start weeping because I'm surrounded by 16 people who really, really care about me, you know, like that success, man.
MICHAEL: Trent Dalton, thank you for your time.
TRENT: Hey, Michael. It's been an honour. I’ve got one final thing I need to say: I frickin' love you.
MICHAEL: I'll take it.
Trent Dalton’s latest book, Lola in the Mirror is available at your local independent bookstore now.
Before we go, I wanted to let you know what I've been reading this week. Melbourne author Eleanor Elliot Thomas's debut novel, The Opposite of Success, is an excellent romp, funny, chaotic and acutely observant. It follows its main character, Lorrie, as she has one of the worst days of her life. It has hilarious insights into middle management working in local government. Emily Bitto described it as “Think Fleabag as an Australian mum. Utterly endearing. I never wanted it to end.” I felt the same way.
And I've just avowed a beautiful book by a Scottish poet, Michael Pederson. It's his tribute, a love letter really, to his friend Scott Hutcherson, lead singer in the band Frightened Rabbit, who took his own life a few years ago. Pederson writes not just about his lost friend, but also about male friendships throughout his life. And it's an absolutely stunning book.
You can find both those books and all the others we mentioned at your favourite independent book store. Or if you want to listen to them as audiobooks, you can head to the Read This reading room on Apple Books at apple.co/readthis. There’s a link in our show notes.
You can find these books and all the others we mentioned at your favourite independent book store. Or if you want to listen to them as audiobooks, you can head to the Read This reading room on Apple Books at apple.co/readthis. There’s a link in our show notes.
That’s it for this week’s show. If you enjoyed it, please tell your friends about it – and rate and review us. It helps a lot.
Next week on Read This I am joined by award-winning author Charlotte Wood, who is here to discuss her new release Stoneyard Devotional and the question that is at the heart of all her work:
Well, writing is asking questions. I mean, when I write fiction, it's usually to do with some question that I have about how to be, you know. And clearly an obsession of mine that I never kind of realise until it's done, it's like, Oh, there it is again, this idea of how to live with other people that you haven't chosen to live with.
Read This is produced and edited by Clara Ames.
Mixing & original compositions by Zoltan Fecso.
Thanks for listening. See you next week.