Trent Dalton has a ‘twin.’ Identical in stature and appearance, Dalton’s ‘twin’ is the esteemed author’s keeper of secrets, projector of fantasies and gatekeeper of fears.
Over the years, his ‘twin’ has played many roles in Dalton’s life, from a champion of his boyhood dreams to a provoker of his greatest insecurities when the writer found success with his globally acclaimed debut novel, Boy Swallows Universe.
“When I was a kid, I’d stare in the mirror and see all these grand versions of myself. By the time I got to sixteen, reality kicked in [and my reflection told me] ‘None of that’s going to happen, you idiot.’ It wasn’t until I met my wife that she started to help me see different versions of myself,” recalls Daltons. “When I found success as a writer I’d look in the mirror and see the cost of my success.”
Sitting down with the Walkley award-winning journalist, Dalton opens up to marie claire Australia about finding love in peculiar places, and the emotional moment he saw the Boy Swallows Universe Netflix adaptation.
Marie Claire: Your new novel Lola in the Mirror was born out of the stories told to you during 17 years of social affairs journalism and confronts the reality of homelessness in Brisbane. Why was now the time to tell these stories?
Trent Dalton: “Everything I write has to come from a really true and deep place for me. My dad raised four boys in a public housing home on a single-parent pension. It terrifies me to think that if the Dalton boys were growing up in 2023, I have no doubt we would have been homeless in Brisbane.
I really believe it’s our responsibility to write about the world. But who’s gonna read a book about the 120,000 Australians who sleep rough every night? I didn’t want to bash people over the head with some sort of worthy social service-type story, but I thought maybe I could feed some of those social awareness-type themes into a story if I wrapped it around a little bit of action, love, betrayal and secrets.”
MC: You said that the story was inspired by the intimate and confronting experience of looking in the mirror. What would you see if you were to hold a mirror up to yourself right now?
TD: “Pride. When I was 16 I would pull a hat over my head, because I was ashamed of what I saw in the mirror. I don’t feel that way anymore. The reason for this is largely the love I receive from both my wife and my two daughters. That’s where that pride comes from.”
MC: Boy Swallows Universe resonated so widely and you put so much of yourself into that novel, what do you keep to yourself?
TD: “I wrote this book called Love Stories, where I went out onto the corner of the busiest street in Brisbane and I sat for two months asking people to tell me their love stories.
What I didn’t say in that book was that the period of writing the book coincided with one of the toughest periods in my marriage. After Boy Swallows Universe I was temporarily stuck up my backside, which is why I wrote the book to get out of my head by talking to other people.
That would have been some really compelling reading. I don’t know why I didn’t put that in there. Perhaps because it was too raw at the time.
The truth of that would have meant a lot to people because a lot of readers said ‘Hey, this helped my marriage.’ And I wish I could have told them ‘Hey man, I actually wrote it to help my marriage.’”
MC: You said of BSU that you “processed your own baggage through the prism of other people’s private life.” Who was the first person’s story allowed you to unpack your own experiences in that way?
TD: “I worked on this story about guilt by association, where I interviewed Lois Darcy, who was the wife of disgraced politician, Bill Darcy. I asked Lois about what it was like to love someone who is a criminal and has done something so wrong. Lois spoke so eloquently about the reasons why she still stands by her man, which made me feel really good about the fact that for a long time, I have loved this man who is a criminal. He’s a drug dealer who went to prison for 10 years and when I was a kid he was the first father figure I’ve ever had in my life, to the point where I thought he was my dad.
When he went away I never stopped wanting that guy to turn up on my doorstep. He was a heroin dealer, but he was also a guy who loved me. That story helped me realize that life is so complex and I can be like Lois and go, ‘I have loved that man for quite some time. And I’m not just going to stop because he did this thing.’ That was very powerful. The flip side is, you can take it too far. Because then I interviewed Alex Milat (Ivan Milat’s brother) and he started likening the murder of humans to the killing of snakes.”
MC: You’ve written so many incredible profiles. What interviews have stayed with you?
TD: “Heath Ledger was so lovely and amazing. I love that guy’s intensity and his artistic leanings. He passed away soon after I chatted to him. Matt Damon conveyed an unbelievable warmth and openness in just the 10 minutes I spoke to him.
I interviewed this guy, Paul Stanley, who had lost his 15-year-old son to a coward’s punch. And I never forget, I never forget when my daughter Beth was about to be born and he said to me ‘Trent, you will do a million great things. But I promise you, there’ll be no greater day than tomorrow.’ That just gives me chills, the grace that, as a dad who’s lost a son, to then look at a guy who’s about to become a dad and remind him that it’s the greatest thing ever. That has always stayed.”
MC: BSU is being adapted by Netflix. How involved have you been with the process and was there anything in the novel that was sacred in its book to TV treatment?
TD: “Everything. Fortunately, Michelle McGee is the art director of the show and she has recreated that world perfectly. When I turned up on set, this beautiful young actor Felix Cameron was in a sky blue school uniform, which was exactly the uniform I wore as a kid. So when I walked in everyone’s going, “Trent, this must be the most amazing moment of your life.” And it was actually the most deeply confronting, jarring, bone shaking moment. I went straight up to this kid and went, ‘Are you alright?’
They got it so right, that I whispered to my wife about 40 minutes later, ‘I need to go’. That’s how good they got it. I watched the first three episodes and it was like someone had put a a film camera inside my brain and shot my memories. I was holding my wife’s hand the whole time and we were just frigging weeping like idiots.
Simon Baker is playing my dad. I started crying because my dad’s dead now and I miss him so much and to see this beautiful actor smash it out the park and make my dad alive again.”
The books that changed your life
Favourite villain: Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
“I read this when I was 12 and I was so fascinated by him. It was his slight love of Clarice that I was really attracted to because she had a soft spot for this cannibal serial killer. I think the whole world found goodness in that monster.”
Teenage obsession: The Basketball Diaries by Jim Carroll
“This was a profoundly meaningful book to me when I was 15. I was going through this whole drug-addicted writer’s journey where I read all these books about junkies, because that’s what was happening in the world around me.”
Favourite protagonist: Inman in Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
“It’s the best love story I’ve ever read. I like characters where you get inside their head and you live inside their skin and it was really brilliant to live inside the character Inman when I was reading this.”
Lola in the Mirror (Harper Collins) is out now.