An Australian Journalist Investigates His Past for Debut Novel

Posted by Cybil on April 1, 2019
In this coming-of-age debut set in a seedy suburb of Brisbane, a 12-year-old boy learns what it means to be a good man. His potential role models include a lost father, a heroin dealer stepdad, and Slim, his most steadfast guardian—who just happens to be a notorious felon and frequent prison escapee.

Australian journalist Trent Dalton used his own childhood as inspiration for Boy Swallows Universe, one of the most anticipated debut novels of the year. He told Goodreads: "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."

Goodreads: Summarize your book for us.

Trent Dalton: Boy Swallows Universe is a novel about a deep-thinking, deep-feeling 12-year-old Australian boy named Eli Bell who receives a message on a mysterious red telephone that compels him to break into Queensland's notorious Boggo Road Prison to save his mother's life on Christmas Day.

Who better to aid him in this foolhardy quest than his aging babysitter, the real-life prison legend Arthur “Slim” Halliday, a man who escaped the inescapable Boggo Road Prison twice in the 1950s, earning himself the legendary title “The Houdini of Boggo Road.”

What follows is a story that takes our Eli to the wonder of true love, to the depths of despair and loss, and even to the very edge of the universe. It's a book about crime and magic and motherhood and brotherhood and good and evil and how to be a better man. It's about the ways a child can process trauma. It's about the fine line between magic and madness and why both should be indulged in moderation.

And I swear to God it carries in it every joy, sorrow, love, success, heartbreak, failure, and wonder that I've ever felt. One big 470-page soul cough. One big beating heart inside a book.

GR: Tell us a bit about yourself, and how did you become a writer?

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TD: When I was about six years old, I got a tap on my shoulder from my older brothers. “You gotta see this, Trent,” they whispered.

And I followed them down the hall of this house that belonged to my Mum's partner for much of the 1980s. This man was the first man I ever loved—the man who taught me how to throw a football, who taught me how to treat my mum with respect, a man who also happened to be a dangerously successful heroin dealer.

My eldest brother crept into the large main bedroom of this house, opened a sliding-glass door on a built-in wardrobe. He fell to his knees, slid across a pile of clothes, and pushed his hand up against the rear wall of the wardrobe. I know it must sound like fantasy. I know it must sound like storyteller bullshit, but this is cold-hard Australian suburban fact: To my great lifelong surprise and boyhood thrill, a compression mechanism clicked in that rear wall and it fell forward into my brother's hands.

It was the secret entry to a secret room built into the earth beneath our house. I watched my brother slip inside this room with wide eyes. The room's walls were made of brown brick. And there was nothing in this room but a stool and the mysterious red rotary dial telephone that sat upon that stool.

I became a writer and a journalist in that moment. Imagination was born inside me and so was curiosity.

Nothing in this world was as it seems. Everything had to be questioned because there were worlds you did not know about—whole unknown universes, way out there beyond the stars, but also deep down in the dark places in the hearts of the ones you love the most.

GR: What sparked the idea for Boy Swallows Universe? We've read that the book is based on your own childhood. What challenges did that present in writing the book?

TD: The houses in the book, the themes, the people, the horrors, the wonders, the magic, the love in the book are all straight from my own thin glass heart and soul. There were a hundred things I wanted to write before this. Things set in different times and distant places, stories so comfortably removed from the strange, dark, and beautiful world of my own past. But there were some quite powerful feelings I still had inside me from that past. When that man I loved as a boy got busted and he went down for ten years in Boggo Road, that had a feeling accompanying it that never went away. The feeling of it found its way into a museum exhibit box inside my head. I wanted to unlock that box. Open it up. Set it free.

A writer lives and dies on character, and I just could never get past the fact some of the most interesting characters I've ever met were the five people outside my bedroom door growing up.

Slim really was an old friend to me as a boy. Slim really did say the most profound things to my mum in her darkest hour. I thought there were things inside that story—amid the horrors of crime and imprisonment and isolation and poverty and desperation—that could offer something to all those people on the fringes of our beloved cities across the world who find themselves in the same dark holes as the people in the book, and I don't just mean the isolation cell that Slim occupied in Boggo Road Gaol. I mean the holes we all find ourselves in sometimes, holes that don't have visible walls but still have walls that close in.

GR: Did you find yourself influenced by any particular books or authors as you worked on your debut?

TD: I said something quite preposterous and ambitious when I started writing this. I told myself I had to write about the kids of poverty-class Housing Commission Bracken Ridge, Brisbane, in the 1980s the way Dickens wrote about the kids of Industrial Revolution–era London. So he's all through this book. The way he could set things up early in the pages and not pay them off for 200 to 300 pages or more.

The last two pages of The Grapes of Wrath are all through Boy Swallows Universe because the last two pages of The Grapes of Wrath are everything one needs to know about life. I wanted this book to have some elements of the great adventure books I've loved, too, like The Count of Monte Cristo and Papillon. My dad handed me Papillon when I was a kid. He thought the themes of prison escape and freedom might appeal to a skinny Bracken Ridge tearaway. He was right.

Then there's a bit of The Silence of the Lambs in there and the works of John Irving and Cormac McCarthy and even a bit of Charlotte's Web by E.B White. I was deeply entranced by it in about Year 3 at school, when our teacher read it to us and I would have been too much of a walking fence post back then to realize that beautiful spider was opening my brain to things I love in storytelling today: perspectives, worlds within worlds, compassion, friendships formed in the most unlikely places. Then dear wise Charlotte goes up to the big web in the sky and young me realizes that we can die and live on at the same time.

GR: What was your writing process for Boy Swallows Universe?

TD: My day job as a journalist is a fairly demanding one. Being a father to two girls, 10 and 12, is as about as cool and as privileged as life gets—which is why taking time away from them to write a book makes me feel like such a selfish arsehead. I wrote Boy Swallows Universe between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. at night, after dinner and the dishes were done and the girls were all set for bed.

Then most nights I'd do the strangest thing. I'd think about the infinite paths my life could have taken that didn't end with having my wife, Fiona, and our two girls in my life and that would fill me with this strange electrical charge that would run along my spine and then through my darn fingertips and onto the keyboard.

The writing was easy. It was someone else writing. Maybe it was entirely written by this fictional 12-year-old boy that I've come to love for the strength he has that I never did possess: Eli Bell. I'd go down to the rumpus room between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. each night and slip into that dear kid's worn Dunlop Volleys and let that kid's lightning strike the blank white pages of a Windows Surface Pro. The hard part was making sure not a single person in my family was uncomfortable with what that kid wrote. If, by the end of those 470 pages, any member of my family felt worse by the final page than the first, then the story was going in the bin. Simple as that. So you can imagine my elation when these people I love dearly read it and call me back saying, “Go. For. It. This. Is. Something. Bigger. Than. Us.” Then my mum said the most touching thing I think I've heard her say to me: “It's beautiful. Don't change a word.” Thanks, Eli.

GR: You were a journalist before writing your debut. Did you find yourself using reporting skills in the creation of your book? And are you still working as a journalist?

TD: There's a great deal in the book about the importance of journalism and my love of it. All the tools I use in that game I threw into this book, too. My job as a longform magazine journalist is to create worlds, paint characters, tell stories that take a reader from the first word to the 5,000th word in ways that are entertaining and illuminating.

The most important thing in this book relating to journalism is the pact I made with myself. I'm profoundly honored 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.

GR: What are you currently reading, and what books are you recommending to your friends?

TD: My reading habits are always about five years behind everybody else. I've finally dived into All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and I'm loving every wondrous word of it. It bounces along at a gallop but never at the expense of deep unashamed beauty and humanity. I love these writers who go full tilt from the heart and soul. Fuck cynicism. What did cynicism ever bring anyone, aside from a chuckle and wink.

GR: What's next for you? Any preview you can give readers?

TD: I'm currently writing a wildly ambitious love story about gifts that fall from the sky, curses we dig from the earth, and the secrets we bury inside ourselves. It's everything I love about storytelling, and I've never been more excited to form words into sentences. The writing of Boy Swallows Universe unlocked all these treasure boxes in my head, and these boxes offered up endless stories, and I'm so deeply grateful I might get a chance to tell a few more of those stories.

Trent Dalton's debut novel, Boy Swallows Universe, will be available in the U.S. on April 2. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-24 of 24 (24 new)

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message 1: by Lorraine (new)

Lorraine Daoust I'm dashing, this minute, to my for a copy!

message 2: by Allison (new)

Allison | Mind Joggle This book is amazing--it will definitely make my best of 2019 list, and I don't say that often this early in the year! My quick review:

message 3: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth Hamby Wow

message 4: by Jim (new)

Jim Bates Fabulous interview. I'm sold!! I've put this book on the top of my list of new books to read. Thank you in advance for writing it!

message 5: by William (new)

William Punch It looks good to me, I know Brisbane, although not Boggo Road Gaol. I’d like to read someone with growing up experience that Eli Bell had. And to think Trent grew up relatvely normal tells me I would like to find up how he did it

message 6: by Alan (new)

Alan Yep, I gave it a big ol' 5 stars. Fairly safe to assume it will be, if not my favourite book of 2019, then in the top 2 or 3. It will take something to beat it. It's glorious and uplifting and harrowing and when I got to the last paragraph I just wanted to open the window and shout 'YES!' at the top of my lungs.

message 7: by Maurene (new)

Maurene Merritt I’m in the throws of writing my memoir this sounds like a must read!

message 8: by Guisela (new)

Guisela Hernandez G De Rivera Excellent!!

message 9: by Guisela (new)

Guisela Hernandez G De Rivera Siempre he querido escribir mi libro, sobre mi vida. Solo estoy el momento inspirador para comenzar!
Y creo que ha llegado!!!

message 10: by Susan (new)

Susan Great interview! I loved "Boy Swallows Universe" and think it's destined to become an Australian classic — if it hasn't already. I hope Americans love it as much as we Aussies did!

message 11: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Great interview!

message 12: by Robyn (new)

Robyn Great interview. Seriously one of the best books i have ber read. I hope its a huge success in the US.

message 13: by Kim (new)

Kim The. Boy. Can. Write!

Anyone who is yet to read this book is in for a treat!

One of your better interviews Goodreads!

message 14: by Diamond Lil (new)

Diamond Lil What a great guy, fabulous interview. It’s so inspiring to have any person giving their heart and soul to what they do. Boy Seallows Universe is an outstanding book, a heart renching story, uplifting, funny. I’m gushing!! Dalton is so talented and I thank him for the love he puts into his work and what he continues to share about life’s lessons.

message 15: by SarahL (new)

SarahL This book just consumed my weekend. Girl Swallows Book. Congratulations Trent Dalton - it is indeed a masterpiece, clever and compassionate. A tad more violent than my usual read, but I guess that's life (and I didn't put the book down).
The worst and the best of humanity is in this book - and the writing is exquisite. 'Flowers in the desert' stuff.
Thanks for the book, and thanks Goodreads for this interview

message 16: by Vivian (new)

Vivian This is book is truly magnificent.

message 17: by Lena (new)

Lena Tallabas Wow, just wow!

message 18: by Louise (new)

Louise Obbes This for me was the book of 2019. I absolutely loved it. Loved his visit to the Writers Festival this year in Perth and also this interview

message 19: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Chartier Love the interview. I wasn't aware when I read the book that it was based on real life. This makes the book even more amazing. It's fabulous - everyone should read it. It was the best Christmas present I received in 2018, from my wonderful English teacher daughter in law who has broadened my reading over the years

message 20: by Debra (new)

Debra Kimball This interview certainly shows that Trent Dalton learned "what it is to be a good man." The respect and love for his family captured in this interview paints a clear picture of his integrity as an author. The interview was so engrossing, I can't imagine how great the book will be. I'm going to order it now!

message 21: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Dee I've got so much respect for Dalton's decision to let his family have veto power over this novel. Like others, I was surprised when I read the afterward and realized that the novel was based in Dalton's real life.

I fell in love with Eli Bell, and hope that this book will be a huge success.

message 22: by Mel (new)

Mel B. I loved this book from the confronting themes to the unfolding of a storyline, and of course the characters. It's not sugarcoated by any means.I bought it on holidays in Byron Bay as a recommendation from my 87year old aunt. I could not put it down. Congratulations Trent Dalton. A definite Contemporary Australian Classic!

message 23: by Kecia (new)

Kecia I absolutely love this book, it is unlike anything else I have read! I have had the privilege of hearing Trent Dalton speak and of meeting him. He is so warm and open. The book is truly him and vice versa!

message 24: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Lingrell My favourite read of many years. Loved it! 10 Stars.

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