Trent Dalton: Why I Wrote ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

About three summers ago on a blazing hot Boxing Day in South-east Queensland I was standing at the back of a small blue Holden Barina with my mum. The boot hatchback door was up and I was helping my mum load a bunch of Christmas gifts and cooking equipment into her car. We’d all just enjoyed a good family catch-up in a shared Bribie Island holiday unit, one of those nice peaceful Christmases where nobody argues about who was supposed to make the coleslaw, and my mum was distracted for a moment by my daughter – she must have been about seven then – doing one of her impromptu interpretive dances through an avenue of coastal paperbark trees. I followed her eyes and was, naturally, also quickly ensnared in this vision… my girl’s hair blowing in the wind, her bare feet making ballet leaps between those trees, a stick in her hand acting as a wand…

Then out of nowhere and for no apparent reason – not moving her eyes for a second away from my daughter –  Mum said something beautiful. ‘I wouldn’t change any of it,’ Mum said. It sounds cheesy, I know, but that’s what she said. ‘I wouldn’t change any of it. If I had to go through it all again to get to this, I would do it. I wouldn’t change any of it.’

Trent Dalton

Trent Dalton , journalist writer with The Australian newspaper and Weekend Magazine , Brisbane Bureau, in the office , Brisbane.

I’m a journalist who has written thousands of words about the most harrowing stories about Australian life in the suburbs… tragedy, violence, trauma, upheaval, betrayal, death, destruction, families, abandonment, drugs, crime, hope and healing, no hope, no healing … and I’m often reminded by my gut that kicks from the inside sometimes how my own mother’s life story remains the most harrowing story I’ve ever had the strange and often unsettling honour of being a significant part of.

She’s the one. ‘Who’s the most interesting person you’ve ever spoken to?’ people ask. Nah, not the Dalai Lama, nah, not John Howard or Bob Hawke or Priscilla flipping Presley or Heath Ledger or Matt Damon. Nah, it’s my Mum, by a damn sight.  You’ll know why, when you read the book.

Though to be honest, the book doesn’t say a tenth of what’s she’s been through and, in turn, my admiration for her, for coming out the other side of those things, for getting to the point one day three summers ago where she’s looking at her granddaughter dancing and she comes to the realisation that it was all heading somewhere – all the pain, all the social suffering, all the madness, all the longing, all the loss, all those bad choices and all those good choices – they were all leading to a girl she loves more than life itself dancing between some swaying trees.

So that’s where the book started, by that boot of mum’s Holden Barina. It took a year to write between the hours of 8pm and 10pm after work, and it took my whole life to write. The research was really remembrance. Remembering all those years when the world around my small family crumbled.  When people we loved were being taken away.  When things we thought true were being turned false.  Heads were being slammed into fibro walls.  Dangerous people were knocking on doors at daytime.  And when that world of ours crumbled – the world of prisons and small-time suburban crime – and my brothers and I went to live with my father who I never knew, that world we knew was replaced with a new world of a Brisbane Housing Commission cluster swirling with a hundred social issues – alcoholism, unemployment, domestic violence, generational social curses – all of which I would later write about as a journalist.

All of me is in here. Everything I’ve ever seen. Everything I’ve ever done. Every girl I ever kissed on a wagged school day, every punch I ever threw, every tooth I ever lost in a Housing Commission street scrap and every flawed, conflicted, sometimes even dangerous Queenslander I’ve ever come across, as the son of two of the most incredible and beautiful and sometimes troubled parents a kid could ever be born to.

The key characters all draw on the people I love most in the world. The most beautiful and complex people I’ve ever known, and I never even had to walk out the door of my house to find them. I just wanted to give the world a story. To turn all these crazy and sad and tragic and beautiful things I’ve seen into a crazy, sad, tragic and beautiful story.

Love, above all else, is threaded through this novel. I wanted to write about how it is possible to love someone who has killed. How it is possible to love someone who has hurt you deeply. How love is the closest thing we have to the truly profound. The kid in the book is feeling love like he’s feeling the edge of the universe, and it’s so big and beyond him he can only see it in colours and explosions in the cosmos. He can explain those things he sees in his mind – even the things he might hear in his head – with about as much clarity as anyone can truly give the mysteries of true love. He can only feel these things.

Ultimately, it’s a love story.

All I think I’ve done as a journalist over 17 years, if I’m being really honest with myself, is process all the baggage of my life through the stories of thousands of Australians who tell me their deepest darkest secrets in the sacred spaces of their living rooms, and I take these secrets and turn them as respectfully as possible into magazine stories, and these stories help me learn and know and sometimes even heal …  Boy Swallow Universe is me taking all my own secrets this time and turning them as respectfully as possible into a novel.

This book is for the never believers and the believers and the dreamers.  This book is for anyone around the world who has been 13 years old. This book is for a generation of Australians who were promised by their parents they would be told all the answers as soon as they were old enough. Well, now you’re old enough.

Here are my answers:

  1. Every lost soul can be found again. Fates can be changed. Bad can become good.
  2. True love conquers all.
  3. There is a fine line between magic and madness and all should be encouraged in moderation.
  4. Australian suburbia is a dark and brutal place.
  5. Australian suburbia is a beautiful and magical place.
  6. Home is always the first and final poem.

Boy Swallows Universe Sampler

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

An utterly wonderful novel of love, crime, magic, fate and coming of age, set in Brisbane’s violent working class suburban fringe – from one of Australia’s most exciting new writers.

Brisbane, 1983: A lost father, a mute brother, a mum in jail, a heroin dealer for a stepfather and a notorious crim for a babysitter. It’s not as if Eli’s life isn’t complicated enough already. He’s just trying to follow his heart, learning what it takes to be a good man, but life just keeps throwing obstacles in the way – not least of which is Tytus Broz, legendary Brisbane drug dealer.

But Eli’s life is about to get a whole lot more serious. He’s about to fall in love. And, oh yeah, he has to break into Boggo Road Gaol on Christmas Day, to save his mum.

A story of brotherhood, true love and the most unlikely of friendships, Boy Swallows Universe will be the most heartbreaking, joyous and exhilarating novel you will read all year.

‘Trent Dalton is the most extraordinary writer – a rare talent. A major new voice on the Australian literary scene has arrived.’ Nikki Gemmell

‘An astonishing achievement. Dalton is a breath of fresh air – raw, honest, funny, moving, he has created a novel of the most surprising and addictive nature. Unputdownable.’ David Wenham

‘I couldn’t stop reading from the moment I started, and I still can barely speak for the beauty of it. Trent Dalton has done something very special here, writing with grace, from his own broken heart.’ Caroline Overington

‘Enthralling – a moving account of sibling solidarity and the dogged pursuit of love.’ Geoffrey Robertson QC

‘Stunning. My favourite novel for decades. Left me devastated but looking to the heavens.’ Tim Rogers

Posted on June 26, 2018 by

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"Trent Dalton: Why I Wrote ‘Boy Swallows Universe’"27 thoughts on
  • Kecia Sandford-Clisby says:

    I am so glad that you wrote this book! But I didn’t know it was partly based on your own family. That must be why the characters ring true and captured my heart and mind. An absolutely staggering book that takes the reader on an emotional whirlwind and I enjoyed every minute!

    • Andrea says:

      Hi Kecia,

      So glad to hear you enjoyed Boy Swallows Universe. Some staff in the HCP office didn’t know it was based on truth until after they’d read – like you – it really does add to the experience doesn’t it?

  • Kerry Gamble says:

    Wow. Started reading your book this afternoon ( on holiday). I know I’m going to struggle to put it down.

  • This is a story with soul. That illusive quality all writers want to have imbedded in their work. It comes from suffering and honesty. What a masterpiece! I loved it.
    Thank you.

  • Judi says:

    Will read your book but was most impressed with your thoughts on QandA about the grapes of wrath. I had a similar reaction 40 years ago and it’s still with me.

  • christine says:

    Hi Trent,
    Loved, loved, loved this book. It’s sad,beautiful and inspiring. You are a brilliant writer and I look forward to more of your stories. Thank you Cheers Christine

  • Jenny Carleton says:

    The book overwhelmed me. And I now feel even more overwhelmed reading of Trent’s experience. This man’s work, as both a writer and journalist, is a gift to us all. Thank You.

  • gina louis says:

    I am going to the library today to get this book, Very impressed with Trent on Q&A I hope that at 83 I can still be enthralled! I think I might be!

  • Barrie East says:

    Trent, I only caught the last couple of minutes of your interview on 2GB this morning, Monday 27/8/18 3.55am. It was inspiring, just went to my computer and found out more, including your new book, Boy swallows universe.

    Would it be possible please, to order 3 copies of your book and have each one autographed for my son, Jamie, my daughter Kylie and myself. Please let me know how if acceptable to you, as you are inspiring. Very best wishes, Barrie East (m) 0412345941.

  • Keith stafford says:

    Thanks for writing boy swallows universe Trent. The term, ‘ keep it real ‘ aptly describes the book and the way you wrote it. You kept it real….real enough for this reader anyway. To say it was an enjoyable read would be a gross understatement.

  • Peter Haag says:

    You wrote a mirror.

  • FLM says:

    This is without question one of the best books I have read. To know that it is your life reworked as a novel that never approaches self-pity or self-indulgence is extraordinary. The voice, the colour, the candour, the love, the pace and the play with time is the best I’ve read. I loved every saturated second of it. Thank you for sharing your words and wisdom.

  • Paula Whittingham says:

    To fully appreciate this book, everyone should read ‘Why I wrote ………… As I had not read this article prior to reading the book, I found it quite daunting to read however, as I became more and more intrigued by the story. I find it absolutely amazing that this, in reality, is ‘almost’ a true to life story and find myself wondering how Trent could have possibly lived out his life to become such a gifted journalist/author! Truly an amazing story!

  • Di Freidman says:

    Unforgettable and a wonderful insight into family, love, loyalty,resilience and a whole lot more. I spent nearlyforty years working in mental health and addictions. I know the Brisbane you write about so perfectly, your parents must be so proud of you and your achievements. It’s the flaws who make us who we are.

  • “Twin Peaks in the sunlit suburbs of Brisbane. Mix of realism with mystical, strange. Crime, compassion and eccentricity. That’s Dalton’s ‘Boy Swallows Universe’.”
    My first thoughts on putting down this amazing story that keeps giving.
    Every time it reaches a peak, where the story could easily taper off or conclude, it opens something fresh and equally riveting, carrying the reader, on bated breath, to the final sentence.
    Could I ever write anything like Boy Swallows Universe? Nah, nah, nah, nah.

  • Margaret Braben says:

    I really loved this book, couldn’t put it down. I chose it because you are such a great author and thankyou for your writing in the Australian , one always learns something not experienced beforehand.

  • Mick Barton says:

    It’s a rare book gets me misty-eyed. Christopher helping Eli’s escape from hospital, Eli’s jail visit to see mum but worth the price of admission alone for me has to be “She gives me one of those quick and beautiful half-smiles that she can send down a one-way corridor of devotion directly to the person she is aiming at, a tunnel of lifelong love invisible to all others …….”. Man, I knew Trent was a terrific columnist but this novel is superb.

  • Mick Barton says:

    Did I say “columnist”? Feature writer extraordinaire is more like it. Although all Weekend Magazine columnists are a must read too.

  • Kaye Eden says:

    As soon as i started reading this book & really got the understanding of what it was about i found myself on this journey of wanting to know more & i really must say it is one of the best novels i have ever read, i thoroughly loved reading it & i’m hoping there will be another one of your stories in the near future.

  • Susan Grant says:

    Bloody brilliant! Best book I’ve read in years. Well done, Trent.

  • Sally says:

    Dear Trent, I can’t tell you how much i loved your book! I’m sad that it is now finished as this is a truly exceptional story. It’s even more exceptional because it is based on truth. Looking forward to the next one. Sally

  • Janet Frewin says:

    What a fabulous book. Thank you for it all.

  • Kirsty Mclaughlin says:

    Wow, just finished “Boy Swallows Universe “ in a day as too compelling to put down.Eli’s love and hope for his parents rings so true having met many children who will endure almost anything from Mum and Dad.The positivity shining through the chaos and heartache is like a beacon. Thank you Trent for giving so much of yourself in this outstanding novel.

  • Di williams says:

    Thanks Trent for taking me back to my childhood, although on the so called ‘other side of the train tracks. Brought up in Kenmore then Jindalee, living the Brady bunch lifestyle, just like the telly shows, and braving Inala skate rink, Marooka magic mile of motors and going through Darra , which I knew as Darra cement works and the Goodna barracks, thinking as a child I,m glad I didn’t live there! But also knowing a one off confrontation with my father with certain police officers of the day, during the brown paper bag times. You have made me look on all walks of life as having their own demons and their diamonds, thank you so much

  • Bill Blacklock says:

    What a fantastic book. Loved every word of it and can’t wait for the next one.

  • Sid Sidebottom says:

    Thanks! A terrific read ~ humanity pours throug your characters as it does through life in all its glory and gory. Rarely do I find a story so compelling that I sneak extra reading time in during the day. I hope your next story is on its way during the hours of 8.00 -10.00pm 24/7. BOY SWALLOWS UNIVERSE will indeed be a classic of Australian literature because it deserves to be.

  • John Roggenkamp says:

    To Trent Dalton

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