Trent Dalton on revealing the pain and beauty of his childhood in Boy Swallows Universe

Trent Dalton talks to The Weekly about revealing the most painful and beautiful moments of his childhood to a global audience.
trent dalton Australian Women's WeeklyDavid Kelly

Trent Dalton is overcome. It’s not an uncommon feeling for him, “I cry at the drop of a hat,” he confesses and frankly it’s hardly surprising he’s feeling so emotional. Trent has just spent the weekend with his mother, wife and two daughters watching the full eight episodes of the Netflix TV adaptation of his best-selling, award-winning novel Boy Swallows Universe, a story based on a uniquely dark time in his own childhood. 

The character’s lead is selfless, gorgeous Eli Bell – played by Felix Cameron – who is one of life’s fixers, even when faced with the bleakest of situations, such as his mother falling in love with a heroin dealer and ending up in prison. Eli is based on Trent as a young boy, drug-addicted, dreamy Frankie, played by Phoebe Tonkin, is based on his mum and alcoholic, book-loving Robert, played by Simon Baker, is a version of his dad.

“Watching the show was one of the deepest things I’ve ever felt,” Trent sighs. “There were moments where I was reconnecting to the dad I lost to the booze and the durries [roll up cigarettes]; there were moments where I was watching it with my mum and she paused it and she told me the wildest, most breathtaking background stories to what I turned into fiction. But the most surreal thing was to be with my 16- and 14-year-old daughters and my wife, with Mum saying to her granddaughters, now I just want to explain to you how I got myself into this situation. This is why I took heroin…” 

Trent talks to cast and crew on the set during filming. (Credit: Netflix)

“It was so so unexpectedly profound to have this beautiful woman that I care about so deeply give me more information than I’ve ever received from her about this period in her life. She’s in her late 60s now and an incredible grandmother. For her to stop the show every now and then – honestly the most fascinating DVD extras commentary you could possibly have – and say ‘now let me tell you about this guy that Trent’s writing about here’.” 

That his mother is still here to tell the tale is a miracle in itself. As is the fact that her four sons survived the violence, drugs, booze and vicious criminal cartels that surrounded them as children. How did they do it? Trent says it’s all down to one simple but “truly beautiful thing” that placed them in stark contrast to their circumstances. 

“I’m never ever making excuses for any of these people, I promise I never would, but the one thing the Dalton boys had is love,” he says, starting to tear up again. “We had two parents who for all of their demons, just never stopped letting us know how much they cared about us.”

“My old man, for all the stuff I hated about his drinking, that guy was present as a dad. He just hung off every word I said. He lived to hear about my day and had all the time in the world to devote to listening to his sons. He kind of worshipped us.

“I have this letter he sent me before he died.  It’s my prize possession. It says, ‘Dear Trent, you have been a revelation, you have done all the right things, love, Dad.’”

Noel was talking about his son’s stellar career as a journalist. He died in 2015 from emphysema, and never got to see how Boy Swallows Universe made Trent into a feted author. 

Phoebe Tonkin as Frankie. Trent and his mother watched the series together. (Credit: Netflix)

To date the book has sold more than a million copies and the TV series, which is a wonderful combination of dark humour, social comment, pithy characterisation and painful storytelling, brings a new level of accessibility to this deeply personal story. 

While it’s fiction, Trent has never denied that the characters are based on his family and admits he doesn’t think he could have written it while his father was still alive. “I just wouldn’t have wanted to hurt his feelings. I wouldn’t have wanted the guy to read it in the wrong way,” he tells me. 

“I talk to my brothers about this all the time and I guess if I had written it, I would have said ‘Dad, you know how much I love you but you were just terrible on the piss.’ And honestly…. I reckon he would read it, he would get right to the end, and he’d also get right to the end of this show and say: ‘well, that’s frigging true’. 

“The bits he would love are the same bits I love. The bits where the boys run to their dad and say, do not take us away from this man because he loves us so much.”

Trent’s storytelling is fearless and he says writing the book was part of a cathartic healing journey he had to go through (“my way to not drink bourbon”), but if the rest of his family hadn’t approved it, he would never have published. “There had to be five people that were OK with the manuscript,” he explains. 

“Mum was first. Two days later she called me and said: ‘Trent, I started it, I couldn’t stop reading it and it’s beautiful. It’s bigger than us and it’s certainly bigger than any awkwardness that I’m about to feel at grandparents’ day…..let rip. All my brothers were the same even though it’s incredibly awkward for them, too.”

Simon Baker gives a poignant performance as Robert, based on Trent’s alcoholic, book-loving father. (Credit: Netflix)

Then once she had got used to the idea, Trent’s mum came back with a pen in her hand. “She was hilarious. She said ‘I have notes’. She had 20 pages of a Spirax notebook, like my journo’s notebook… It had things like: page 152, 5kg of heroin didn’t cost that in 1986, Trent… or page 157, they never would have served us lamb cutlets in prison.”

Of course, a piece of literary fiction is one thing; people quietly reading in the privacy of their own homes. But a global TV drama is quite another and watching the worst parts of her life play out on screen was pretty confronting. 

“Mum’s watched it twice now and she was much better on the second watching,” says Trent.

“I think seeing Phoebe Tonkin in particular in those scenes where she’s detoxing in a really harrowing way inside that locked room, was tough. It was based on truth. That’s something my brothers and I remember. I was five and six in those years. My older brothers were smack bang 12 and 13-ish, like Eli and Gus were in the show. It’s very full-on for them all to watch that. I think Mum was shaken the first time around and then the second time she just immersed herself in the power of it and the message, which is ‘group hug’, letting family be the power that keeps us together and gets us through.

“Ultimately though she gets very deep about it. It’s very powerful to her to think that she raised the boy who wrote that stuff. 

“It was Mum’s dreamy love-filled view on the world that I inherited that made me see what is actually a really shitty, dark story in such a beautiful way. That’s what she gets very proud of – I’m going to get emotional here – because she raised me to love things.”

Trent’s innate sentimentality which is a focal point and driving force in his work is often criticised in lofty literary circles, but it’s also the thing that makes this storytelling so appealing. 

“People say how dare you bring light into dark places; how dare you say that families who have fallen through the cracks have the ability to love! It’s sometimes an Australian way of thinking that we’re not allowed to be absolutely up against it and have seemingly no hope, and yet still find hope.

“But that’s just the truth of my life every single time. There was a time when my mum had been strangled by a man who professed to love her. He left her for dead in a Telstra phone box. This wasn’t my dad. It wasn’t [my stepdad] Lyle. The way Mum tells the story of that time is that she was totally done and wanted out of life and the only one thing that kept her alive and made her stand up and call 000, was the image she had of her four sons and some sentimental reason deep inside her that made her believe that her boys were going to do something important one day. I’ve seen the power of it. I’ve seen the power of sentimentality.”

One of the most hilarious and triumphant parts in the TV show is when Eli breaks into prison to spend Christmas with his mum who at the time is desperate and has started using drugs again. This didn’t happen in real life, but sentimental Trent confesses he loved watching it play out. 

“Anything that isn’t true in Boy Swallows Universe is wishful thinking,” he chuckles. “That was me being eight and this particular Christmas in the late 80s, I just know how much Mum loves Christmas and I know she is going to do that hard in prison.”

These days Trent gets to spend every Christmas with his mum and “it’s a beautiful thing,” he notes. This year, after watching how the TV series has turned out, Trent has had a bit of an epiphany.  “I didn’t think this necessarily when I’d written the book, but I now feel like I was put on this earth to write that story. It’s everything. It could well be the most profound endeavour of my life and I’m pretty certain it is.”

Boys Swallows Universe is available to stream on Netflix.

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