Meet the man behind the boy who swallowed the universe

Image: Lyndon Mechielsen

There is a house in Brassall with a secret underground room.
Inside that room was a red telephone.
Feature journalist and author, Trent Dalton’s extraordinary novel Boy Swallows Universe is the result of this single, childhood memory.
Trent Dalton was born on the hill at Ipswich Hospital. His mother took him home to Brassall where his earliest memory was formed.

“This is as far back as I can go,” he said in a recent interview with ABC’s Richard Fidler.

“I’m on a brown leather lounge, I’m in a brown and yellow t-shirt, I look at my right thumb and there is a freckle on it and I will look at that freckle for the rest of my life. I look to my left and there is a man sitting to the left of me. This man has red hair and he’s got tattoos all over himself and he’s got muscles and he is wearing a Jackie Howe singlet and he’s wearing thongs and I turn to this man and say ‘I love you dad’.

“This man turns to me and smiles and ruffles my hair and he says ‘I love you too mate, but I’m not your dad’.”

This interesting and intriguing childhood is a powerful place to draw from. Dalton’s ability to paint a vivid picture with words brings both the era and suburban underground into Mona Lisa territory.

Set in various suburbs on the Brisbane working-class fringe in the 80s, it is a rare thing to read about suburbs like Darra and Bracken Ridge in Brisbane literature.

The plot of the book centres around 13-year-old Eli Bell, who manages to maintain his optimism despite his complicated life. His mother is in jail, his brother is mute, his babysitter is the ‘Houdini of Boggo Road’ jail and his step father is a heroin dealer.

But it is our City of Ipswich which runs in Dalton’s DNA.

“I have built a journalism career out of finding the extraordinary in the ordinary people and I first learned that in Ipswich. With my neighbours or with the people that lived in our house. Deeply intriguing characters and all those characters are inside that book,” he said.

“My early childhood was spent in Ipswich with my three older brothers and my mum. She fell in love with a guy who lived at Brassall and he was a very interesting guy.

“He had more than one foot inside the criminal underworld. But I didn’t know this. That guy to me was just this most beautiful father figure who taught me how to be resilient, how to play footy, gave us kids love at a time in our life when we needed it most.”

One day Dalton and his older brothers were on an adventure and one of his brothers told him to follow.

“There was a door and he moves the clothes aside and taps the back of the internal wardrobe,” Mr Dalton said.

“He pushed it aside and uncovered a secret area, an underground room and in that room was only a red telephone.

“That single memory became that book.

“I wrote 470 pages about who was on the end of that telephone trying to figure out in my own head. Because I never found out who was on the end of that red, real life telephone.

“It was a profound memory to have, as a kid it was deeply affecting. I thought if I could harness some of that magic and wonder I had as a kid and transfer that to a book then I might have something.”

Dalton certainly does have something, with the recent announcement by HarperCollins Australia that his new book will get a global audience thanks to a lucrative deal that will see Boy Swallows Universe published in the UK, the US and across 12 other languages in 2019. The announcement hinted at more deals in the pipeline.

President and Publisher at Harper US Jonathan Burnham said, ‘Once in a publishing blue moon, a novel comes along which stakes out a very special space for itself. It’s usually non-conformist and brave. It breaks the usual templates and creates new rules. And it’s usually a huge bestseller. Boy Swallows Universe falls into this canon.’

Despite his success, Dalton has his feet firmly planted on the ground.

“I went out there recently and drove past that place at Brassall and I saw it. It’s still there and it had a profound effect on me,” he said.

The house that Dalton called home, the one with the secret room that gave birth to a novel, is mythology now.

But to one family in Brassall, it’s just home.

Trent Dalton will be appearing at BookFace Springfield Orion (opposite JB HiFi), Orion Springfield Central, 1 Main Street, Springfield Central, on Tuesday 17 July at 6.30pm.

ABC’s Scott Stephens will be in conversation with author, Trent Dalton about his debut novel “Boy Swallows Universe”.

The cost of this event is $7 and bookings are essential. 

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