Trent Dalton is a dual Walkley Award winning journalist, who also happens to be an exquisite novelist. Boy Swallows Universe took out the awards season – and the hearts of readers – and there is little doubt All Our Shimmering Skies will do the same. This interview is one of Trent's first in depth interviews about All Our Shimmering Skies, and believe it or not, he also has news about Boy Swallows Universe.
Boy Swallows Universe is a much-loved national bestseller and critically acclaimed novel. It received the Indie Book of the Year Award and the People's Choice Award at the NSW Premier's Literary Awards, as well as a record of four ABIA Awards in one year.
Trent is a staff writer for the Weekend Australian Magazine. He is a two-time winner of the Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism, a four-time winner of a Kennedy Award for Excellence in NSW Journalism and a four-time winner of the national News Awards Features Journalist of the Year.
ASTRID: Trent Dalton is a dual Walkley Award winning journalist, who also happens to be an exquisite novelist. 2018's Boy Swallows Universe took out the awards season – and the hearts of readers – and there is little doubt 2020s All Our Shimmering Skies will do the same. This interview is one of Trent's first in depth interviews about All Our Shimmering Skies, and believe it or not, he also has news about Boy Swallows Universe.
Trent, welcome to The Garret at Home.
TRENT: Astrid, thank you so much for having me. I love your podcast, and I'm really honoured to be here with you.
ASTRID: I'm so thrilled that you've listened to the podcast, and I have so many questions. Now, we are going to talk about both Boy Swallows Universe and All Our Shimmering Skies. All Our Shimmering Skies is a very new work, so we're not going to have spoilers, but we are going to talk about characters, and how on earth you wrote a magnificent novel.
TRENT: Thank you for saying the ‘M’ word. That's really lovely, Astrid. It's really early days. I could count on my hands, I feel, the people that I know who have read it. So, it's really great. As you know, you get so bloody nervous when you write these things, and it's just this traumatic kind of experience, and so to speak to someone like you, who's read so many books, and you're using that ‘M’ word, that's magnificent to me. And I love your podcast because it's what ... the reason I say I love your podcast is because you do talk about character, and story, and narrative, and all those cool things that I am such a deep fan on. That book just ripples with everything I love about storytelling.
ASTRID: Storytelling is a great word, and that's what I want to talk to you about, because you not only write novels, but you are a journalist. You are a highly awarded journalist. You know how to captivate an audience, how to get and keep a reader's attention. And that is a skill. As a reader, I just value that skill so highly, because it makes my life and my days more enjoyable. And I'm interested in how this writing part of your life, whether it is your non-fiction, your journalism, or your beautiful novels, how does everybody you know interpret what you bring to the page? And I know that's a really vague question, but Trent, you published your first novel, after being a highly awarded journalist two years ago. And I watch what happens to writers. This is what I do. I sit at home with stacks of books and I watch what you're all doing out there, creating stuff. And you seem to have made the industry fall in love with you. And that does not happen often.
TRENT: [Laughter] Really? Ah, that's really sweet. You're embarrassing me, but that's really cool. If that is the case, if that is the truth, then that's lovely of you just to say, but I doubt it. I doubt that in the same way I doubt everything I do. I've doubted every last thing I've done for 20 years, as a journalist. I'm 41 now, and from zero to 20, I certainly doubted every action I ever did. So, I'm laced with self-doubt, but also, I have this one benefit, where I don't embarrass easily. Even though I just said you made me embarrassed, I don't have that much shame, I think. And so, if you don't have that, then you can't get swept up in hopefully... Like, I've got a healthy ego, don't get me wrong, but I try not to get swept up by it. And so, all of those things, I hope manifest themselves in some sort of… just me being this honest buffoon, who's been going around the book shops, Astrid, and just hugging people. Honestly, it's all gratitude.
It's like in the story of Boy Swallows Universe, it's really quite dark, and it's sort of the tears of a clown type thing. Maybe there's an aspect of that to it, to be honest. But it's like I go into these book shops, and I'm like, ‘You've got my book on your shelf. You are the most amazing human being, right now in my life’. And if that comes across, that is absolutely genuine, because it comes from the place of the housing commission days, in Bracken Ridge, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, and drug addiction, and prison, losing people I love, and being a kid, and just being so completely lacking faith that I would ever know happiness, to be honest.
The truth is really just coming out as you ask me this. I think it's a really wonderful question. And it's so true. It's like, ‘So what prompts that?’ Well, so everywhere I go, and everywhere I have been once I was over 20, and kind of... Okay so zero to 20 was pretty tough, or whatever it was. It was wonderful too, so don't get me wrong, but it was so wonderful, and so beautiful, but so dark sometimes, and uncertain. Everything was uncertain. Then I meet this girl, who I was married to, Fiona, when I'm 21, and life just got good, Astrid. It got real good. And so, to the point where even my wife says, ‘All right, just turn the enthusiasm down now. People are really ...’ and people go to her sometimes and go, ‘Is that guy for real? Is he always like that?’ And genuinely, she has to go, ‘Look he is…’, but of course, she knows the truth , that there's a real... like a dark ... Whatever you might call it. It's like a side that I get nervous about things, and anxious, and angry.
But the side that I guess, the book industry gets is just that buffoon who is so grateful. I hope this is vaguely answering your question about the where the truth of that lies, I came into that world being so lucky. I thought that book, Boy Swallows Universe was going to get read by Fiona, my mom, and my three elder brothers, Joel, Ben, and Jesse. Five people, that's all that had to read it, to be honest, because I was kind of writing it for myself, to process a lot of stuff, but then so many more people read it. And each person that read it, and said, ‘Hey, that's all right’, and, ‘I'm going to stock it in my book shop’. I was so grateful. And that just really came out. And so, it's a bit of a joke like, ‘Oh, look out. Here he comes’. I'm all handsy and just stop... I can't do that now obviously in pandemic times, but back through the early days of Boy Swallows Universe, I was pretty enthusiastic, Astrid. It was a bit of cyclone of joy that was sort of coming at your city, when Trent was coming.
ASTRID: Well, I'm in Melbourne, and I can't wait to experience that cyclone of joy when you're finally allowed to get here for All Our Shimmering Skies.
TRENT: Yeah, absolutely.
ASTRID: For those listening, I read both of Trent's works over the weekend and the last couple of days. I sat down and read both, back-to-back. I've had almost a thousand pages of Trent Dalton in the last couple of days.
TRENT: [Laughter] Poor you. Ah man, you're just stepping into this kind of warped head. I'm so grateful. That's amazing, Astrid.
ASTRID: I do this, because when I talk to a writer I want to know about your works. And I found that reading a writer's works in chronological order, all in one go – I'm no psychologist, but it's really quite an amazing thing to do, and to enjoy, and-
TRENT: Did you notice threads between the two?
ASTRID: Kind of.
TRENT: Did you notice things?
ASTRID: They're very different, but also... Well, I wanted to ask you – and this is a massively leading question – but what do you think your books are about?
TRENT: Ah, that's a great question. I've worked out what Boy Swallows Universe is about, because I've been talking about it for two years. I've worked that out, and I've got it. I've got the secret to it. Because I didn't know for about a year and a half. That book... and it's almost something you can't work out for yourself, a book that was so deep. I needed to process certain rocks that I was carrying around. Rocks of perhaps, you might call it... I don't know if it's fair to say trauma, because there's thousands upon thousands of people who… I can't justify that word trauma, but maybe just some sort of thing that I had to process in a genuine way that wasn't booze, or drugs, or hate.
And so, such a healthy thing I learned from journalism, for 20 years ...or, I'll add probably 18 years by the time I'd sat down, I was about 38 when I wrote Boy Swallows Universe. That moment in my journalism career, I'd go into these people's homes across Australia, and say, ‘Can I please just sit in your living room for three hours? And will you please tell me the deepest, darkest secrets of your life?’ And on my way home, I'm thinking about that person's life, that I've just heard and recorded on tape. And then I'd go back to the office and then I'd listen to that tape for another three hours. And I've heard that person's story twice now. And in the whole time, I'm just processing my own baggage through the prism of that person's own, private life. And that's an extremely cathartic and healthy process. I know it seems a bit bizarre, and a bit strange to do such a thing, but I found it really worthwhile.
And then the next step to that was, turning to my wife, Fiona on the couch, and like, ‘I think it's time I wrote about my life in the 1980s’. And it's sort of like, ‘Okay, well...’ Then I go down, and then you're terrified about what people are going to take from that. I was really concerned about people having a chop at the people I love who are the heroes of that book, essentially my Mum, my older brothers who I wedged into August Bell, and my old man, my dear, departed dad, Noel, who's basically Robert Bell in Boy Swallows Universe. So, you're terrified that people... Ah, and Fiona, my own wife, who is in the kitchen as we speak, who is Caitlyn Spies. So, they're all very... lots of things at risk, with the writing of Boy Swallows Universe.
But then, it goes out into the world, and you're so terrified, but then of course... and I've said this before, and forgive me if anyone's heard it before, but the great mistake I made was underestimating novel readers. So, I thought people would come at me and go, ‘How could you love someone who was a drug dealer?’ Or, ‘How could you care so deeply about criminals?’ Someone like Slim Halliday, who was a real person I knew, how could I possibly have fondness for and miss that guy? A longing for that guy, who I knew, just in flashes, as a boy, but was deeply, profoundly influential in my very early years on this planet. Anyway, so the great mistake is that I forgot that novel readers are so complex and they see in colours so much greater than black and white. They're so far beyond judgement and knee jerk reactions, they're an evolved species. And then it took all these people, like a 14-year-old boy in Korea. He sends me this letter, and he's like, ‘Thank you for showing me that my life is shit right now, but if I just be patient, it will get better’. And then a kid in Russia. I swear to god, Astrid, I'm not just dropping these names. This is where that book has gone. And again, ‘Thank you for showing me that the tough stuff is a universal experience. And the tough stuff doesn't have to be your destruction. It can be the making of you’.
And then a girl in Logan, ‘I go to just a high school, here in Brisbane, on the outskirts’, which in Logan is kind of, you might say probably socially where Bracken Ridge was in the 1980s. And that particular housing commissionaire of Bracken Ridge, that I'm writing about in that book. I go out there, and this girl, just direct messages me on Instagram, and she just says, ‘I was ten rows back, in that talk that you just gave to our class’. And this was a class filled with kids that were kind of on the knife edge, intentionally, directly talking to kids on the knife edge. Similar knife edge that Eli Bell is on when he really gets hit by a few real tough moments. And this girl just kind of crystallises what that bloody book is for me, because I didn't know. And she just says, ‘You've shown me that word hope’.
I know that sounds cheesy, saying that to you, Astrid, over this beautiful Zoom thing, but it's the truth. And I go, ‘Ah, okay. That's really cool’. So, that's what that book is about. That book is totally just about... To simplify it, whilst it's about a kid who gets all these crazy messages, it's about the way kids deal with trauma, and it's about the fact that love is the best thing we have. And if you have that one thing, love, you can almost get through anything. But ultimately, it's that universal thing of hope.
And so, then I go to sit down, and write All Our Shimmering Skies, I'm going, ‘All right, I'm going to write about anything but that. I'm going to just...’ Because you know, I'm going to just run from all of that. And I did, for a long time. This was well before perhaps I had this whole notion of gifts that fall from the sky, and all these wondrous things, that I tried to incorporate into that book. But then I had a moment, I just had this kind of, ‘Come on, stop kidding yourself. What are you here for?’ Like, what am I here for, Astrid, right? It's like, what do I know? Well, I know that stuff that happened to me in the 1980s and the 1990s. And what a coward, if I didn't just use those emotions. And why would I run from them? And I stopped, and I honestly just sort of ran back, and ran faster into them again, because I've got unfinished business. Just because I write a 400-page book called Boy Swallows Universe doesn't mean the rocks have left me. And I think that will always be there, and I don't have to look at them as curses. I can look at them as blessings, and go, ‘Well, here's my little...’ They don't have to be these dark things. They can be actually just useful tools, that I can maybe... Again, forgive my sounding cheesy, but maybe help some 14-year-old kid in Logan again. And I think that's a pretty worthy thing to do. It just puts the fire inside me, so that's what I did.
So, whilst it looks as though All Our Shimmering Skies is a story – and it is such a story about love, and it's a love story, and it's a love letter to this beautiful country of ours – it's still the same thing again. Find love, wherever you can get it. And that's all Eli Bell was doing, and I do believe that's what Molly Hook is doing. And it takes her the whole bloody book to find it.
ASTRID: And what a book it is. Trent, you have just given me a beautiful, beautiful answer to a question I don't think I even phrased very well.
TRENT: No, you did. It really prompted a lot of things, so I'm sorry I went so long.
ASTRID: No, please don't apologise. This is a podcast. We have no time limit.
ASTRID: In what you just said, you used a few words. You referred to rocks, you referred to curses, you referred to blessings, and all of those are so intrinsic to the story of All Our Shimmering Skies. We are not doing spoilers in this interview, but it really does fascinate me, that even as you come close to talking about this novel, you're starting to use the imagery and the stuff we find in it to describe it, and to bring it to audiences, which I think is really exciting. From my reading, over the weekend, of going deep into Trent Dalton, some of the similarities that I noticed – and a feel like I need more time to come up with a better list, So, this is just like a really preliminary obvious list.
TRENT: No, great.
ASTRID: You have child protagonists. You just mentioned Molly Hook. Molly Hook is young, she's about 12. And like Eli Bell, she goes on a journey or a quest. She's very much an adult in a child's body, who has the weight of the world on her shoulders, for very good reasons. There are older adults all around her, some of them aren't good adults, and some of them are beautiful, unflawed, and wondrous adults. And in every single page… You just used the word wondrous, and that's a better word than I was thinking of. I was thinking of mythic, but you have this wondrous, mythic…
TRENT: No, mythic will do! That's great. I love that word.
ASTRID: Mythic feel to it all, which is kind of expressed in a different way, than in Boy Swallows Universe, but they do have the same kind of... ‘How the fuck did Trent do this?’ Kind of thing. It's really good.
TRENT: Ah, cool.
ASTRID: It also explores what it's like to live in Australia and be in Australia, and of course this novel is in a very specific place and time. It is in the Northern Territory. We start in Darwin in 1942 as Darwin is about to be bombed as an act of war in World War II. So, before we go any further, and with no spoilers, what do you think of those similarities?
TRENT: Ah, and it's brilliantly identified. What is it with me? And she's absolutely the same age as Eli. Why? And I've tried to unpack that, and I'll tell you a moment that was very inspirational. My youngest daughter, who's just this wild... She's got Molly Hook's fire. And my eldest daughter has Molly Hook's soul. Molly Hook is such a product of those two girls of mine. And my youngest daughter came home from school, and it is Grandparent's Day. And there's a very interesting dynamic at Grandparent's Day at my school, when my mum, who's really Frankie Bell in Boy Swallows Universe, she turns up, and a few people at that school, just in local Brisbane school have read Boy Swallows Universe. And they know the backstory, and they're looking and they're like ‘It's Sylvie's grandma’, and they're going, ‘Ah, god. You know what she used to do in the 1980s?’ And it's really quite funny, I find. And mum and I laugh about it now and then.
But one day, this beautiful youngest daughter of mine comes home and she says, ‘Dad, I've heard all about Boy Swallows Universe’, because she hasn't read it. They know the whole, wild backstory, and the truth of all that stuff, but they're not quite ready, even though my eldest daughter is almost ready. My niece was 14 and she read it and said, ‘14-year-old girls can read this’. So, I thought, ‘All right, that's what I'll do’. But anyway, they're not there yet. But the youngest daughter came back and she said, ‘Dad, Boy Swallows Universe is about these two beautiful boys’. And I'm like, ‘Yeah, it is, darling’. And she's like, ‘But you're a dad of two girls. Why the hell didn't you write a book about two girls?’ And I went, ‘That's a very good point, and fair enough’. Because maybe I resisted writing about brave, young women, but why would I do that? Because that is the topic, that is absolutely on the top of my pile. It's absolutely the thing that is on the top of my mind, is those girls going through the journey of their life, and those two girls coming of age. I go, well, hang on. I do know about that. I've been studying that closer than anything. I'm obsessed with those two human beings. I could maybe throw some of that into this character, but still why then pile all these obstacles, and sometimes, at the beginning, horrors for poor Molly? And then that is just again, me just processing that stuff. And why is Aubrey so hard, and why is Horace so hard? Aubrey, her uncle, I mean, and Horace, her father. Why do those kitchens look like that? And why do those liquor bottles look like that? Well, they're the kitchens I knew. That's just the stuff I know. It's the Australia that I know, and I'm getting back to the same thing I was writing about in Boy Swallows Universe.
And it's so through All Our Shimmering Skies, this is the most beautiful place on Earth. It is literally a magical landscape we live on, and it so like a dream. You step out, into any of those rainforests across Australia, it is a dream. You can't comprehend it sometimes. If you were really to stop in any corner of any walking path on any rainforest in Australia, you'd lose your mind if you really thought deeply about it. And that's what Molly Hook is doing, and of course that's what one of her particular companions does, big time. But what I'm trying to get at is, among that, and just the same with Queensland, in sunny Queensland, beautiful one day, perfect the next, and all that. Well, Eli showed a side of Queensland that we don't see, which is what happens after midnight, and what happens behind closed doors. So, I just can't get away from that. I've walked in too many suburbs as a journo and knocked on doors and walked into hallways and seen too much stuff that is just so vile, and so horrendous. The true, darker sort of stuff. So, I can't shy away from that, and I really hate putting Molly through those things. But, I do it because I do feel there's a power in going as dark as you can, because it makes the light shine that much brighter. And it's that great Hemingway thought that, ‘The sun also rises’, but it's this kind of thing where a guy like him, and like all these sort of people who... I don't know, you name it, amazing, troubled authors, or whatever, they know the darkness, so they can write about the light with such clarity. I find that really powerful.
ASTRID: Molly starts in a horrendous place, in a broken and failing family. But you also set this in 1942, meaning she was born in 1930ish. Why go back in time? This is not the 1980s. This is Darwin in World War II.
TRENT: Well, that's such a great question. That is such a great question. I've always loved Darwin. Darwin was the first place I ever... I hadn't been in a plane until I was 21 years old, and that's because of all the Boy Swallows Universe stuff, but when I did, I had a job on this little magazine called Brisbane News. Melbourne used to have a mag, I think one of those free, glossy, colour, weeklies, that would come into your letterbox. My first job was this really great job, and I got sent to do a story in Darwin, and the place just blew my mind. It was a place that operates on all five senses, and then a sixth unknown one. And that's the unknown one that is genuinely closer to the soul and things we can't describe and can't explain. And that was very inspirational to me. And on that trip, because it was part of the story I was doing, I started to sort of dig into World War II Australia, particularly Darwin's role in it. And that always fascinated me, but there's a story ...
And us journos are Bowerbirds sometimes. You should see my desk, Astrid, it's horrendous. My actual work desk, it's covered in story ideas, but it's clippings, and just cut outs that are now just yellowed and grey, and you'd get some sort of lung disease, if you got too close to these piles. Inside that... and I have found it recently, it was just a whole bunch of papers that I'd researched on this man named Hajime Toyoshima. Now Hajime Toyoshima was a real-life Japanese fighter pilot, and during the bombing of Darwin, February 19 1942, what I believe is pretty much the most dramatic moment in modern Australian history, just an intensely dramatic time, Hajime, his plane gets hit by ground fire from the Aussie diggers, and his plane crash lands on Melville Island, which is Australian soil near the Tiwi Islands. He hops out of that crashed plane, he's hit his head on the flat controls, and he's groggy, he's injured. He's got a pistol in his right hand, and he's walking through that landscape of Australia.
I just could not help but think, for many years now... I was just originally going to write that into a piece of journalism, but I just thought it's too good to not just give to a novel and just to let rip and let that story really breathe. And I thought, ‘What was that guy thinking about this land, about where he'd landed’" That was the thing, the real kernel, that I said, ‘All right, that's why I went to the past’. As dramatic as the bombing of Darwin was, and as much as I love Darwin as a place... and it's so raw, and it's so wild, and it's such a frontier town. It's such a wild west town, set on the northern tip of a wild continent already, so there's so much great fodder there, but really it was, ‘What if another Japanese fighter pilot landed on Australia, that we didn't know about? And what if his name was this beautiful guy, named Yukio, and what if he was flying away? And what if he had his own rocks, that he's carrying around too? And the things he had to sort out, and what if he did hop out of a crashed aeroplane, and basically land in this amazing country?’ It wouldn't be too hard to convince yourself that you've landed in heaven.
And I thought that was a nice little thought, and what if that guy ran into a 12-year-old girl, like Molly Hook? Then even an early 30s woman, like Greta Mays, this cantankerous, hard-drinking, chain smoking girl that Molly kind of worships. And those three people walking through that wilderness just was too irresistible to me. I just thought, ‘Oh, hang on. This is kind of a yellow brick road adventure, where I just want to get on, and see where these people go, and see what awaits them at the end’. All of that, and the majesty of World War II and just the time. I've always loved World War II. As a topic to investigate, it's... love is probably not the right word, but I just have found it fascinating.
And I kind of just wanted to get away from myself a bit too, and the 1980s, maybe. I think I probably did unconsciously, because the funny thing is, Astrid, everyone was going to me, ‘Man, you just got to write the sequel to Boy Swallows Universe. And then, you've got to write a third one. You just keep on going’. I remember my great friend, Matt, he just goes, ‘Man, you need to totally just ... really this is your world’. And it is, but I so resisted that, and I needed to write this book, to now get me excited again, about the world of Boy Swallows Universe, funnily enough. I don't know if that's weird, but it's really funny that I needed to go back in time to bring myself maybe back to the world of Boy Swallows Universe.
ASTRID: Okay, there is so much in there for me to unpack. And we're going to come back to what you just said about Boy Swallows Universe, because that hints that there might be a sequel. But before we get there, I want to go back.
You just mentioned the yellow brick road, and there's a silver road for want of a better explanation, that these characters do follow, in your latest work. And you have Molly, who we have been discussing. You have Yukio, who you've just introduced, the Japanese fighter pilot who finds himself crash landed in Northern Australia. Greta, who is a 30 something year old woman, but she was born in Germany, we find out briefly. And obviously, being born in Germany, in the middle of World War II, is certainly something that is relevant to the symbolism, around the place. And these three characters, kind of in the middle of nowhere from a city point of view... They're not in Darwin anymore, shall we say. They meet Longcoat Bob, and he is an Indigenous elder. And you don't normally see these kind of characters on the page together, interacting and having their stories told so respectfully. And I'm not quite sure how I'm going to phrase my next question, Trent, so bear with me. But, you're a journalist, and you've told many people stories, but how did you come to find the voice of Yukio, and the voice of Longcoat Bob, and speak across cultures and across time, and do it so delicately?
TRENT: Ah, Astrid, thank you so much for putting it like that. It's something obviously, I really treaded so lightly and respectfully through that. A few things really, really helped me. It was just a few moments. So, I had this idea... this sort of concept of these gifts that fall from the sky. And it probably was the story of Hajime, and if I... Okay, he drops from the sky. Literally, what if he felt like he was a gift that fell from the sky? And what if there were more? What if there were more gifts for a kid like Molly? She's a kid enraptured with the sky, and then this kind of strange ... I started working on what gifts, and the first gift is a map. The first gift was a map, and then the second gift was a friend, the third gift is a miracle, and the fourth gift is your end. And so, I kept on saying this kind of weird mantra to myself, and I formulated a bit of a story.
And life, as it happens just... I feel the universe bullies me a bit, and just pushes me to places I don't realise I need to go. And through my day job, just as Boy Swallows Universe was growing some legs, and it was kicking around, I was talking a lot about it, and I was going too deep into my head and stuff. I was on, really an emotional rollercoaster, and journalism is so good to bring you back down to earth. Like literally, go into a story where... and I did this. I went and knocked on a bunch of houses in the one street in Brisbane, and said, ‘Can I please tell the story of all your lives, and see if the matrix of your lives ever interacts together? And we can write these stories about just seemingly ordinary Australians, and really unpack them in a really dramatic way, and hopefully make that interesting?’ And it's really humbling to turn up at a suburban door, and have someone tell you to F off. And it's like, they don't care about your stupid book, about Bracken Ridge or whatever.
So, that was really healthy. And then you get sent on a yarn at the Flinders Rangers in South Australia. And I'm walking atop these tabletops in South Australia, literally walking among wedge-tailed eagles. You're up that high. We heli-hiked on there, so that was profound. Two months later, I'm in a swag and I'm sleeping under the stars at Uluru and next to me is a dingo. And there's a fence, where I'm sleeping in the open air, And there's a fence, and beyond that fence, I can hear these dingoes, rustling in the bushes. And then, pretty much the most profound one, I got sent up north to this place called Groote Eylandt.
Groote Eylandt is on the edge of Arnhem Land, and up there is this incredible group of people, called the MJD Foundation, the Machado Joseph Disease Foundation, who are working with the Indigenous locals on that island, many of whom, are affected by this disease called MJD, which is this really horrendous, neurodegenerative disease. It affects your body and your ability to function, leaves your brain intact to really soak up the tragedy of your own situation. And on that island I met this guy named, Steve Bakala Wurramara, and he is the most charismatic, interesting dude, who just took me into the bushes, and we got pretty... we were just quiet, and it was just... the wind was blowing through the trees, and the sand was beneath our toes. And he started telling me about how he's... He basically was taught some bush... He called it magic. I use these words... it's not my place to use these words, but these are his words. And he said, ‘There's magic in these bushes’. And he started telling me about how he's using the magic knowledge of the land, and medicines, literally medicines and stuff, that he finds on his homeland. That he's working with Sydney scientists to perhaps cure the MJD, that is slowly destroying him. That's profound.
And then that afternoon, I’d finished all my notes, and I'm about to go to bed for the evening. I have dinner, and I'm having a beer, on this beach at Groote Eylandt, and I'm looking up to the sky, and I'm like just... I'm not a mystic type or anything, Astrid. Please don't get me wrong when I start talking like this, but I'm just saying, I just looked up, the sky was so beautiful. And that's what this Northern Territory does to you, it makes you think deeply. And I looked up, and I started going in my head, I'm just going, ‘Hey, dad’. My dad is dead, and I miss that guy so much, and I'm like, ‘Hey, dad. Can you see this? Did you see what happened? I wrote that story about us, dad’. My dad, Astrid, he's almost a big a reader of books as you, and you guys who do these podcasts. And he would just love so much to sit and hear you talk about stories, and hear me talking to you about stories. But he didn't get to see the whole Boy Swallows Universe journey, but I'm just going up there like, ‘Hey, I hope you can see this, because it's really cool, dad. And I feel like a dream came true for me, dad’. He gave me that dream, he was the guy who said, ‘Read, you idiot, the one thing you can do. Please don't be the smart arse, douche bag, who you are right now, because you can possibly take this thing, which is your ability to get okay marks with English and turn it into something’.
And so I’m building that story, and then I got thinking about everybody's interactions with the sky. We all have those beautiful, private conversations, and that's a really powerful thing. I keep saying this thing to myself, that no one says a trivial word to the sky. The sky gets all the important stuff. You're either saying, ‘Please help me’, you're either saying, ‘Thank you’" or you're saying to someone you've lost, ‘I love you’. Some beautiful things get said to the sky, and that was a really powerful thing. What if this Molly is looking for direction, from kind of one of the only friends she's got? She's got a really good friend, which is a shovel, and she's got the sky, and she's got her beautiful friend, Sam Greenway, who's this amazing, Indigenous buffalo hunter.
And then, what Molly does is...
I approached all that stuff, that you're talking about. How do you come to these sensitive areas, like who am I to write about a guy like Yukio, or someone like Longcoat Bob? I try to approach it the way I have done, approaching Indigenous issues as a journalist, which is... And Molly goes there, the same way I do in those stories, which is, I can only speak from a wide perspective of someone brushing up, against the awe of 60,000 years of incredible culture. So, if I can see that through Molly's eyes, and just ask questions, and just keep asking questions... because that's all I ever do as a journo. Because I don't know, man, I'm a dumb, suburban, white Brisbane dude, who just wants to go and learn more. And I love that that's how Molly approaches it.
And there's so much more that someone else could have gone into about the character of Longcoat Bob. And so, Longcoat Bob is essentially this mystery figure that she keeps hearing about in the streets of Darwin, and people are whispering about this guy. But what I wanted to do also was just subvert everything we might have heard about that stuff, and have Longcoat Bob, and have these characters, Yukio, and Sam Greenway… At every turn they undermine the stereotype, and I really wanted to make sure that we do that. Because that was the case in the 1940s, just like it's the case in 2020. We can't have these black and white viewpoints. And at every turn, the assumptions that even the whites in that community in that book are making about Longcoat Bob are incorrect. They often get proven wrong. And the things that Molly has turned into myth – it's so wonderful when these characters come up and give her the truth and the realities, and the practicalities. And so, that was how I tried to just tread really delicately. But here's the key thing, and this is why I'm telling you this long-winded answer. Well, then this other massive moment happened, so I'm starting to have this story. So, I've got the gifts, and I've got this Molly Hook, and I've got the shovel, and the kid, but she's been raised in a graveyard, because I'm just into that stuff. And then, I go, ‘But you know what? I need to know where she goes’.
There's this place south of Darwin called Litchfield National Park. I first went there on that trip I'm telling you about, when I first hopped in a plane, and I've been back there three times in my adult life. This Litchfield National Park is basically, I think, Australia's greatest secret, as far as the landscape, because it is the most magical place I've ever walked into. And it's just teeming with the most wondrous waterfalls, and teeming with trees that just go on forever, and creeks that are just of water colour you wouldn't believe, there's crocodiles in the water, and there's all sorts of crazy things going on in that place. And there's a lost city of stone structures, that look to my eyes, like dangerous men turned to stone. And a dreamer guy like me, could look at a place like that and see so many interesting things.
Anyway, so I'm in Brisbane, I'm fashioning that story, and then I just decide, all right, I've got to go back to Litchfield. And I call up this amazing woman, named Tess Atie. She runs Indigenous cultural tours through Litchfield National Park. I just got on the phone. I said, ‘Tess, can I just tell you a story that I want to write?’ And I just told her the entire narrative, like a bit of a bone structure. ‘So there's this kid, Molly, and she's growing up on this graveyard. Her life is so bad, Tess, that she's come to believe she's cursed. Her life is so rough that she's started to think that it's her fault, that the bombs are dropping on Darwin. And at some point, she decides she needs to go deep into the wilderness. A wilderness, not dissimilar to Litchfield National Park… But I want her to see things that could change her faith, and see things that are magical and wondrous’.
And Tess was so beautiful, and I started saying things like, ‘She looks at the sky, and talks to the sky’. And Tess was so cool, because she didn't laugh that out of the room. She didn't laugh at me like I'm an idiot. It almost gave her sort of like... like, ‘Fair enough. We all do that’. It was really cool, and she gave me such confidence, Tess did. And then she just goes, ‘All right, come on up, and I'll show you where Molly goes’. And so that prompted this amazing journey. And then Tess, and her partner, Gregg, and I, just walked through this thing. And all the way, we're just talking about this girl. She was so helpful, and so beautiful, but also just so practical, and gave me such great insight into, ‘Just remember, a human is a human, is a human’. And we all have different character traits, and character flaws, and character blessings. And if you can just elevate these people to just human, and strip away wherever they came from, then they can be just four characters out there, who find themselves.
And I thought, okay, if I can do that, then I may be able to get away with writing about these characters that are... Yeah, it's tricky stuff, writing about that stuff, but I just thought, write with respect, and awe, and I might just get through, and not just do it in the wrong way, or do it for the wrong reasons.
ASTRID: In the acknowledgments, you thank Tess and Steve for what they taught you and what they showed you. And I guess, as a reader, the thing that I found different about how you portrayed the Northern Territory, and the journey that all of the characters go on – their internal, emotional journey, but also their physical journey through the environment and the land – is that it's not like anything else I've read about the outback in Australia. Not just that there are waterfalls and freshwater crocodiles and everything, but that there is no fear. There is a respect from the characters about the landscape. We're not getting the stupid old stockmen with sheep, we're not getting the boring, harsh vastness of the Australian desert where it kills people. All these things, that we've all seen a thousand times in movies and books. It's different, and it's real, because the landscape is real, but it just feels like a different part of Australia, you are reminding me, that is there. And that there are stories and 60,000 years of different history, and occasionally in the last couple of hundred a white person has wandered in, and this might have happened on one of those times. No, it was just a very different thing that I'm not used to reading in Australian literature.
TRENT: Man, Astrid, I cannot thank you enough for seeing it that way. That's exactly my intention. I was inspired by lightening, and I was inspired by Shakespeare's The Tempest as much as the Australian outback, and I wanted to bring Midsummer Night's Dream.
TRENT: I wanted to bring dreams to that landscape, and I'm so glad you say that... and colour, because it is... You go through that landscape, it's so different from the centre of Australia, let alone the south Australian deserts, which are incredible in themselves, and so wondrous. But I just thought, ‘Hang on, here's a chance where you can really have...’ It's treacherous, it's wondrous, it's magical, it's vivid, and it's purple, pink, vibrant green, it's as deep a colour blue, as you can ever imagine. It's the emerald marbling of a crocodile's skin. It's the crazy patterns on a spider's shell. All of those amazing things. And it's the underside of a praying mantis. So, you imagine an outsider such as Yukio, going and stopping... and Molly loves the way that Yukio is looking... It's just something I just love doing anyway. I like, sometimes walking through anywhere new, as if you're a Martian, and just going, and going like, ‘Okay, if you haven't seen rhinoceros beetle. If you've never seen a rhinoceros beetle...’ I'm 4,and I turn up and this rhinoceros beetle comes crawling past, man, come on, that's science fiction. And that's how Molly Hook, when she goes into this deep country, that's how she's looking at this country of ours. And I love that, so hang on let's just go...
And I have amped it up. I've taken it to 11, and it's kind of like... but it needs to sometimes. And if you're in dramatic circumstances, and if you're a kid, and you've been through trauma, you might just see that world in that dreamlike way that is right through All Our Shimmering Skies. And suddenly, a road filled with mica, genuine stuff, like ground mica, that suddenly becomes a magical, silver road. Everything in that book is justified on a natural landscape level, but what if you could then start seeing, ‘Ah, the trees are bleeding’. Well, yeah, there are blood trees out in the Australian outback, but man, if you're 12 years old, to you they're going to be bleeding. And so, I love all that sort of stuff seeing it through Molly's eyes.
But I love that you see the colour too. Because it was, I wanted to have this story that feels like technicolour, like you're in black and white, and the whole book switches to technicolour. It's like you're in that harsh, Darwin, Mad Max, kind of wild west, kind of frontier country, and then it switches to, yeah you're in Oz. And I'm so glad you say that, that it wasn't just the red dirt. There's a bit of red dirt, and red dirt is so iconic to us all, but it's like, Australia is so much more than that.
ASTRID: I also really enjoyed the fact that you had a 12-year-old Molly Hook, who is the daughter of a gravedigger who is walking around quoting Hamlet, and I just think that's hilarious, as well.
TRENT: I know, some people have that thing where... Like with Boy Swallows Universe too, it's like, ‘Gee, that 12-year-old boy has some real deep, philosophical thoughts’. And I'm like, ‘Well, let's just consider these kids well read’. They're just well read, that's all. And that's all Molly is. She loves reading, that kid. And her mum told her to, so it's like why not? That was the crazy thing is that I wrote that book with the complete works of Shakespeare right ... I rested by elbow on that bloody thing. You can open up that stuff. And as Molly went through that journey, it was so strange, but you'd open up another play and another piece that he did, that guy, and it would apply. It's so applicable, his stuff, at any moment. It begins with him, I guess.
ASTRID: The Bard is never going to go out of fashion. A little while ago, you recounted a real-life story, you looked up at the stars, you looked up at the sky, and you spoke to your father. And that is, of course something that Molly does. Throughout this book she is looking up at the sky and she is talking to her mother who has passed away. And we know that from very early in the novel, that's not a spoiler. But that brings us back to… You started writing your story, and your father's story in Boy Swallows Universe. And a little while ago you alluded to going back into that world. Is there going to be a sequel?
TRENT: Hey, I think maybe... You will hear it here first, Astrid, yeah. I'm pretty well dead set into the idea. And I wasn't even going to go there, but there's things that I would love to comment on about the past – you can leave the past, but the past never leaves you. And I'm really interested in August and how August is going to grow up. I think we know that... I don't want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn't read Boy Swallows Universe, but I hope Eli is going to be okay. Eli has found true love, in the strangest way.
I'm not going to try and draw from my own family experience again, but let me tell you, the most wondrous things have happened from that book, and one of the best things is sitting on my back-deck drinking Cointreau with my mum. I wrote that book... And there were real life characters in it that were real life people from our life, like Slim Halliday, this escape convict who murdered a guy. And I don't take that lightly, but it's so surreal when I say that out loud. I knew him as an old man, and my mum knew him far better than me. We'd be out on my back deck, talking and she goes, ‘You know, it's amazing the way you wrote Slim, because you nailed it. It's like it's him. It's him’. And I didn't even talk to mum that much, about that. I didn't even talk to mum at all when I was writing that thing. But what that book has prompted is this amazing catharsis for mum, just really unpacking things. And man, Astrid, she tells me things that... like what I put in that book is five per cent of what that woman's been through. And I'm not saying I would draw from all of that again, but I think there's a great story to be told about some sort of parallel between August and Frankie Bell. And I think there's a really beautiful story in there somewhere, that I'd really love to unpack... Not even somewhere, I know where it's going to go, and it's the magic that those two share. And because I genuinely believe my beautiful mum is in possession of something magical, that I can't comprehend, because I wouldn't have the strength to do the things she's done and get through the things she has, and that has to be more than just something of blood and bone. There has to be something more to that. And it's something I maybe suspect is along the lines of some of the stuff that August Bell possesses. And I'm pretty excited about exploring that. And there's that world in the 1990s, so Boy Swallows Universe is 1980s and I think there's something cool about revisiting that world for the 1990s, because that's just as vivid, for me, as the eighties was.
ASTRID: Trent, that is... I don't even have a word. I can't think of the right adjective. That is amazingly, beautiful news. I can see your face, and I'm very, very excited about this. I suspected the whole reading public is going to be very excited about this.
TRENT: That's cool. That's so cool.
ASTRID: I’m very excited about this, but can I also say, it has been such a pleasure to talk to you today, Trent. It is uncommon, shall I say, to get to have such a wonderful, lovely conversation with a 41-year-old Australian male, who can use words like awe and wonder and myth. It's just fucking fantastic, thank you so much, Trent.
TRENT: You're the best. It's an absolute pleasure. You have made my day, completely, and you're the best, Astrid. It's such an honour. And thank you for just knowing a lot of stuff, deeply. But you know stuff, you know stuff, so it's really cool to talk to you. Your questions are amazing, so thank you. And sorry about the rambles…
ASTRID: Hey, look. We are a podcast, it doesn't matter.
TRENT: Thanks Astrid.