Trent Dalton draws on own trauma in new novel Lola in the Mirror, which highlights Brisbane homelessness – ABC News

Trent Dalton draws on own trauma in new novel Lola in the Mirror, which highlights Brisbane homelessness
Today, he's an award-winning journalist and bestselling novelist.
But growing up in Ipswich in the early 80s, with his mum and step-father both jailed for drug dealing at various times, Trent Dalton's future was far less assured.
Dalton and his three older brothers eventually went to live with their father in public housing on Brisbane's outer fringe.
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​​"That house that Dad was raising us in was a housing commission home that he was able to rent for less than $100 [a week]," Dalton tells ABC Nightlife.
"If it was 2023 and Noel Dalton was raising his four sons, I don't think we'd get that house, and I don't know what we'd do … More than likely, we'd be sleeping in the back of Dad's Toyota HiAce Van."
At 44, Dalton says his upbringing is "as raw as if it happened yesterday".
And he's not afraid to delve into his trauma in his novels, which are taking the world by storm.
Dalton rose to acclaim in 2018 with the publication of Boy Swallows Universe, a rollicking coming-of-age yarn based on his childhood.
The novel became Australia's fastest-selling debut, making the Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist and winning a record four awards at the 2019 Australian Book Industry Awards.
It has since been adapted for the stage, and an eight-part Netflix series, directed by Joel Edgerton and starring an ensemble cast, is set to drop in 2023.
Dalton followed his smash-hit debut with All Our Shimmering Skies (2020) and the non-fiction collection Love Stories (2021), sentimental short stories sourced from passers-by on Queen Street in Brisbane's CBD.
His latest novel, Lola in the Mirror (HarperCollins), tells the story of a mother and daughter on the run from a violent past.
It's a sweeping love story infused with magical realism that bears many similarities to his earlier work: corrupt police officers, a Machiavellian suburban drug dealer, a muggy Brisbane setting and a redemptive narrative arc.
Like his semi-autobiographical debut, Lola in the Mirror draws from real life — particularly his time covering homelessness as a social affairs reporter for The Courier Mail newspaper.
"I can only write from personal places that have a grain of truth inside them," Dalton tells ABC RN's The Book Show.
"I only realised that by writing my first book, Boy Swallows Universe."
In Lola in the Mirror, Dalton describes domestic violence as the "Tyrannosaurus Waltz" — "the dance of mothers and their monsters".
It's a macabre dance Dalton recalls from his own childhood.
There were times when his mother had to choose between homelessness and "the monster" — a terrible choice faced by many women in Australia, for whom domestic and family violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness.
In Lola in the Mirror, the mother-daughter duo find refuge with a group of fellow "floaters" who live in a riverside scrap yard and sleep in its broken-down cars.
Dalton based many of the characters in the book on people he met at a homeless shelter while working as a reporter.
He says the job taught him that "drugs and drink aren't the things that put people on the street; it's often moments of trauma".
He wishes homelessness gained more attention from policy makers.
In Brisbane, a city gearing up to host the 2032 Olympic Games, the housing crisis is particularly acute, with tent cities cropping up in places like Musgrave Park in the city's south.
"There's absolutely nowhere for them to go … There's a two-year waitlist for almost anyone for public housing at least.
"It's a brutal time," Dalton says.
"I can't see a more urgent problem than a mum in a car doing Mathletics with her 10-year-old daughter because they can't go home."
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The eponymous mirror in Lola in the Mirror is also deeply personal for Dalton.
As a boy, he would look into an old mirror in his bedroom and see different versions of the man he might become: a five-eighth for the Brisbane Broncos, a film director or a writer.
"But then life kicked in," he says.
As he got older, and drinking, drugs and domestic violence surrounded him daily, Dalton saw a different version of his future self — one he didn't like.
He began avoiding looking at his reflection altogether.
It was only later that he became more comfortable with it.
"I only really started liking what I saw in the mirror again in my early 20s when I met the woman, Fiona, who I later married," says Dalton. The pair now has two teenage daughters.
When the protagonist of Dalton's latest book — who remains nameless until the final pages — looks in the mirror, she sees Lola, a cultured and cosmopolitan woman who represents a future of possibility.
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Dalton says he wanted to show that "you are not defined by the names the world gives you".
"You are not defined by your past; you are not defined by your blood or DNA or the things you carry inside you," he says.
Some critics accuse Dalton, whose novels tend to wrap up with a satisfying conclusion, of trivialising homelessness and overlooking the systemic nature of disadvantage.
However, Dalton is an unashamed believer in happy endings.
For him, that's the power of writing: "turning misery … into something moving and magical".
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