Trent Dalton on ‘Lola in the Mirror’

Article | Issue: Oct 2023

TRENT DALTON is the award-winning author of Australia’s favourite bestsellers Boy Swallows Universe, Love Stories and All Our Shimmering Skies. Good Reading caught up with Trent to talk about his latest book, Lola in the Mirror.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

Lola in he Mirror by rent Dalton‘Mirror, mirror, on the grass, what’s my future? What’s my past?’

A girl and her mother have been on the run for sixteen years, from police and the monster they left in their kitchen with a knife in his throat. They’ve found themselves a home inside a van with four flat tyres parked in a scrapyard by the edge of the Brisbane River.

The girl has no name because names are dangerous when you’re on the run. But the girl has a dream. A vision of a life as an artist of international acclaim. A life outside the grip of the Brisbane underworld drug queen ‘Lady’ Flora Box. A life of love with the boy who’s waiting for her on the bridge that stretches across a flooding, deadly river. A life beyond the bullet that has her name on it. And now that the storm clouds are rising, there’s only one person who can help make her dreams come true. That person is Lola and she carries all the answers. But to find Lola, the girl with no name must first do one of the hardest things we can ever do. She must look in the mirror.

From international bestselling author Trent Dalton, Lola in the Mirror is a big, moving, blackly funny, violent, heartbreaking and beautiful novel of love, fate, life and death and all the things we see when we look in the mirror: all our past, all our present, and all our possible futures.

 

Q&A WITH TRENT DALTON

 

How did the idea for Lola in the Mirror develop?

It started with a moment of discovery that takes place in the middle of the book. A young thief transfixed by an image she sees in the bedroom she is robbing. This moment – the seed moment for a meeting between two lovers – was something I had never read before or seen or heard and I got very excited about it. It gave me the chills down my spine that I’m always searching for before I embark on the long and twisting highway walk that is the writing of a novel.

I kinda moved narratively backwards and forwards from that one beautiful moment. Then, at the same time, I wanted to say something important about the world I’m living in.

Brisbane, Queensland, Australia in 2023. My wondrous home city in the time of a national housing emergency where 40,000 Queensland women remain at-risk of homelessness as my city prepares for its great moment in the international spotlight: the 2032 Olympics.

But how do you write about the hard things that really matter in a way that someone might want to read them? Well, I turned to my heroes. Dickens. Steinbeck. Shakespeare. Writers who so beautifully captured the social worlds around them and filled their stories with crime and mystery and drama and villains and fate and action and love and they made us never want to leave their literary worlds.

 


In what ways did your work in journalism help shape your novel?

Fifteen years ago, someone very dear to me found themselves homeless on the streets of Sydney. I reacted to this in the same way I always process the difficult moments of my life. I wrote about it. I started writing journalism pieces about national homelessness. I was trying to figure out how it was that 120,000 people sleep rough each night in one of the brightest, luckiest countries in the world.

This exploration started out with a first-person 4000-word warts-and-all magazine feature piece in which I lived homeless for a week. No home. No bed. No ID. No me. The piece saw me sleeping in Brisbane’s botanic gardens and begging for small change outside the Tiffany’s jewellery store in the Queen Street Mall. I was shit-scared and sleepless and humbled the whole time but, ultimately,

I knew the experiment was flawed and false because I knew I had the one thing that so many of the people I met on the street didn’t seem to have: somebody to love and somebody to love them back. I had a wife and two very small daughters in a three-bedroom house in Darra, Brisbane, and I could return to that house the moment sleeping rough got, well, a little too rough.

Flawed as it was, one good thing that came out of that experiment was the fact I discovered Third Space, the Fortitude Valley drop-in centre where I went each day to eat and rest and read on the public day beds. The then-manager of Third Space, Rod Kelly, later allowed me to journalistically document the operations of the club for a full year, a study that culminated in a book I wrote called Detours: Stories From The Street. The book was a collection of 30 non-fiction short stories where I detailed the life-changing moments in time that set 30 different people on the path to homelessness. Drugs and drink will keep you on the street.

Contrary to popular belief, drugs and drink will not always put you on the street. Every person featured in the Detours book was beset by a single moment in time – a detour – that put them on the road to homelessness. A family tragedy. A shocking act of abuse. Abandonment. A moment of desperation that detoured to crime. An accident, a glitch in the universe, a sliver of rotten luck.

Cold hard fact: every single one of us, in every corner of the world, are but three steps – or just one long detour – from the gutter. Detours hardly set the literary world on fire, but what money we made from book sales went straight into the pockets of the 30 people featured in its pages.

Warm cosy fact, by way of Oscar Wilde: we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. At the book’s launch, one of the book’s key subjects – an incredibly optimistic and indefatigable woman named Mary Cumming – asked me what I was going to write about next and I said I wasn’t sure and I asked her what she thought I should write about next. ‘Love,’ she said. She was sick of reading about all that sad stuff on the street and she said I should start writing about all the good stuff hidden in all those cracks across the city. The hope. The community. The love. She didn’t understand why I didn’t write about all the love that’s out there.

And then I said something like: ‘Well, I didn’t really see much out there, Mary.’ And she said something like: ‘You just didn’t know where to look.’

A few months later, I asked 30 more strangers in Third Space to sit down in the shelter’s activities room and tell me a love story. Any story at all, as long as it somehow featured love. We filmed these love stories as they were being told, shot them in black and white – all cool and grainy like a Spike Lee film – and then we sent these short films off to Brisbane’s electrifying contemporary music ensemble, Topology, who wrote original contemporary music pieces inspired by the love stories told by the Third Space regulars.

These pieces were then performed as live soundtracks to the short films which were screened at a series of multimedia events across the country, again raising money for the Third Space shelter. So many of the people in these journalistic projects inspired the characters who populate the world of Lola in the Mirror, an unashamed love story inspired by the words of Mary all those years ago.

 

How did the process of writing this book compare to that of your previous novels?

First thing I did was walk the very streets the characters walk in Lola in the Mirror. I took 300 photographs of very real cracks in footpaths, murals on walls, graffiti, industrial sites, homeless shelters, tents, trolleys, barbecues, trees, river edges. Endless snapshots of life. Then I printed all these photographs out at Officeworks and then I stuck them to the wall of my downstairs writing room. I brought the world of out there into the world in here. So that’s my writing space. Then the routine starts.

Drop the kids at school, go for a run, then fix a boiled egg and slice it up over one slice of avocado toast and make a strong coffee. Invariably I start my writing day with thoughts of what would have happened to me had I not met my wife, Fiona. That is a nightmare scenario because I know I would be a drunk eating nothing but Red Rooster chips and that usually acts as a heart-starter moment of literary electricity that sets me up to write solidly from 9am to 3pm, stopping halfway to eat a can of John West tuna while doom-scrolling. Repeat daily for roughly six months and you might look up one day and realise you have yourself a book.

Love. It’s the place where you are able to love and be loved in return. It’s any place where you feel safe enough to dream.

 

You explore issues surrounding homelessness, addiction and domestic violence – what messages do you hope to convey from addressing these issues?

The scourge of domestic violence must be of primary concern to every citizen of Australia. It is inherently tied to the rising numbers of women sleeping homeless in Australia this very night. We have neglected the issue for too long and it is a major contributing factor to the homelessness numbers we are confronting today. Meanwhile, our national lack of public housing is an open societal wound that has been left to bleed by multiple governments.

Homelessness advocates will tell you, however, that the solutions are more doable than we think. Build more houses, right now. Then put systems in place to support the transition of the chronically homeless from the unpredictable and deeply destabilising street into the steadiness and safety of permanent housing. Easier said than done. But how do we get all these homes built? Through compassion and cold hard cash. Compassionate capitalism.

Your novel follows a mother and daughter who have been on the run for 16 years. Despite being homeless, your young protagonist at one-point states ‘I ain’t homeless, I’m just houseless’ – what does home mean to you?

Love. It’s the place where you are able to love and be loved in return. It’s any place where you feel safe enough to dream. A roof isn’t always needed for that, but it helps. Home is a place safe enough to see the version of yourself that you want to see in the mirror. Four walls aren’t always needed for that, but walls certainly help.

I’m talking about a place where you can start to see the best present version of yourself as well as the best possible future version. This is the tragedy of seeing so many homeless Australian kids out there, as many as 19,000 children experienced homelessness on the last Census night. The hero at the heart of Lola in the Mirror may not have a house, but she has a home that she has found within a homeless community. A scrapyard filled with a kind of family she has fallen into. In that rough old scrapyard she has found a kind of sanctuary in which she can dream up the best possible version of herself.

Safe enough to imagine. Safe enough to dream. Safe enough to become anything she wants to be. Every kid deserves a place like that.

 

You write from the perspective of a 17-year-old protagonist – how did you go about developing her voice?

Work from the inside out. You want to understand the country of Australia, work from the inside out. Start from Uluru and then move through the deserts and then through the farming hills and then, lastly, the big sparkly cities on the coastlines. You want to understand your wife, work from the inside out. You want to understand your children, work from the inside out.

That’s what I try to do with my daughters, aged 16 and 14. You want to understand a 17-year-old protagonist for your 400-page novel, work from the inside out. Start at the heart that makes her love and move to the belly that makes her hungry and the legs that make her run and the brain that makes her dream.

Then, when you know all that inside stuff, move to the voice and then listen carefully to what she wants to tell you.

 

What can you tell us about Lola and her significance?

This is a beautiful question. When I was a boy I used to look in the mirror and see wondrous versions of my future self staring back at me. Imagined versions of me. I saw a great rugby league player for a while there. Then I started to see some crossed version of my heroes Daniel Day-Lewis, George Orwell and Eddie Vedder, walking on the arm of Winona Ryder. But then I turned about 15 and the reality of my life started erasing all these possible versions of me. Life and a dozen depressing adult parts of it – drugs, drink, unemployment, sorrow, loss, rage, regret – entered my thinking seemingly permanently and all I started to see was my present self. And I didn’t like what I saw. I didn’t like how sad that kid looked when he stared back at me. So, I stopped looking in the mirror for any real length of time. Didn’t want to. Didn’t need to. Didn’t feel like anything was gonna change for the kid staring back at me.

Lola represents a reason for the hero of my book to keep looking in the mirror. A reason to keep dreaming. But life is threatening to enter her thinking and erase Lola. Life can make Lola lose a limb. Lose an eye. The real life is a danger to Lola in the mirror.

 

Who did you write this book for?

The book is for anyone who ever felt like they were going to collapse under the weight of sorrow. The book is also for all those beautiful souls who help us carry the weight.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Trent Dalton authorTrent Dalton was born Ipswich, Queensland, growing up in Bracken Ridge. a suburb on the northern outskirts of Brisbane. He has worked as a journalist for The Courier-Mail and as a staff writer for The Weekend Australian Magazine.

His 2018  novel Boy Swallows Universe was longlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Award.

Queensland Theatre Company developed a play from the book, its performance delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia in 2020,] but later scheduled to premiere in September at the 2021 Brisbane Festival.

In March 2022, Netflix announced to develop a Limited-run series adaptation, Boy Swallows Universe.

Follow Trent Dalton on Instagram

Author: Trent Dalton

Category:

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: 4th Estate

ISBN: 9781460759837

RRP: $32.99

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