Boy Swallows Universe Coming to Queensland Theatre

October 14, 2019

If you live in our Universe or even beyond, you have probably heard of Trent Dalton and his blockbuster novel Boy Swallows Universe. Trent comes from my hometown of Brisbane. I’ve been reading his work in local papers and magazines for years. We live in the same suburb,The Gap, and frequent the same coffee shops, so I guess we both know the secrets to a happy life. 

When you meet Trent he is just as you expect him to be: warm, caring , excitable, charming, handsome, completely open and honest and a little blown away by the success of this, his debut novel. I was lucky enough to speak to Trent and playwright Tim McGarry. Tim is the one charged with adapting Trent’s story for the stage. We meet ahead of the 2020 Queensland Theatre Launch in the ambient surrounds of Soleil Pool Bar at Rydges.

For those who haven’t read the novel, it is the story of Eli Bell, a character loosely based on Trent. His 1980’s childhood includes a missing Dad, an ex druggie Mum who finds herself in jail, a close mute brother, and did I mention, his beloved babysitter is the most famous escapee from Boggo Road Jail. Beset by chaos on all sides Eli learns how to be a man – a good man- and he learns that through love you can triumph over the darkest circumstances. Many people I’ve spoken to say it is the best book they’ve ever read.

I first congratulate Trent on the success of the novel and he laughs, “ Yes, an overnight success, even though this book was bubbling inside me for 37 years. I was 38 when I began to write and now talking to you, it’s really a success story 40 years in the making.The truth is I just had all this stuff inside me, stuff that I protected and avoided. I was terrified of it. I finally had to get it out of me. Through Eli Bell helping me navigate, I put my heart , my soul and my very life on the pages. It was a cathartic experience.” 

Trent mentions the word cathartic a lot. 

Trent’s day job is as a journalist so I asked when he found time to write. “ I’d come home from work and after the kids were in bed I’d write from eight to ten….. and the words just poured out of me. Then I’d go to bed and say to my wife , ‘ What just happened? ‘. I was adrenalised by it.” 

Trent and I share many of the same experiences, as I grew up a housing commission kid in Redcliffe. Reading the story I found myself nodding along and sometimes squirming seeing memories on a page, that for me, had been compartmentalised and locked away long ago. We laugh about the sense of community and humour that you develop when you grow up in these areas. 

The settings in the book were the settings of my childhood and Trent says that’s one of the things that surprised him most, “The fact that it resonates with so many people, not just here in Australia, but around the world. There are so many connections. When after about 450 pages I reached the end and put that final full stop I turned to my wife and said , ‘What did I just do? ‘.

But now, sitting here, I really believe that this was what I was put on this earth to do.” 

Trent’s story is brutally honest and to me a little bit magical. 

He agrees, “ Some people read the back of the book and go that sounds a little heavy, but there is also humour, emotion, community and just being human amidst all the darkness.” 

Tim McGarry agrees and has been on board from the beginning. He was about the tenth person to read the book and early on knew he wanted a chance to bring this story to the stage.

Tim says, “ He’s given us a gift and it’s been a slow and meticulous process to adapt the story. It’s been a challenge because most stories have subplots, but the way Trent’s written it there are no subplots and it’s been a slow process to define how we’ll see it visually. “ 

The play will be directed by Sam Strong. Both men agree that Sam is perfect for the job. 

“Sam is just a genius. We were both jumping for joy when he said he was directing. He has so much experience. Sometimes we’ll be working through something and Sam will say, ‘How about we do this?’ and it will be just right.” 

Trent agrees that it has, “ Been the deepest dive for Sam, Tim and I.” 

Tim was so nervous and found it difficult to send the script to Trent initially, “ I just felt this sense of responsibility to get it right. I was terrified. It was so hard to press that send button. I was going on holidays and I thought he’d get back to me in about a month. It was within two days. I was reluctant to even open the email and I was standing at the baggage carousel thinking, ‘ This could make or break my holiday! ‘ “

Trent is flawed, “I didn’t know that. I’m so touched. When I read the script I was literally screaming , ‘ YES, YES, YES’ and I know the story. I wrote it. I know Eli Bell. Tim made me weep three times.”

Trent says the fact he’s sitting here talking to me now is not lost on him. One of his first jobs at Brisbane News was going to a media launch for a Queensland Theatre play. It’s a surreal experience for him and he is rightly enjoying and embracing every moment. After asking Trent to sign my book it was time to move on but not before Trent said, “ Yes, Redcliffe. I love it down there. I have to do a book about Redcliffe.” 

Hmm, not if I don’t do it first, Trent! 

It will be so exciting to see how the theatre manages to convey all the different scenes and settings from this wonderful noveI. The whole world will now know how great The Gap is ! As I write this I’m looking out my window into the serene bush setting when something comes into view. An idea for a story pops into my head, My end is a giant grey bush turkey……..Nah, doesn’t have quite the same impact. My end is a screeching sulphur crested cockatoo. No, you just nailed it Trent, My end is a dead blue wren. 

The Queensland Theatre production of Boy Swallows Universe will be playing in The Playhouse at QPAC. It will run from August 29 – 19 September, 2020. You will not want to miss the world premiere of this story that brings Brisbane unforgettably to life. 

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