Working with Words: Trent Dalton

Trent Dalton is a screenwriter, novelist and Walkley Award-winning journalist at the Weekend Australian. He spoke with us about Charlotte's Web, bad poetry and 14pt Tahoma.

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry?

Photo: Lyndon Mechielsen

Charlotte’s Web by E.B White. I was deeply entranced by it in about Year Three at school when our teacher read it to us. I would have been too much of a walking fence-post back then to realise that beautiful spider was opening my brain to things I love in storytelling today: perspectives, worlds within worlds, compassion, friendships formed in the most unlikely places. Then dear wise Charlotte goes up to the big web in the sky and young me realises that we can die and live on at the same time.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years?

Not a huge amount. Too busy trying to fix my spot in the Queensland State of Origin team. I mostly wrote fantasy stories inspired by the Choose Your Own Adventure books I read in the 1980s. Swordsmen on quests. Barbarians on quests. Wizards on quests. A lot of quests. The footy died off in my mid-teens when, after several concussions, a surgeon said the thinness of my skull and my jelly-bean muscles weren’t good for rugby league and I took to writing a lot of bad poetry.

I wrote a poem called 'Sorrow' which, if I recall correctly, used a flickering candle flame as a metaphor for my heart which had just been cut out and pinned to the school noticeboard by a girl way out of my league. The poem was so astoundingly okay that my older brother thought it must have been plagiarised and I thought I might be secretly on to something. I still have about 20 inch-thick notebooks from those bad teenage poetry years filled with poems with titles like 'Battery-Operated Heart' and 'Fuck I’m Sad Just Ask Me'.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I still have about 20 inch-thick notebooks from those bad teenage poetry years filled with poems with titles like 'Battery-Operated Heart' and 'Fuck I’m Sad Just Ask Me'.

Chemist-cleaner, Australia Post mail-sorter, storeman in a hair gel factory. 

I spent the entire year after I left high school in an auto-electrical shed in industrial Virginia, north Brisbane, counting auto-electrical terminals of ever-changing colours into bags of 100. Still don't have the faintest clue what role these little terminals play beneath a car bonnet. Made some beautiful friends in that place and spent endless hours inside my mind, thinking up epic poems and deciding if I’d drink XXXX or VB after dinner and why I will one day appreciate every last second that I’m a journalist because anything after storeman work is fine gravy. 

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Reading endless paperback books in a small room. Smoking rolled cigarettes, toasting my epic descent into madness with a plastic cup of Stanley Dry White. Wouldn’t have met my wife, wouldn’t be a dad to two angel girls, wouldn’t be anything but drunk and eating Red Rooster chips. 

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

I once asked the Dalai Lama why I’m here on this earth. He said I’m here to write stories about people. 'Soooo,' he whispered, following up his first profound declaration. 'You should write stories about people.' That’s all the advice I needed. Best grammatical advice came when I fell in love with my journo wife in the very moment she was laughing and showing me, once and for all, where to put apostrophes in my copy. Trent is in love with Fi. Trent's in love with Fi. Love is all you need. Love's all you need.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?

Not a daily diary as such, but I’m really big on lined notebooks always at hand where one can scribble all kinds of nonsense like, 'What about a graphic novel where Marie Curie is given superhuman powers when an ambitious radioactivity experiment goes wrong, and she spends her nights out of the lab in the wet streets of Paris solving murders and fighting crime.'

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

My father-in-law is a brilliant entomologist who has discovered and named a couple of insects, and solved a bunch of entomological mysteries that have greatly assisted Queensland’s agricultural industry. He’s often giving me cool and unexpected reads like Erica McAlister’s The Secret Life of Flies.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

When I'm doing journalism, the first blank page of the document must begin with 'Story Trent Dalton'. Trent Dalton must be in bold, and the whole story must be in 14pt Tahoma.

Never have an argument with your wife before sitting down to write. It is impossible to write well when your wife is upstairs, royally pissed off with you. Your computer knows she’s pissed at you. Your fingers know she’s pissed at you. Your words know she’s pissed at you. Just stop, go upstairs and say you’re sorry for being such a self-absorbed prick. Then go back downstairs when the timing is right for everyone and watch those words smile back at you.

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

I once wrote something in a major city newspaper where I likened my first kiss to the suction process of a pool cleaner. The girl in question wrote to me in the good-spirited humour that the story was written, but if I could go back I’d ditch the silly stuff about the pool cleaner and focus more on the night air, the stars in the sky and my gratitude.  

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with?

I’ve long thought about a quiet evening with FBI agent Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs. I’d like to hear more of her take on those slaughtered lambs she saw as a kid. Do the screaming lambs represent all those helpless victims she’s trying to save as an agent? Or is all that lamb stuff more about the men who do the slaughtering? How could those men do that to those lambs? How can men possess brutality and tenderness at the same time? And maybe if she knew that then she would know how someone could kill her beloved old man? This could make for some interesting chat over a nice chianti. 

Portrait of Trent Dalton

Trent Dalton is a staff writer for the Weekend Australian magazine and a former assistant editor of the Courier Mail. He’s a two-time winner of the Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism, a three-time winner of the Kennedy Award for Excellence in NSW Journalism and a four-time winner of the national News Awards Features Journalist of the Year. His first novel, Boy Swallows Universe, is out in June 2018.

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