When Trent Dalton was growing up in Brisbane public housing, there was a mirror in the room he shared with his brother.
It wasn't just any mirror.
"It was like something Elizabeth Taylor would have in her room, this beautiful ornate mirror that dad got from a Lifeline [shop]," Dalton says.
"Clearly someone had donated it, and it ends up in this room with these two boys."
Over the years, Dalton found himself spending a lot of time staring at himself.
"There was a time when I was 12, and seeing really exciting versions of myself, like, I wanted to be a football player. I wanted to date Winona Ryder," he says.
"And then I got older. I reckon by the time I got to about 16, 17 ... it coincided with me listening to Nirvana and Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden and stuff like that ... really emotional music, angst-ridden stuff, and I just started probably progressively to get a bit more angry with the world, to the point where the only time I'd really look in the mirror, I'd really start to realise what my past was and what my present was and how shitty my future was looking."
And yet. He also remembers staring out the window and wondering where his story was going.
We all know how it turned out; Dalton was still years away from becoming an acclaimed feature writer and novelist, but even as a 12-year-old he was already seeing his life as a story - "one big dark story".
"In my street, it would be really hot in summer and everyone would have their windows wide open," he says.
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"You could just look in and see all the theatre of life just unfolding before your eyes. And I don't know why, but I would pretend to be some sort of silent observer, and like some sort of movie director in the movie in my head."
And he thought what he was seeing was meaningful - he just didn't know how yet.
Many years later, Dalton received a letter from a 15-year-old boy from South Korea.
"Trent, I read the Korean translation of this wild story set in Darra, Brisbane, Queensland," the boy wrote.
"I have no idea where that place is. But I want you to know that I read Boy Swallows Universe, and I have decided to live to adulthood."
So there it was, Dalton thought. If nothing else, his turbulent early childhood years, marred by domestic violence, poverty and drugs, had been leading somewhere after all. They had led him to his award-winning work as a journalist, covering homelessness, domestic violence, life on the streets and social inequity.
He published his best-selling novel at the age of 39. Boy Swallows Universe, the semi-autobiographical tale of a boy living in 1980s Brisbane with a heroin dealer stepfather and a mum who's in jail, was published in 34 countries and is soon to become a Netflix series.
But on top of the novel's accolades and runaway success, if it had helped a boy across the ocean to hold on to his life, it was all worth it.
He's adamant, at first, that his third novel, Lola In The Mirror (HarperCollins, $32.99), isn't autobiographical at all. How could it be? Sure, it incorporates many of the themes that have long fascinated him as a journalist, but the protagonist is a 17-year-old girl, unnamed because she's been on the run with her mother since she was a child.
The mother flees after stabbing the girl's abusive father in the throat in the opening pages. To protect the two of them, the mother never tells her daughter either of their names. Not surprisingly, names, labels, nicknames and monikers are a constant motif running through the story.
The pair have fetched up, eventually, in a scrapyard by the Brisbane River, where they live, among other misfits, in an orange Toyota Hiace with four flat tyres. Nothing like the wide-eyed aspiring writer of Boy Swallows Universe.
And yet, all around her and through her are traces of Dalton's experiences, observations and take on life. Convinced she will one day be a famous artist, she prepares by narrating her own life through the eyes of a pompous art critic - amusingly named E.P. Buckle - 100 years into the future.
And the mirror: the girl has a fancy, arched mirror with a diagonal crack, which she consults when things get rough. The mythical woman on the other side of the mirror, Lola, has everything and nothing to say, but her condition somehow, through metaphor, matches what's happening in real life.
Even in the opening pages, describing the girl's mother's hideous dance with her assailant, Dalton is describing something he saw with his own eyes many times as a child - his mother being abused and terrorised by her partner.
"'My mother danced the Tyrannosaurus Waltz' - that's actually the truest sense of the book, the very first one ... My mum, my real-life mum, totally danced the Tyrannosaurus Waltz for the best part of 20 years," he says.
"I never called it that as a kid, but it felt monstrous to me. My mum went through some dark times and did her time inside, for the stuff that Boy Swallows Universe covers. She, in real life, [fell] in love with a heroin dealer who was actually the first father figure I ever knew, and I really loved that man.
"He goes away for 10, mum goes down at the same time, us boys go over to Bracken Ridge Housing Commission, Brisbane area, and then she gets out and she sort of ends up with this monster. And when I think of men who do that waltz, I think of this guy."
Dalton would go on to meet many women like his mum, who, along with their own mothers and daughters, had ended up on the streets as the only alternative to the violence at home.
Lola in the Mirror is, on the surface, a dark and violent story, and yet, like life itself, it's shot through with moments of grace and beauty.
The moon on the river, and the city at night. The way the girl visualises scenes in pen and ink. Ice-cream, long conversations, waking up next to her mum. The people she meets and lives alongside in the scrapyards and in the nooks and crannies of inner Brisbane.
The way, when you say "I love you" to someone while underwater, it looks like you're saying "colourful". Or is it the other way around?
Dalton has documented the homeless - or "houseless" - population of Brisbane for years, "ducking in and out" of Third Space, a centre for homeless people, and writing stories about the people he meets there. Some of these stories would eventually become a book, Detours, to raise funds for the shelter.
"[I was] just talking to them about the moment that set them on their path to homelessness, and it was really sad," he says.
"I'm at the launch of that book and this regular Third Spacer named Mary [said], 'Mate, why do you write all this dark stuff about this world, and when are you going to write something about all the love and the kind of community, and the kind of beautiful stuff that happens on the street?'"
Dalton realised she was right, that there is always beauty and hope in the world (and Mary would inspire one of the characters in Lola).
"No one should ever sugarcoat how friggin' brutal it is, sleeping rough. But, of course, in any community, you're going to find absolute moments of love and hope and connection," he says.
This conversation was the inspiration for Dalton's last book, Love Stories, the true stories he gathered while sitting on a street corner, accumulating stories about love.
Love, not homelessness - that theme would come later, and eventually become Lola In The Mirror.
It took him a long time to get the tone right, and to understand what he was trying to say about the girl who was trying to write her own story, even as her life was spiralling out of control.
"What I wanted to say was, the person you want to see in the mirror is exactly who you want that person to be," he says.
"That version will not be decided by your past or your blood or the things you've seen or your traumas or your hardships."
In Lola, he is building on a message he's been preaching in the years since Boy Swallows Universe and his second novel, All Our Shimmering Skies, came out.
"Every school I go to to talk, I say, please remember that there will be a time where the adults won't be telling your story," he says.
"You will be able to tell your story yourself, and so just hold on to that time. But even better than that, remember that you are the writer of your story. And, literally, you can change it in an hour. If you decide to do something kind for someone, you're actively changing the story, and what if you did think about your place in the world as a character in a pretty wild, rollicking tale?
"If that was the case, then you would act with a bit of thought about every move you made, even in romance or moments of courage or moments of fear.
"What if you did think that way? It would actually make your life really resonant, really powerful."
By the end of our conversation, Dalton has to admit that Lola is, in many ways, about his own life, again.
Maybe, he says, he should start writing about adults, instead of kids and teenagers.
"I'm really ready to write about adults now," he says.
"I think I've said all there is to say about kids, Australian kids managing trauma - that's all I'm trying to do, actually, because I do believe Australian kids who manage trauma are just incredible.
"I've seen it too many times as a journalist and I'm moved by it, but I think I've kind of got to stop writing about it now."
Or maybe not. Dalton, after all, is writing his own story, and can do it any way he wants.
- Trent Dalton will be in conversation with Sally Pryor about Lola In The Mirror at Kambri ANU, Monday October 9 at 6pm. anu.edu.au/events
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