Spotlight on: Kate Holden
Our interview with the winner of the 2021 Walkley Book Award, for The Winter Road.
The Winter Road explores the 2014 killing of environmental officer Glen Turner by 80-year-old farmer Ian Turnbull outside Croppa Creek, NSW, and the legacy of land management since colonial settlement that led to the tragedy.
Kate Holden spent four years on The Winter Road, piecing together the crime from media fragments, archives, court documents and interviews. In an email interview with James Gorman, Kate shared why she entered the Walkley Book Award, the impact of the win, and her advice for writers considering a longform investigative work.
What was your path to writing The Winter Road?
I became a writer when I published my first book, In My Skin, a memoir about my previous career as a sex worker. I’d originally intended to be an archaeologist! But I’d loved writing all my life and found that I had a story to tell and a facility in finding the words for it. From that moment in 2005 I’ve been a professional writer, with two subsequent books and a medley of freelance writing for many publications, teaching, and author appearances. Generally I work to commission, which means that I cover subjects I don’t know much about: my talent is combining naïve discovery with a good vocab. I had a column with The Age for many years and recently I’ve regularly written arts material for The Saturday Paper.
What encouraged you to enter the Walkley Book Award?
I don’t think of myself as a journalist (I haven’t trained in journalism, and I write arts journalism on request rather than as a steady profession) so it was only the suggestion by my literary agent that made me even imagine the Walkley Book Award might be relevant to me. My publisher wasn’t intending to enter the book, but I pressed them and luckily they agreed, at the very last possible minute for submissions.
The killing of Glen Turner by Ian Turnbull garnered a lot of media attention and sparked conversations and debates surrounding land management. Following your detailed analysis of the case, what made this a story you wanted to pursue?
The story itself has a halo of classic tragedy: I saw two men in a twilit road, one with a gun and the other falling dead, and I also saw two individuals compressed, as in the ancient concept of tragedy, by massive, almost impersonal forces towards their mutual destruction. The words ‘land-clearing’, ‘government inspection officer’ and ‘property developing farmer’ weren’t thrilling, but the scenario was, once I panned out a bit and saw the huge cultural, landscape, political, historical and sociological context of where they stood. It’s a long story about why we have laws governing land management at all; who enforces them and why; why there is resistance; how we balance ideas of individual agency and common responsibility. In the terrible death of Glen Turner at the impassive hands of Ian Turnbull I saw a parable for the whole history of white development in the continent called Australia.
Has winning a Walkley Award helped or influenced your career?
Like the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell! I hope so, or at least I hope it influences my confidence as I contemplate my next project. I do feel so buoyed by the recognition and acknowledgement of journalist peers, as I’d never had any previous experience of this kind of work. This makes me feel I can try even more complex modes of writing.
What advice do you have for other authors who may be considering entering their books for this year’s awards?
My own experience is just that I had to trust my instinct and faith in my own work, helped by the encouragement of a few opinions I could credit, even in the face of some hesitation by the publisher who actually had to submit the fee and the reading copies. I’m not used to pushing on my own behalf but in this case something made me dig in my heels. I just thought it wasn’t impossible that the book would qualify for judgement.
What advice do you have for future authors considering writing their own investigative books?
It’s very daunting. I’d advise authors to expect doubts, crises, tears, wobbles, and actual obstructions. I wasn’t prepared for the difficulty of tracing interviewees, or their simple refusal to talk. There was a lot to learn, including the ethical practice of handling intimate material and tender emotions; how to manage the mass of research; how to properly credit sources and when; how much to borrow from others and how much one should do oneself just to preserve the integrity of the work; when to push people and when to step back. My book combines history and reflection, true crime writing and investigation. Authors of works like these are entering a project equivalent, I think, to a PhD — I could have made it shorter and more shallow but once I’d begun I understood that the only way out was through! I’d suggest that future authors remind themselves of what a challenging and worthwhile task they’re setting themselves, and choose something that keeps raising questions and fuelling them with curiosity so they’ll last the distance.
What role do you think the Walkley Foundation plays in supporting and awarding journalism excellence in Australia?
The Walkleys are a by-word for quality journalism and reporting in Australia. I don’t know that much about the Foundation’s mentoring and training work but I do know that ‘winning a Walkley’ is the ultimate encomium. My mother’s cousin Steve Stephens was a reporter and won a Walkley in the 1960s; it is still one of the main things he’s remembered for in our family.
What were the greatest challenges and rewards you experienced while writing, and after publishing your book?
I had no experience at all in this mode of writing so I was challenged all the way through, especially by the investigative tasks. The story had concluded, the two main antagonists were both dead, their families were traumatised and unwilling to speak at all, the court records were only partially accessible, and the media reporting on which I had to rely was fragmented and often hidden behind paywalls (I understand why; but as a researcher unattached to an organisation with subscriptions this made things difficult). I had to piece together a complex story from a hundred thousand shards: my bibliography runs to hundreds of items, so this sleuthing was endlessly challenging and immensely satisfying when it worked.
Then part of the subject was a series of legal cases. I had to educate myself in access to those files, learn the sequencing protocols and the terminology, pay very close attention to exact references and quotations and contexts; I had to present a dry, overlapping, bureaucratic phenomenon of land-clearing prosecutions in a way that would be dramatic and coherent for a reader. That was insanely difficult!
I felt more and more deeply as I worked that it was a story of important lessons and profound human emotion, which I could make accessible to general readers — urban readers who wouldn’t know much about regional matters, and country readers who rarely saw these topics discussed.
There was a deep hurt remaining in many communities from Glen’s death. It had horrified many, and begun a bitter discussion on victimhood that hasn’t been resolved. I was really motivated by the promise of giving some air to those feelings, and trying to lay out the reasons why the crime was so painful, because it was an expression of a deeply painful national history that hasn’t been much examined. Writing the book was immensely educational for me, also tiring, also confronting, and very, very good to do.
Kate Holden is the author of In My Skin: A memoir (Text, 2005) and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days (Text, 2010). Holden wrote a popular column for The Age for several years and has published essays, short stories, and literary criticism in various journals and anthologies, appearing recently with portraits and features in The Saturday Paper. She lives in the Illawarra.
See all the winners of the Walkley Awards here.
Interview by James Gorman, The Walkley Foundation