Gilbert King: “Dude, Pulitzer!”

For any artist wondering if, how, and when they might get published, much less win a Pulitzer Prize, Gilbert King’s career is an inspiration. With dreams of becoming a major-league baseball player, King went to college at University of South Florida. It didn’t take him long to realize that, when it came to baseball players, the talent pool was wide as it was deep. Just two math credits shy of graduating college, King moved to New York City, where he landed freelance writing and editing assignments for small newspapers and magazines. A self-taught photographer, King’s fashion and beauty work made it to national magazines such as Glamour, Jane, and Modern Bride, as well as international editions of magazines including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Madame Figaro, and Marie Claire.  King went on to research and write various illustrated coffee-table books, as well as ghostwrite for celebrities and noted experts in their fields. A fan of true-crime, King’s first book, The Execution of Willie Francis: Race Murder and the Search for Justice in the American South, recounted the brutal crime, community vengeance, and legal heroism surrounding the unsuccessful execution by electric chair of a seventeen year-old black boy in Louisiana in 1946.

The book was well received, but had only modest sales. It was while doing research on the Willie Francis case that King became fascinated by another investigation, this one involving the alleged rape of a white girl by four black men in Lake County, Florida in 1951. The case would pit a young attorney, Thurgood Marshall, the most acclaimed civil rights attorney of his age—destined to serve on the United States Supreme Court—against the Klan, a brutal sheriff’s department, and the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover. At the time, the case drew national attention but had largely been forgotten. Using the Freedom of Information Act, King plunged himself into the research, which included Marshall’s personal papers, and other long-buried documents including FBI reports that revealed the innocence of the “Groveland Boys,” as the four accused came to be named. Against the advice of his previous publisher, who feared that the story wouldn’t have a broad enough audience, King wrote Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America (Harper). The book received smashing reviews, including its designation as “Must-read, cannot-put-down history” by Thomas Friedman, writing for the New York Times. In spite of the praise, King’s expectations for the success of the book were modest. Until one day, out on the golf course, King received a text message from a friend: “Dude, Pulitzer!”

The cryptic text was followed by a torrent of congratulatory texts, calls, and emails informing him that Devil in the Grove had received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. The book also became nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for nonfiction, and was named a “Book of the Year” by The Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, and Amazon. Recently, filming has begun on the film adaptation.

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Gilbert King

We asked Gilbert King to talk a little about his career, his interests, and his future:

Q: How did you land your first freelance editing and ghostwriting projects?  

Strangely enough, I was being hired a lot as a photographer for various coffee table books, and when one of the writers backed out of a project at the last second, the publisher asked if I’d be interested in the writing, too.  I thought it would be a challenge, and so I dove in.  That led to more writing assignments, and a few years later, I put the camera down and began focusing on my own writing.

Q: Where does your interest in history come from?  

Mostly ignorance.  I’m interested in gripping stories of risk and danger, and especially good crime stories. So when I’m investigating and researching these stories, I feel compelled to learn as much as I can about why these events took place.  That forces me to pay attention to racial history, law, politics, and economics.  There’s nothing I like better than hearing someone say, after reading my books, “I had no idea this was happening.”  I didn’t either!

Q: What’s the single craziest thing that ever happened to you as a fashion photographer?  

I was doing an ad for a bridal company, and had a model in a wedding dress standing on a seamless paper backdrop.  The designer was an elderly woman, and she was attempting to direct the model on the kind of poses she wanted.  She stepped onto the seamless and made the mistake of walking behind the model, where the paper sweeps up into the background.  That brought the autopoles and the crossbar crashing down on both the designer and the model, who were buried under a heap of paper and aluminum.  Fortunately, no one was hurt.  But that night, I did make sure my insurance was up to date.

Q: Do you see a connection between your interest/background in photography and true crime?

Well, I’ve long been a fan of the great crime photographer, Weegee.  And I am drawn to those kinds of noir stories and images on an aesthetic basis.  So I guess I’d say yes, now that I think of it.

Q: How has winning the Pulitzer changed your writing life? Your life in general?  

The greatest gift is that it’s enabled me to keep writing the kinds of stories I am most interested in.  Before the Pulitzer, my books didn’t attract much attention, and there were no guarantees I’d ever get another book deal.  Now, people pay a little more attention to the stories I want to tell, and they are more willing to take a chance.

Q:  Have your research techniques or strategies changed in the course of writing The Execution of Willie Francis and Devil in the Grove?  

Not really. Writing is hard work, but there always seems to come a point in the process where I can’t wait to get up in the morning and dive right back into the world I’m writing about. I’m sure novelists must feel the same way.  They want the world they create to come alive for readers.  I want that too, the only difference being that I’m writing narrative nonfiction.   

Q:  The film rights to Devil in the Grove were purchased by Lion’s Gate. Is there a particular aspect of the story you most want to see preserved in the course of adapting the book to a movie?  

The one thing I want people to come away with is an understanding that the world of Jim Crow was far more brutal and terrifying than they ever imagined, and that America had laws on the books not so long ago that codified white supremacy.  So when they see Thurgood Marshall and his young lawyers with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund risking their own lives to save lives of black men who are falsely accused of capital crimes, it should be deeply inspiring to all Americans.  That’s the one aspect that should be preserved in my opinion, and I am pleased to see that Lionsgate agrees.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Nicholas Garnett asked Gilbert King to talk a little about his career, his interests, and his future. […]

  2. […] with Richard Godwin, Gilbert King, Conor McCreery, Laura McDermott, and Will Viharo. Visual Art by Andrés Pruna and Terry Wright. […]

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