Gilbert King won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2013 for Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. It tells the true story of a harrowing case of racial injustice and violence by law enforcement in Florida's Lake County more than half a century ago.
King, 53, will be talking about Devil in the Grove and its timeliness as the keynote speaker on Saturday for the Writers in Paradise conference at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.
Speaking by phone from San Francisco, where he was visiting relatives, King says, "It seems like every time I give a talk, something else has happened" that is a reminder that the racism that fueled the events he wrote about is not a thing of the past.
"Just in the last few days, the Tamir Rice case has been in the news. It makes people wonder how much has really changed.
"But my message is always that a lot has changed. Thurgood Marshall and all those young lawyers worked to change the justice system, and they did."
Marshall, who would later become a U.S. Supreme Court justice, in 1949 led a team from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund that defended the Groveland Four, young black men falsely accused of the rape of a white woman. The involvement of the Ku Klux Klan and the notorious longtime sheriff of Lake County, Willis McCall, led to a spiral of violence.
McCall was never held responsible for his violent treatment of black prisoners. "But now," King says, "you can see the video. You can see things you only heard about before. Things are really changing."
The story King tells to devastating effect in Devil in the Grove will soon get a new audience. Shooting is set to begin in May for a movie version of the book, to be released in 2017.
"It's sort of like Black Lives Matter and all the things going on now," King says, "but with Thurgood Marshall in the late '40s."
He says the script, by screenwriters Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, is "great." The film's director is Anton Corbijn, whose movies include The American (2010) with George Clooney and A Most Wanted Man (2014), one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's last films. King says Corbijn "said, 'Let's do one more script with more of the book in it,' so I like that."
A casting announcement is expected soon. "They won't tell me because I'll just go blab it all. But I'm hearing major stars.
"Thurgood Marshall's role is really interesting, a really good character. And I hear Harry T. Moore's story is going to be featured, so I'm really happy about that," King adds, referring to the Florida civil rights pioneer who was murdered, along with his wife, Harriette, when their house was bombed, probably by the Klan, in 1951.
The movie version of his book is another sign of change, King says. "It used to be if movies had African-American casts, (Hollywood) would say, aw, no one is going to see that." But with the success of movies such as Creed, he says, "They respond to profit."
Devil in the Grove will have not only larger roles for black actors than many films, but heroic ones: "They're not victims. It's refreshing, and it's important for people to be aware of that."
He hopes that the movie will be filmed in Florida: "You can't replicate Florida's landscape."
The New York City resident (who attended the University of South Florida) finds himself back in Florida as well, and not just for Writers in Paradise. His next book, he says, "is, believe it or not, another Florida story. It took place in Central Florida, about 10 years after the Groveland case."
King doesn't want to reveal specifics yet; he's still in the research stage, "interviewing people, making Freedom of Information Act requests" for documents. But he does say it's another story about "race, justice and wealth."
The next book will cover events that are "a little less violent" than those in Devil in the Grove. "I had people say to me, 'I'm sure your book is very good, but I got about a quarter of the way in and I just couldn't take any more.' "
This story is "more mysterious, less violent, but still powerful. And it has great female characters." King plans to start writing soon and expects the book to be published next year.
In the meantime, he's looking forward to Writers in Paradise. In addition to giving the keynote speech, he'll teach a workshop for conference participants. "And I'll be sitting in on some of the workshops. I end up learning a ton at these things."
King says he met conference co-founder and novelist Dennis Lehane at the Edgar Awards a few years ago and then was contacted by the other co-founder, Sterling Watson, about coming to St. Petersburg. "I'm really honored. I really admire these guys."
And he might just run across another Florida story. "Have you ever seen that movie The People vs. Larry Flynt?" he asks. In it, Woody Harrelson plays the infamous publisher of Hustler, and at one point he says to a lawyer, "I'm the perfect client. I'm rich and I'm always in trouble."
"Florida's like that," King says, "rich with all this material, and always in trouble."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.