Gilbert King took a somewhat unusual route to winning the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, a gripping narrative history of the shocking trial of four black men accused in 1949 of raping a white woman in Florida's Lake County.
Raised in upstate New York, King attended the University of South Florida in the 1980s but left two credits short of graduation. "I had a girlfriend who got this apartment in New York City," King says by phone, from a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, "so I went." (He now lives in New York City with his family.)
He worked as a standup comic, then as a freelance writer and ghostwriter. "I got into photography," he says, and his work appeared in Glamour, Vogue and other publications. That led to photography for coffee-table books, then writing them as well. Soon an editor was urging King to come up with a book idea.
It turned out to be The Execution of Willie Francis (2008), the story of a black 17-year-old who survived execution by electric chair in 1946 — and about Louisiana's effort to execute him again, which went to the Supreme Court. "I fell in love with the writing and the research," King, 51, says. And that research led him to Devil in the Grove.
The case of the Groveland Boys was little known even in Florida before your book. How did you come across it and decide to write about it?
I got interested in Thurgood Marshall when I was researching the Willie Francis case. (Marshall, who became the first black Supreme Court justice in 1967, was chief counsel for the NAACP in the 1940s and '50s.) He wasn't the attorney but his fingerprints were all over it. I was fascinated to see how he created publicity for these cases by bringing in movie stars and other celebrities to talk about them, just all the things he was doing outside the (practice of) law to help win the case.
I was reading all these criminal records, NAACP records. For the Groveland case, I found these alarming letters. I mean, in the middle of the trial, the sheriff executes the prisoners? True crime doesn't get any more dramatic than that.
So I started reading the biographies of Marshall, and I couldn't find it. The emphasis was on his work in the civil rights cases, Brown vs. Board of Education.
How did your research affect your image of Marshall?
A lot of people think of him as this cranky old Supreme Court justice, writing all these dissenting opinions about how nobody takes race seriously. I did. I knew from reading about Brown that he was a very skilled lawyer, but I didn't realize that before that he was a crusader, Mr. Civil Rights, traveling all around, sometimes in great danger, and acting as the last defense for some of these poor people who were about to lose their lives.
I talked to some of his Supreme Court clerks, and they said this is what he talked about all the time. To him it was really exciting, really important.
How did it feel to win the Pulitzer Prize?
When the book came out, it got good reviews, but not such good sales. I had just gotten a notice from Harper that they were going to remainder it. (The Pulitzer Prize) was totally off my radar. I didn't even know my publisher had sent it in.
I got the news in a text from a friend. It was a release that said at the top that Adam Johnson had won the Pulitzer for fiction. I know Adam Johnson, and I thought, how nice. Then I went down and it said Gilbert King wins for nonfiction, and I thought it was a joke. I thought my friend had created a fake news release. I don't know if anyone has ever been more surprised to win the Pulitzer than I was.
Lionsgate has bought the film rights for the book. What's happening with that?
They're going full steam ahead on it. The writers hope to have a script by Thanksgiving or Christmas. I'm working as kind of a consultant with the research, but I don't really know what's going on. The story has so much action, so much violence, all these plot turns. I think it could be a good movie.
What kind of responses to the book have you heard from readers?
A lot of them say, wow, I didn't know this was going on in America, that the odds were stacked so badly against some people. People think it was just about separate classrooms and separate drinking fountains, and then Martin Luther King Jr. came along and everything changed. It wasn't like that.