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Friday, October 31, 2014

"You, too, can win the Pulitzer Prize."

This Monday, I had the good fortune of hearing Gilbert King speak about his circuitous writing career and his tenacious research process. Author of Pulitzer-prize winning "Devil in the Grove" and "The Execution of Willie Francis," he was once a slacker student here at USF. While working on his English degree here, he rarely went to class, preferring to spend hours reading in the library instead. It was in our very library that he fell in love with stories. Unfortunately, he left two math credits short and never graduated with his intended English degree.

After moving to New York, he worked as a freelance photographer and as the assistant to the president at Scribner publishing. While working on photographs for a coffee-table book about golf antiques, the writer dropped out and the publisher asked King if he'd do the writing. He agreed. After finishing the project, he started getting more writing jobs, including ghostwriting books for "celebrities who wanted to go on talk shows about their books but didn't actually want to write them." He said the main reason that he kept getting jobs was because he didn't make spelling mistakes and he met his deadlines. He was reliable and low-maintenance, two gold stars in the publishing world.

It was while working on a crime encyclopedia that he came cross the story of Willie Francis, a young in Louisiana who was electrocuted in the electric chair but survived; as it turned out, the prison guard was drunk and he did not set up the chair properly. King was curious about the story so he went down to Louisiana to learn more. After doing years of research, he wrote "The Execution of Willie Francis: Race, Murder, and the Search for Justice in the American South."

The Groveland Boys 
During his research, he kept returning to the work of Thurgood Marshall. He decided to look into other cases that Marshall worked on. While looking through old files, he found letters to Thurgood Marshall from his lawyers working on a case down in Florida. "We're getting death threats everyday," they wrote. This is how King first learned about the Groveland boys and the rape charges against them. Again, he followed his nose and he was rewarded. What he found was an important part of American history that has somehow been forgotten, a true crime story. As he looked deeper into the intricacies of the case, he kept asking himself, "How come people don't know about this? How is this not a part of our American consciousness?"

Thurgood Marshall
He dug through FBI files and filed Freedom of Information Acts. He pleaded for NAACP records and interviewed people. (Several people involved in this case are still alive today! It was not so long ago that racism was rampant here in Florida, just a few hours from where I live...) He did his homework and wrote "Devil in the Grove." The book was rejected by 35 publishers. “I was really shouting into an ocean,” he said. But he kept fighting for his story because he believed it needed to be told.

It was finally picked up by Harper Collins, but as the publishers had predicted, the book sales were not great. "People don't want to remember this kind of stuff," they told him; it doesn't fit in with America's perception of itself. A few days after the publishers decided to "remainder" the book (meaning they were going to stop printing it and destroy the remaining copies or sell them to him at a discount), "Devil in the Grove" was awarded a Pulitzer Prize! Sales have since increased and Lionsgate recently bought the movie rights for the story.

"You have to follow what you love," he told the crowd, "and I love crime." He considers himself a storyteller before writer, and he believes that all that reading back during his undergraduate years at USF drummed the rhythm of stories into his head.

He also said that ghostwriting helped him tremendously as a writer. “I don’t believe writing is natural,” he said. “I think you always get better. Just keep getting better.” Like our teacher Heather tells us all the time, "just the act of sitting and writing is important. Like Malcolm Gladwell says, you have to put in our 10,000 hours."

                                  A story is never what you think it is. You gotta stick to the facts.                                                                                              
                                                                                                        -Gilbert King