Niskayuna native Gilbert King had no idea his latest book, “Devil in the Grove,” had even been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, and when he first found out he won, he thought it was a practical joke of some kind.
“I was golfing and received a text that I had won,” said King in a recent phone interview from his home in New York City. “”I had no idea it was coming. It was completely off my radar, and at first I thought it was about a friend of mine who had won.”
“Devil in the Grove” (Harper Perennial, 361 pages, $15.99) tells the story of a shocking incident where four young black men were arrested and accused of raping a white teenager in 1949 in Groveland, Fla. One of the heroes of the book is NAACP defense attorney Thurgood Marshall, who was about to bring the landmark suit Brown v. Board of Education before the U.S. Supreme Court.
WHERE: Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center, University at Albany’s uptown campus. Seminar in the same room
WHEN: Thursday, reading at 8 p.m., seminar 4:15 p.m.
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 442-5620, www.albany.edu/writers-inst
Often when people think of reading nonfiction, they believe they’ll be reading some dull type of academic history book, but this book reads like a thriller. It’s most definitely a page-turner.
“I was discovering this story in real time, too,” said King. “I was looking through these historical files and finding all this violence and the many plot twists and turns in the case. As a writer, all I needed to do was get out of the way and let the story tell itself.”
King enjoyed researching the book even more than writing it.
“When I’m researching, I think of myself as a private detective going back into history to discover mysteries,” he explained. “When I was able to see those old FBI files and the NAACP legal defense files, well, that was like opening up a treasure chest.”
After graduating from Niskayuna High School in 1980, King attended the University of Southern Florida in Tampa, hoping to become a standout baseball player.
“That dream never quite happened,” he said. “I loved my time in Florida, but I was clueless about its poor civil rights history.”
Looking back on his time in Florida, King said there’s a big difference — even today — between the feel of coastal areas and the inland parts of the state.
“When I went to school there, I was ignorant about some things that were still happening. Back in the 1940s and 1950s, Florida was not seen as a true cotton-belt Southern state. Much of the crime there didn’t register on a national basis, and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan had a lot of control.”
King didn’t plan to be a writer, starting out instead as a photographer.
“I was doing photography for a lot of coffee table books, and one day, the publisher I was working with informed me that the writer had backed out of our latest project. It was a golf book, and the publisher, knowing that I was a golfer, asked me if I’d write the text.”
King agreed to write the book. He met his deadline, spelled all the words correctly, and the publisher was so pleased he began to hire him as both photographer and writer.
“One day, that publisher asked me if I had any ideas about writing a nonfiction book,” said King. “I didn’t have any, so he gave me one about a guy named Willie Francis who had survived being executed in the electric chair. It sounded like an interesting story, and I researched it and told him I thought it would be a good book, and that’s how my first book, ‘The Execution of Willie Francis,’ came about.”
Both of King’s books deal with issues of race and inequality.
“As a kid, I was an avid reader, but race was never really in my mind,” King said. “What I liked to read were stories about underdogs, and that’s what appealed to me so much about this story.”
As he did his research into the Groveland case, he was angered to discover how different America was for these young black men from the America he had experienced.
“I was also very impressed with the courage of these young black attorneys traveling down to the Jim Crow South to try and defend these young men,” said King. “All they wanted was for the boys to get a fair shot in court. They were the ultimate underdogs, going into a dangerous environment against an overwhelming opponent. These lawyers were fighting for the American dream.”
The more he dug into his research, the more he was impressed with Thurgood Marshall.
“Marshall was considered Mr. Civil Rights at this time, in 1949,” said King. “He was the lead attorney for the NAACP, bringing some landmark cases before the Supreme Court, but he still felt these boys needed to be defended properly, so he traveled down South to do so.”
Marshall’s life was threatened constantly during the trial, but he felt these smaller cases were as important as big national ones.
“As I looked through the research, I was worried I might find something negative about Marshall,” said King. “I worried that I might find a memo where he tried to take some shortcut or where he might have done something unethical to get a favorable judgment, but I never found anything.”
According to King, Marshall liked his bourbon and was a ladies’ man, but he had a very strong sense of right and wrong.
“During the trial, he even went to the white community and spoke out about the trial,” King explained. “He alone began to change the attitudes of people in that central Florida community about what black people were like.”
After his recent success, people keep asking what he’s working on now.
“I honestly don’t know,” said King. “I have a couple of ideas I’m looking into. They’re both going to involve a lot of research, and I’m not sure if I can commit to them.”
He has recently been working with a couple of screenwriters on a movie script based on the book.
“I’ve been retained as a consultant,” King said. “The movie will be produced by Lionsgate, and these guys have some great ideas about how to make this into a movie.”
He’s excited about coming back to the area to read Thursday at the New York State Writers Institute.
“I grew up reading William Kennedy books,” King explained. “I even used to bring people on tours of Albany based on the Kennedy books. It will be an honor for me to read there.”
What he often tells beginning writers interested in nonfiction is to become obsessed with your subject.
“Do much more research than you’ll ever need,” he said. “I went to Florida a dozen times preparing for this book, which gave me invaluable details about the place and the people. That made it a much better book.
“I also want beginning writers to know that you need some good luck to be successful. This book was rejected by 35 publishers, mostly because my first book didn’t sell very well.”