Talking with Gilbert King before he comes to The [email protected] in St. Petersburg this Sunday

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author will talk about 'Beneath a Ruthless Sun,' courtesy of Tombolo Books.

Talking with Gilbert King before he comes to The Studio@620 in St. Petersburg this Sunday
Cover scan by Lisa Kirchner

Gilbert King, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Devil In The Grove, has a new book out this year, for which he yet again travels to Lake County, FL, to explore yet another rape of a white woman. The twist this time is just as terrifying. King will be at The [email protected] on Aug. 5 to talk about his his latest, Beneath a Ruthless Sun: A True Story of Violence, Race, and Justice Lost and Found. Interestingly, King didn't start his career as a writer. We caught up with him to learn more about this curious journey.

How did you go from fashion photographer to civil rights historian?

I was doing a lot of photography for coffee table books, bicycles, golf, antiques and things like that. And one time one of the writers dropped out at the last second and because my friend the publisher, he said, “Well you know enough about golf, why don’t you also write the book?” And so he asked me to write it, and so I did. And I really enjoyed it, and I spelled most of the words right. And I kept doing them where they’d hire me as the photographer and the writer. And then I remember at one point they said, “Now this time we want to hire a really good photographer, but you can still write it if you want.” And that was the writing on the wall. I recognized that they didn’t think I was such a great photographer, but they liked my writing. So that was how I made the transition.

What was your favorite ghostwriting project? And feel free to tell us who was the worst.

Ghostwriting is tricky because you’re not supposed to really mention who you’re doing it for, but since Stephen Hawking recently passed away I will say I worked on an anthology with him. The name of the book was On the Shoulders of Giants, and it was Stephen Hawking’s introductions to these great minds of the last 2000 years — Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Einstein. I helped him on the editorial side, introducing each of these geniuses and how their work informed each other’s. So that was the most interesting and best one.

The worst? Oh. Uhh. I can tell you I’ve worked on some books that had a turnaround of about two weeks, they basically wanted something done really fast. And those weren’t they weren’t interesting topics and fortunately my name is nowhere near them.

 

What draws you to the stories you choose to tell?

I was a big reader and I was an English major in college. I went to the University of South Florida. I’ve always been constantly reading, and the stories that appealed to me, even as a little kid, I was reading slave narratives. PapillonThe Count of Monte Cristo, and I can’t explain why. I was just drawn to stories of people who were sent away, falsely imprisoned, true crime… those kind of stories always got to me. And so that was always my interest. So I’ve always been drawn to crime but more interested in the social and political areas around the crimes. So that was how I moved to those kinds of topics.

 

How do you stay sane while working on these heartbreaking projects?

The initial emotions that you feel when you’re discovering these things, they’re kind of overwhelming. They’re true, you can read about them in FBI reports, and they’re horrible to have to deal with. I think the way you get through them is your job is as a storyteller.

You want to be the one who objectively brings forward these stories into a narrative. It becomes a professional thing where I don’t want to become overwhelmed by the emotions I’m feeling. I want to convey these stories so that when people are reading them they experience these emotions with a little bit of the context. That’s how I stay sane through it, I stay focused and say, “Now I’ve learned something really interesting, and it’s painful, but important for people to know and I have to be the one to tell this.”

  

Working on this book, what surprised you most to learn?

The thing that surprised me most, I’m going at it from Mabel [Reese Norris’] point of view. Mabel [the lead journalist who kept this case alive until justice could finally be served despite the devastating consequences it wrought to her personally] suspected in this story that there was a conspiracy, and anytime you hear the word conspiracy, it sort of has negative connotations. You think, well, it’s such a big vast thing, and everybody has to conspire against somebody, and surely if there are enough people who know about this conspiracy, its never going to stay silent. Somewhere along the lines it’s going to break. And that was actually what happened in this case. I have smoking guns in this case. That to me is the most surprising, that when I looked into the FBI reports, I found the evidence of a conspiracy.

 

What are you working on now?

I have two ideas that I’m looking into, but I don’t know if they’re books. They’re really interesting stories, the same kind of civil rights and injustice and that kind of thing, but I have to make sure there are enough primary sources to go through with a book. A lot of times I find these great stories, but there was never a civil rights investigation, or there was never an appeal and a trial, so there’s no real paperwork. Except for newspaper clippings, and maybe some survivors.* So I’m still doing a lot of the research to find out what’s available, and that takes months. Sometimes I file these Freedom of Information Act requests, and that can take over a year to see if the files are there. So that’s where I’m at right now, exploring some potentially good ideas but not sure if they’re going to turn into books or not. 

(*Later, King told me that the fact that he was able to unearth Norris’ old stories from the paper was a near miracle. The papers themselves were long gone, and curiously, that year of microfiche was missing from the library. The stories only came to light after the death of Norris’ daughter, who presumably was unaware of the box of files her own daughter had and provided to King.)

Where do you keep your Pulitzer?  

The funny thing is, the Pulitzer itself is just a certificate. They don’t really give you a thing. The only ones that get those medals are the ones for community service, which usually go to a newspaper. But the individual ones, all you get is a certificate. They also give you this little crystal thing, but it’s not meant to be symbolic of the Prize. It just has your name on it and the year that you won. But the only real thing is a certificate from Columbia University’s Pulitzer committee. What’s really weird is, I get these letters, they must be scammers, saying, “Mr King, if you ever think of selling your Pulitzer, just know that we’ve purchased Nobel Prizes, and Olympic gold medals, and we’ll buy your Pulitzer.”** 

(**This reporter was not above suggesting scamming the scammers with a coin from a State Fair.)

About The Author

Lisa L. Kirchner

%{[ data-embed-type="image" data-embed-id="5a28746b3cab468d538eb081" data-embed-element="span" data-embed-size="640w" contenteditable="false" ]}%Lisa L. Kirchner is the author of the critically-acclaimed Hello American Lady Creature: What I Learned as a Woman in Qatar. Her writing has appeared in book anthologies,...
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