Gilbert King on how to win a Pulitzer Prize

Gilbert King went from writing about Mr. Potato Head to crafting an award-winning story about racial injustice.
By Susan Kushner Resnick | Published: September 9, 2013


GilbertKing_Olivia King Last year, I sent out a request on Facebook asking experienced writers to share advice with my undergraduate writing students. A few snarky responses appeared first: Go to law school; get comfortable with a life of poverty. Then Gilbert King weighed in.

“Work. Read. Work. Think. Work. Write. Work. Connect. Work. Pitch. Same as always,” he wrote.

I didn’t know King well. We had met on the light rail ride to the Miami Book Fair International that fall, just two unknown middle-aged writers on our way to sit on panels we hoped someone would attend. We talked about our nonfiction books, journalism experiences and the pitfalls of publicity. I was a bit intimidated when I learned that his nonfiction book Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America had been published by HarperCollins and touched that an author of such apparent esteem hadn’t scanned my badge before deciding whether to spare a smile. It turns out his behavior was a direct reflection of his career philosophy, which has nothing to do with chasing fame.

“Work. Read. Work….” he typed onto Facebook a couple of months later.

Then he won the Pulitzer Prize.

Do it for yourself.

This isn’t a story about a nice guy finishing first, although that trope certainly fits. It’s about a writer who chose to do the work that made him proud rather than trying to please others, and deciding to be a writer rather than a Writer. Victory just happened to follow.

“When this book came out, sales were very modest,” King said during an interview from his Manhattan apartment. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll be one of those guys who’s really pleased with the book he’s written. And if that’s that, that’s fine.’ I can’t control the other things, but I definitely controlled what I put on paper. And I was happy.”

Devil in the Grove tells the true story of four young black men falsely accused of rape in a Florida citrus town and the treacherous events that follow their 1949 imprisonments. It includes an evil sheriff, heroic lawyers, including future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and citizens who are both brave and cowardly. The Pulitzer committee called it “a richly detailed chronicle of racial injustice.”

King just wanted to give voice to people he admired.

“I grew up in suburban upstate New York, so none of this stuff was on my radar. I had no background or academic interest in this stuff. My interest has always been about underdogs and storytelling. If I look back at the books I used to read and still read, they’re all about people who have odds stacked against them. I don’t think there’s anything that represents that more than young African American lawyers in the 1940s who are just trying to get a clean, fair shake in the court system and what they’re up against.”

Besides honoring those men, King hoped to sell enough books to convince future editors that he was worthy of their commitment. He never dreamed of collecting a Pulitzer.

“To me, the Pulitzer Prize was something other people got,” he said. “I remember having a thought about this a few months ago. I saw someone who had won one, and I remember thinking, ‘How do you even win a Pulitzer Prize? How does that happen?’”

Not a surprising thought for someone who didn’t even consider himself a writer until a few years ago, despite decades of publishing experience.

burstOne sweet potato!

King started his career by not getting his English degree from the University of South Florida. He was two math credits shy of graduating when he decided that following his girlfriend to Greenwich Village sounded more appealing. There he worked for a phone bank, tried stand-up comedy on open mic nights and took on some freelance writing assignments.

“I wrote about boxing for Ring Magazine,” he said. “I think I got $50 an article. I wrote feature articles for newspapers like the San Diego Union-Tribune. I’d written for baseball-card magazines, too. Eventually, I got a job editing a very small sports magazine where I wrote most of the stories myself. I had to use a lot of pseudonyms because the publisher wanted it to look like we had an actual staff. This was very low budget publishing.”

He didn’t write much after finding work as an associate photo editor for a now-defunct health magazine. There he did “the most mundane things a 21- or 22-year-old kid can do,” such as filing slides and tagging along on photo shoots, but he also fell in love with photography. For the next 15 years, he worked on his technique and became increasingly sought after as a fashion photographer. His clients included Vogue, Marie Claire, Elle, L’Oreal and Redken.

His writing and photo skills merged when a friend asked for a favor. He’d shot some coffee-table books, including one on antique bicycles. When the writer originally hired to do the copy dropped out, the friend asked King to write the text, too.

“I met my deadline, everything was acceptable and they started hiring me for other coffee-table books,” he said.

King also began ghostwriting for people who were prominent in their fields but weren’t inclined to write the books their names went on. Although he can’t reveal the identities of his clients, his dozen or so book assignments included writing introductions on authors included in an anthology, writing a book to accompany a documentary film, and penning a 32-page biography of Mr. Potato Head. The publisher surprised King by printing his byline on the cover of Mr. Potato Head Celebrating 50 Years of One Sweet Potato!, which lead to his first book signing: an appearance at a New Jersey library celebrating the toy’s anniversary.

“I was writing the book based on publicity materials from Hasbro, to go into a kit. I did it in a day,” King said.

While he didn’t learn much about artful writing through such assignments, he built relationships through his professionalism and reliability. One such connection would lead to his Pulitzer-winning work.

Got ideas?

A publisher he frequently worked with asked if King had any of his own ideas, telling him that as a regular writer for the publishing house, he could probably get a contract fairly easily. When King neglected to propose anything, the editor berated him.

“I’m giving you the opportunity to come up with your own ideas!” he said to King before handing him one.

The two were working on a book about crime when the publisher came across a tidbit on Willie Francis, a young black man who had survived the electric chair. The publisher asked King if he thought there was a book in the story, then sent him to find out. The result was a contract with Chamberlain Brothers, a Penguin imprint, to write what would become The Execution of Willie Francis.

Until this point, King wouldn’t have called himself a writer.

“It didn’t really seem much like writing,” he said of his work-for-hire jobs. “I probably saw it more as doing a service.”

Writing and researching Willie changed that.

“It was much more personal to me. I was making a lot of narrative choices, taking longer, thinking of how to make a story,” he said.

Then, as if the gods of writing knew he’d arrived, they sent a classic publishing disappointment as a welcome gift: His publisher folded before he’d finished the book.

When no one else at Penguin wanted it, he decided it was time to find a literary agent. Instead of sending letters to potential agents, he made a website and trailer for the book and sent it to more than 30 agents. About 10 got back to him right away and wanted to see pages. One of them, Farley Chase, asked to meet him the next day. Their first project was writing a proposal for the book that was already three-quarters finished. Farley sold it to Basic Civitas books, a Perseus imprint specializing in African American literature.

Willie came out in 2008, earning good reviews and not-so-good sales figures. While he researched it, he discovered NAACP letters referring to the Groveland case. His agent warned him it would be hard to sell another book of African American history by a white author, but he sent it out anyway. Thirty-five publishers passed before Harper Studio took the book. Then the gods noticed King again.

Harper Studio was an experiment. The business model involved balancing small advances with profit sharing for authors.

“They were going to be ahead of the curve and really focus on social media and marketing and use them as sort of a new way of looking at book promotions,” he said. “And I was really excited to be part of them. Number one, my book had been rejected by so many places that they were like the only ones who really wanted me. But it was like this young family starting out, saying ‘We’re gonna do things a little differently.’ It was really kind of sweet.”

gk1_Olivia KingSweet, but not successful. Harper Studio published most of the books on the original list before failing.

“I think I was the last unpublished book,” King said. “I was actually really nervous. ‘I’m the guy with the African American history book. This is gonna be cancelled.’”

But his editor believed in the book and convinced a HarperCollins editor to take it on. King saw the reprieve as a gift.

Going for broke.

Considering his prior publishing luck and feeling he could have been looking at his last book contract, he decided to put all of his energy into Devil. Although he was still doing photography and ghostwriting to pay the bills, he also used the income to fund his research when his advance ran out. He knew he could return to that work if the book failed.

“This was really the first time I just felt I poured my heart into a book,” he said. “I didn’t even see a lot of commercial potential in it. I just really was trying to do the best job I could. In the end, you just hope it comes together. I didn’t have any expectations of commercial success because I had no experience with that.”

When he finished the book after four years of work, he had no regrets: “I didn’t wish I’d had more time. I didn’t think I could have done anything differently.”

But that didn’t mean he wasn’t worried.

He’d made a conscious decision early in the process to focus on building a book rather than a platform. He didn’t see how his “run of the mill” blog posts would boost sales, he gave up on Twitter after a few days and he realized the only marketing thing he had going for him was “to write good books.” After delivering the manuscript, however, he worried that even his best work might not have been enough. Maybe, he thought, he had to be a marketing expert, too.

Besides paying a college student $15 an hour to set up some events in Florida, where the book takes place, he had no marketing plan. As with his first serious book, Devil received good reviews but little media attention. Some of his readings were well attended, while some were empty houses.

King began to think maybe narrative nonfiction wasn’t for him.

“I realized: OK, I’ve given this part of the business my best shot, and I was ready to start something new.”

The mystery writers he met at book events seemed to be having more fun, so he started looking into how to write and market mysteries. He was looking forward to it.

HarperCollins may not have minded his genre switch at that point. They were preparing to remainder Devil and had written him a letter asking if he wanted to buy discounted copies before pulping began.

“After Devil in the Grove had been out for a few months, it was clear to me that although the reviews were very good, not a lot of people were reading it,” he said. “I accepted that. I hoped President Obama would be photographed reading it on the beach at Martha’s Vineyard, but I also realized that I was hoping for a minor miracle. Still, that seemed far more likely to me than winning the Pulitzer Prize.”

Then came the famous text.

“Dude. Pulitzer.”

King was golfing with a friend from high school when his phone buzzed. The message read, “Dude. Pulitzer.” and included a link to the winners. King was friendly with fiction winner Adam Johnson, so he thought the texter was alerting him to Johnson’s win.

“I’m reading it and thought, ‘This is great. He won the Pulitzer.’ And then literally in the second sentence it said for nonfiction, Devil in the Grove. I thought one of my friends had played a joke on me. I showed it to my friend and said, ‘Is this real?’ He started reading it and said, ‘God, it looks like it is.’ Right after that, my cell phone started exploding.”

Since winning the Pulitzer, King has been profiled by The New York Times and received many requests to speak and to blurb books. Lionsgate has picked up the film rights to the book. In the meantime, King has completed his last ghostwriting assignment, although he wants to continue shooting for a few photography clients. He also writes a Past Imperfect blog post twice a month for Smithsonian Magazine website. And he’s toying with a few ideas for his next book. It won’t be fiction because the Pulitzer renewed King’s faith in his future as a nonfiction writer. But whatever he writes next will be done with the same attitude he brought to Devil.

“I think if you write, you have to think that anything’s possible,” he said. “If you’re pleased with your work, there’s always a chance that other people might feel the same.”

————————————-

5 Writing Tips by Gilbert King

  1. Do what works for you. Starting a project is a daunting task. Serious writers are supposed to keep index cards with character details, big outlines taped to walls, and lots of stickies everywhere. I recently found a dozen index cards for all the major characters from Devil in the Grove. Sadly, they were in a pile under a jar of coins with nothing but names on them. I never wrote an outline, either. The idea of spending any time on one gave me a headache. What I did do was think about the story constantly, in a very visual way, almost like a movie, until I had a narrative structure in my head. Then I started to write, but I had long lists of thoughts, notes, and sources for each chapter. Those lists worked well for me. Do what works.
  2. Tell anyone who’ll listen what you’re working on. This is a great motivator. Who wants to show up at a party and admit to friends that the book wasn’t working, or that things were just too busy at work? No one wants to hear that. They want to be excited about your book because you’re excited. Tell people about your story and make it sound fascinating. Then you’ll feel obligated to produce something. And it’s great practice for later, once you’re trying to sell it.
  3. Don’t be afraid to change course.
    Sometimes new research will open up different roads for you to travel down. Characters may become more intriguing, or take on a more vital role in your story. The structure of the story you’re trying to tell may need to change. Things become messier, you’ll have grave doubts about the quality of your work, and you may even lament the fact that you never did an outline. You’re probably wrong. Just keep going.
  4. Get serious with your editing and rewriting. This is where your story needs to come together, and this process can be more grueling than the writing itself. I try to pay more attention to transitions and pacing at this point. Refining the beginnings and ends of chapters. I love my research, but I try to be careful about adding too much detail and description.
    As Elmore Leonard famously said, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” That’s actually a lot harder than it sounds, but it may be the best advice I’ve ever read.
  5. It’s still your story. Just because you may write narrative nonfiction doesn’t mean that you’re restricted by facts or chronology. You still get to make choices in the story you’re trying to tell. The end of Devil in the Grove presented certain timeline problems that gave me trouble for months. It wasn’t until I decided that I wanted this violent story to end in a moving and hopeful way that I finally figured out how to do it. I wanted Thurgood Marshall alive at the end. I could have closed out the book in a dozen different, more traditional ways. Once I made the decision about how I wanted the end to feel, I had to do a lot of additional research, going through years of Marshall’s papers and correspondence. Eventually, I found a letter that Thurgood Marshall had received about 20 years after the Groveland case when he was on the Supreme Court. That letter effectively tied everything together for me, and it enabled me to bookend the story in a way that, I think, captures the beauty and power of Thurgood Marshall’s spirit.

Susan Kushner Resnick is the author of three books of creative nonfiction including You Saved Me, Too and Goodbye Wifes and Daughters. She teaches creative writing at Brown University.

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  • Randi Minetor

    Susan, this is a great story, and a good lesson for all of us. I’ve been reading all the Pulitzer novels in hopes of understanding what makes a novel a prizewinner, and Gilbert’s reminder to do your best work, first and foremost, is right on the nose. I really enjoyed reading this piece.

    • Alicia

      Randi, thanks so much for your comment. Intrigued by your reading list. What have you learned from the Pulitzer novels? Is there something you see in all of them that makes them winners? AA

      • Randi Minetor

        Alicia, I had to give this some thought before responding. The novels are so diverse that I do not see a common theme that makes them Pulitzer-worthy, but each of them is very much a reflection of its time, even if it deals with historical events more than one hundred years earlier. The quality of the writing may fluctuate (a few of them made my eyes cross), and the styles vary widely, but the deeper themes about human interaction, what drives us as individuals, our ability to endure hardship (read Andersonville–oh my God) and our success or failure as determined by the details in our lives all make these novels rise above their contemporaries.

        What has been really interesting is the discovery of really fine works of literature that have essentially been lost over time. We all know The Grapes of Wrath, The Old Man and the Sea, The Reivers, and more recently, The Shipping News and The Road, but few people have heard of His Family, Alice Adams, One of Ours, or Dragon’s Teeth. Reading some of this early 20th century literature has been a fascinating and revelatory journey.

        • Jeanne Voelker

          Yes, each is a reflection of its time and often a sympathetic portrayal of a culture or subculture… sometimes both of these, working together or in conflict. Randi, have you read The Store, by T.S. Stribling? It won the Pulitzer Prize for best novel in 1933. Stribling wrote true and some of his townspeople never forgave him!

          • Randi Minetor

            Yes, Jeanne, I did read it, and it was one of my favorites. I’m guessing it was probably worth it to Stribling to make a few enemies to write such a book.

          • Jeanne Voelker

            Now I want to read The Forge as well as Unfinished Cathedral to find out what Colonel Miltiades Vaiden was doing before and after the time of The Store.

          • Alicia

            I suppose your exchange exemplifies the fact that only one book can win the prize but so many are worthy. I stopped by the library yesterday to grab a book for a trip. I left with nine books. Thanks for the Stribling tip. Guess I should have gone for that tenth book! Really appreciate your thoughts in this thread, Randi and Jeanne.

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