LITTLE ROCK — The myth of the Obscure Writer is that the Obscure Writer feverishly toils away on a manuscript and then sends it off to the great and powerful publishing houses and book agents of New York. All the great and powerful in the industry reject (or, more likely, never read) the great book except for one who champions it and promptly goes about changing the Obscure Writer to the Famous Writer.
This myth is truly a myth, although it does describe in part the journey of Grif Stockley, a now retired lawyer from Marianna who endured years of rejection. But Stockley simply didn’t quit and, as a result, has shelves full of his books and walls covered with posters for his plays.
“Over a 19-year period beginning in the 1970s, I wrote six or so unpublishable novels and numerous unproducible plays,” Stockley says. “All of this was done in the middle of the night, early in the morning and on weekends while I worked at [the Center for Arkansas] Legal Services.”
Then an agent in New York sent yet another rejection to Stockley but asked the Arkansas writer if he had any other work to send. Legal thrillers were hot at the time and, although Stockley was writing on other subjects, he seized his opportunity.
“Scott Turow had just come out with Presumed Innocent, and so I lied and said, of course, and wrote the first chapter of what became Expert Testimony, the first of five in the Gideon Page series,” Stockley says. “After writing me that it was ‘totally unpublishable,‘ [the agent] said she would work with me on the manuscript and she did. Nine months later she sent it to a senior vice president at Simon & Schuster who took it.”
Most writers would be happy enough with the resulting five books out at bookstores around the countryunder the well-known Simon & Schuster imprint. But Stockley has moved to the nonfictional world of history, specifically the subject of race relations in Arkansas.
In 2001, the University of Arkansas Press published Stockley’s Blood in Their Eyes, a recounting of the race riots in Elaine in 1919. Several histories have followed including a biography of Daisy Bates.
“He’s not a trained historian,” says David Stricklin, head of the Butler Center. “He’s a lawyer. In writing history you have to develop a case. You have to use arguments as you would if you were in court and that training is natural for his writing. Of course, [Grif] was already a very productive writer before he started writing history.”
Along the way, the industrious writer has picked up praise and honors for his work. He was the first Dee Brown Fellow at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies and he has twice won the Booker Worthen Literary Prize, given each year since 1999 to the writer of the best fiction or nonfiction book about Arkansas.
“In his switch from fiction to nonfiction, he has very quickly emerged as one of our state’s most important historians on race relations,” says Phillip McMath, a lawyer, novelist and co-founder of The Porter Fund Prize, an award for Arkansas writers that Stockley has won. “No one has addressed this tragic issue with greater courage, frankness or devotion than Grif has.”
Ruled by Race also earned Stockley the 2009 John G. Ragsdale Award, given each year by the Arkansas Historical Association for what it considers the best new work of Arkansas history.
Though he flirted with fame and fortune when penning his lawyer fiction, Stockley considers his books about race his greatest accomplishment.
“The most satisfaction I’ve gotten is the publication of Ruled by Race,” Stockley says. “It represents the culmination of work that was started in the 1970s. The fact that Roy Reed selected it in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette as the best book he had read recently meant a lot, and the reviews have been excellent. I’ve had a number of African-Americans come up and thank me for writing it. I think for them it represents at least a partial telling of the truth of what they have experienced in Arkansas.”
When talking about his childhood in the 1950s, Stockley, who has two older sisters, immediately references hisrace.
“I was the privileged son of white parents and so that meant everything at that time,” Stockley says.
When he was very young, Stockley’s family moved to Marianna and left behind a farming life in Mississippi.
“My father had a series of small businesses that weren’t successful until he hooked up with a man named Francis ‘Pee Wee’ Owens. Mr. Pee Wee weighed over 300 pounds and was an excellent salesman. My daddy didn’t like the idea of selling things. I think he would have been happy being an English squire.”
An active and popular student in Marianna, Stockley played whatever sports he could but didn’t exactly cover himself in glory on the field.
“I was too slow and short to make the basketball team, even during the days of segregation and even though Voris Johnson, my brother-in-law, was the coach,” Stockley says. “When I said I had never gotten injured in all the years I played football, he reminded me that I had never hit anybody hard enough to get hurt.”
Stockley also claims he wasn’t tearing it up in the classroom. Even though he was writing sports stories for the local paper, The Courier Index, he hadn’t become a convert to the writing life.
“I knew I was not going to become a mathematician or scientist,” Stockley says.
International relations was his major at Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College) but even then he was discouraged from writing.
“My American history professor, who was my adviser, told me to switch my major to Spanish from international relations because he said I couldn’t write. Because of my score on a standardized test I was put in the ‘dumb’ English class that was taughtby the dean of men mainly for guys who were there to play football or apparently to play bridge in the Lynx Lair.”
While Stockley was working to pass his classes, the fight for civil rights was well under way. Today he is able to look back at that time and see the folly of essentially sitting on the sidelines.
“When I was in college, I joined the Young Republicans Club,” Stockley says. “That seems laughable today but my parents in 1948 had been ‘Dixiecrats,’ supporters of South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, who made no bones about his commitment to white supremacy. In other words, this was not an inconsequential step. In high school, my intellectual hero was Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement was going on all around us outside of Lee County, and we were discussing the virtues of selfishness and rugged individualism.”
For young Stockley, President John F. Kennedy’s admonition to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” wasn’t an empty slogan. He marks a turning point in his life with his time in the Peace Corps, which sent him to an impoverished section of Latin America.
“The poverty on the northern coast of Colombia radicalized me,” Stockley says. “The irony, of course, is that it was the same poverty that existed in Lee County - the same lack of opportunities - kids who had holes in their teeth and distended bellies but who were bright as could be. They didn’t know they were doomed to a Third World existence. Of course, it was much safer emotionally for me to pontificate about the inequalities in Colombia than to go back to Arkansas and say the same thing.”
The military draft awaited Stockley after the Peace Corps and, while he didn’t see any action, he figured out the next step in his life.
“While I was in the Army, I decided to go to law school,” Stockley says. “With Martin Luther King’s murder and then Bobby Kennedy’s murder, I realized I needed to do something where I was challenged to do more than talk about human rights.”
Once enrolled in law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Stockley found ways to be engaged in the struggle for civil rights.
“I joined the Law Students Civil Rights Research Council,” Stockley says. “We tried to recruit black students to law school at Fayetteville. I also wrote unsigned articles on legal issues for the civil rights newspaper Many Voices that was published by Respect Inc. out of West Memphis.”
POOR MAN’S GRISHAM
All through the ’70s and ’80s, while practicing law in Little Rock, Stockley was banging away at his typewriter, spending hours and hours after work on his various novels, plays and nonfiction books. When his break finally arrived, Stockley was one of a few writers enjoying success in a market where John Grisham was king.
“The first [of my published novels] sold over 100,000 in paperback, and I thought I was on my way to being a poor man’s John Grisham, especially after Probable Cause was optioned for the movie/TV market.”
But Probable Cause never hit the big or small screen and by the time Stockley put out his fourth legal thriller, Illegal Motion, readers had moved on.
“My ‘big’ book tour for the fourth book in Dallas, Nashville, Memphis, Jackson, Atlanta, Oxford and Little Rock was a disaster. The books just didn’t sell as well though I am proud to note that the last book [Blind Judgment] got a starred review in Publishers Weekly.”
Today, Stockley is a fulltime writer with books published frequently and with plays such as Truth? Reconciliation! staging at Little Rock’s Weekend Theater. He credits a number of organizations including the Central Arkansas Library System, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and the Darragh Foundation for his ability to work full time outside a law office. He is the current recipient of the Laman Library Writers Fellowship, which will help him complete a book about the 1959 fire at the Negro Boys Industrial School in Wrightsville where 21 teenagers died.
“I didn’t know about the fire until I was almost through with Ruled by Race,” Stockley says. “I may have read about it but I thought of it as an act of negligence rather than what civil-rights lawyers call ‘deliberate indifference,’ as I now think of it.”
If Stockley isn’t quite the “famous writer” in his view after the first printing of Expert Testimony, he hardly seems bothered by that fact. He is writing important work that he feels certain will give a view of history that has been neglected.
“The truth is that we have only scratched the surface [of work about race relations] because we’ve had so few black historians. I don’t think we have been able to internalize the scope and consequences of white supremacy in Arkansas.”SELF PORTRAIT Grif Stockley
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH Oct. 9, 1944, Memphis.
THE BEST PIECE OF WRITING ADVICE I’VE BEEN GIVEN IS If you learn to like the process of revision, you greatly increase the chances of finding a publisher.
I WOULD TELL YOUNG WRITERS TO Not take the advice of someone who took 19 years to get published.
I AM LOST WITHOUT MY Public radio stations.
NOBODY CAN SAY THEY UNDERSTAND ARKANSAS HISTORY UNTIL THEY Take into account how much white supremacy has played a role in our past.
THE GREATEST LAWYER I HAVE EVER SEEN IS [U.S. District] Judge Bill Wilson.
I CAN’T START MY DAY WITHOUT “Buddy” taking me for a walk.
THE PERSON I ADMIRE THE MOST IS Gandhi.
ONE WORD OR PHRASE TO SUM ME UP No writer should ever fall for that question!