Corban Addison: How A Social Conscience and An Activist’s Heart Led To Bestselling Novels

Corban AddisonCorban Addison is the author of two international bestselling novels, A Walk Across the Sun and The Garden of Burning Sand, which address some of today’s most pressing human rights issues.

An attorney, activist, and world traveler, he is a supporter of numerous humanitarian causes, including the abolition of modern slavery, gender-based violence, and HIV/AIDS.

He lives with his wife and children in Virginia.

Corban Addison Interview

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Books by Corban Addison

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Corban Addison Transcript

Tim Knox: Corban Addison is my guest today. Corban is a former corporate attorney turned author who initially got into the business with a little help from a guy you may know by the name of John Grisham.

Now Grisham sees some of Corban’s work and introduced him into the right circles and his talent took him the rest of the way. Corban has written two books – A Walk Across the Sun and the new book, Garden of Burning Sand. Both of them deal with human rights issues around the globe.

Corban talks about how he traveled to South Africa and other places researching these books and how at times his own life might have been in danger because of the subject matter of human trafficking and the rights of young women in these countries. A great interview; you’re going to learn a lot today about research and character development and how to turn a successful career as a corporate attorney into an equally, if not greater, success as an author.

Give it a listen. Here’s Corban Addison, author of A Walk Across the Sun and Garden of Burning Sand, on today’s Interviewing Authors.

Tim Knox: Corban, welcome to the program.

Corban Addison: Thanks so much, a pleasure to be here.

Tim Knox: We appreciate you being here. Before we get started, give the audience a little background on you.

Corban Addison: Yeah so I’m 35, practiced law for a while. I graduated from the University of Virginia Law School, did that and like a lot of attorneys I met I was an aspiring author, a storyteller. I’m not sure why that is but definitely a sort of commonality among attorneys to want to write books. I was one of them for quite some time, knocking my head against the wall and New York publishing and getting the raft of rejection letters about books I’d written previously that nobody seemed to be interested in publishing until about 2008. We watched a film on human trafficking. My wife had previously given me the idea that perhaps if I continued to write maybe I should write something that’s a little bit more topical.

Tim Knox: What were you writing before that?

Corban Addison: You know it was honestly the kind of stuff that so many aspiring writers right out of the gate try to do, so various kinds of autobiographical stories, things that were more reflective and philosophical. I have sort of a background in that. Anyway, it was not terribly surprising that nobody wanted to publish my story in fiction but nevertheless that was what I was cutting my teeth on. It was great for trial and error but I’m glad that none of those books ever got published.

So anyway, we watched that film on human trafficking and my wife pretty much said I think this is a topic you could take on. I was willing to try and it was this crazy odyssey that took three and a half years from conception to publication but ultimately it got me out of the gate and got me started on writing stories about international human rights. My second one, The Garden of Burning Sand, just came out last month.

Tim Knox: I can’t tell you how many authors that I interview that used to be lawyers. Is that something among lawyers? They just have stories in them that have to get out. They want to be a writer. What are your thoughts?

Corban Addison: I think people who are attracted to the law are communicators and especially people who practice in the courtroom as I did are storytellers. To be honest, law school is one of those sort of catchall places. When I was in law school I remember meeting people from all across the spectrum of life who were drawn to the law because it’s such a versatile degree. I find that a lot of lawyers they get out, start practicing. Some people who become lawyers are really cut from that cloth and really want to do it with their lives; a lot of them aren’t and find pretty quickly that it’s a harder road than they thought when they just got a nice LSAT score and got into a good school.

I think it’s the nature of being a communicator and also just the allure of expressing yourself in the written word. As far as why we succeed as lawyers turned writers, that I do not know except that perhaps I would say that the law is just a perennially interesting topic for fiction.

Tim Knox: One of the things I hear you saying is that during this time you just kept writing and writing and writing. I think that is also a central theme that I hear from a lot of successful authors. They just kept on writing and doing the work and had faith that eventually something would happen.

Corban Addison: Yes and it’s funny. I tell audiences all the time that one of the things that sticks out about my story is the blessing of failure. It’s sort of one of those blessings in disguise. You don’t expect it at the time and frankly failure’s really… it hurts to get rejections but at the same time if a person is a true writer, and by that I mean someone who writes for no audience at all simply because it’s a joy to put words on the page to mess around with them; it’s the way that we process the world, then keep writing by all means and as I did – learning by doing, learning by failure, learning by rejection, taking criticism, learning how to take the punches, roll with them, gleam the wisdom from them, make myself better.

I look back and see it was a broken and very long road. It was about 10 years for me from the first time that I put a word in a book that I ultimately finished to the time that A Walk Across the Sun, my first book, was published. So a decade but it was worth it.

Tim Knox: So you were a 10 year overnight success.

Corban Addison: That’s right.

Tim Knox: I think another point that you bring up that’s very important to new authors is rejection is part of the process. You really can’t let it knock you down. You have to just keep writing and writing. Did you find that you actually became a better writer because of the rejection?

Corban Addison: Oh I sure did. I will say that everybody… I mean, I’ve sort of run across two different types of authors. There are the types of authors who really just doubt themselves constantly and really need to be built up by people around them to say, “Hey, you have a gift,” and then there are other aspiring writers, and I was sort of in this camp, “Hey, I get finished with the first manuscript that I complete, put that final word on there and I’m sure it’s going to be the next great bestseller.”

Frankly I don’t know how the people who doubt themselves that much persist. It’s actually quite courageous that they do because to be honest it takes so much work for most people to get published that if we didn’t have this kind of weird, unnatural hubris in some sense to just keep banging our head against a wall and everybody tells us we’re never going to get a breakthrough, I think most people would give up long before. It’s just, for me anyway, it was an incredibly arduous process but again I look at the road and I’m grateful for it. I really see it as extremely productive in helping me hone my craft.

Tim Knox: Listening to the traits that you list of a successful author – the ability to keep going, the ability to give up off the ground and get back on the horse, that sort of thing – they are traits similar to the entrepreneur. Now do you approach your writing from a business standpoint? Are you an entrepreneurial author?

Corban Addison: That’s a great question. To be honest I didn’t when I first started out but one of the things, one of the gifts of being a lawyer was that I learned the world of business and I learned what it was like to take a skill and market it. One of the things that I also discovered about my writing, and it was all sort of part and parcel of the same growth process, but I discovered that in order to write a successful book you actually have to write for an audience and not just write for your own pleasure.

When I started out I was writing more, you know, it doesn’t matter who reads this; I want to write it for myself. I realized along the way that wasn’t working and that I actually needed to have an audience in mind. So yes, I’ve developed a very rigorous kind of approach for the books that I write both from the standpoint of writing for a very clear audience to my own process, which I keep business hours in an office offsite and not in my home. I work normal hours unless I have deadlines, in which case I can burn the midnight oil like everyone else. Yeah, I definitely have sort of developed a fairly rigorous approach. It is very much like building a business.

Tim Knox: Your first book, A Walk Across the Sun, was inspired by a documentary that you saw on human trafficking. Tell us about that.

Corban Addison: Yeah it was intriguing. It was actually a feature film that didn’t do very well at the box office, largely because it was kind of depressing but it was called Trade, with Kevin Kline. It was more documentary-like than any of the other feature films that I’ve seen that touched on modern slavery, like Taken for instance with Liam Neeson. It did fabulously at the box office but it was much more sort of a James Bond story.

The Trade really sort of opened our eyes and I say that very intentionally my wife and I both were really touched by that story and were moved to consider the reality of modern slavery in a way that we never had before. Then the spark for the idea of the story came soon after that. Like I said, my wife had said why don’t you write justice stories? But I didn’t have an issue. This film launched and suddenly I had an issue and that’s how things sort of began.

Tim Knox: So the feature film really brought this topic to the foreground for you. I assume by this time you knew how to write a book. You had the mechanics down and you knew how to go about turning this inspiration into something people could read.

Corban Addison: Yeah it was great because by that point I had written three unpublished manuscripts that, like I said, I’d gotten a raft of rejections. I knew how to write a story. I knew how to begin and end a story. I knew how long it would take to write a full length manuscript and I had a strong sense for developing characters and all of that. I had gotten enough good feedback from literary agents and other folks along the way that I felt strongly in my ability to write a story.

The topic was something that, as you said, I was certainly not an expert on and I knew virtually nothing about it. I approached it like I used to approach – when I was a litigator – complex civil lawsuits. I was a lawyer and would have clients come to me and say, “You need to become a subject matter expert in our field before you ever take our case to a judge or jury.”

So that’s the way I approached this book. I basically said, okay, I need to go to the source and find people in this world who can talk to me about what they do, people in law enforcement, people in the non-governmental organization community here and abroad. It needed to be an international story. I felt that from the beginning. It’s such a global issue so I had to pick certain parts of the world. I did that based on connections that I had and was developing. India sort of became the locus of the story and then Europe and the US were more natural for me to weave in.

Thankfully people came out of the woodwork and when I told them what I wanted to do, I had no credentials beyond my legal credentials to offer but I had an idea that people found intriguing and they opened the doors from here to Mumbai and let me in and gave me access and information and interviews. So over the course of about nine months from conception to the first word on the page I had done a tremendous amount of research.

Tim Knox: And you didn’t just get on the internet and go to Google to do research. You actually got on a plane and went over there. You went to India, Mumbai, those sort of places.

Corban Addison: Yeah. I wanted to write a story that wasn’t just topical but I wanted to write a story that was culturally rich and that I could… especially when I’m writing about another culture. I’m very careful about the perception as a white American going to sort of the post-colonial cultures like India and Africa in my second book. I’m just very careful. I wanted to portray people and places and cultures accurately, faithfully so that when Indians read my first book or people from South Africa read my second book, they say, “You got that right.” I was very, very sensitive to that from the beginning.

Tim Knox: Let’s talk a little about character development. A book like this – how do you go about researching and developing your characters?

Corban Addison: In A Walk Across the Sun there’s sort of two primary intersecting storylines. One begins in the East Coast of India, south of Chennai, in the region that was affected, really devastated by the tsunami in 2004. That incident, the tsunami causes two girls, sisters, to be orphaned. They lose their family in the tsunami and that creates the vulnerability that as they try to find their way to safety they’re exploited by human traffickers and they get swept into the underworld.

Then on the side of the world in Washington D.C. there’s a sort of disillusioned lawyer, a young lawyer, who’s been hurt by some family tragedy and his wife leaves him and he’s already lost a baby. He’s sort of in this place where he’s trying to figure out what to do with his life and takes a year, a sabbatical essentially from the big firm law, to go to India and work with an NGO that does human rights work. When he’s there he finds out about the story of the sisters who have been trafficked to Mumbai and decides to make it his personal mission to rescue them. His name was Thomas Clarke.

I wanted to start with very different kind of worlds apart and then bring them together as the story progresses.

Tim Knox: So you did manage to get a lawyer in the story after all.

Corban Addison: Oh yeah.

Tim Knox: Was there anything autobiographical about this character, the attorney? I know your life is on track and doing great but he was a bit of a train wreck. Is there any Corban Addison in this character?

Corban Addison: I’m sure. I think anytime you write about a subject you know well that that’s going to come out. I did try… I had done quite a bit, like I mentioned before, autobiographical fictionalization in my early unpublished manuscripts so I was careful this time to try to create an authentic character that was separate from me.

Sure, I think there’s an extent to which his experience in Mumbai in particular was very much influenced by my own. When I landed on the ground in Mumbai, I flew in having never been to India before. I had contacts that were welcoming to me but I wasn’t going with anyone. I had no guide for the process. It was all very much an indigenous experience and it was quite overwhelming. India is so colorful and so noise intense and smell intense and commotion intense and it’s just like a thrill ride. I tried to write that into the story. I would say that more than anything that’s the autobiographical content is just his exposure and his sense of India.

Tim Knox: Now when you were over there researching the book, did you ever feel like you might be in danger? Were there times when those around you were worried about your safety? Were you worried about your safety?

Corban Addison: Sure, I did at the end and after spending time with a group that actually rescues girls, works with the police to rescue underage girls from brothels in Mumbai. I had spent time with their lawyers. I’d gone to court with them. I had interviewed their investigators. I had spent time reading their confidential files and seeing undercover videos and all kinds of stuff. I really wanted to go undercover into the brothel district myself before I left because I knew that I was going to include some scenes like that in my store. While I can read about them for descriptions, there’s nothing quite like seeing something to be able to make it authentic.

Thankfully I was able, with the help of my contacts, to go to an undercover brothel, as weird as that sounds. I went with an Indian guide who was known to the brothel owners and the pimps who was actually an undercover agent but he had maintained his cover. He was able to take me in and get me past the guards even though I had the white face that made all of them afraid thinking that I was with the cops or something. I was able to go up and act like a customer, of course not making a purchase but to go up and see the girls and see the brothel.

I did that a couple different times and yeah it’s weird because at the end of the day I’m not trusted so anything could have happened and I was warned about that from the beginning. I was very nervous. Nothing sensational occurred. Ultimately my guide was the key. I mean he got me really a tour. They showed me the rooms. It was pretty wild and then I just kind of indicated that I was not interested in making a purchase and shook the brothel owner’s hand and walked out. It was definitely a surreal kind of experience.

Tim Knox: Listening to you describe that – for those of us here in the United States, we hear about that sort of thing going on but to actually be on the ground there and see it happening, it had to be just very other worldly almost, isn’t it?

Corban Addison: Definitely, definitely and it imprinted itself in my heart in a way that made very personal what I was trying to do. I went there with the desire to write a story that would humanize and personalize an issue that a lot of us have heard of but don’t really know much about for readers around the world. So meeting those girls and feeling helpless, feeling like I knew that I couldn’t do anything in that moment that would not have endangered myself and them. So I really was impotent in the brothels to do anything to help them.

What it did do for me is it really galvanized my passion to come home and write the best book that I possibly could in the hope that it would help, while it entertains, it would also educate and perhaps even spur people to find ways to get engaged in the movement to end modern slavery.

Tim Knox: Once you were back home and you had finished all the research, how long did it take you to actually write the book?

Corban Addison: Well it kind of wrote itself in some sense because I feel like I frontloaded it with so much research and when I came back I didn’t spend more than about a month before I wrote the first word so it was all very fresh.

I had done a lot of character development and story building. I don’t start with a full outline but I started with a very strong sense of where I was beginning and where I was going and who my characters were and what the defining elements of the story would be so that once I got into it I wasn’t going to get lost in the weeds and taking detours in the wrong directions and what not.

It was about four months from the first word to the last but I will hasten to mention that that first draft then became 13 drafts before it was published. Some of those were longer edits than others but I had to do a lot of re-writing, a lot of story editing work before anyone was willing to buy the book.

Tim Knox: Once you had the manuscript finished did you attempt to get an agent?

Corban Addison: At that point, yeah, I didn’t have an agent. What I did have, which was an incredible grace on one level because I spent my entire, well my wife’s and my savings account on this adventure, which was speculative from the beginning and basically stretched ourselves to the breaking point to get the book done. I was working in the law during the day. I was writing in the evenings and on weekends. We had a small child in the home. It was quite sort of insane so gratefully before I went to India, I’d been fortunate enough to meet John Grisham through connections I had and he was interested in the topic and was willing to at least look at my book when I finished it.

That was my goal. My goal was to write a book that he would love and of course something that I’d be proud of. So that’s what I did. As soon as I finished the book I gave it to him. I didn’t have an agent. I didn’t have a publisher at that point and of course I didn’t have a promise from him that he would do anything other than take a look at it, which could have very easily been read five pages and throw it out.

So I went into this sort of hole where for about four and a half months… I should mention that I had some friends read it before I gave it to him and I got some feedback initially. That’s always important. Then I gave it to him and I let it go. I didn’t know what I was going to do if he hated it because I knew how hard it is to get an agent, the query letters and everything else. I’d gotten so many rejection letters before. I really didn’t know what I was going to do but as it turned out it took him some time but eventually he got to it and then ended up loving the manuscript and offered me help and gave me a great endorsement, at which point I then had to query agents but I got more attention than I would have otherwise with an endorsement from Grisham. Once I found an agent they found me a publisher and that was kind of the process.

Tim Knox: I would assume that if you’ve got an endorsement from John Grisham, that’s going to open some doors, but I would also assume that you must have been on pins and needles waiting for some kind of response because Grisham has to be a really hard guy to impress.

Corban Addison: Well yeah and, you know, actually the endorsement that he gave me was the first of its kind in his 20 year career. I mean he’s given blurbs before for books that are already in the pipeline for publication but he’s never given a blurb to an unpublished author before. So it was really an amazing thing.

The four and a half months felt like four and a half years. I mean it’s funny looking back I think, oh gosh, it’s not very long. It’s not even half a year. Every day sort of dragged itself out. I really didn’t know because I didn’t hear anything from him and I was sure a thousand times in that process that he hated it, that he didn’t have the heart to tell me that he hated it. I wasn’t his friend. It was more like an acquaintance of a friend.

So anyway I expected him to do nothing but at the same time there was that part of me that just was like, look, we’ve gone to the edge for this and really believe in what we’re doing and he’s a good guy. I think it’s a good book and my friends really loved it so maybe. I’ll never forget the day I got the email from him out of the blue and I nearly fell off my chair.

Tim Knox: Once you picked yourself up off the floor, did you do a happy dance?

Corban Addison: Oh yeah. It was funny. I was at a continuing legal education conference. We’re required to get credits every year taking classes about how we don’t get disbarred and I got that in the middle of the session. I don’t remember anything that was said from that day except for that email.

Tim Knox: So that’s the story of the first book, A Walk Across the Sun. Let’s talk about the second book that is out now, Garden of Burning Sand. Tell us about that.

Corban Addison: After I wrote A Walk Across the Sun I discovered I’d kind of taken the legal fiction in a new direction and made it international and cultural and sort of added in elements from say like Khaled Hosseini’s writing and sort of outside the context of the big firms. My main character becomes kind of an NGO lawyer and so non-profit lawyer. I thought I could actually write many books like this. I could take an issue, a human rights issue, and embed this sort of legal context but take the story to places that are interesting in the world in which these issues are very much alive but then bring them back and essentially make them relevant for a Western audience. So it was actually Grisham who gave me the piece of advice before I had an agent or publisher to start writing my second book.

Thankfully I had an idea and the idea had come from some friends who were actually going to start a non-profit working with kids with intellectual disabilities like Down syndrome, Cerebral palsy, autism, those sorts of things in Zambia, a country that I’d never thought much about, probably could not have pointed it out on the map. They were going to work with these kids in a place where unlike the West we’ve really improved in our treatment of kids with intellectual disabilities but in Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, children like this are treated really as not even subhuman. They’re almost like nonhumans. They’re often not fed or medicated. They’re treated like a curse.

So really no one was doing this kind of work and I remember when my wife and I heard from our friends about their desire to go over there we thought, both of us, this is an issue that needs to be talked about but I didn’t have a narrative. It was sort of serendipity that I ran across a story from a different non-profit, this group of lawyers and social workers that do work with poor kids and women in Zambia among other places in the world.

There was a story of a girl with Down syndrome who had been raped and their lawyers came to her aid. She came from a poor family and would have had no access to lawyers or justice or anything in Zambia. Because of the really sort of heroic assistance they were able to provide this girl and her family… they pushed a very sort of broken court system to put the guy, the abuser behind bars and give the girl justice.

I thought that’s a very unusual kind of legal story. I could tell that with sort of courtroom scenes and investigation and that kind of drama but I could also actually build that into a bigger, broader story about violence against women and girls worldwide, which is obviously a problem with great significance. It’s been highlighted by Hillary Clinton and the United Nations and the New York Times and various others. It’s sort of a great moral challenge that we face about the way that women and girls are treated in a lot of the world, including sadly still in the West. Rape is still very common.

My desire was to write a story that would bring all that together, but within the African context bringing alive the beauty and the horror of life, especially for the poor in a place like Lusaka, Zambia and then tie that back to the United States and make it very relevant for my readers in the West.

Tim Knox: The two books are very different but they are similar in theme. What attracts you to this kind of story?

Corban Addison: Well I went to law school because I love justice and there was a desire in me, a sort of deep seeded desire, to make the world a little better. I don’t have pretention that I as a single person can change the entire world but I do believe that all of us have the ability to make our sphere of influence, however small or big it might be, a little bit better. So that was my motivation for becoming a lawyer.

I quickly discovered that the real life of practicing law is often not really about that, which was one reason I loved the idea of being able to write these stories and take my passion for justice and sort of weave it into stories that ultimately confront justice and evil head on, the abuse of the poor by the powerful, and then give my readers a sense of hope that it’s based on reality. In fact courage can be rewarded in the world, that real ordinary people can make a real difference in the lives of the needy in big ways. If a person feels a strong sense of calling to work in the developing world there’s a lot of opportunity there but the truth is that all of us can have a hand in different ways and get in and connect with the work of justice.

The passion in me flows into the stories and I write stories that I hope are entertaining on their face as works of fiction but my heart for justice is definitely at the core of what I’m doing.

Tim Knox: Right. You mentioned that you just turned in your latest book to your publisher. What’s next? Are you going to just jump into the next book or are you going to take a little break?

Corban Addison: Goodness yeah, I’m taking a break. The three books, each book took me to a different part of the world on these long odysseys, a month or a month and a half away from my family and then four to six months of writing and then basically a month and a half to four months of editing, depending on what was needed. So anyway, yeah I’m taking a break.

Tim Knox: So Corban, what’s your best advice to our audience – the writers out there that are wanting to do what you’ve done. What’s your best advice for them?

Corban Addison: I would suggest to anybody who wants to make it as a writer to believe in what you’re doing, to keep persisting against all the rejections you get, to find some people who support you and believe that they’re telling you the truth when they say that you have something. Then ultimately just continue to fight for that one person, as it was with me. Find one person in the industry inside the citadel of publishing who’s willing to say, “I believe. I love what you’re doing.” As soon as that person is found, that’s the way in. you can’t break into publishing. It really is about finding someone inside who’s willing to open the gates and invite you in. It’s kind of one of those things that I wish there was a path to success but persistence is a huge part of it and believing in yourself and continuing to refine your craft over the course of months and years, as long as it takes ultimately to get somebody to say yes.

Tim Knox: Corban, great information. Your books – A Walk Across the Sun, Garden of Burning Sand, a third book submitted to the publisher. Do you have a title for that book yet?

Corban Addison: Yeah it will be called The Tears of Dark Water.

Tim Knox: Very good. Corban, where can the audience find out more about your work?

Corban Addison: My website, and my books are available everywhere in print and in eBook formats on all the typical sites and bookstores.

Tim Knox: Corban Addison, it’s been a pleasure. When the new book comes out we expect you back on the program.

Corban Addison: Excellent. I appreciate it. It’s been a pleasure.



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