ovelists from Charles Dickens to Émile Zola to John Steinbeck have used fiction to illuminate brutal social conditions and expose injustice, grabbing audiences by the heart where more journalistic accounts might have stopped at the head.
Corban Addison ’04 has followed in that path. His first two novels, “A Walk Across the Sun” (2011) and “The Garden of the Burning Sand” (2013), exposed the horrors of child sex trafficking in India and Zambia, respectively. “The Tears of Dark Water” (2015) was set against a backdrop of piracy off the coast of Somalia. “A Harvest of Thorns” (2017) addressed the exploitation of workers in the sweat shops of Bangladesh.
His books have regularly made best-seller lists both in the U.S. and abroad, and have received acclaim for weaving gripping tales that also make a broader point. Kirkus Reviews, for example, praised “The Tears of Dark Water” as a “fast-paced thriller that puts its humanitarian moral at the forefront.” Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine hailed “A Walk Across the Sun” as “a pulse-revving novel with a serious message.”
His latest book, “Wastelands: The True Story of Farm Country on Trial,” which will publish in June, packs a similar punch but marks a significant departure. It is his first work of nonfiction, one that author and lawyer John Grisham, who wrote the forward, calls “a story I wish I had written.”
“Wastelands” tells of decades of litigation against Smithfield, the country’s largest pork producer, whose hog-farming operations caused untold environmental and economic damage to small, predominantly Black communities in rural North Carolina. It has the same vivid cast of characters that Addison’s books are known for, in this case including the piquantly named Mona Lisa Wallace, the attorney who eventually won more than $500 million in trial verdicts and forced the company to change its ways. As Addison wrote on his LinkedIn page earlier this year, ìI wrote it like a novel, yet every word of it is true. I couldn’t have invented a better story if I had tried.”
Many lawyers turn to creative writing later in life, but Addison’s writing and legal careers have nearly overlapped. A native of Carlsbad, California, he majored in mechanical engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, but had no desire to build widgets for a living. Instead, he entered UVA determined, he said, “to use the law to change the world.” Even during a busy first year, Addison also managed to finish a draft of a novel, which he had begun in college. “It was terrible,” Addison says now, “but you have to start somewhere.” Undeterred, he wrote another book during his third year of law school and it, too, went nowhere.
After clerking for U.S. Magistrate Judge B. Waugh Crigler, Addison joined the Charlottesville firm Scott Kroner still hoping to change the world, one way or another. He wrote a third unpublished novel at night while practicing law but was now receiving enough positive feedback from agents that he was encouraged to keep trying.
His creative breakthrough came from an unexpected source. In 2008, Addison and his wife, Marcy, saw the film “Trade,” starring Kevin Kline, about international child sex trafficking. The film made a life-changing impression on both of them. Marcy, whom Addison calls his fairest critic, suggested that he take on the subject for his next novel, blending his talent for storytelling with his passion for justice.
My greatest moments as a writer have come not from reviewers, but rather from people who know the subject saying, ‘You captured it. You did right by us.’
Recognizing that he would have to immerse himself in that seamy world in order to describe it on the page, Addison approached the International Justice Mission, a nonprofit group dedicated to fighting modern slavery, which agreed to send him to India for six weeks. Taking a leave of absence from his firm and scrounging money wherever he could, Addison traveled to Mumbai and went undercover to tour brothels posing as a customer. The trip was extremely dangerous and deeply affecting. Addison still remembers riding the train back to his hotel after one visit.
“It was one of those moments when the thoughts in my head about what I was writing met the real world and caused a kind of moral supernova,” he recalled. “I realized that I couldn’t do anything to help the girls I saw in those brothels. But what I could do is write the best book I could to speak to the consciences of people worldwide, and maybe the broader culture could change. Maybe other children could be saved from a similar fate.”
Addison’s prior books were fiction, but illuminated real-world brutal social conditions and injustice.
None of that would happen, though, unless the book, which became “A Walk Across the Sun,” found a publisher. Even with support from Grisham, whom Addison had met through friends and who loved the manuscript, this proved difficult. U.S. publishers praised the book but passed on it anyway, calling the subject too disturbing for a novel. After many more months, the U.K.-based firm Quercus finally agreed to publish the book.
Asked why he chose to tell his stories through fiction, Addison said that he had grown up reading historical fiction and found it far more compelling than straight histories, in part because the author could take necessary dramatic liberties to get the spirit of a story right. To Addison, the proof that he struck the proper balance in his work came in the praise he received from people in the places he wrote about.
“I went to their communities with open hands and an open heart and wanted to learn,” he said. “My greatest moments as a writer have come not from reviewers, but rather from people who know the subject saying, ‘You captured it. You did right by us.’”
In “Wastelands,” Addison found a story that, to use an overworked phrase, was almost stranger than fiction. He put in three years of research, attending several trials, interviewing scores of people, and visiting small communities in the North Carolina coastal plain to understand that world and tell their story. The book is also full of complex legal and political machinations. And when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit finally affirms a jury’s award of compensatory and punitive damages against Smithfield in 2020, Addison turns the mic over to Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III ’72, who wrote in a stirring concurrence that the award was not only legally sound but “essentially a just one.”
Though Addison left behind a career in law, writing about the lawyers in the Smithfield case reminded him about the impact they can have.
“I have often looked over my shoulder at my classmates who stayed in a far more predictable and generally solvent career and thought to myself, was I the fool?” he said. “I have always believed that the law is a noble profession and ultimately it is defined by the people practicing it.”
Still, he knows that he is lucky. Addison’s teenage son once complained to him that he doesn’t like to get up and go to school on Mondays. The remark hit home.
“What I can say,” Addison admitted, “and I say it with gratitude, is that for all the ups and downs of what I’ve done, I’ve never felt that way on Monday morning.”