Corban Addison is a friendly interviewee, speaking from his office in North Carolina, direct with his answers but full of character too. "It's a balmy 60 degrees, but just like with you, dismal and rainy," he says. It’s the week before Christmas when we speak, and his youngest daughter has had a stomach virus. “So we’re hoping it’s not going to sweep the family,” he adds.
His wife and two girls crop up a lot in our interview, and he credits his wife as having had the original idea for his debut novel, A Walk Across the Sun. “She's my best critic because she's fairest,” he says. The novel is a thriller set in India and the US, as a Washington lawyer trying to recover from the death of his young daughter becomes involved in the plight of two Indian girls, orphaned by the Boxing Day tsunami and sold to a brothel in Mumbai. It’s fast-paced but lyrical too, with quotations from Indian literature or religious texts opening each chapter, and it is through a self-composed poem, rather than through his world-straddling heroics, that central character Thomas Clarke ultimately gains back what he has lost.
It is his first book to be published, but the fourth one he's written: “I've been writing unsuccessfully for about ten years, so it's been a process of knocking my head against the wall until at some point someone finally somebody opened a door for me and said: ‘We really like what you've done.’ So it definitely is exciting to finally find a story with wings.”
Addison lives in the same town as John Grisham, and so it was through a friend of a friend connection that the thriller king read his manuscript: “Everything lined up and John was interested in reading the book, and it took him some time but he absolutely loved it, and he gave me major credibility because he offered me an endorsement he had never given to any other unpublished author.”
To write, he takes himself off to an office every weekday, typing away as much as possible. Until recently, he was working full-time as a lawyer, and for the novel he spent time with experts in the field of modern-day slavery, including at the International Justice Mission in India, a human rights organisation that combats forced prostitution. He also spent time undercover in Mumbai brothels and the ugliness of this personal experience certainly comes across in the novel; part of its page-turning power is that Addison leaves you with no doubt that what you are reading, though fictional, is made up of absolute truth - underage girls forced to work as prostitutes; orphans sold into slavery to work as drug mules.
Addison says: “At the very beginning I knew that if it were ever going to come to pass that I would write a book, I would have to know my subject matter. As a lawyer my nature is that I have to know my material before I ever speak on it, write about it. For me writing fiction is not about making up the story, it's about bringing real life to the page in a way that comes alive to readers and exposes things about the world.”
The characters he most enjoyed writing were the two girls at the story’s heart, Ahalya and her younger sister Sita. “I think it was intriguing for me as an American male to write through the eyes of young Indian girls. I crafted their family around some people that I had met and that were dear people to me. There were some really special conversations I had, and bringing them out and their sister relationship was a special undertaking for me because it really was a stretch from an imagination standpoint just to get it right; I just sort of treasured writing them because it felt like it was an unusual thing. It was not something that came naturally to me, so I just put so much effort into making sure that the details were right, and their interactions were authentic.”
He jokes that people have asked him if his lead male character, strapping Washington lawyer Thomas Clarke, is based on him, but he says: “A lot of his story, his struggle with his career path and wife and that kind of thing, they were not autobiographical, they were much more just sort of thinking through what would make his character more compelling.”
The subject matter is obviously gruelling, and its importance to Addison comes across again and again: “It was sort of a gradual process of awakening. I think my wife had a more visceral response to the concept of sex slavery just because she was a woman and imagining herself in that position. I can empathise as a man but I can't exactly identify just because of who I am, so her voice was really critical in the process of making this voice my own. It’s been heightened since I've had children of my own, and the idea of them being exploited - it's kind of unthinkable. The longer I spent with the issue the more personal and the more passionate it became. It’s really taken on a life of its own.”
He’s already a third of the way through his next book, this time tackling female trafficking and HIV in southern Africa. True to form, he’s already spent six weeks in Zambia researching issues of violence against women - and he’s touching wood that writing is going to be his chief activity for years to come.
“I came to writing on my own,” he says. He grew up reading the Hardie Boys, Tom Clancy and his now-neighbour, John Grisham, and, after encouragement at high school he started writing essays. “Basically just thoughts that I had, nobody would ever read them. It was much more that writing was the sort of way I processed the world and sorted my own thinking.” He adds: “I'm definitely not the purist who sits down at the typewriter which was bought at the second hand store because I want to look like Hemmingway; I just sit down at my computer and write.”
A Walk Across the Sun is out on 2 February, published by Quercus.