Successful lawyers are successful storytellers. Special guest Corban Addision joins the podcast to discuss his most recent legal thriller “Wastelands”; and how lawyers can leverage the power of storytelling in their legal writing and client advocacy initiatives.
The book “Wastelands” tells the extraordinary, true story of how a rural, North Carolina community stood up against one of the world’s most powerful meatpacking companies polluting their communities – and won.
Corban Addison is an attorney, activist, bestselling author, speaker and world traveler. He brings attention to human rights crises around the world through his thought-provoking books and legal publishings.
Rocky Dhir: This episode is brought to you by the generous support of LawPay, a Texas member benefit provider, getting paid just got a lot easier. Check them out at lawpay.com, that’s lawpay.com for more details. And now, onto the show.
Welcome everybody to the State Bar of Texas Podcast. We are recording in-person here at the 2022 Annual Meeting in Houston, Texas. This is your host Rocky Dhir. Now, joining me today, we have Corban Addison. Welcome to the show Corban.
Corban Addison: Thank you so much Rocky.
Rocky Dhir: Now Corban, you’ve got you’ve got quite a story and I know — so I’m going to do part of your job here which is to say you’re not only a lawyer, you’re also a best-selling author. So tell us a little bit about your background. You were a lawyer and then at some point you started writing something other than a legal brief and then explored around.
Corban Addison: Exactly. Well, it was actually before I even went to law school that I was starting to try my hand at telling stories. And so it was honestly always a thing that I hoped I’d end up getting to do, but I was smart enough to get a real job first. And I love the law and so I went to UVA and graduated, wrote actually a couple of manuscripts while I was in law school. I was just a little crazy.
Rocky Dhir: As a 1L you did this?
Corban Addison: Yeah, as a 1L and a 3L. Yeah. Except I got married in between and my wife actually made sure that I kept my grades up on the second try. My 1L grade slid, as you can imagine.
Rocky Dhir: Yeah, of course.
Corban Addison: Yeah, I was a little crazy to try that, but yeah, in the 3L it worked out better. Kept my grades up, wrote another book, nobody wanted it. So I took some time to find a book that somebody wanted to publish. Actually it took about 10 years and ultimately my wife gave me an idea for a novel about justice issue, human trafficking at least back in 2008 when it wasn’t very well known. And that led to my first novel. And so I wrote novels for a while about different international issues and then ultimately landed on this story and people have been telling me for a while to write nonfiction because my fiction already read like it and I told him, look, give me a story that I could write as compellingly as a novel and I’d be happy to tell it. So I was fortunate with this book that it landed in my lap through a friend and it’s a true story that I was able to tell in a way that really reads like my fiction and yet it’s 100% true.
Rocky Dhir: Now, let’s tell them what this story is. That’s ‘Wastelands’.
Corban Addison: Yes, ‘Wastelands’.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. But your first book was, was that ‘A Walk Across the Sun’?
Corban Addison: ‘A Walk Across the Sun’, that’s correct.
Rocky Dhir: So all your work so far has been fiction? This is your first piece of nonfiction.
Corban Addison: That’s correct. Yes.
Rocky Dhir: All right. I know we want to read the book and we want to get the full story there, but tell us generally what was the story or what’s the backdrop in ‘Wastelands’? And what was it about the story that kind of caught your attention?
Corban Addison: Yeah, sure.
Rocky Dhir: I mean to say, “I’m going to write several hundred pages on this.”
Corban Addison: Yeah, right. I mean it was one of those things where at January 2019 I’m and working on something else and a buddy of mine calls me up and I always take his calls, he’s a fellow author. And he said, “You know, I’ve got this crazy story for you, it might be your next book.” It’s about hog farms in North Carolina and this big lawsuit that’s been going on down there and the woman who’s behind it, Mona Lisa Wallace, the lead lawyer who sort of assembled the cases, she’s from my hometown in Salisbury. And so Salisbury —
Rocky Dhir: He sound like Gray Grantham and she sounds like Darby Shaw. This is like ‘The Pelican Brief’ all over again.
Corban Addison: Yeah, right exactly.
Rocky Dhir: The real-life version.
Corban Addison: Yes, truly. It’s such crazy story. And really when he first told me about it I thought, hog farms? Like that’s really not a subject I think I would ever want to touch. I mean, really like, who’s going to want to read about that? But the more I listened and then ultimately I agreed that, reached out to Mona and talk to her and she was so winsome and told me this crazy story that was truly kind of wilder than any fiction I could have imagined. But it was a true story about a great big lawsuit and I’m a lawyer by training and love great cases and I love the drama of the courtroom and it sounded to me like, wow, actually, this could be a true life legal thriller like a civil action, which basically was one of the reasons I went to law school in the first place. So, yeah, I mean one thing led to another. O went to the fifth federal trial, the last of the federal trials and saw Mike Keskey, her trial counsel give his two-hour plus opening and it was utterly riveting. The best courtroom presentation I’ve ever seen in my life. I knew, immediately that this was a story that was worthy being told. But I got to meet the neighbors and really like the story is about the way that the modern hog industry which raises millions of hogs in North Carolina inside of these confined animal, a concentrated animal feeding operations inside a barns. They had to deal with the waste of all these animals. The average hog produces five times the waste of human beings, and they have dealt with it in the cheapest way possible by putting it in big pits in the earth open to the air and the floodwaters and then by spraying it out on the fields.
And they’ve not really taken into account the fact that the neighbors who were there for generations wouldn’t necessarily love it. So the whole issue is the neighbors brought suit in nuisance against the biggest hog industry player in the world, Smithfield. So once I met some of the neighbors, met the trial team, I was like, you know, this is a compelling story and I think this might be the one that takes me into nonfiction.
Rocky Dhir: Got it. Okay. So you came across this really by happenstance. It was a friend of yours
Corban Addison: It was. It was just a phone call, crazy. So thankful for it truly.
Rocky Dhir: Right. No, absolutely. So let’s maybe step back a little bit to talk about being an author. Because at the end, if there’s one profession that a lot of lawyers want to get into, they’ll say, “Well I’m a lawyer and if I wasn’t a lawyer I’d want to be X, Y or Z.” Right? Number one might be real estate tycoon, but other than that other than that, author comes up a lot. And there’s this whole question of, how do you become a published author? You know? In your case, what was it? Obviously, you want to write a good story, but then how do you get that story out to people?
Corban Addison: It’s hard. I mean, I’ve never pulled punches and telling people that I’ve seen the very best and worst to publishing. It’s the sort of industry that’s made to reject you, and getting a book published especially these days is more challenging than ever. I mean, unless you’re going to self-publish, but if you want to get somebody else to pay you for it, it’s harder than ever and really requires persistence on a level you almost have to become heroic to persist and take rejection after rejection. I’ve got a whole drawer full of letters that I got over the years for books that I’d spent thousands of hours writing and nobody cared, nobody wanted to publish them. It required really 10 years of persistence and then landing finally on a story that people were interested in. And then I still had to climb the mountains of finding a literary agent and then getting the literary agent to find a publisher and we got, he got many rejections before that. And one thing did help, which was, I was fortunate to connect with John Grisham early in my work on ‘A Walk Across the Sun’, and he is a really good guy and obviously he’s not only successful.
Rocky Dhir: And he’s a lawyer too.
Corban Addison: Right, yeah. And I think like he looked at me, young lawyer, aspiring to be an author thought, I’ll take coffee with him. He was kind about that, told him that the idea I had. And he said, “Look, I’ll take a look at it. And if I like it, I’ll share it with some people.” He’s told the story many times, he expected never to hear from me again. Nine months later, I came back to him and said, “Hey, I’ve got a manuscript, will you read it?” And he was kind enough to say yes now. And then we went into the dark for four months and I truly thought he fed it to the fire. I thought that he hadn’t liked it, and I figured I’d be back to square one where I had been before. But then out of the blue, and actually I was at a CLE, I was at a CLE I think was an Ethics CLE, and I got an email on a break from him out of the blue and I literally nearly fell over. I called my wife, my best friends. It’s just like — and in John said, “I loved your book. Can I help you?” So he was one who helped me open doors in the beginning. He gave me a blurb that opened some doors. In the end, I still had to take rejections. Not everybody wanted it right out of the gate and I’ve gotten rejections even through the years since then with other manuscripts. I’ve gotten quite a few of them. This book ‘Wastelands’ was the only time I’ve had a publisher immediately look, the first publisher, looks at it and it’s (00:08:51) in my opinion, like they’re the choice I would have made had I ever gotten to pick a publisher. They were the first and they said we love this, we want it, we’ll buy it. So that was fortunate. But I’ve waited 10 years in publishing after ten years of not being published, to get to that point. So, it’s one of those games you got to be super persistent, believe in yourself, keep whacking, keep trying, keep refining your style, keep believing in yourself, don’t walk away. If you’ve got a talent, somebody will see it eventually.
Rocky Dhir: That is both inspiring and discouraging. Right? Because it’s like, what it’s that much work? You know? Maybe I’ll just keep practicing law. But what is it about or I guess maybe the question should be different which is, is there something about legal training that you think prepared you to become both a fiction and a nonfiction writer? And if so, and if so what is it? Because as lawyers it’s easy for us to write in the certain way, we’re writing for a court. So is it an advantage? Is it a disadvantage? And if so, how is it an advantage? How is it a disadvantage if you’re a lawyer wanting to become an author?
Corban Addison: It’s a really good question.
I mean, what I would say is that my legal training has been instrumental in being able to understand the world and to being able to tell these stories about complex issues of law. So I’ve said many times, I’m so thankful to be a lawyer. It’s opened so many doors for me. It’s helped me to understand. I would say that legal writing is very different from storytelling, but I mean every good trial lawyer has to tell a story to a jury and that’s not all that different. I mean, obviously writing and speaking are different, but storytelling in the courtroom is similar in the sense that you’ve got these people out there that don’t know anything about your subject and they’re coming in cold and they’re people of average intelligence from across the spectrum which is exactly like readers, and how would you make your point in the most compelling way? Well, you try to bring it to life, you try to put a face to it, you try to simplify the complex issues, you try to put together a narrative that holds their attention that has all of the dramatic elements of a great narrative. So in some ways, I think like being a trial lawyer prepares a person for writing, but then you do have to have a kind of stylistic thing.
Rocky Dhir: You got to put some flair into it. Right?
Corban Addison: Yeah, exactly. And that is definitely different style. But the essence of storytelling was something that I think was kind of native to me, like I just, I read a lot of books, I read a lot of fiction, a lot of story-driven nonfiction. I learned from the Great’s about how to tell stories and so I had that style part, but the law really for me in formed like how do I understand these complex battles that playout within the confines of the law, whether in the courtroom or in politics or in society.
Rocky Dhir: I want to get back to ‘Wastelands’ here, in just a minute But before we do, I want you to kind of put your lawyer hat back on for a moment. Now that you’re a published author, you probably don’t practice law anymore. Is that pretty safe assumption?
Corban Addison: It is. It is a safe assumption, although there are many times I look backward and think, how was I the fool in the sense that like my — publishing is a very unstable industry to try to be a full-time try to have a family, pay a mortgage and all that, so there definitely been highs and lows, feast and famine. It’s definitely not as stable as practicing law. And I’ve often looked back and thought, you know? But then I don’t look back very long. I love what I do. It means I don’t practice anymore.
Rocky Dhir: And I think a lot of lawyers love what they do as well. It’s just a matter of finding your passion. But now that you’ve written stories, I guess, for lack of a better word for more mass consumption, right? Do you think, we as lawyers need to change the way we write? And so like, when we’re writing for a court, it’s on or about such and such date such and such happened. We write very matter-of-factly in our legal briefs. Do you think it’s time for us to start maybe adjusting that a little bit and saying, as lawyers now, when we present our cases to court, when we’re writing a legal brief, do we need to write more in a storytelling format? Would that make it more compelling both for the appellate record as well as for the trial judge? Or do you do you think they’re really two separate disciplines and they each have their lanes?
Corban Addison: That’s a great question. I think honestly, the answer is you got to know your audience. I mean I think there are some judges, old-school judges who wouldn’t take very well to that. On the other hand, what I would say is that more and more, especially in big cases with social consequence, your complaint really needs to tell a story because it’s going to be read by the media and it’s going to — you really need to tell it in a way that an ordinary — it might even come into the trial record in one way or another, I’ve seen that happen. So one thing I would say about the lawyers in ‘Wastelands’, John Hughes who works for Mona Lisa Wallace, Wallace and Graham in Salisbury North Carolina, they brought the cases originally. John wrote the first complaints in federal court, and John is a poet and one of the things, but he’s also an intellectual and loves the science of epidemiology. So, his goal with writing the complaints was to tell a compelling story as a storyteller, but also to weave in the details of science and history. And so, if you read those original complaints and they went through a couple of different amendments, each one he got a little bit more, he enjoyed himself a little more, I would say in putting more detail.
Rocky Dhir: Okay. With more clarity, sure.
Corban Addison: Yeah, exactly. And they’re are really compelling reading. So I would say, I think that with complaints especially, the story is key. But I do think that stories like one of the great, in fact, it may be the most compelling form of communication we have as human beings. We are all living a story. We’re all thinking terms of story, whether we think about it or not.
So I do think that to the extent that we can include narrative and detail that is useful and relevant in our communication in any form in any context, including in the law, I think it is useful.
Rocky Dhir: And we could keep talking about that, as ad nauseam, emphasis on the nauseam because we’re talking about legal writing. But let’s talk for a second now back to ‘Wastelands’. I don’t want us to give away too much of the story itself because I think it’s probably more fun to read it and really get immersed into it. What do you want readers to kind of come away with though, when they read it? Or is there is some thought experiment you want them to do when they put the book down? And for you as the author, was there a goal to this that you wanted to accomplish?
Corban Addison: My goal is always two-fold, to educate as well as entertain and really nonfiction is great for that. I mean, my fiction, I had to work a little harder to have the enlightenment part work. But with nonfiction, it’s true, it’s happened, it’s real, so that’s part of it.
Rocky Dhir: Do you keep yourself objective when you’re writing nonfiction, or are you looking at it from a particular prism? Or if you’re trying to be objective, how do you stay objective? Because that’s your own thoughts, right?
Corban Addison: Yeah, it’s a good point. I mean, honestly, I think objectivity is something that is kind of impossible as human beings, and when we all come to the table with our own background, our own stories, our own interpretation or lends the way we think about the world. I mean, storytellers are no different. Reporters are no different. I think we have to be honest about that out of the gate, at the same time, I do think that I definitely strive to be fair and if not, and I don’t balance as one of these weird things. It’s like if something’s right, I’ll say it. If something’s wrong, I’ll say it. If it’s nuanced, I’ll say it but I want to be fair to the people. And so, even the people who are on the other side of this lawsuit, people that I came to actually really feel they were taking a moral stance that was indefensible that they might not even be really good people that I would ever want near my children. I want to be fair to them and I want to treat them as human beings. So really, for me, it’s much more about am I telling the story fairly, am I allowing people that I might dislike in the story to be human, not just one-dimensional cartoon villains. That’s always the thing for me. I do have, I definitely have. I’m an advocate. I mean, I believed that there’s right and wrong in the world. I also believe that a lot of life lies in the nuances in between, and really we can say things are right and also say they’re complex, and say things are wrong and also say they’re complex. And that’s really what I strive for.
Rocky Dhir: Just in this conversation, I think most listeners could probably divine where your sympathies fall on this, the neighbors versus the hog farm. But if you had to write the story from the other perspective, have you ever thought and said, okay, how would I write that story? How would I write it from the, and I’m using air quotes for those who can’t see it, the villains’ perspective? How would I write that and make the villain actually the hero? As an author, have you ever sat down and said, could I do that, how do I do that?
Corban Addison: Yeah. In one of my books, which was on Somali piracy, I had to get into the mind of a pirate and this was back in like the 2018 way if you know, when that was happening everywhere and I did wild research, even went to Somalia under guard in order to get to know Somali people. So I had to get into the mind of a pirate and I had to create an antihero. That was hard, honestly, because like I’ve always strived to have like to try to divine what is right and good and true, and stand on that side to the best of my ability. But I also recognize life is complex and people are driven very often by incentives into places that present them with existential problems that not everyone is able to solve with the greatest degree of moral courage. I think moral courage is one of the hardest things in the world and frankly, I don’t know how I would respond. If say, for instance back to ‘Wastelands’, if I were a former tobacco farmer who in the 1960s was looking for a way to keep my 100-year-old family farm, took a contract from Wendell Murphy, the Godfather of the modern hog industry, stayed in that, built the farm, spent all sorts of money loans, took out massive debt, millions of dollars in some cases and was raising hogs in this way, would I be willing to tell the truth even if I was the very best, the cleanest person.
They’re still hogs, they’re still producing five times of waste to the average human being, and I’m trying to manage it using medieval technology with no help from the industry, would I be the person? There was only one hog farmer in all of Eastern North Carolina who is willing to go before the jury against his pecuniary interests and speak the truth. Would I be Tom Butler? Or would I be much more like all the other ones who have the families and mortgages and mouths to feed and economic livelihood to protect, who would just basically say grumble under my breath like they all do? I mean Thomas told me this like pretty much all hog farmers, in one way or another know they’re being exploited by the industry, much like sharecroppers, but it goes totally against their financial interest to ever admit that. So would I be the one to stand up? Or would I not be? I mean, I’ve often thought about that and I don’t an answer. I don’t think we ever have an answer about whether we’d be the one on that flight in 9/11 that would stand up to the terrorists, or whatever. We don’t know until we’re there.
Rocky Dhir: Until it happens. But Mona Lisa and the neighbors, have you ever talked to them about what happens if you were the hog farmer? Do you think that all of them, and you don’t have to name names, but do you think any or all of them would have done the morally right thing, or have had the moral cards that we’ve talked about? Or would they have now suddenly gone in favor of their pecuniary interest? Have you ever had that discussion with any of the neighbors and said, hey look you know is there another side to this?
Corban Addison: Yeah. Well look, the truth is every single neighbor I ever talked to sympathized with the growers with the individual hog farmers.
Rocky Dhir: It’s the industry that they were.
Corban Addison: It’s the industry, yeah. And none of them ever asked for the industry to shut down. Most of them eat pork. Most of them had raised pigs on the ground in their own families. I mean, they don’t have anything against the hog farms. What they have against the industry, is the fact that they’ve been making billions of dollars over the course of a generation, and they’ve not been willing to spend a single cent on cleaning up the waste. I mean they use cesspools that are open to the flood waters of hurricanes that have poisoned rivers and streams. They spray that waste out on the fields directly next door to the neighbors. There are solutions that are out there. There’s technology that Smithfield even paid for on the order of the state AG in 2000. They came up with technology that would solve the lagoon and spray field system, if only Smithfield would pay for it. But Smithfield has proven itself to be the sort of company that would happily pay its lawyers tens of millions of dollars to fight nuisance suits rather than paying for new technology to treat the waste. It really is a question of, as humans we’re civilized enough to treat our own waste. We don’t use open sewers anymore. We don’t use cesspools anymore. We used to in times past and there are places in the world you can still find them.
Rocky Dhir: It still happens.
Corban Addison: Yeah. But when it comes to hogs, Smithfield and the industry, has simply chosen to take the money that they make, and they make billions a year and send it to their shareholders and to their Chinese owners and that’s really sad. So, that’s the fundamental problem that personally I have, that all the neighbors have. There was another hog farmer, I will say, Don Webb, who was actually an early contract farmer who had neighbors who complained and he did the crazy thing, he actually gave up the keys to his hog operation, took the loss, walked away and became —
Rocky Dhir: He said, “I’m done.”
Corban Addison: –one of the most effective spokespeople in the movement to change the industry over the next 20 years.
Rocky Dhir: Corban, this sounds like a fascinating read and I think folks are going to get a lot out of actually diving into the book.
Corban Addison: I hope so, it’s fun. I mean I wrote it to be fun, so it’s a legal thriller, but it’s true.
Rocky Dhir: It’s a true legal thriller.
Corban Addison: That’s exactly right.
Rocky Dhir: Well, it does look like we’ve reached the end of our program. So, Corban Addison, I want to thank you for being part of this. This is a real pleasure.
Corban Addison: Absolutely. Thank you very much.
Rocky Dhir: Now, if listeners, if they have questions, they want to follow up, if they want to learn more, first of all, where can they buy the book? And, let’s give them the name of the book again. I know, it’s ‘Wastelands’. Where do they get the book? And is there a way for them to reach out to you?
Corban Addison: Absolutely.
Rocky Dhir: Or if they want you come on as a speaker or something like that? Where can they get a hold of you?
Corban Addison: Yeah, really great thing is, Random House puts books everywhere, so you can get it online, you can get it in bookstores, you can get it on Audible, you can get it on your Kindle on devices, and it’s available worldwide digitally in audio but it’s available in North American Print and I’m at corbanaddison.com. That’s C-O-R-B-A-N A-D-D-I-S-O-N dot com. I’d love to hear from people.
And I truly hope this is a story that lawyers especially will love, but it’s not just for lawyers, it’s for everybody, anybody who loves a great legal drama, I mean, what’s more American than a courtroom battle of the ages?
Rocky Dhir: With the jury and everybody, I’ll sit in there. So, unfortunately that is all the time we have for this episode of the State Bar of Texas podcast brought to you by LawPay. Thank you again LawPay, you rock. Also thank you to our listeners for tuning in. If you like what you heard, please rate and review us in Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Spotify, Amazon Music or your favorite podcasting app. I am Rocky Dhir, until next time. Thank you for listening.