Interview with Corban Addison, Bestselling Humanitarian Novelist

corban - Cargo Collective

Corban Addison: Corban Addison is the author of three international bestselling novels, A Walk Across the Sun, The Garden of Burning Sand, and The Tears of Dark Water, 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. Corban Addison holds degrees in law and engineering from the University of Virginia and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He lives with his wife and children in Virginia.

The Tears of Dark Water

The Tears of Dark Water: A sailboat adrift in the Indian Ocean. On board, a band of nervous Somali pirates holds an American father and his troubled son hostage. In America, his wife waits terrified, relying on a top hostage negotiator to find a peaceful resolution before the military intervenes. And on the Somali shore, a brutalized young woman enslaved in a marriage to a militant jihadi hides a connection to one of the kidnappers that might be the key to peace… and redemption.

The Garden of Burning Sand

Faktorovich: Can you describe your career in the law up to the present day? Did you practice in defense or prosecution? Did you work independently or for a major law firm? In criminal, in civil or in corporate law? Was it difficult to enter this profession right out of law school? How has your career progressed in the law over the years? Have you met your goals in this career?

Addison: After graduating from Virginia Law in 2004, I completed a clerkship with a federal judge and then did civil litigation at a small law firm, representing plaintiffs and defendants in business-oriented lawsuits. I practiced there for six years while moonlighting as an aspiring novelist. I wrote a number of unpublished manuscripts, and then my wife gave me the idea for A Walk Across the Sun, about the global trade in human beings. For a while I worked two jobs—law during the day and writing in the evenings and on weekends. My wife was very supportive of the project, but the pace wore both of us down. When I got a generous book deal for A Walk Across the Sun and my follow-up, The Garden of Burning Sand, I decided to make the leap into full-time writing. I haven’t practiced law since 2011, but my education and career in law prepared me exceptionally well for writing stories about international human rights. All of my books have legal dimensions.

Making of Tears - 17

Faktorovich: If you were at an interview, and somebody asked you today, “Where do you see yourself professionally in the law twenty years from now?” what would you reply? Do you have goals in this field or do you hope to make a living primarily from your bestselling fiction? Do you think fiction is a realistic full-time career choice even at the top end after a few bestselling successes? If yes, how so, and if not, why not?

Addison: There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what it means to be a bestselling author. Hitting lists in various countries doesn’t immediately translate into the kind of income that can sustain a family. Given the ongoing upheaval in book publishing, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have made a living for the past four and a half years solely from my writing. From the beginning, however, I’ve seen this as an experimental career. I believe passionately in what I’m doing (both in my stories and the human rights advocacy that goes along with them), and I’ve seen great fruit come from it. But I’m not yet selling enough books to think five years into the future, let alone twenty years. I’m hoping to reach that level, but my publishers and I still have a lot of work to do to make that happen.

A Walk Across the Sun

Faktorovich: Your 2012 novel, A Walk Across the Sun, about Mumbai’s youth sex trade, received over 10,000 ratings on GoodReads. How did you reach this astronomic rating level? #100 on GoodReads most rated list is oddly James Joyce’s short stories collection, Dubliners, at 73,000+ ratings. #1 is the first book in the Harry Potter series, with over 3 million ratings. Does the number of ratings reflect a percentage of how many copies a book sold, or how strongly readers feel about it? Did you take any specific promotional steps that spiked your ratings to this relatively great height? Do you hope to break your record with your new novel, The Tears of Dark Water? In general, what do you think about GoodReads and the various ways this platform allows authors to promote their work?

Addison: GoodReads is a fabulous platform for readers to connect with authors and other readers and to learn about great books. In my mind, the number of ratings reflects the passion readers feel about a book more than the sheer number of books sold. I also think it reflects the kinds of readers who are reading a book. People who use Goodreads on a regular basis are voracious readers, and they tend to be thoughtful readers, too. A Walk Across the Sun was a great book for that cohort because it’s a thoughtful novel about a real subject that matters to people around the world. Having said that, the way a book is published matters, too. With A Walk Across the Sun, I was blessed with a first-rate marketing campaign and launch.

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Faktorovich: From books like Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, it seems books about the sex trade and child sexual abuse tend to sell very well when they are done in a fine literary style, with a close look at the details of the lives of the victims and the abusers. Your A Walk Across the Sun looks at the sex trade, and the new novel you’re selling, The Tears of Dark Water, is about tourist kidnapping. How did you first become interested in these types of intense stories about violent and sexual crimes? Were you exposed to criminal law as an attorney? Do you enjoy writing about action because it has a faster rhythm and gets the blood pumping? Do you think sex and violence is an essential element to great fiction from Shakespeare to modern bestsellers? Have you attempted writing a story without these dramatic elements, why or why not, and with what results? Are stories that reveal violence, corruption, and sexual abuse in our international society important for solving these problems by bringing them to the forefront in a package that is more digestible than the news?

Addison: I never practiced criminal law, but I read a great deal and watch a lot of movies. I love dramatic stories and real human beings struggling with great challenges. My early unpublished works were not about law or international human rights. They were more autobiographical and meandering works, and I’m not surprised they were never picked up. In some ways, I count that as a grace. Great stories come in all shapes and sizes. The ones I gravitate toward are deeply grounded in the real world (I’ve never been a fan of fantasy, or over-the-top storytelling), but they explore intense dimensions of the human experience. I’ve always been a student of human psychology, and I love the chance to get into the minds of people living on the edge—whether an Indian girl sold into sex slavery, or a sailor hijacked by Somali pirates, or a Somali girl kidnapped from her schoolyard by al-Shabaab and forced to marry to one of its commanders. These things really happen. I explore their many dimensions by writing about them in fiction. And, yes, I do think that storytelling, whether fiction or non-fiction, in books or film, has a powerful role to play in shaping the moral imagination of society. Story is the universal language. We use story to teach our children about right and wrong. As I storyteller, I hope to inspire people to care about injustices happening in our world and to think about ways that they can become part of the solution.

NGO in Zambia

Faktorovich: Dark Water looks closely at terrorism and the war against it very closely, for example in the American drone strike against Najiib’s village, witnessed by Yasmin, the sister for whom Ismail Ibrahim commits the kidnapping in the hope of liberating her from the man keeping her captive in turn. How did you conduct the research for this book? Which primary or secondary sources did you use? Did you visit any archives? Did you rely primarily on news articles? Do you sail, and did you attempt sailing to a greater distance to research what it would be like to sail around the world? In your Acknowledgements to Dark Water, you thank your security team in Somalia and Kenya, specifying that you went into a Dagahaley camp. Additionally you thank teams in Nairobi, Seychelles, Bahrain, and Mogadishu, in the latter you were escorted by AMISOM soldiers to a Hawa Abdi Village. And I guess you also traveled via the USS Gettysburg, and the USS Truman? How did you book such an extensive research trip? It sounds like you were on a CNN news report research assignment for a year to see all of these places. Who paid for so many visits and so many assistants? Most films thank fewer people when filming at several international locations, so it’s hard to imagine how you put in this much work for a single novel. I hope you can describe the reality of these trips.

Addison: My research for Tears was an odyssey unlike anything I’ve ever attempted before, and may ever attempt again. That it came together was a miracle. But it would never have happened without the help of a lot of generous people around the world, people in government (e.g. the State Department, the Justice Department, the U.S. Navy, the FBI, UNHCR, the African Union), people in NGOs, and experts of all types in the private sector. I reached these people through connections I’ve made over the years. They helped me because they saw that I’ve done this kind of thing before, and because they believed that my desire to tell a story about some dimension of what they do would help to humanize their work and impact a lot of people. The research for Tears happened in two phases—domestic travel, reading, and interviews, and international travel and interviews. Here in the U.S., I spent time with Somali friends in Minneapolis and D.C. I attended the capital murder trial of three Somali pirates in Norfolk, Virginia. I befriended one of the best international hostage negotiators in the world. I toured the FBI Academy and met with NCIS investigators at the Norfolk Naval Base. And I learned how to sail a 40-foot yacht on the Chesapeake Bay. After that, I went overseas and sailed in the Seychelles (where the story begins). I went to Bahrain and met with officers from the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. I took a COD flight (Carrier Onboard Delivery) to the USS Truman, an aircraft carrier, in the Arabian Sea, and spent a night on the ship. I took a helicopter to the USS Gettysburg, a cruiser, and spent two nights doing research with the captain and his crew. I flew to Nairobi where I put together a quick trip to Mogadishu, Somalia with the help of a journalist friend. I spent two days in Mogadishu under guard, and took an armored convoy to Hawa Abdi Village outside the city where I met Dr. Deqo Mohamed, the daughter of Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Hawa Abdi, a woman Glamour magazine once called “equal parts Mother Teresa and Rambo.” After that, I went to the Dadaab refugee area in northern Kenya with help from UNHCR and spent time with Somali refugees. I finished the trip off with a weekend in Zanzibar (where the story ends). The research was expensive, but I funded it myself. I wanted the story to be truly authentic. That is my commitment to my readers. My work may be fiction, but it’s based on fact.

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Faktorovich: In the trailer for Walk Across, you discuss visiting brothels in India as part of your research for that book, but it seems less likely that you could’ve visited pirates or kidnappers for this new project. And did you or somebody you were with film the footage featured in the Walk Across trailer? At one point in that trailer, several prostitutes aggressively shut their garage doors as a man with a camera and a giant industrial light walks up to them, were you there behind that camera? Did you or a camera operator shoot the other scenes where the prostitutes remain in place and flirt with the observer with a hidden camera?

Addison: For A Walk Across the Sun, my research was less complicated than it was for Tears, but it still required a lot. I did interviews here in the U.S. I spent a month in India, both on the east coast where the tsunami landed in 2004 (the opening scene of the story) and in Mumbai where much of the book takes place. And I spent a week in France doing research on sex trafficking in Europe. In Mumbai, I went undercover into brothels posing as a customer. I wanted to see the reality of trafficking with my own eyes. I wasn’t able to take video footage of those experiences. I got the video for my trailer from one of my favorite human rights organizations, the International Justice Mission (www.ijm.org), which works to rescue women and girls from trafficking in India and elsewhere. IJM helped me with my research in Mumbai.

Walking the flight deck

Faktorovich: Your trailer for Walk Across ends with a blurb from John Grisham, “I have been presented with many opportunities to endorse the works of other authors hoping to find a publisher. I have always declined, until now. Corban Addison has written a novel that is beautiful in its story and also important in its message…” Did you meet John on your own, or did your publisher or agent put you in touch with him for this blurb? Why do you think John referred to the “message” instead of specifying that he thought it was important to talk about human trafficking and the sex trade? In general, what do you think about blurbs? Have you been asked to write any? Do you think even a brief blurb from one of the top ten bestselling novelists is likely to have a strong impact on book sales? It seems Grisham has quit his political and legal career, as he became one of the top bestselling authors, was he one of your inspirations as you began writing novels?

Addison: I met John through mutual friends. He offered to look at the book when I finished it, thinking he’d never hear from me again. Nine months later, I sent him a draft of the book, and he loved it. I remember the moment I got an email from him offering to help me get it published. I nearly fell off my chair! He has since become a friend. He’s not only a great person, but he cares deeply about justice and is quite invested in supporting the work of justice in various ways. I think blurbs from known authors are very helpful, both in getting a book published (they cut through the clutter in the slush pile) and in getting readers to pick up a book. But I don’t think they make or break a book. In the end, what sells a book are the words on the page.

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Faktorovich: What are some of the steps you’ve taken in your own “activism”? When you refer to your activism for humanitarian causes, are you primarily referring to donations to charitable organizations, or have you also sent letters or otherwise campaigned or taken some other actions? Have you stood in front of any bulldozers? What do you think are some of the best ways for an educated and well-off American to contribute towards human rights causes? If charities can be corrupt, how can activists be sure that their work or funds go to the people that deserve the help?

Addison: My wife and I are committed to supporting charities and human rights agencies that are doing great work in the fields I write about. We support those organizations with financial donations, and I use my public platform to promote them as much as I can. On my website, I have included an “ENGAGE” tab where people can find more information about the issues in my books and about groups whose work I believe in. In addition, I’ve had the privilege to speak to a lot of audiences about human rights and storytelling—universities, law schools, churches, charities, book clubs, etc. I love talking to people who care about justice. People can get involved in the work of justice in a lot of different ways. I’ve had readers come away from my stories and start charities, change the direction of their careers, start online businesses to benefit the survivors of sex trafficking, and organize benefits to raise money for their favorite organization. When I get a letter from a reader like that, it makes my week.

Wading through an after dinner flood in New Orleans

Faktorovich: Do you plan to put together a trailer before the release of Dark Water in October 2015, in a couple of weeks? Do you think it’s important for authors to create a visual pitch for their novel today because so many hours are spent by people in front of a TV and so few with closely reading books? Do you think many of the readers that bought your previous books found you because of your trailer? And if the trailer and also public appearances are key to an author’s success, does a modern author have to be a good actor to pull off the stage presence necessary to mesmerize the masses with a visual and oral message, in addition to the letters on the page?

Addison: I think a good video trailer is helpful, like many other forms of marketing, but I’m not convinced that most trailers sell a lot of books. HarperCollins put together a very nice trailer for The Tears of Dark Water. The link is here. I also know from experience that public appearances and talks are great ways for an author to elevate his or her visibility and get books into the hands of new readers. Over the years, I’ve sold hundreds of books at author events that I’m convinced I would never have sold through traditional channels, simply because the people in attendance weren’t in the market for my stories until they heard me speak.

Faktorovich: When I saw on your copyrights page that your book was released in association with the Creative Trust Literary Group and Baror International, I was surprised that your agents were receiving this prominent credit. Considering your success with selling your novels, do you contribute this to their work? What specifically did these two agencies do for your novels and for your literary career? Did you sign up with one of these agencies before you sold your first novel, or did they solicit you after you were accepted for publication by HarperCollins? Do you think modern writers need help from agencies like these to sell via the various platforms? Are you working with them to sell movie rights to your books? What are the challenges to selling a book to a film studio?

Addison: I have two fabulous literary agents, Dan Raines, at Creative Trust, and Danny Baror, at Baror International. I connected with Dan through a friend when I was looking for an agent to represent A Walk Across the Sun. He brought Danny onboard, and they tag-teamed the sale of that book and all of my subsequent books. Nothing that has happened in my literary career would have been possible without their passionate and tireless assistance. As far as I’m concerned, if an author wants to get a good publishing deal, you need a great agent. It’s not enough to get a so-so agent. I’ve heard lots of horror stories. You need a great agent. There are quite a few them out there, but they are very selective. For any of them to get interested, the work needs to sell itself. The same goes for Hollywood. Having a great film agent is usually critical to selling the film rights to a work. Getting a great film agent is also quite difficult. I’ve been fortunate. My literary agent set me up with one. We’re looking for the right people to turn The Tears of Dark Water into an excellent film. As a film lover, I would be overjoyed to see that happen.

Me on the fantail of the Gettysburg with the Truman, the carrier, visible over my shou

Faktorovich: You open Dark Water with a section from Daniel Parker’s perspective. He is on Mahé Island in 2011, and he wakes up on a sailboat. As if the reader is waking up, we are gradually introduced to the things, body parts (cut up soles of feet from barefooted walking), and memories of old loves (Victoria) and classical music numbers at the Stern Auditorium. Why did you start a book about a violent and sexual adventure at such a gradual pace, instead of in the middle of the action to grab the reader’s attention immediately?

Addison: I see plot and character as dance partners in a good story. The dance doesn’t work without a strong showing from both. Sometimes I open stories with action. Sometimes I open stories with character. Eventually, in all my stories, I weave plot and character together into a tapestry that, I hope, transcends the traditional genre conventions. Some people call my books thrillers, but I don’t think that’s right. My film agent calls The Tears of Dark Water a drama with international thriller elements. That’s a perfect description. Unfortunately, the term “drama” doesn’t fly in publishing. They want to call it something else. So they put my books in the suspense category. I write stories inspired by real events and real people. At the end of the day, I hope my books reflect the reality in which all of us live. I also hope that my books compel readers to care more about the world and to see other people more charitably.

Making of Tears 16

Faktorovich: In contrast with this conversational start, the second chapter is from Ismail’s perspective. He’s on the Indian Ocean, and it’s a day after Daniel’s experience. Here you give a very precise account of everything from Ismail’s AK-47, to a distant cargo ship, to the camel he was riding, and the bread, rice and goat meat he was eating. You offer specifics about ransoms and offer a very intense realistic painting of the life of a kidnapper. Since this world is more foreign to you, why do you think this description is so much more detailed? Were you more interested in learning more about these details, and less interested in the banalities of Beethoven and society living from Daniel’s perspective? Why didn’t you start with this livelier Ismail account? Did you want to make western, leisurely readers feel comfortable before offering them this heavier information?

Addison: I wrote Daniel first because that’s how I saw the story begin. His sailing adventure with Quentin, his son, is the initial drama of the story. Then I introduce Paul and Megan Derrick, then Ismail and his crew of pirates, then Vanessa and her troubled marriage to Daniel. As I said, I don’t set out to write suspense thrillers. My goal is to write human dramas that highlight injustice in the world, explore the outer reaches of human experience, touch the hearts of my readers, and ask questions about society that matter to all of us. To accomplish that, I use elements of suspense as well as more literary elements. I want my readers to see themselves in my characters, and to learn to empathize with people very different from them.

Faktorovich: The novel ends in March 2015, was this when you finished writing it? If so, how long did your publisher and editors need to edit it after this date? When was it printed and put on a pre-release hold for reviews? I ask because I am currently working on editing my review process with Anaphora titles, and I wonder if you waited for 4-6 months or longer during the pre-release delay for this and your other titles? Do you think this pre-release delay is essential for a book’s success in today’s publishing climate?

Addison: March 2015 is the date at the bottom of the Author’s Note. That is the month the book was first published in the UK and British Commonwealth. The novel was published in Canada on September 15, and will be published in the U.S. on October 13. I finished the first draft of the novel in June of 2014 and finished editing it by the end of the summer. It usually takes my editors 6 weeks to return notes to me, and I usually turn around a draft for copy-editing in 3-5 weeks after that, depending on how much work needs to be done.

Faktorovich: In the “Author’s Note” to Dark Water, you write, “hostage taking for ransom is an evil that cannot be justified by appealing to the misfortunes of its perpetrators Some accounts of Somali piracy have constructed the pirates as victims rather than criminals, muddying the moral waters and creating undue sympathy for their plight…” (516). In the nineteenth century, novels like R. L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Daniel Defoe’s Captain Singleton and Sir Walter Scott’s The Pirate created a mixture of a romantic and a cartoonish image of the pirate. These novels were frequently best-sellers because they offered dramatic adventure stories with brave or dangerous piratical villains or heroes. Why do you think it would be difficult or morally wrong for a writer today to pull off a similar romantic saga that glorifies the battles, without revealing the poverty, dirt, and tragic immorality of the pirates? Would an attempt at such romanticism shift the novel into the realm of fantasy? Were you a fan of classical pirate novels when you were growing up? Did you set out to write a realistic retelling or did you have some romantic notions when you started this novel?

Addison: Pirate stories have been with us for a long time because they are evocative and exotic and full of swashbuckling adventures that fire our imaginations. I don’t have anything against that, particularly when the stories are about the past. Two of my favorite books as a young man were Wilber Smith’s Birds of Prey and Blue Horizon. However, my interest in writing The Tears of Dark Water was to create a fictional story that reflected reality in its many beautiful and challenging dimensions. Modern piracy is a brutal and terrible crime. I don’t believe it should be romanticized in any way. At the same time, its perpetrators are often driven by poverty and desperation. This is especially true for Somali kids who risk their lives for a small cut of any potential ransom. I wanted to write a story that explored all of these dimensions as realistically as possible. I also wanted to explore Somalia itself, a nation besieged by civil war for over twenty years, and to explore in rich detail perhaps the oldest problem besetting humankind, the problem of violence, and its consequences not only for victims but also for the perpetrators.

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Faktorovich: Also in the “Author’s Note” you describe a news report on February 18, 2011, where Somali pirates hijacked US sailing vessel Quest, and killed all hostages when the US Navy attempted to overtake the ship. You write that while this incident inspired the novel, the work of fiction does not follow these exact events. Your story also has a tragic ending, but it’s the kidnapper that’s punished, not the victim of the kidnapping. In most Hollywood films, the US hostage negotiators usually face extraordinary odds and somehow win in the end. Did you feel pressured to create this positive resolution despite the sad reality in the actual events because you worked closely with US government agencies during your research? Did you feel pressured by the hope of improving the odds of having a film made of this book by moving it towards a happy ending?

Addison: The only pressure I felt in crafting the story was the pressure to honor the truth as I found it in the stories of the real people I met here and around the world. As I’ve mentioned, while I write fiction, I’m interested in telling stories that are true to the world as it is. The Tears of Dark Water is a deeply hopeful story about human beings wrestling with tragedy and emerging with greater love, empathy, and forgiveness. But the truth is never simple and rarely easy. The story of Tears is as honest a rendering of the human heart and human relationships pushed to the brink as I could write.

Faktorovich: You wrote the segments from a third person narrator’s perspective, looking into the lives of Venessa, Daniel, Megan, Paul and Ismail. Did you consider writing the book from first-person perspectives with these multiple unique voices instead? If not, why did you choose this approach?

Addison: I usually use the third-person perspective because it keeps me from delving too deeply into the internal musings of characters and slowing the plot down. In my books, plot tends to lead, but character is an indispensable partner. First person narratives are usually (though not always) led by character. There’s no right or wrong here. Great books are written in many different ways. The perspective is a choice that every author has to make.

Faktorovich: What advice would you like to offer to writers that hope to become international bestsellers? Where should they start? How difficult is it to make it? What should they avoid doing? What was the best advice an established writer gave you that helped you on your journey towards this goal?

Addison: Here is my advice. Believe in your work. Allow others to read it and learn from the collective voice of feedback. Some voices are outliers, but the collective voice is usually on to something. Make connections and look for a great agent. Do not be afraid of rejection. No author I know has succeeded without failing many times. Aim for the stars, but be happy with something a lot less. Be persistent. Be persistent. Be persistent. I wish I could say that there is a proven path to success as an author, but I can’t. It happens for some and not for others. But every author should be able to look in the mirror and say, “I believe in what I’m doing. I care about this work. I believe it should be published.” If you can say that, you will move forward with hope.

Faktorovich: In general, what would you like readers to know about your forthcoming novel, Dark Water? Perhaps something that you haven’t been asked by the press.

Addison: When I was writing Tears, I didn’t want the book to end. I had come to love and respect the characters so much in the process of writing that I didn’t want to say goodbye. That, I think, is the dream of every writer—to fall in love with a story and have the privilege of telling it. My hope is that readers feel the same way.

Faktorovich: You thank your wife and mention your children in some of your materials. What kind of work does your wife do? Does she travel with you? How did you guys meet? What about your children? How old are they? Are they showing any promise of greatness? How are they affected by your writing career (positively or negatively)? For example, we met at SIBA, and I didn’t see any children at the reading where I got a copy of your book (alcohol was served). Were your children in Raleigh with you, or did they stay home with your wife? Do you enjoy talking about your family with the media, or do you prefer to keep this information private?

Addison: My wife is my muse, my best friend, and my strongest supporter. She gave me the idea for A Walk Across the Sun. We collaborated on the original idea for The Garden of Burning Sand. In addition, she suggested the concept for my fourth novel, A Harvest of Thorns, which HarperCollins will publish in Fall 2016. She’s been on this journey with me from the beginning, and I couldn’t have done any of it without her. That said, she’s not much a globetrotter. She has no interest in going to Mogadishu under guard or landing on an aircraft carrier or going into brothels undercover. She is a teacher by training, but these days she takes care of the kids and helps me with social media and other things. Occasionally, she travels with me when the kids are not in school. But when they are, she lets me go alone.

Faktorovich: Thank you for chatting with me for this interview!

Addison: It’s been a great pleasure. Thank you for such lovely questions!

The Tears of Dark Water - UK

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