I asked Lisa Sweetingham to do a guest post here on the blog about her book Chemical Cowboys. I think you'll find it interesting reading, and you'll probably want to read the book, too.
It took about four years of reporting, writing, and editing to finish “Chemical Cowboys,” but the spark of the idea originated in 2000, when I was a journalism student at Columbia University. At the time, I was interested in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn that were using genetic testing to prevent the matchmaking of couples who were carriers for specific genetic-linked disorders. While doing basic research on Hasidim in New York, I stumbled across a completely different topic: an article in The New York Times about Hasidic teens who had been arrested at JFK trying to smuggle thousands of Ecstasy pills in their suitcases.
Fast forward about five years later, when I was a reporter for Court TV online. A source who knew my interests and my writing encouraged me to dig deeper into the Ecstasy trade. So I spent a couple of years just getting to know the undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents in New York who had specialized in club drugs. One agent in particular, Robert Gagne, had lived through such compelling personal and professional challenges—and his casework provided such unimaginable twists and turns—that I knew I had to write this book. The back stories behind that one article had never been told and they were rich and cinematic. I drew from all of my interviews and research to put together a 40-page book proposal and chapter outline. I spent months revising the proposal and plotted out the book’s structure. Once DEA agreed to cooperate, my agent struck a deal with Random House and I got to work.
A substantial portion of the four years I took to complete “Chemical Cowboys” was spent interviewing sources, reading through case files and court documents, and traveling to Western and Eastern Europe to follow the same paths that the traffickers and drug cops took. The last eight months or so was devoted almost entirely to writing and editing, although I did a lot of follow-up reporting and took a final research trip to Israel to meet with the police officers who helped American investigators take down the Ecstasy networks. I’d say there were about three months where I did nothing but write, day after day. I didn’t see friends or family. I skipped out on holidays and birthdays. I marked the passing of time with a whine from my dog that it was time for a walk. I was living with the subjects of my book—in my mind, of course. And I was obsessed with making deadline. Sometimes, I needed a little inspiration to keep up the pace.
A lot of times people will ask what authors I turn to for inspiration, and while there are many writers whose work I admire, the truth is that when I’m writing, it’s music that helps get me through tough passages. For instance, when I was writing about Gagne and his partner, Matthew Germanowski, going undercover in the nightclubs of Manhattan disguised as ravers, I listened to ‘90s techno and electronica, old Moby cuts, and DJ Cam. I also asked the agents to dig back and think about the music they listened to when they were sitting in their undercover cars, surveilling a suspect. I discovered that they had argued constantly over this very topic and it became a colorful detail. (Gagne liked country and classic rock; Germanowski preferred metal.) Germanowski made me a CD of his favorite B-side metal and I’d listen to it while I was writing passages that dealt with his perspective of certain moments in the story.
I’ve been a journalist for almost a decade, but “Chemical Cowboys” is my first book and I’ve learned a lot about the logistics of book publishing in the last four years. I’m currently researching ideas for future books. It’s possible that I’ll delve into non-fiction genres beyond crime and international investigations, but I don’t think I’d do anything different in terms of how I approached the reporting and writing process. Some stories just take years to unfold. Hopefully, the next book will reveal itself a little sooner!
Author of “Chemical Cowboys: The DEA’s Secret Mission to Hunt Down a Notorious Ecstasy Kingpin.”
Journalist Lisa Sweetingham spent four years following in the footsteps of DEA agents and Ecstasy traffickers to bring CHEMICAL COWBOYS to life. Previously, she covered high-profile murder trials and Supreme Court nomination hearings for Court TV online. Sweetingham is a graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism and her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Parade, Spin, Time Out New York, Health Affairs, and many other publications. She resides in Los Angeles. CHEMICAL COWBOYS is her first book.