Interview with Lisa Sweetingham, Author of CHEMICAL COWBOYS

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, Parade, Spin, Time Out New York, Health Affairs, and many other publications. She resides in Los Angeles. Chemical Cowboys is her first book.

For more information about the author or his work, please visit http://www.lisasweetingham.com/

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Welcome to The Writer's Life, Lisa. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

I’m a freelance journalist and author and I’ve been writing professionally for about eight years.

Can you please tell us about your book and why you wrote it?

Chemical Cowboys follows a decade-long international investigation into the Israeli mafia’s control of the Ecstasy trade. It took four years (and thousands of frequent flier miles) to report and write the book, and I received unprecedented cooperation from the Drug Enforcement Administration and Israeli National Police. Although I started investigating the Ecstasy cases in 2004, it was a 1999 story in The New York Times that first caught my eye. At the time, several ultra-Orthodox Jewish teenagers had been caught smuggling Ecstasy pills into the States. Many of them didn’t even know what they were carrying. I always sensed that there was more to the story and years later, at the encouragement of a source, I reached out to New York DEA and spent time getting to know the agents involved in Ecstasy investigations. One agent, Robert Gagne, was so obsessed with taking down Israeli Ecstasy kingpin Oded Tuito that it almost cost him his career. I knew Gagne’s personal story had book potential, but once DEA agreed to open their case files, the plot was richer and more complicated than I could have imagined. From a small story about one young agent’s mission to capture a kingpin, I discovered a broader portrait of an era and a story that had never been told about a fascinating group of men and women who battled on different sides of the drug war with similar motivations: ambition, greed, love, loyalty.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced writing it?

Time. There’s never enough time to investigate every single lead. Also, structure is important to me and it was daunting at the outset to visualize the structure of an entire non-fiction book. As I worked, I found that certain story lines naturally transitioned into the next and that helped with the structure. I also had a lot of dense material to cover and keeping the chapters very short helped to keep the pace going.

Do you have a press kit and what do you include in it? Does this press kit appear online and, if so, can you provide a link to where we can see it?

I worked closely with my publisher to put together a press kit for the book, parts of which can be found on my website [www.lisasweetingham.com]. The kit included: a press release that delved into facts and figures about Ecstasy and other newsworthy aspects of the book, a brief synopsis, a timeline of major events related to the book, my bio, and a Q & A. “Chemical Cowboys” primarily follows undercover agent Bob Gagne, but it also weaves in the stories of a veteran Israeli detective, a Tel Aviv Mafia boss, a rogue New York dealer who used ultra-Orthodox teens as his mules, and the kingpin’s beautiful American girlfriend, to name a few. Because there are so many people to keep track of my publicists came up with the idea of including a quick-hit list in the press kit—a two-pager of brief bio/descriptions for the top five subjects in the book.

Have you either spoken to groups of people about your book or appeared on radio or TV? What are your upcoming plans for doing so?

Yes, when it came time to promote the book, I arranged for local readings and reached out to my media contacts. My publicists also sent review copies far and wide. As a result, I did a lot of radio interviews in the first couple months, as well as TV and print interviews. I’m always happy to talk about the book because it consumed my life for so long and it’s a story that’s never been told. “Chemical Cowboys” is my first book, so I still have much to learn about the business, but my experience so far has been that radio is an excellent medium. There’s more time to get into the storylines, radio hosts actually read the book and ask good questions, and their listeners are also book buyers.

Do you have an agent and, if so, would you mind sharing who he/is is? If not, have you ever had an agent or do you even feel it’s necessary to have one?

My agent, David Halpern of the Robbins Office in New York, is one of the smartest and best men I’ve ever known. That’s not hyperbole. He’s steered me away from a lot of landmines in our years together and I don’t make any career decisions without his advice. I’m sure that many authors have fantastic writing careers and can get their work published without the help of literary agents, but I can’t imagine not having one. A good agent has a sense of the market and can help in the early editing and crafting of a book proposal. He or she can narrow the submission list down to key editors that have a track record and interest in the subject material. And when it comes time to sign a contract, there are many potential legal and logistical issues to consider that an agent can help guide a writer through.

Did you, your agent or publisher prepare a media blitz before the book came out and would you like to tell us about it?

Yes, my agent, editor, and publisher were all involved in the media blitz that I described in your previous question about speaking engagements. We also had meetings a few weeks before the book launched to make sure we were all on the same page.

Do you plan subsequent books?

Absolutely! I’m developing a few ideas right now for book number two and will keep you posted.

Thank you for your interview, Lisa. Would you like to tell my readers where they can find you on the web and how everyone can buy your book?

Chemical Cowboys is available everywhere books are sold. You can also find it (and me) through my website: www.LisaSweetingham.com. Thanks for having me on The Writer’s Life!
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