Chemical Cowboys by Lisa Sweetingham

About the Author:

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

About the Book:

For nearly a decade, Ecstasy kingpin Oded Tuito was the mastermind behind a drug ring that used strippers and ultra-Orthodox teenagers to mule millions of pills from Holland to the party triangle—Los Angeles, New York, and Miami. CHEMICAL COWBOYS: The DEA's Secret Mission to Hunt Down a Notorious Ecstasy Kingpin is the thrilling, never-before-told success story of the groundbreaking undercover investigations that led to the toppling of a billion-dollar Ecstasy trafficking network, starting in 1995 when New York DEA Agent Robert Gagne infiltrated club land to uncover a thriving drug scene supported by two cultures: pill-popping club kids and Israeli dealers.

Gagne's obsessive mission to make Ecstasy a priority for the DEA and to take down Tuito's network met with unexpected professional and personal challenges that almost crippled his own family. Woven into the narrative are the stories of Tuito's underlings, who struggled with addiction as they ran from the law, and the compelling experiences of a veteran Israeli police officer who aided Gagne while chasing after his own target—a violent Mob boss who saw the riches to be made in Ecstasy and began to import his own pills and turf warfare to the U.S.

This is one great book, and I was fortunate to get the author to agree to an interview. Here's what she had to say:

Could you please tell us a little about your book?
“Chemical Cowboys” is a non-fiction book about the Israeli mafia’s control of the American Ecstasy trade and it follows the true story of a New York Drug Enforcement Administration agent who spent nearly a decade chasing after an Ecstasy kingpin named Oded Tuito. To write the book, I secured cooperation from DEA and Israeli National Police and I traveled through Europe and parts of Israel to follow in the footsteps of the drug cops and drug dealers whose stories are weaved into the narrative. It took about four years of reporting, writing, and editing to complete.

Did something specific happen to prompt you to write this book?
I’ve always wanted to write books. Even as a child, I would rewrite some of my favorite books in abbreviated form as practice. Before I started reporting and writing “Chemical Cowboys,” I was a reporter for Court TV online and my job was to travel around the country covering high-profile murder cases. It was a fantastic gig. It gave me a basic understanding of the justice system, criminal investigations, the language of crime. But the subject matter often veered to the salacious and I wanted to write a book about larger themes—about people and worlds that stretched beyond the true crime genre. Years earlier, I’d read news articles about these ultra-Orthodox Jewish teenagers who’d been arrested at JFK airport with thousands of Ecstasy pills in their suitcases. I knew there was a bigger story there. When a source pushed me to dig deeper, I started knocking on the door of New York DEA. I didn’t play games; I showed them my cards. I told the head of NY DEA that I wanted to learn more about their Ecstasy cases and the agents who worked them because I was interested in writing a book if those stories proved interesting. After a couple years of getting to know the main players, on both sides of the law, I had a trove of fascinating “characters” and storylines that had never been written about before. It had to be a book. Luckily, my extremely talented editor at Random House, Will Murphy, thought so too.

Who has influenced you throughout your career as a writer?
So many different people have influenced my writing that it would be impossible to pick just one. But I will share a small piece of practical advice that has stuck with me through the years and was quite helpful when I was writing “Chemical Cowboys.” It came from John Patrick Shanley, who is a pretty smart guy in addition to being a prolific and accomplished writer. He once was kind enough to reduce his writing routine down to a simple formula that I could wrap my brain around: it’s about pages-per-day. Sometimes writers get stuck because they make writing a precious act. For instance, the writer who won’t sit down to work until the house is perfectly clean, emails and phone calls have been answered, there’s a perfect desk from which to work, a perfect cup of coffee has been brewed, and so on. If you must, go ahead and attend to those distractions. But by a specific time each day you have to sit down and start writing. Write until you hit ten pages—or whatever your goal is—and then stop if you feel like stopping. Don’t go back and rewrite too much. You can always edit chapters or sections later, after everything’s on the page. Just write. Even if you only write three pages per day, in a few months you’ll have the first draft of your book.

What do you feel is your biggest strength?
I think one of my biggest strengths is getting people to talk about their personal experiences. I was very fortunate to have the cooperation of DEA when I wrote “Chemical Cowboys,” because it meant, for instance, that the undercover agent sitting in front of me at a café in the Netherlands knew that he could discuss his casework without fear of reprisal. But years later, at the book launch party (and after many glasses of wine), a few of the agents I had interviewed surprised me when they revealed that they had never intended to share as much information as they had. One agent described how he had decided, with steely resolve, just minutes before I walked into his office, that he wasn’t going to share anything more than basic details, but by the time I had left, he’d given me names, personal details, new leads, etc. The truth is, it’s not that I come in, cloak-and-dagger, pretending to be looking for one thing when I really want something else. I’m very clear with the subject about what I’m looking for and what I want to convey. I take the time to do my homework before an interview. I develop probing questions. And most importantly, I listen to the subject with sincere empathy and curiosity. I constantly revise my questions based on what I’m hearing. With a book, you have the luxury of a little more time to get deeper into the research. But I’ve still seen some authors go into an interview with a rigid agenda: they already know exactly how they want the subject to fit into their story and they are simply looking for good quotes to back up their perspective of the issue. I think that is really a mistake. Some of the most interesting twists and turns come when I follow a subject down a path, and a new lead, that I had never anticipated. Listening is key.

Biggest weakness?
I take too much time to report a story. Some reporters can get in and get out fast and retain an uncanny mastery of an issue. That’s not me. I spend years getting to know the world I’m writing about. Mostly, it’s because I don’t trust my ability to tell it right unless I’ve turned over every stone. I’m trying to get better on this, to work more efficiently. Deadlines, of course, help to keep the pace up.

Who is your biggest supporter?
My family and close friends keep me emotionally afloat. But my agent, David Halpern of The Robbins Office, is my rock. Not every writer needs an agent to be successful, but I can’t imagine having a career without Halpern. He was recommended to me about eight years ago by a former colleague, and he has been the most important person in my professional life ever since. Besides his unerring professionalism and deal-making prowess, he’s taught me a lot about how to write books and how to develop an effective book proposal.

Do you have any rituals you follow when finishing a piece of work?
Champagne! Of course.



...... Bobbi said...

Wow - this book wasn't even on my radar, but now I'm moving it near the top of the TBR list! Great interview with the author. I'm off to check out her website.