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chemicalCowboys_jacketI have a confession. “Chemical Cowboys” is not exactly the book I set out to write when I began reporting it four years ago. At the time, I was focused on telling the adventures of a maverick New York DEA agent named Robert Gagne, who was obsessed with capturing an Israeli Ecstasy kingpin named Oded “the Fat Man” Tuito. In the late ‘90s, according to DEA, the Tuito organization was responsible for 80 percent of the entire Ecstasy supply in the United States. Agent Gagne risked his career and his marriage trying to catch a guy he’d never even met, who had escaped justice in four countries and was living a luxurious life in France.

I had spent years digging through case files and court documents. I had traveled across the country and through wide swaths of Europe to interview subjects and follow in the footsteps of the agents and the traffickers. I had mapped out the structure of the book and I knew exactly how it would end.

But then, when I was three months shy of a first-draft deadline, the head of intelligence for Israeli National Police (INP) told me a fascinating story about a brutal Tel Aviv mob boss who INP had been following for years and could never pin any charges on—until they discovered he was financing Ecstasy deals in the U.S. Like Chicago mob boss Al Capone, who went down for tax evasion, Ze’ev “the Wolf” Rosenstein was nabbed for peddling the so-called love drug.

My book was supposed to end with the denouement of the Tuito era. But the truth was: the Ecstasy era didn’t end with Tuito, it ended with Rosenstein. When Israel’s No. 1 mob boss went down for Ecstasy, the Israeli organized crime networks that had dominated the trade for more than a decade essentially threw in the towel. It also meant that 12 weeks before deadline, I had to rethink the entire structure of my book. I didn’t want to do it! But the Rosenstein case was such an important part of the bigger picture that it would seem a glaring omission to those on the inside, who had personally worked on these investigations. Furthermore, to tell it right, I would have to take readers to Israel and show them an underworld that most Americans—myself included—knew nothing about. Thankfully, Israeli National Police agreed to guide me through that world, with field trips to sites of gang warfare and interviews with top cops who continue to fight the mob bosses. I was on a plane to Tel Aviv in a few short weeks. Each day of my research trip brought fascinating new information and I rewrote parts of the book in a hotel room in Jerusalem.

I tell of this experience because I think that as writers we have to constantly resist the urge to take the path of least resistance. Lazy research begets lazy writing, and astute readers sense when a writer failed to do his or her homework. It was extremely challenging to switch gears so late in the game, but I’m certain that the time I spent getting to know the personalities and the inside culture of both Israeli police and the gangs they targeted only lent “Chemical Cowboys” greater depth and authenticity.

In his book, “Follow the Story,” Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist James B. Stewart tells reporters: trust your curiosity and investigate those small details that initially drew you to a story. What compels you will also compel the reader. His advice resonates with me when I reflect upon my experiences reporting “Chemical Cowboys.” I think its good advice for fiction writers, too. The commitment you make to learn as much as you can about the world you’re writing about—and to follow up on curious details—will only draw readers that much further into your book.

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Lisa Sweetingham
Author of “Chemical Cowboys: The DEA’s Secret Mission to Hunt Down a Notorious Ecstasy Kingpin.”

About the author: Journalist Lisa Sweetingham spent four years following in the footsteps lisaSweetinghamof 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.

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