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Interview with Lisa Sweetingham, Author of Chemical Cowboys

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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.

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Chemical CowboysWelcome to Beyond the Books, Lisa!  What was the name of your very first book regardless of whether it was published or not and, if not published, why?

Chemical Cowboys: The DEA’s Secret Mission to Hunt Down a Notorious Ecstasy Kingpin is my first book.

For your first published book, how many rejections did you go through before you either found a mainstream publisher, self-published it, or paid a vanity press to publish it?

I know that the submission process can be agonizing, but I’ve been extremely fortunate to have a very talented agent, David Halpern, of the Robbins Office, who is almost scientific about these things. From what I recall, Halpern only submitted the proposal to a small group of editors that he knew would get the material and also see beyond the true crime–genre label to the larger story Chemical Cowboys hoped to tell. I don’t recall how many passes we received at first. But how it worked was that if we were getting the same feedback from editors—and if we agreed with that feedback—then I would go back and revise the proposal before we submitted again. So, maybe, a half-dozen or so No’s was all we needed to get to a Yes.

How did the rejections make you feel and what did you do to overcome the blows?

It’s certainly disappointing, but I prefer to gather information rather than dwell on rejection. If there’s something I can learn about why it’s a pass that only helps me to revise the material—to make it cleaner and more compelling. Sometimes, of course, there is no good reason. It’s just not the right fit and that’s all there is to it.

When your first book was published, who published it and why did you choose them?

The deal for Chemical Cowboys was with Random House, and it was published under the Ballantine imprint. It was the passion and interest of Random House executive editor Will Murphy that made it a perfect fit. He understood the material and was as excited about the subject matter as we were.

How did it make you feel to become published for the first time and how did you celebrate?

When I wrote the proposal for Chemical Cowboys, I was a senior staff writer for CourtTV.com, and had been traveling around the country covering murder trials and high-profile court cases. I loved that job, but I’d always wanted to write books. When my agent called to tell me that Random House made an offer, I was at the airport in Houston, on my way home to Los Angeles, and had just interviewed a man on death row who’d exhausted all his appeals and was soon to be executed. I’ll never forget him—Willie Shannon. Gentle, soft-spoken, and resolute. I liked him. And I recall thinking on the plane home: His life is coming to an end, and my life is about to open up. I was excited about the book, but it seemed incorrect to celebrate at the time.

What was the first thing you did as far as promotion when you were published for the first time?

It was a strange transition, because for several years I was reporting, writing, and editing. And then, when all of that was finally done, I had to take off my journalist hat and put on a saleswoman hat. I really resisted it at first. But it must be done. Basically, I got in touch with everyone I knew who worked in TV, print, radio, and Internet and asked for their help to publicize the book. My publicists at Ballantine also sent review copies far and wide. I threw a book party in New York, and set up readings in Los Angeles, Pasadena, and Hollywood.

If you had to do it over again, would you have chosen another route to be published?

Not at all.

Have you been published since then and how have you grown as an author?

Now that Chemical Cowboys is out, I’ve been devoting more time to freelance writing and reporting assignments and I have a couple of new book ideas I’m developing. It’s hard to say yet how I have grown as an author, but I think I’d like the next book to be simpler. Chemical Cowboys was a tremendous undertaking: nearly four years of reporting and traveling around the world following in the footsteps of drug traffickers and DEA agents. It also was a challenging structural puzzle, as I had to weave the stories of about a half-dozen main subjects into the narrative. Plus, I wanted readers to really see and feel what the agents, dealers, mules, and other main players saw and felt, which meant spending years digging for details and convincing people to share their very personal stories with me. I hope some of that came through. I also hope to tell a smaller story for the next book.

Looking back since the early days when you were trying to get published, what do you think you could have done differently to speed things up? What kind of mistakes could you have avoided?

Again, my successes in this realm are largely owed to my agent, David Halpern, who has consistently steered me away from potential pitfalls and mistakes. But, when it comes to speeding things up? I don’t know if that’s the wise way to go about getting published. For non-fiction works, the reporting has to be solid and the writing has to be clear. To achieve that takes a lot of editing, rewriting, and time.

What has been the biggest accomplishment you have achieved since becoming published?

Having a life again! When I was in the final writing stages, I spent several months working until 3 a.m., avoiding friends, family, holiday events, and sunshine. People would call to ask if I needed hot meals or a walk. I was obsessed!

If you could have chosen another profession, what would that profession be?

I’m infinitely interested in human and animal behavior, in fact my undergrad work was in psychology. As a teenager, I once considered becoming a primatologist, but today? If I absolutely couldn’t be a journalist, perhaps I’d be a criminologist. A friend who was baffled by my subject interests once said to me, “You are in a conversation with evil.” Maybe so, but I think that what I’m really interested in is understanding is what motivates “evil” behavior and how to mitigate it.

Would you give up being an author for that profession or have you combined the best of both worlds?

I suppose I’ve combined the best of both.

How do you see yourself in ten years?

Professionally, I hope to be writing about the same sort of non-fiction subjects—crime, drugs, mafia, police work, international investigations—while also expanding a bit into sports journalism. I’d like to learn how to deliver those stories through documentaries, feature, and TV.

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