Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sunday Guest Blogger: Former Special Agent, Now Author Paul E. Doyle



John here. It’s a pleasure to introduce today’s guest blogger. PAUL E. DOYLE served as Special Agent in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs and the Drug Enforcement Administration and is currently Chairman of the New England chapter of the Association of Former Federal Narcotic Agents. Additionally, he is on the board of directors for the Mystery Writers of America New England chapter. In this Sunday guest blog, he discusses some of the fascinating challenges faced by writers of true crime. Above are photos of Paul on a recent trip to Shanghai Sparring with Kung Fu expert Sun Bin and presenting his book HOT SHOTS AND HEAVY HITS, a riveting first-hand account of life as an undercover drug agent, to the Shanghai Police Museum. You can learn more about him at www.pauledoyle.com.

The Dangers of Writing

Facing a deadline is much like staring down the barrel of a gun. I know; I have done both. The outcome is uncertain, but no matter what happens, you’re never going to be the same. I always thought of myself as an action guy, never a philosopher or writer. But days after the attack on the World Trade Center, while standing in the rubble, with smoke rising all around me, I was confronted by my own mortality, looking up at the twisted iron girder looming precariously overhead. Thousands of men and women were alive, working in the Twin Towers only days before, and now they were dead. The ashes that blanketed my clothing, the structures, and the landscape surrounding Ground Zero were all that remained of the two buildings and the people. I realized that I could be gone in an instant, also, if I fell seven stories to the subway below or got crushed by falling steel - a sobering thought.

After clambering through the destruction and combing through the debris for several days, we found no one alive. The mission then changed from rescue to recovery, and I returned to Boston. In my dust covered work-clothes and boots, I walked the mile and a half from the station to my home, a calculated attempt to decompress, after witnessing the unimaginable. Physically, I was heading home, but mentally, I had never left. Totally exhausted, when my wife met me on the doorstep, wanting to know everything, I was unable to talk, but agreed, reluctantly, to put my experiences in writing. That moment after 9/11 was the catalyst. I became a writer.

In an emotional maelstrom, nerves raw, stomach nauseous, and heart racing, the images still vividly fresh in the forefront of my mind, I began - a first person account of my experiences. The act of writing was at once spontaneous and cathartic. I wrestled with my wife’s suggestion to submit it to a magazine. Was it a betrayal? I felt a bond with the men and women buried under the rubble, as if we connected, while I was on that sacred ground. It was a difficult decision. Once I decided to have the article published, I struggled with my conscience. Was it right? Had I been faithful to the memory of those who died?

After Ground Zero was published, I realized that I had done the right thing, comfortable that my story had affected many people in a meaningful way. The feedback was very positive. My account was well received, especially by those who lost relatives and friends. They appreciated what I wrote, and they told me so. It made me think more about being a writer.

After much soul searching, I decided to write a memoir about my experiences as a DEA Special Agent in the 1970’s. I began the story, as my career did, in the summer of 1971. While recounting the story, how I infiltrated the drug underworld, I also relived the experiences; the overwhelming loneliness and isolation of working without boundaries, the dangers lurking everywhere, the violence, the trauma - the shootings, the over-doses, and the deaths. I wrote from a first person perspective and finished in two months - ten years undercover captured in two hundred pages. Only then, did I realize I was hooked. There was much more to write about; I was becoming a writer.

Writing isn’t easy. As I said in the beginning, it’s much like a gunfight to me, the ending always in doubt. I tried to get the idea out of my mind, but I found myself scribbling in notebooks in cafes, airplanes, and on trains. I can’t stop. I’m thinking of writing another book, and believe I have the story; I just have to decide how to write it. My journey through life has been full of excitement, rife with unbelievable experiences, and crowded with colorful characters. I have witnessed life from an unparalleled vantage point. There is a problem, though. Many of the people I have known and want to write about are not fond of seeing their names in print. They resent intrusion, are not fans of transparency, and are secretive and unremitting. They are criminals, and they do not want their stories told. That’s my dilemma. They could kill my family and me.

I was about to scrap the idea, when I ran into Warren Adler, famous author of twenty-nine books, several now movies, including War of the Roses. We were kindred spirits, he reminded me, because we share the same birthday. I wish I shared his talent for writing. Warren is the kind of guy who always leaves you feeling better than you did before you met. After listening to my predicament, he smiled, before explaining the virtues of writing a novel. I could avoid the restrictions imposed on a true crime writer, but capture the essence of my story, by writing creatively about the characters I have known and the incidents I have been involved in. To illustrate, he drew a parallel to his novel, Funny Boys, based on his childhood experiences. He grew up in Brooklyn, the haunt of Murder Incorporated’s most notorious Jewish gangsters similar to my South Boston neighborhood that harbored the murderous Irish mob.

I was smiling, myself, when I left the table, fresh and inspired as always, after breaking bread with Warren. Everything he told me made sense, so logical, so simple. I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it myself. I’m writing like crazy now, hunkered down at my desk, and nobody’s shooting at me - at least not yet.

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