Australian and New Zealand Society of Criminology

New Book – Trying to Make It: The Enterprises, Gangs, and People of The American Drug Trade

Five Questions with R.V. Gundur, author of Trying to Make It

Congratulations on publishing your book. But, why should people read it; don’t people already know a lot about the drug trade?

You’re right! I always felt that Season 1 of The Wire scooped me, but thankfully nobody uses beepers anymore so at least there is something to update folks on. But, like The Wire, I wrote a book that allows people, wherever they are from, to invest in the folks whose stories grace the pages of Trying to Make It in a personal way. We are exposed to many sensational accounts of the drug trade; these accounts make us feel as if there is an ‘us’ and ‘them.’ but that isn’t true most of the time. I made my book as personal as possible so readers could connect with the people whose lives I document.

What was the most difficult thing about writing your book?

Hey, I liked writing my book; it just took me a little longer than I had anticipated! The biggest challenge was rewriting drafts to make my book as accessible as possible. The rewrites took a tremendous amount of effort and editing. Fortunately, I had a terrific support network to lean on, and I leaned on mine quite heavily. But what I found even harder than writing the book was dealing with the news of the deaths of some of my respondents. Three died in rather violent or unexpected ways as I was writing the final draft. I wrote about one of the people who died from gun violence, Adelita, in depth in a chapter that made it to the book.

You’ve got quite a cast of characters in your book. Who was the most unexpected source for your book?

One man, who I call Breeze in the book, actually Couchsurfed with me when I was a PhD student in Wales. I had a broken leg at the time, so he stayed with me for a good while, helping me out. One day, he asked me about my PhD, because I had listed it on my Couchsurfing profile. So, I started to give him my CliffsNotes spiel, but he interrupted me to tell me that his son was a member of the Aryan Brotherhood, a prison gang in Arizona. As he got more comfortable with me, he told me that he had been locked up in Arizona and Illinois, two places that feature in my book. So, I interviewed Breeze; through him, I came to understand how a lot of the information I had learned about, particularly in Arizona, fit together.   

You have a lot of photographs in your book. What inspired you to include them?

I’ve always loved taking photographs, so I tried to document my fieldwork as much as possible. I lost quite a few of my photos when someone burgled me during my fieldwork, so unfortunately what made it to press was only a small part of the story. But, to answer your questions: visuals are an important part of telling a complete story. Like you alluded to before, the public has a tremendous wealth of visuals that inform their views on topics like the drug trade, but these visuals are often manufactured by Hollywood. I want my readers to have a small window onto the streets I walked for this work so they can better recalibrate their imaginations.

I heard your book will be turned into an audiobook. How did that happen?

Yes! I’m super stoked about that. It means that people who listen to books for whatever reason, whether they have a visual impairment or they just prefer hearing books, can access Trying to Make It. I had no idea that academic books could be turned into audio books, but it turns out that it’s a thing! Cornell had an orientation for authors and said it was a possibility, so I followed up and my book, luckily, was contracted for production. I hope that means that those who teach criminology will be more likely to assign my book to classes and those who are interested in the drug trade, illicit enterprise, or prisons will pick up a copy to listen. I’m not 100% sure when the audio book will be out, but it should be out within the next 12 months. Until the audio book is available, the ebooks have alt-text for all of the images and should be accessible by screen readers.

Trying to Make It: The Enterprises, Gangs, and People of The American Drug Trade is out now on Cornell University Press. It can be ordered for 30% off with the discount code at the following link: