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Wanting to Believe

By Dawn Ius

Robert Dugoni knew he had an extraordinary tale to tell. A story of an extraordinary young man with an extraordinarily rare form of albinism. He just didn’t realize that writing this novel would take an extraordinarily long time.

Ten years, to be exact.

Though he’d drafted THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF SAM HELL in five weeks, both his gut—and his agent—conceded that while the character, a child born with red pupils and dubbed by his peers “Devil Boy,” had solidified in his mind, a fundamental piece of the story puzzle was missing.

What the hell did Sam want?  Dugoni didn’t know—at least not at first.

“But then one day I was driving to Mass, and I saw the steeple, and it hit me like a lightning bolt,” he says. “Sam wants to believe.”

Believe that being born with red pupils is for some reason other than to be bullied by his classmates. Believe that his mother is right when she says he is destined to live an extraordinary life. Believe that everything does happen for a reason—even when that reason isn’t immediately apparent.

And so, with that want tucked firmly into his writing tool kit, Dugoni began to re-draft a remarkable coming-of-age story that will make you appreciate some of life’s smaller, quieter moments.

Dugoni traveling through Europe

That message is an important one to Dugoni, who lately, and throughout the journey of this book, has been cataloguing his own life’s extraordinary moments—such as the ten days he spent on vacation with his son in Europe, or the moment his daughter, a somewhat reluctant reader, shared that she’d not only read THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF SAM HELL, but revealed that it had given her a fresh perspective on God and faith.

“For all of us in an artistic endeavor, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important,” he says. “It’s not about the awards, or the bestseller lists. We tend to forget how blessed we are to be doing what we love. That’s what’s important. That’s why I write.”

That love of craft pulses through the book, which is told with such intimacy, it could double as a memoir. It isn’t though—even if some of the circumstances and characters are reminiscent of Dugoni’s loved ones.

Sam’s mother and her unwavering faith, for instance, has similar characteristics to Dugoni’s mom, an extraordinary woman who raised 10 children, one of whom was born with Down syndrome. Her steadfast belief that her son Michael could be anyone he wanted, do anything he wanted, that he was destined for an extraordinary life, formed the genesis of Sam Hell’s childhood.

Robert Dugoni, and his son, Joe

There are more parallels, of course, which if not gleaned while reading the book, are encapsulated in the heartfelt acknowledgements. It’s clear from the first page that THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF SAM HELL, published by Thomas & Mercer, is a labor of love, a literary novel much different from Dugoni’s traditional genre thrillers. And an experience he’d be willing to recreate…though isn’t in any hurry to do so.

“Publishers get nervous when authors break brand,” he says. “Everyone gets skeptical, and I knew that this would be either an incredibly brave or incredibly stupid move. But life is short, and I kind of see this book as my opus.”

Hitting the castles

Based on initial praise, there’s no question that the book resonates with readers—both fans of Dugoni’s legal thrillers, and those who are coming to his work via this book alone, have lavished it with praise.

That may have something to do with the way Dugoni writes—character-driven prose that borders on literary even when firmly planted in the thriller realm. But perhaps more apt is the fact that THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF SAM HELL touches on important issues with an authenticity that is both heartbreaking and uplifting—bullying, the subtle but important differences between faith and religion, and of most significance to Dugoni, the knowledge that “we all have the ability to lead extraordinary lives.”

As long as we—like Sam Hell—believe that we can.

Dawn Ius
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