Q&A: Author Robert Dugoni Talks About 'The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell'

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Known for his Seattle-based police procedurals featuring homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite and a series of legal thrillers starring David Sloane, Robert Dugoni has received the Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction and is a two-time finalist for both the International Thriller Award and the Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction. His new novel, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell (Lake Union Publishing) is a sensitive coming-of-age story about a boy born with ocular albinism—red pupils—who is tormented by his classmates and grows up to become an ophthalmologist. Dugoni, who once practiced law, reflects on his writing career and his newest work with The National’s John B. Valeri.

Q: The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell marks a departure for you. What inspired this shift from writing series to a novel with a protagonist that would not continue?  

A: I actually started the novel more than 10 years ago. The premise came to me one night, but I didn’t have a character. The idea rattled around in my head for months. Then, on a Sunday, I was reading the newspaper and stumbled on a small article about a boy in Australia denied admittance to a Catholic School because he had red eyes. The principal, a nun, expressed concern that the boy would be disruptive since the children apparently called him “The Devil Boy.” That was all I needed to get rolling. I wrote the first draft in six weeks, then worked on it over the next nine years. I struggled with finding a central theme to pull the scenes together into a novel. The theme came to me while visiting my mother and discussing the death of my father to cancer. I was expressing how unfair it was when she said, “It’s God’s Will.”  And I realized I desperately wanted to believe she was right, and that belief was exactly what Sam Hill wanted also. He wanted to believe his mother was right. That common thread helped me to finish the novel.

As for inspiration, my youngest brother, Michael, was born with Downs Syndrome and I can recall my mother advocating for him to be educated at a time when doctors recommended he be institutionalized because he would disrupt our family. I can recall my mother traveling to Michigan with Michael to receive an experimental treatment and saying the cost, which we couldn’t really afford, would be his college education. I recall young mothers coming to our home sobbing and asking to speak to “Patty” about their babies, and asking what they could do to ensure their children were educated. It was a difficult time in a family of 10 overachieving children, but my mother’s faith never wavered that Michael’s life had a purpose.

Q: Though many consider suspense to be a genre, it is also an integral element to much fiction. How did you incorporate tension through The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell? Did your experience writing crime fiction work in your new novel?

A: Stephen King wrote in his memoir of the craft, On Writing, that there must be tension on every line of every page. Those words impacted me because it is such a daunting and difficult task. As my writing has matured, I’ve come to realize that King set the bar high because tension is so necessary to writing a compelling novel. When writing crime fiction, the challenge is often finding different and non-cliché ways to create tension. I’ve learned in the Tracy Crosswhite novels that there are many forms of tension – tension inherent in a homicide detective’s profession, and tension in her personal life to which readers can all relate. The trick for me is to have that personal tension heightened when the professional tension wanes, and vice-versa. 

As I wrote Sam Hell, I knew there would be tension in the chapters discussing Sam’s childhood because there is something compellingly tragic about a child who is bullied by other children and by adults who should have protected him. What I needed was to find a way to keep that tension in the chapters describing Sam living as an adult. As the story developed, I realized that Sam’s childhood antagonist, David Bateman, would also grow to become an adult, but likely one tragically flawed from his own abusive upbringing. I wanted to draw a parallel between Sam being bullied as a child and the young girl, Daniela Bateman, being bullied by her father. Sam believes that standing up to Daniela’s tormentor is a means for him to finally stand up to his own bully, but Sam’s belief is short-sighted and misguided, and it ends in tragedy. It is not until Sam accepts himself for who he is and likes who he is, that he can finally dismiss the bullies in his life.      

Q: We get to know your protagonist, Sam Hell, as both a boy and a man. In what ways do you feel that the two separate timelines enhance one another?

A: One of the struggles I had in structuring the novel was conveying the difficulties and the hypocrisies of Sam’s childhood through the eyes of a six-year-old boy. By telling the story through the perspective of Sam as an adult looking back on his life, I could convey to the reader the details of Sam’s childhood and illustrate his growth from these experiences, though he does not realize it at the time. Sister Beatrice was not just the Wicked Witch of the West, as Sam the child sees her, but a woman with an illness that affects millions of adults. David Bateman is not just a sociopath who bullies Sam, but the victim of an abusive parent lashing out at the world. Sam doesn’t fully understand this as a child and he doesn’t understand his mother’s frequent response that the happenings in his life are, “God’s Will.” He doesn’t understand that all of the things he goes through in his childhood are not just a random series of bad events, like billiard balls scattering during a break, but actually have some order that define his life, his predetermined “fate” if you will. Sam says something in the foreword of the novel that I believe all readers are searching for in their own lives – they want to believe. They want to believe that all the trials and tribulations they endure in their own lives have a purpose; that something good and meaningful will come from those struggles. Without that belief, without that hope, I would think life, and all the difficulties it presents, would be very difficult to get through.

Q: As a child, Sam is defined by his distinctive red pupils; as an adult, he is a small-town eye doctor struggling to make peace with his past. How is the idea of sight, or perception, used thematically throughout the story – and in what ways is Sam’s coming-of-age relevant to the contemporary climate?

A: As I mentioned above, Sam the child does not “see” a purpose for his distinctive red pupils. He sees them only has the source of all the bullying he endures from other children and adults. Until he “sees” that his eyes have a purpose, as his mother so ardently tells him throughout his childhood, he cannot move forward with his life.

Sam becomes an ophthalmologist, and though he spends his adult life helping others to see, he remains blind to his own circumstances. His relationships with women – with Donna in high school and with Eva as an adult - are superficial and unfulfilling because Sam is blind to the relationships’ faults. He doesn’t believe a man with red eyes can “do any better” so he looks past Donna and Eva’s faults and “settles” for what he has. In each instance, it is Mickey, the eyes in Sam’s life, who sees the flaws in both relationships and constantly points those out to him. Rather than dealing with his struggles, Sam avoids them, as signified by his covering up his affliction with brown contact lenses. He doesn’t realize this is a superficial remedy and not an actual resolution.  

Sam’s coming of age is relative to the contemporary climate because his life is an illustration that we all have the ability to make our lives extraordinary; that the extraordinary moments in our lives are those quiet moments that touch our hearts – the days someone tells us they love us, the day we get married, the days our children are born. Sadly, we don’t often appreciate these moments until we are older and we look back at our lives and realize those moments were special.     

Q: In what ways has your reading life informed your writing life? 

A: My mother studied to be an English teacher, and I was blessed to always have books in the house. At a young age my mother handed me classics to read: Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Lord of the Flies. I loved to read and I loved a good story. It wasn’t until later in life that I could truly appreciate the meanings of those novels, what the author was attempting to do through his characters and the circumstances he created. As I got older, I gravitated toward reading the novels of John Irving, Pat Conroy and Larry McMurtry, novels that were more expansive and covered characters’ throughout their lives, like The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Great Santini, South of Broad, and Lonesome Dove.  I realized the importance of an ensemble of characters and how the authors used the relationships between those characters to evoke emotion in the reader.

I hope readers will find some of the same emotions when reading of the relationship between Sam and his mother, Sam and his father, Sam and Mickey, and Sam and Ernie. I hope some of these characters can speak to reader’s hearts, and that the novel can have some lingering meaning in their lives as the above novels had in mine.

Q: What are you working on now? What can readers expect from you next?

A: The sixth Tracy Crosswhite novel – A Steep Price – will be published in June 2018, and I’m very excited about that. I’m also just finishing an espionage novel. I didn’t set out to write an espionage novel, but as a friend once said to me, “Sometimes good stories just fall in our laps and our job is to figure out how to tell them well.” This novel fell into my lap, and it turned out that I had created a character in my earlier David Sloane novels, former CIA agent Charles Jenkins, who was perfect for the lead role: a former CIA agent is reactivated by the agency for a seemingly altruistic purpose, and soon realizes that nothing is as it was represented. To stay alive, he must cross Russia and Turkey in a desperate struggle to get home to his family. Once home, however, he faces his biggest obstacle to freedom in the form of his own government and its justice system. 


John B. Valeri wrote about books for Examiner.com from 2009 to 2016. He currently contributes to the Big Thrill, Crimespree Magazine, Criminal Element, Mystery Scene Magazine, the National Book Review, the News and Times, the Strand Magazine, and Suspense Magazine. He made his fiction debut in Tricks and Treats, an award-winning anthology published by Books & Boos Press in 2016, and will be featured in My Peculiar Family Volume 2—Celebrations, slated for publication in Spring 2018. He can be found online at www.johnbvaleri.com.