Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Bestselling author of Wool and other books. Currently sailing around the world.

In Memory of Tongjai Bell

Sometime in April, hopefully the 19th, I will release the next Wool book, and it’ll be dedicated to Tongjai Bell. Some of you may open that first page, see the dedication, and wonder “who is Tongjai Bell?”

Not long ago, I was confronted with a decision on with whether or not to interact with readers as much as I do, especially when it came to reviews. The standard answer is to never respond to a review. Authors and others have blogged extensively about this. Most feel that it’s a horrible idea. On Goodreads, if you, as the author, go to write a reply on a review of your book, a little pop-up will tell you to back away from the keyboard and seriously reconsider 6what you’re about to do.

No lie.

I once had a commenter show up in several of my Amazon reviews to blast me for responding to other reviewers. This person’s anger really gave me pause. But then I thought: this guy hasn’t read any of my books, so he shouldn’t have a say. I turned instead to my fans, polled them, and you advised me to continue on as before.

Of course, in negative reviews, I try to be polite. I only respond when I feel the review misses some fact that passersby should be aware of (as when a reviewer claims I’m scamming the reader when in fact the variable royalty rate means the exact opposite). I’ve had some extraordinary encounters in negative reviews. I’ve made friends and even fans of some of my detractors. And I just love the opportunity to interact with readers of all stripes, the pleased and the displeased.

Today was instrumental in validating my decision to comment on reviews. Today I received an email from a reviewer that I had bantered back and forth with on Amazon (it was a great review, btw). This email that he sent was a continuation of our comment exchange, and it was about his wife Tongjai Bell. By the end of the note I was bawling like a baby, literally shuddering and shedding fat tears. I was a complete mess.

Because of this exchange and how touched I was, I have decided to dedicate the next book in the Silo Series to Andy Bell’s late wife, Tongjai. Instead of explaining why, I am publishing the exchange between Andy and I. His eloquence and candor moved me beyond tears and straight to sobs. It’s a lot to read, but I won’t apologize for it. And it all started with a little book review:

 

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This was followed with some comments between Andy and I. Now, I really hesitated to post anything at all, but how do I not respond to such a tender and vulnerable review such as this? Emotions had been shared. I felt a strong urge to acknowledge them.

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This would have been a fine place to end the exchange, right? It’s a nice and happy ending. I should have left well enough alone. But of course I didn’t. My response:

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Hugh C. Howey says:

I’m trying to imagine reading the first WOOL knowing the loss you suffered, and I just can’t envision getting through it.

This will seem trivial to you by comparison — I’m embarrassed to even mention it — but I wrote the first short story in the wake of losing a dog that was like a daughter to my wife and I. Yeah, we are those kinds of owners. We don’t have kids, so we poured a lot of those same emotions into our pup.  She was only nine years old when we lost her. I thought we would have a few more years. The day was incredibly traumatic. We were taking her on a canoe trip, paddling deep down a calm river, and she had been acting strange all day (looking back, the signs were there that something was wrong for a couple of weeks, but only with hindsight). We lost her on that trip, in that canoe with us. A fishing boat towed us back to the landing at high speeds. My wife performed CPR while I drove 90 mph down a foreign highway; a woman we had kidnapped at the boat ramp was in the back seat giving us directions to the vet.

I won’t go into more detail, but our pup didn’t make it. And there was a lot of internal guilt. It wasn’t hot that day, and we didn’t do anything wrong. Our dog just had a pulmonary embolism. But I still wonder if she would be with us still if we hadn’t been out on that canoe, away from civilization. Then again, she was doing what she loved most with the people she loved most. There were other factors (her knees were completely shot) that made me think, much later, that her passing like that had been the best thing for her, even if it was the worst thing for us.

I’m blubbering right now just from forcing myself to type about it, and it’s been over a year. I don’t mean to trivialize your much greater loss. I can’t imagine losing my wife. The two of us were wrecks for weeks and months afterward. Our lives were empty. I wasn’t sure if we would recover or ever own another dog again.

I wrote WOOL in the wake of that (and haven’t mentioned this connection before except to hint at having lost someone in an interview once). Maybe it was cathartic for me to write something sad. I don’t know. I didn’t promote the story or mention it anywhere because I didn’t think it would appeal to anyone but me. All I do know is that my heart goes out to you. I hope there is some place for you to see your wife again. Losing my precious pup was the first time I had to deal with a sudden loss like that, and it made me want to feel the same way. I think it’s crucial for us to believe that there is something beyond these harsh walls, some better place that we’re told we can’t dream about, and our loved ones are waiting there for us. Even if we’re wrong, if we’re just going to go join them on a dusty hill in perpetual sleep, I would rather believe something good and go out with hope in my vision than live with any other truth.

Again: your words and comments have humbled me. I wish you all the best in everything. If you want to keep in touch, my email address is easy to track down.

-Hugh

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Then today, the email that turned me into a blubbering fool:
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Dear Mr. Howey,

I was thinking about what you wrote at the beginning of your last post – trying to imagine my reading Wool after losing my wife and wondering how I got through it. I was wondering if you thought that the cleanings might have reminded me of the loss I have suffered.  In fact it was quite the opposite. Wool was such a good story that for those moments when I was submerged in the silo, I wasn’t thinking about it! Isn’t that strange? I think the best story tellers create a world that makes it easy for the imagination to fill in the blanks. I have a vivid image in my head of that world, both inside and outside the silo.

Thanks again for your kind words and sharing the story of your loss. My wife would have understood. She had such an affinity for animals. She cried when I gave away my son’s Guinea Pigs. I have seen vicious packs of dogs that chased me into a storefront on the streets of Thailand follow her around like puppies.

I have lost a father and a sister but nothing prepared me for the loss of my wife. I don’t know if it hurts worse because she was young (39), because she was beautiful (that shouldn’t matter but it seems to in our society), because she was such a decent person, or because the love between a husband and wife is somehow special. The only thing that could be worse would be losing one of my kids. Intellectually I know that statement to be true but I just can’t fathom that there could be a worse feeling than what I feel at the loss of my wife.

Losing your beloved Dog must be along the lines of losing a child I think. I have come to realize that there are two primary components of grief. One is that you just miss the person –their voice, their laugh, the morning kiss goodbye before work, their smell, the feel of their hug, their cooking, their encouragement. All the little things the sum of which is the intersection of your life with theirs.  The second component of grief is the fear that your loved one is not anywhere anymore.

I  started thinking that if I could convince myself that that was not true, that she was somewhere and therefore there was the possibility that I could see her again, then I could deal with the first component for as long as was necessary. I started reading every book about near death experiences I could get my hands on. Also, as an engineer and mathematician I needed more empirical data. So I started reading books that attempted to apply scientific methods to the phenomenon of near death experiences.

A few of my favorites are:

Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-Death Experience by Pim van Lommel
Science and the Near-Death Experience by Chris Carter
Evidence of the Afterlife: The Science of Near-Death Experiences by Jeffery Long
Quantum Physics, Near Death Experiences, Eternal Consciousness, Religion, and the Human Soul by William Joseph Bray
The Afterlife Experiments by Gary Schwartz  (although this was an interesting experiment about mediums)

This then led me to books about Quantum Physics. The NDE books were intriguing and exciting but I think it was the physics that finally convinced me. The idea that particles are not fixed in space and time until observed by a consciousness coupled with the NDE experiencer’s common observation that their near death event seemed more real than their actual waking life started me wondering if this life, this world, isn’t all just some giant illusion and that eventually we will all wake up from it back into our eternal lives.

If we are eternal beings, then the ratio of any lifetime, or any length of time for that matter be it a hundred years or a billion years, represented by the equation: length of time/eternity (infinity) mathematically (approaches) is zero. That is, for eternal beings, my wife, your dog, they will be seeing us in less than a nanosecond.

So I think part of the reason I was having such trouble reading fiction is that I felt I couldn’t afford to “waste time” on it when there was so much research to do. It is critical to me that she still exists. I don’t fear death anymore, in fact a part of me looks forward to it if there is even an infinitesimal chance I will see her again – and I think there is a better chance than that. But I think I will stick around for my kids for a while because I love them too and I promised my wife I would.

Anyway, I wrote all this because I felt, in the last paragraph of your post, a thread of doubt or uncertainty in your thoughtful words of encouragement and hope.  I hope some of what I have written can help you in your loss and losses to come. You’ll be happy to hear that in many NDE accounts, deceased pets are present!

I’m halfway through Halfway Home and my only criticism is that I wish it was longer because at this rate I’ll be done with it tomorrow.  It is another fantastic story.

Sincerely, Wilson Bell

P.S. My kids had me put up a website in honor of my wife. They made a collage of pictures of her and us. We haven’t added much content yet but you can see it at http://www.tongjai.com. What a beauty she was inside and out. How did I ever get that lucky

Wilson (Andy) Bell
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When I read the very last line, this admission of humility and dumb luck, I cursed out loud, an involuntary cough of an expletive, and then completely lost it. I had kept it together reasonably well as I read about a woman dying so very young, just a few years older than my wife, and of a type of cancer we now have a vaccine for (which makes the tragedy all the more heart-rending). For a man as lovely and brilliant as this to doubt having deserved his beautiful and caring wife struck me as deeply tragic and hauntingly poetic. Of course he deserved her. His love validates that. They deserved each other and for so much longer. It was some time before I could compose myself and respond.

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Andy,

My vision blurred while reading this email. And when I got finished, I said an involuntary “Fuck!” and proceeded to bawl like a baby. You are a phenomenal writer. This is one of the most touching, lucid, and poignant notes I’ve ever read. I’m torn up over your loss while moved by the process through which you’ve sought answers to these questions that man has forever wrestled with.

I will treasure our chance encounter. Your wife is a beautiful woman with a soaring smile. I say “is” on purpose. Like you, I suspect that our perception of time and causality are not as they appear to be on the macro level. Your wife will always be who she was.

The way that I have come to grips with our eventual demise is twofold: I remind myself that the 16th century was not an awful time for me. Neither will the 26th. I have spent far more “time” not existing than I have existing. I’m really good at it. I will treasure my brief moments in this adventure and not worry about what comes next.

The other component of this philosophy is the impermanence of action. I tell myself this: I will always have been. My actions will always have taken place. The little corner of the universe in which I helped my fellow man will, just moments later, be empty space. The Earth will spin on, the galaxy will rotate, space will expand, but my action and choice will always have happened.

This mindset encourages me to attempt the best course of action in all things. It also causes me to savor every moment. My wife gave me a hard time for years because I would snuggle up to our dog and tell her how much I would miss her once she was gone. She called it morbid, but it was a reminder to love her in that moment as if it might be the last.

After we lost her, she thanked me for keeping that perspective and for helping her treasure what we had while we still had it. Even now, with a new puppy just a year and a half old (we have rescued each other), I already feel the urge to say the same thing, to tell her that I’ll love her even when she’s gone. For some reason, I need to say this. To hear myself say it.

I don’t know if this is a strange request or not, but I would really like to dedicate my next book to your wife. I understand we are strangers, but that means even more to me. I’ve already dedicated a book to each of my immediate family, my editor, my first publisher. All would feel insignificant compared to putting her name and maybe the years of her life in the book. There’s a chance no one will be reading my stories in another year or another month, but I like to think I’m leaving behind something that will outlast me. It would be meaningful to me if your wife could be a part of that delayed impermanence. Even though, I’m sure, you’ll see her in a nanosecond or so.

All my best,
Hugh

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Dear Hugh,

I have to admit I smiled a bit as I read the first line of your email thinking – damn he’s worse than I am. Then by the time I got to your “strange request” I lost it. I haven’t cried like that for at least a month. I’m an ex-Marine for God’s sake! It would be such a wonderful tribute to her – your dedication.  I have an image in my head of her face full of delight at the thought.

At the same time I keep thinking to myself that my children and I am no different than anyone else. We’re not special. Everybody loses someone eventually. Being from a large family of brothers and sisters I sometimes have the morbid thought that one of us is going to have the experience of seeing all the others die.  Why I never took the next step, like you did, and realize that I therefore should cherish every second is beyond me.

I think I might have had an inkling though. I was looking back through my text messages last night. AT&T keeps many months of text messages and they’re easy to get to on the iPhone. I got back to about three months before she died. She was sick, although we still held out hope that she would get through it. I was at my son’s wrestling match and we were texting back and forth. I was astonished at how many times in the space of three or four hours we told each other how much we loved one another.

All our text conversations were like that it turns out. My memory of it is that I didn’t say it enough. If you do dedicate your book to Tong, my family and I will truly cherish it. The impermanence of it, of her, is gratifying to me. More so because of what it must mean to you because of your philosophy of the impermanence of action. So thank you very much!  Once again you have brought me a measure of joy.

I don’t think there is much chance that people won’t be reading your stories next year or for a long time to come. I’ve had others tell me I am a good writer. And then I read a book like Wool and know I would never be able to measure up to that kind of storytelling. I went to your website to find your email address and discovered you are writing more Wool books! Awesome – I’ve already had at least three friends buy the Omnibus Edition.

Thanks again and I’ll keep reading (and promoting) your work.

Andy

P.S. I suspect you have always existed.

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I smiled at your postscript.

I’ll be in touch before the book goes live. Maybe I’ll sign one to your kids and send it to you as well. It would mean a lot to me to be able to.
Her name and the years of her awesome and too-short life would make a great dedication page. Let’s do it.
Cheers,
Hugh
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Thanks so much. It really means a great deal to us. Plus a bonus – I told one of my daughters about our correspondence and she said she wants to read Wool! A miracle! One of my daughters is going to read a book! Seriously, I’m not exactly sure why it means so much but you have genuinely lifted all of our spirits!
Gratefully,
Andy

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You’ve lifted mine, Andy.

This is what I love about the Internet.

-Hugh
P.S. I don’t know how you would feel about this, but I was thinking it would also be a very cool way to honor your wife by doing a blog entry about the choice of dedication for the next book. It would be cool to include our correspondence, but if you were hesitant about this, I would totally understand. It’s very personal. I just think a lot of people would be touched, moved, and perhaps altered by the eloquence and loveliness of your email.
Please don’t hesitate to say, “No way!” I am reluctant to even ask, so it’s not a big deal. Me? I’ve embraced the act of spilling my guts online and to strangers. I think it helps everyone to remain human and vulnerable online.
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Feel free to publish anything I’ve written. If you or I have stumbled upon a even whiff of truth about life or death we probably shouldn’t keep it a secret. Besides, I figure everyone should know Tong in some small way.
Andy
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That was the exchange in full. When you crack open your copy of the next Silo Story, take a moment to remember Tongjai Bell. And more than Tongjai — remember the things that are important. I was distraught last weekend over glitches affecting the availability of my books on Amazon. That seems so petty to me now. The original dedication for the book was “For the Victims.” It was meant to be both haunting and meaningful. Now it seems empty by comparison. Instead, it will read, because dates felt wrong in light of our discussion:

For Tongjai and Andy Bell
Together Forever

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39 replies to “In Memory of Tongjai Bell”

This is one of the major reasons why people are interested in supporting you and supporting those like you. In this day and age, it’s so easy shut out anyone before they get too close because technology allows you the option to simply stop responding. No more e-mails. No more instant messages. Don’t like what I say? Delete me. Erase me. Never speak me again. In that respect, the Internet is an implement to impersonalize and dehumanize our feelings.

There are those who use this technology in a way to reveal different facets of themselves. And for some, those facets are wrought with the struggles of life. Responding to your readers, sharing these tribulations and triumphs puts everyone on the same field.

There’s always a time and place to choose when it’s appropriate to speak to your readers, sure. You chose to do something that people have blogged so vehmently about as an action you should not take. But this exchange has proven to yourself that despite the naysayers, reaching out and getting to know who exactly is reading your book is a rewarding experience… evident of the tears that you’ve shed.

I hope you don’t ever stop being personal with us and future readers regardless of what’s in store for your career down the road. Because big or small, it lets us know you’re still a human being.

A human being who can relate.

Wow hugh, that was really powerful. I will be praying for their family’s peace. I firmly believe that there is so much more to our life than the few years spent here. He’s right, we are eternal, and the only thing we get to bring with us on this ride is our love. so lets make sure we love one another as I believe God intended, without precondition, without obligation, without discrimination, and without end. Thanks for sharing that.

I said on another thread that the genius of Wool is that it is intensely personal.

This is amplified by what I am reading here.

Thanks Hugh (and Andy), I am not an emotional guy, but this opened me up in all sorts of ways. It’s easy to take our loved ones for granted.

Wow, what a beautiful and powerful correspondence. You two were clearly meant to find each other.

Andy, thank you for sharing your love for Tongjai with us. Hugh, you are an amazing soul. But I already knew that.

Wow that was an pretty amazing read. I lost my Grandmother in Oct 2011 and she was pretty much the only mother figure I had growing up so these letters really hit home for me. She held the entire family together. Reading this makes me realize the selfless love we can have for each other and in moments where loss hurts the most strangers can lift each other up and help heal emotional wounds that we think will never heal.

This brought on an early morning cry. What a tragic yet beautiful story. Andy’s love for his wife is inspiring, and it is amazing to see the power that a book can have in someone’s life. Blessings to you both!

I don’t know what to say. I never cry but was teary eyed through most of that. My wife is a work but I sent her an immediate “I love you” text message…

Hugh, Andy, thank you so much for that.

Thank you Hugh, for making a difference in my brother Andy’s life and honoring his beautiful wife Tong. Andy is a pretty amazing person as well – I’m very proud to call him my brother. I look forward to reading your books.

Hugh, you made me cry at work.

This is a great story in itself. This is why you’re a storyteller.

It’s all grist for the mill. Hugh, you prove the value of following your own path.

I think this crystallizes some of what I got from Wool. Your writing doesn’t shy away from hard emotions, it leans into them. In my experience, hard times are infinitely worse if I try to deny and fight against what’s happening. If I can calmly accept what’s happening and move through it I find myself through and on the other side having suffered less.

Acknowledging death, looking at it calmly, and choosing to live full and free in the face of it is the soul of bravery. Everything about your writing is brave.

Geez. I keep reading. And keep crying. Thanks to Andy for sharing his story, and the list of books he mentioned in his “research”. I’ll be picking those up myself, because don’t we all hope and dream that they (moms, dads, dogs, grandpas) are still “here”. I really gotta quit reading this now. *sniff*

Thank you Andy and Hugh for sharing this emotional exchange. Andy, I’m so sorry for your loss. You sound like a wonderful husband and father. The wisdom that you show in your writing is a real inspiration, and a great reminder to the rest of us about the importance of cherishing every moment we have right here and now. Your wife lives on in the hearts of others. Never forget that.

Hugh, this just reaffirms my opinion of you not only being a great writer, but also a really decent down-to-earth guy.

A beautiful conversation. I have been at a loss for words as to what I can add, the sorrow of loosing loved ones is one that we can all and probably all do share but each loss is unique as the people involved are unique and grieve and remember in their own ways.

I lost my nephew (who was only 4-5) a few years back and the year before the mother of two of my best friends (Who was also like a mother to me… you know the deal) was run over by a drunk saving one of her daughters friends and after loosing my dog of 12 years or my cat more recently the pain was the same, deep, I can’t see a difference between pets and people as pets are family as well… I think I am coming off the wrong way here… I know, you can get a new pet but if you think about it, you can get more family members, it don’t change the fact that it hurts and that hole can never be filled, that spot will always remain empty, that contact will never happen again… and so the pain is no different…

Hmmm… yeah… I should stop typing now…

But let me finish by saying, beautiful post Hugh and I am saddened by your loss and of Mr. Bell’s loss… Thank you for the reminder to never take anything for granted.

p.s.
Is this the infamous Mollie we keep hearing about that I see???

Hugh,
I can’t thank you enough for bringing inner peace to our friend Andy. Tong remains a part of our lives and always will. Whenever we see the beauty around us, we see her, and are reminded of how she became such an important part of Andy’s life. The story of her life is an epic in it’s own right and deserves to be told. Perhaps one day Andy will find that voice and tell her truly remarkable story to the world. Tong will be right there whispering in his ear “I loved you even before I met you.”

I am not as eloquent as my brother, Andy. All I can say is God Bless you Hugh! I pray daily for Andy to find some peace and relief from his grief. You have provided that and more for him! Thank you! Tong is a beautiful soul! I miss her dearly and my children do as well. They are only six years old yet remember her vividly.

There is NOTHING more important in this world than love – period, end of paragraph. Money, power, fame, possessions – nothing holds a candle to the love, genuine love, for your fellow human. And if folks would just get over the other materialistic crap, and get on with living, learning, loving, and teaching, this ol’ world would be so much better off. Andy, my heart goes out to you in your loss. Hugh, you’re a fine young man, cut from your grandparents’ mold – both sets were wonderful people, as are your parents. Keep writing, and keep on talking to your public. That’s what makes you “the storyteller” like your grandma. love ya, bub….

I’ve read it again, I think I am even more moved than the last time I read it. I’m also crying as much or more.

I am reminded in part of my own behaviour and thoughts after losing someone I love dearly, had spoken to daily, and who was suddenly and unnaturally not there. Particularly the two components of grief and the desire to know that that those you’ve lost still exist somewhere, somehow. I only wish I could have expressed my own feelings so articulately and with such beauty or at least had the bravery to try.

Things like this are why I believe the internet is nigh on a miracle when used to share our humanity, and to really learn from each other.

I’m honoured to have gotten to know both Andy and Tongjai even second hand. And to know more of Hugh for that matter.

Hugh,
What a treasure to have you in my life, My heart goes out to Tongjai , as you know her husband will meet his beloved wife again. So proud of you. All my love. Aunt Susan.

This story is painfully beauriful. I ran it off and plan to read it as soon as my grieving emotions allow me to. I can and do empathize with you as I am still in the throes of grief over the loss of my beloved husband of 55 years.
Thank you for sharing.
God bless. You will meet again, as I am counting on the same.

What a beautiful day to find such beautiful people on the internet. I am truly uplifted and want to thank both you, Hugh and Andy. There is so much ugliness in the world today and you have both been such an inspiration to this old lady. Thank you.

PS .. Andy, I am absolutely certain that you will see your sweet wife again and I am sure she is watching over you as I type. Stay strong!

I just wanted to thank everyone for their unbelievable and heartfelt comments. I’m glad others were able to find inspiration in Andy’s words and that we were able to know a little about Tong through him.

Wow. Andy really is a fantastic writer and I think I may have short-circuited my keyboard.

Existence is so much more than physical presence. If you’ve ever lost someone beloved, you just have to know this is true. Tongjai is here in every word being shared. What an amazing legacy.

Here I am reading this in bed on my iPad, worried that I’m going to wake my snoring husband with my tears. Maybe that’s okay. Thanks for sharing, and illustrating the beauty of reaching out to another soul.

[…] I wanted to follow-up on my incredible and moving exchange with Andy Bell now that FIRST SHIFT: LEGACY has been released. If you notice the dedication in that book, it was inspired by an interaction with a reader on their Amazon review. You never know where innocent replies will lead. The story is right here if you want to catch up. […]

Ay, I just finished the book dedicated to Tongjai and Andy Bell, which I wish would have gone on another 500 pages, but I guess there are more coming right? And then I came to your site and found this whole story. I am comforted and moved that there people such as you and Andy Bell or perhaps I should be super honest and say that I am comforted that there are men such as you two. I will keep reading everything you write (even when there are too many battles for my taste – like in the Molly series.) Thanks for being you and existing and writing. Best, Joanna in Lima, Peru.

Thanks to Andy for …”wondering if this life, this world, isn’t all just some giant illusion and that eventually we will all wake up from it back into our eternal lives.”

And to Hugh for….”I think it’s crucial for us to believe that there is something beyond these harsh walls, some better place that we’re told we can’t dream about, and our loved ones are waiting there for us. Even if we’re wrong, if we’re just going to go join them on a dusty hill in perpetual sleep, I would rather believe something good and go out with hope in my vision than live with any other truth.”

Yesterday I finished reading the Wool Omnibus (the whole thing in two days of absorbed reading). Hugh, you have the craft, the voice, and the vision that make a great writer. I was totally caught up in the world you imagined. The people lived in your words.

In the past year, I seemed to lose interest in reading, and at the same time to lose faith in life — to lose interest in any story at all, including my own. Reading your books, and then reading the beautiful exchange between the two of you (thanks so much, Andy and Hugh, for sharing), has opened up the possibility for a return of some joy and hope again in my life. No small thing. Thank you!

Hugh
a friend and I were talking some about post civilization books we had read when he stops and looks me kinds weird. He says how will people know our history since most of it is in emails blogs basically electronic when generations past have had written word newspapers personal letteres memoirs etc. All that to say this print this beautiful exchange out on good old paper to keep forever when we rely on the servers and have limited supplies of paper and only charcoal to write with…

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