The author who made Madison County famous
Robert James Waller 1939–2017
Robert James Waller lived out every aspiring author’s dream. In the early 1990s, the then-52-yearold University of Northern Iowa business professor came up with the plot for a novel. It concerned a photographer, Robert Kincaid, also 52, who visits Iowa’s Madison County in 1965 to photograph its covered bridges for National Geographic. Kincaid has a chance encounter with a 45-year-old Italianborn farmwife, Francesca Johnson, and the pair embark on a passionate four-day affair while her family is away. Waller wrote the first draft of The Bridges of Madison County in only 11 days—and watched it become a runaway best-seller upon its publication in 1992 and then a blockbuster 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. “It all just came pouring out,” Waller said of the writing process. “Almost couldn’t keep up with the words. I don’t know where they came from”
Raised in the small town of Rockford, Iowa, Waller studied business education at the University of Northern Iowa and then business management at Indiana University, said The New York Times. He returned to his undergraduate alma mater as a professor in 1967, rising to become dean of its business school. “Fed up with teaching,” Wallertook an unpaid leave of absence in 1990—and developed the idea for his debut novel while traveling through Madison County. The initial reviews of Bridges “were lukewarm at best,” said The Washington Post. The Chicago Sun-Times described the book as “syrupy, platitudinous pap” and others mocked its overwrought prose. “I am the highway and a peregrine,” Kincaid says while in the throes of passion, “and all the sails that ever went to sea.” But readers lapped it up. Bridges spent 164 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, including nearly a year at No. 1, and went on to sell an estimated 50 million copies worldwide.
Waller relocated to a remote Texas ranch and continued writing, with a focus on “matters of the heart,” said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, about an affair between an economics teacher and a colleague’s wife, “was the third-best-selling book of 1993.” He released a sequel to Bridges, A Thousand Country Roads, in 2002. Waller rarely gave interviews—all the bad reviews had made him distrustful of the media. “I really do have a small ego,” he said. “If you don’t like the book and can say why, I am willing to listen. But the criticism turned to nastiness. I was stunned.” ■