Waller, Robert James 1939-
Waller, Robert James 1939-
Born August 1, 1939; son of Robert and Ruth Waller; married Georgia Ann Wiedemeier (divorced, 1997); married 2004; wife's name Linda; children: (first marriage) Rachael. Education: Indiana University, Ph.D., 1968.
Home—Harper, Texas. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Crown Publishing, 201 E. 50th St., New York, NY 10022.
University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, professor of economics, applied math, and management, 1968-91, dean of business school, 1979-85.
American Booksellers Book of the Year (ABBY) Award, 1993, for The Bridges of Madison County; Literary Lion award, New York Public Library, 1993.
Just Beyond the Firelight: Stories and Essays, Iowa State University Press (Ames, IA), 1988.
One Good Road Is Enough (essays), Iowa State University Press (Ames, IA), 1990.
The Writer Speaks: Robert Waller Reads Selections from Just beyond the Firelight and One Good Road Is Enough (audiocassette), Iowa State University Press (Ames, IA), 1990.
Iowa: Perspectives on Today and Tomorrow, Iowa State University Press (Ames, IA), 1991.
The Bridges of Madison County (novel), Warner Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend (novel), Warner Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Images (photography), Warner Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Old Songs in a New Café (essays), Warner Books (New York, NY), 1994.
Puerto Vallarta Squeeze: The Run for el Norte, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1995.
Border Music (novel), Warner Books (New York, NY), 1995.
A Thousand County Roads—An Epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County, John M. Hardy (Houston, TX), 2002.
High Plains Tango (novel), Shaye Areheart Books (New York, NY), 2005.
The Long Night of Winchell Dear (novel), Shaye Arehart Books (New York, NY), 2006.
Author of essays for Des Moines Register. Composer of songs included on the album The Ballads of Madison County, released by Atlantic Records, 1993, and in the printed music book of the same name, Cherry Lane Music (Port Chester, NY), 1993.
The Bridges of Madison County was adapted for film, starring Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, Warner Bros., 1995; the author has recorded several of his titles as audiobooks, including The Bridges of Madison County, Dove Audio (Beverly Hills, CA), cassette, 1992, compact disc, 1993, Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, Dove Audio (Beverly Hills, CA), 1993, Border Music, Time Warner AudioBooks (Los Angeles, CA), 1995, and Puerto Vallarta Squeeze, Time Warner AudioBooks (Los Angeles, CA), 1995; Puerto Vallarta Squeeze was adapted for a film written by Richard Alfieri and directed by Arthur Seidelman, Robert Katz Entertainment, 2004.
Robert James Waller, in addition to being an educator, is an avid guitarist, lyricist, and photographer. One day, while photographing the covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa, he was reminded of the words of a song he had written years earlier about the dreams of a woman named Francesca. Feeling there was a story stirring inside him, Waller returned home to his computer. Fourteen days later he completed the manuscript for his first novel, The Bridges of Madison County. After its publication by Warner Books—which, sensing it was a hit, published approximately three times the number of first edition copies usually issued for a debut novel by an unknown author—The Bridges of Madison County remained on bestseller lists for well over a year and broke numerous sales records.
The Bridges of Madison County is the story of the fateful union of Robert Kincaid, a free-spirited, itinerant photographer, and Francesca Johnson, a war bride living on a Winterset, Iowa, farm far from her native Italy. While her World War II veteran husband is at the state fair with their two children, Francesca meets Robert, who has come to Madison County to photograph the seven covered bridges there. Robert, who describes himself as "one of the last cowboys," rekindles the flame of passion residing deep within Francesca, a flame she felt had long ago been extinguished as she lived the simple, often dreary life of a farm wife. Although her liaison with Robert lasts just four days, Francesca, who decides to remain with her family, is forever changed, her heart and soul having been touched by the elusive traveler.
The Bridges of Madison County, as its publisher predicted, has proven most popular with the public, aided in part by sales campaigns launched by booksellers. While the novel was a moderate success in its first few months in print, The Bridges of Madison County began climbing bestseller lists after independent bookstore owners began promoting it—some stores even offered a money-back guarantee that the reader would enjoy it. When the major chain bookstores eventually joined the smaller bookstores in promoting the novel, Waller's place at or near the top of bestseller lists was secured for more than a year, with some three million copies in print. The novel also won the American Booksellers' 1993 ABBY award, given for the book that merchants most enjoy selling.
Literary critics, though they cannot deny the novel's resounding success with the public, have expressed mixed reactions to Waller's first novel. Reviewer Michael Harris, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, decided: "The story is like a Coke that's been opened a while ago: sweet but flat," while other critics, such as Washington Post Book World's Susan Dooley found Waller's characters unbelievable. "Instead of the ‘last cowboy,’ ranging free," Dooley suggested, "Robert will appear to be an aging hippie, bouncing around the country in a battered truck, earning his living as a freelance photographer and jotting down portentous poems and phrases." Charles Champlin, however, critiquing the novel in another edition of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, found the work to be "a tastefully erotic and quite moving love story."
Despite the mixed critical response to The Bridges of Madison County, the public has indicated that it will buy Waller's books. Warner Books, therefore, ran more than a million copies of the first edition of Waller's second novel, Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend. Like Bridges, Slow Waltz is a bittersweet love story. The book quickly garnered a spot on bestseller lists.
Waller's third novel, Border Music, shares a certain bittersweet sensibility with its predecessor, The Bridges of Madison County. Jack, a roving cowboy, saves Linda from an ugly encounter at the bar where she works as an exotic dancer; after the two flee in Jack's pick-up truck, they engage in a series of romantic dalliances until they arrive at his ranch. Although Jack and Linda attempt to cement their mutual attraction into a solid relationship, their future together is uncertain—ever since Jack's tour of duty in Vietnam, he has been haunted by a terrible tragedy which continues to affect his life. Critical opinion of Border Music varied; while New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani termed the novel "spectacularly awful," New York Times Book Review critic Robert Plunket observed that Waller's writing is "overblown … yet oddly effective." Plunket elaborated that, in a sense, the author has the "touch of a poet;h3 . His best sentences sound like lyrics to country and western songs. The sex scenes are likewise poetic, although rather hazy, and they manage to attain a perfect balance between women's fantasies and those of twelve-year-old boys." In New York, Walter Kirn noted that Waller is "a postmodernist for the masses, familiar with the narrative tricks of metafiction. He brings Harvard technique to a Harlequin readership."
Waller's 1995 novel, Puerto Vallarta Squeeze: The Run for el Norte, portrays the adventures of Clayton Price, a hit man. A loner, Price is helped by Luz, a sensitive, nurturing prostitute who helps him in his attempt to cross the Mexican border into the United States in order to escape the Mexican authorities. Reviewers noted that while the novel shares many affinities with Waller's previous works, it is distinguished to some degree by its apparent aspiration to the action-packed suspense of a thriller. Critics offered predominantly negative assessments of the work, with several faulting it for implausibility, lack of thematic development, and flat characterizations. Reviewers nevertheless acknowledged the popularity of Puerto Vallarta Squeeze with loyal devotees of Waller's fiction.
Ten years after the publication of The Bridges of Madison County, Waller continued his popular story. In A Thousand Country Roads: An Epilogue to The Bridges of Madison County, Kincaid settles somewhat unhappily into old age. Sixteen years after his affair with Francesca, he still misses her but cannot bring himself to contact her. His days, spent on an island in Puget Sound, are steeped in memories, and his only companion is his dog. Wanderlust strikes his heart again (as do a number of other more physical ailments), and he commences a road trip once again through the West and into the Dakotas, culminating in the inevitable personal epiphany. Along the way, he wanders back to Roseman Bridge, but staying true to his promise, he does not attempt to contact Francesca, even though she is now a widow and still living on her farm in Iowa. Instead, the love interest this time around is his old flame Wynn McMillan, a cellist who bore a son about whom Kincaid never knew. Writing in Library Journal, Barbara A. Perkins appreciated Waller's "deft turn of phrase and … keen sense of setting." A Thousand Country Roads was published by an independent publisher, John M. Hardy Publishing, and with an initial printing of 355,000 copies, it also replicated the success of its predecessor. In a review for Time magazine, Lev Grossman characterized the book as full of "characters just human enough to believe in and just godlike enough to fantasize about," going on to claim the story is "less about the bridges, and more about the water under them."
The protagonist of Waller's novel High Plains Tango is Kincaid's son, Carlisle McMillan, a master carpenter who is perturbed with the never-ending urban development of the big city. Though a drifter by nature, he settles in the small prairie town of Salamander, South Dakota, which is located near a sacred Indian burial site, and becomes involved with Susanna Benteen, an unusual woman who lives on the fringe of the community. After using his skills to fix up an old house, McMillan is forced to confront developers who are intent on building a highway through his property, endangering not only the sanctity of his house, but also the habitat of a rare species of hawk that nests nearby. As he takes up the fight against encroaching developers, he also finds himself battling the people of Salamander, some of whom are for the highway and some of whom are against it.
While some reviewers noted that the character of Carlisle McMillan seems devoid of flaws—too good to be true, in effect ("he's like Jesus with a libido," wrote a critic for Kirkus Reviews)—others appreciated Waller's view of small-town life as not being as homogenous as it is often depicted. Rather than a bucolic community full of those steeped in self-determination and the pioneer spirit, "we get a caustic handful of farmers griping about big government while pocketing their subsidy checks," wrote the Kirkus Reviews contributor. Joy St. John, writing in Library Journal, also noted the citizens' "abrasive attitudes," which "serve as a counterpoint to the apparently faultless McMillan."
Since his success with The Bridges of Madison County, Waller has made a number of personal appearances in which he reads essays and stories, sings, and plays his guitar. He has recorded an album, The Ballads of Madison County, and taped a music video in which he portrays Robert. In 2002 Waller offered a reward of 10,000 dollars for information leading to the conviction of the arsonist who torched the 119-year-old Cedar Bridge in Madison County, Iowa, which is featured prominently in both Waller's novel The Bridges of Madison County and the film version of the book. In an Ann Arbor News interview, Janet I. Martineau asked Waller if he ever worried that his subsequent work would measure up to The Bridges of Madison County. He used to think about it, Waller admitted to the interviewer, but he has relaxed, saying: "I'm just doing the best I can."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Waller, Robert James, The Bridges of Madison County, Warner Books (New York, NY), 1993.
Ann Arbor News, October 10, 1993, Janet I. Martineau, interview with Robert James Waller, p. C1.
Booklist, March 15, 2005, Kristine Huntley, review of High Plains Tango, p. 1247.
Entertainment Weekly, April 29, 1994, D.A. Ball, review of Old Songs in a New Café, p. 75; December 16, 1994, Dana Kennedy, "Home on the Range," p. 34, February 10, 1995, Vanessa V. Friedman, review of Border Music, p. 59; July 21, 1995, Mark Harris, "A Bridge Too Far," p. 56; November 24, 1995, Gene Lyons, review of Puerto Vallarta Squeeze: The Run for el Norte, p. 92.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 2005, review of High Plains Tango, p. 316.
Library Journal, April 15, 1994, Marie L. Lally, review of Old Songs in a New Café, p. 78; July, 1994, Susan B. Lamphier, review of Old Songs in a New Café, p. 149; May 15, 1995, Melody A. Moxley, review of Border Music, p. 108; October 1, 1995, Andrea Caron Kempf, review of Puerto Vallarta Squeeze, p. 122; March 15, 1996, Linda Bredengerd, review of Puerto Vallarta Squeeze, p. 112; March 1, 2003, Barbara A. Perkins, review of A Thousand Country Roads, p. 136; June 15, 2005, Joy St. John, review of High Plains Tango, p. 62.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 12, 1992, Michael Harris, review of The Bridges of Madison County, p. 6; January 17, 1993, Charles Champlin, review of The Bridges of Madison County, p. 14.
New Republic, July 3, 1995, Stanley Kauffmann, review of The Bridges of Madison County, p. 26.
New York, January 23, 1995, Walter Kirn, review of Border Music, pp. 56-57; June 12, 1995, David Denby, review of The Bridges of Madison County, p. 56.
New Yorker, June 27, 1994, Anthony Lane, review of The Bridges of Madison County, p. 87; June 19, 1995, Anthony Lane, review of The Bridges of Madison County, p. 97.
New York Times, January 27, 1995, Michiko Kakutani, review of Border Music, p. B5.
New York Times Book Review, March 28, 1993, Eils Lotozo, review of The Bridges of Madison County, p. 25; February 5, 1995, Robert Plunkett, review of Border Music, p. 7; December 17, 1995, Bruno Maddox, review of Puerto Vallarta Squeeze, p. 22.
New York Times Magazine, July 25, 1993, Frank Rick, "One-Week Stand," p. 54.
Popular Photography, November, 1995, Herbert Keppler, "Burning His Bridges behind Him," p. 92.
Publishers Weekly, May 3, 1993, "Bridges Wins 1993 ABBY Award," p. 15; June 28, 1993, Bridget Kinsella, "Waller to Waltz with Independents," pp. 20, 26; November 1, 1993, review of Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, p. 16; June 5, 1995, Karen Angel, "Building Bridges: Will the Film Boost Sales of Waller's First Novel?," p. 19; August 21, 1995, review of Puerto Vallarta Squeeze. p. 44; May 6, 2002, Daisy Maryles and Dick Donahue, "Waller—A Roads Scholar?," p. 16.
Time, July 19, 1993, John Skow, review of Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, p. 69; February 27, 1995, "Jammin' on Robert James," p. 16; June 5, 1995, Richard Corliss, review of The Bridges of Madison County, p. 64; April 22, 2002, Lev Grossman, "Return to Madison County," p. 69.
Washington Post Book World, April 5, 1992, Susan Dooley, review of The Bridges of Madison County, p. 9.