GETTING OFF THE PHONE WITH A READER in California who has tracked him down halfway across the country at his chalet in the woods of Cedar Falls, Iowa, Robert James Waller is pleased at making another long-distance connection. "People call me, often in tears," he says. "The book touches them, and they want to touch me back."
Waller's slender first novel, The Bridges of Madison County, has been striking an emotional chord in readers—and, perhaps even more important, in booksellers too—since its unheralded publication in April. Owners of small bookstores loved his evocative story of the four-day affair between a middle-aged photographer and an Iowa farm wife, which Publishers Weekly praised as "an erotic, bittersweet tale of lingering memories and forsaken possibilities." They recommended it to customers, who in turn recommended it to friends, and before long Bridges became the little novel that could. Now a best-seller, its film rights have been snapped up by Steven Spielberg.
"It's been a strange, exotic, meandering, almost mystical kind of journey," says Waller, 53, of his life before Bridges. A management professor at the University of Northern Iowa, his incarnations include college basketball star in Cedar Falls, balladeer and photographer. He's been joined on the journey for 31 years by his wife, Georgia, a potter (they have a daughter, Rachael, 25), and a muse he calls the Wizard.
Perhaps it was this mysterious Wiz that spoke two years ago when he began photographing old covered bridges in Madison County, a three-hour drive from home, for a state-funded project. The next day he began writing feverishly, sleeping three hours a night. "It was a Zen-like experience for me," he says. Two weeks later he finished.
A philosopher by inclination, Waller takes the long view when readers gush about his overnight success. "Yes," he says. "It took me two weeks. And 50 years."
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