Book Article

Home on the Range

Robert James Waller, a real American Cowboy -- The author of "The Bridges of Madison County" fulfills his dream of living on a ranch

This is Robert James Waller's favorite time of day — just before 6 a.m., when the darkness begins to turn to light. This is also his favorite part of the world: He's deep in the heart of southwest Texas, sitting outside at his new ranch, watching the sun rise above the Glass Mountains and listening to the distant roar of a Southern Pacific freight train as it rumbles across the high desert.

This is the man behind The Bridges of Madison County, one of the most popular, yet often-mocked, books in recent history. After 121 weeks and counting on the New York Times best-seller list, the story of the bittersweet, four-day love affair between a 52-year-old National Geographic photographer and a lonely, 45-year-old Iowa farmwife is the Book That Will Not Die. Waller's success, and what The New York Times called his ''Hallmark prose,'' have made him the kind of writer intellectual types love to hate. But Waller, 55, a tall, thin, silver-haired man who wears blue jeans, suspenders, and Stetson hats, doesn't really care what anyone thinks of him. He picks up his coffee cup as a lizard inches toward it. ''I'm an amateur,'' he says, taking a long sip. ''It's entirely possible I'm not skilled, either. I respect people who don't like my work. I can take my licks.''

Then again, it's easy for Waller to be so generous. Bridges, soon to be a movie starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, has sold 8 million copies worldwide and paved the way for a slew of Waller novels — 1993's best-selling Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, the upcoming Border Music, due out in February, and the just-completed Vallarta Squeeze. The Bridges phenomenon dovetailed nicely with Waller's other pursuits as well. Both an accomplished musician and photographer, Waller sang and played the guitar on an album, Ballads of Madison County, and plans to publish a book of his own photography. ''I remember when we had nothing,'' says Waller, who wrote Bridges in two weeks and says he never expected it to be published. ''I'm still amazed at everything that's happened.''

But most important, Bridges has bought Waller his dream. In the '80s, he was a low-key business professor at the University of Northern Iowa who only wrote about guys like Robert Kincaid, the rugged photographer/fabulous lover/doomed hero of Bridges", whom Waller calls ''the last cowboy.'' Now Waller lives in cowboy country, hangs out at cowboy bars, and tends the land on his 1,000-acre spread like, well, a cowboy. In the billiards room of his isolated Firelight Ranch — it lies two miles in from the highway at the end of a dirt road — is a trunk with the name ''Kincaid'' engraved on it. This is no coincidence. Waller's story has blurred with that of The Bridges of Madison County — only in Waller's case, he gets the girl and there's a happy ending. ''The best thing is the financial freedom,'' says Waller. ''We're beholden to no one.''

It's a four-hour drive southeast from El Paso to Alpine (pop.5,500), through an eerie, barren landscape so isolated that you can't pick up any radio stations during the last 90 minutes of the trip. Waller discovered Alpine last year while doing research for Border Music. He spotted the name of the town, which lies just off the Great Comanche Trail about 80 miles from the Rio Grande, on a map and decided that the book's hero, Jack Carmine, would come from there. ''Then I drove into Alpine, and I was knocked out,'' says Waller. ''We'd been looking for a place down south, and I felt magic here. Old dogs, old trucks, and shit-kicking music. It was perfect.''

''We'' is Waller and Georgia Ann, 52, his wife of 33 years, a striking, youthful woman with long dark hair who resembles, as it happens, Francesca Johnson, the woman in Bridges who falls in love with Robert Kincaid. Waller and Georgia met at a party when she was 16 and he was 19. ''I saw her, and I was pretty taken with her,'' says Waller, ''but I was the world's worst guy about asking for dates.'' Somehow, he got up the nerve to ask her for a date, and they were married two and a half years later. ''He and I have a thing about not saying why our marriage works,'' says Georgia, who rarely gives interviews because she and Waller strive to maintain separate professional identities. They have one daughter, Rachael, 27, a former nanny who moved to Alpine in July. ''Georgia and I had a pretty passionate relationship and still do,'' says ! Waller. ''We've had a grand romantic voyage. The ship has foundered on occasion, but for the most part Georgia and I do pretty well.''

Georgia played Francesca to Waller's Kincaid in the music video of ''The Madison County Waltz.'' Waller says it was not until he saw the video that he realized that Georgia was the inspiration for Francesca. ''I said, 'My God, did I write this about you?' '' Waller recalls asking his wife. ''She just looked at me and said, 'You're just figuring that out now?' '' Waller even proposed that Georgia play Francesca in the film version of the book when executive producer Steven Spielberg asked him for casting suggestions. But he studiously avoids much comment on the movie itself, which is due out next summer, or on Streep's widely publicized remark about how she hadn't liked the book. ''As far as I'm concerned, the movie is a separate project,'' he says cheerfully. ''I sold the rights and took the money. It's none of my business anymore.''

That kind of philosophical detachment is vintage Waller — not to mention Robert Kincaid. ''I strive to be the most politically incorrect person in the world,'' says the diet-conscious chain-smoker. ''I'm a nonconformist. But people think I'm aloof or standoffish. I'm just not given to small talk.'' In the backlash that hit BridgesThe Washington Post decried its ''triteness'' — Waller found himself a target too.

But according to Bill Silag, 48, Waller's former editor at the Iowa State University Press who recognized Bridges' potential and helped him get a New York agent, Waller is misunderstood. ''He's a very strong guy,'' says Silag. ''He's not always looking around to make sure he's doing the right thing or worrying about offending someone. He gets things done. He moves in straight lines.'' Waller says his steely resolve stems from a desire to please his father, a grocer who showed him real physical affection only once — when Waller returned home with his doctorate in business from Indiana University. ''I assault life,'' says Waller. ''I decided a long time ago that it's like a game of basketball. Just assault it. Discipline is everything.''

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