Calling his own shots

August 06, 1993|By Tim Warren

"Unless you're content to do nothing more than copy others and float in safe waters, risks have to be taken," Robert James Waller writes in "One Good Road Is Enough," his second collection of essays.

Mr. Waller may or may not be one of the last cowboys, as he is fond of saying, but unquestionably he's lived a freewheeling and stubbornly individualistic life.

He's 54, has been married to the same woman for 31 years (Georgia Ann Waller is a potter), has two grown daughters, and lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He's also a former high school basketball star, and an amateur photographer and musician.

He was dean of the school of business at the University of Northern Iowa when he quit, in December 1985, after what he has described as a "fatigue-stress" attack related to anxiety over some investments he had made. He began writing essays, mostly for the Des Moines Register, and taking photographs.

"He's one of those rare beasts who seems to excel in whatever he sets out to do," says James Flansburg of the Register, who edited many of Mr. Waller's essays and remains a friend.

Three earlier books were published by Iowa State University Press in the late 1980s -- "Just Beyond the Firelight," his first collection of essays; "One Good Road Is Enough," and the sober-minded "Iowa: Perspectives on Today and Tomorrow."

The essays reflect many of the themes found in "Bridges": alienation from the world at large, restlessness, unabashed romanticism and a mystical view of life and love.

It was while visiting the covered bridges of Madison County -- a popular tourist destination in Iowa southwest of Des Moines -- in July 1990 that Mr. Waller thought of the idea of a novel of two lovers whose lives would be irrevocably changed by a four-day interlude. He immediately went home to write the book, which took him just 14 days.

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