Home on the range
Waller's latest slice of small-town life
After a long absence from the publishing scene, Texas author Robert James Waller brings readers High Plains Tango, the story of a California drifter who washes up in the small town of Salamander, South Dakota. There he finds romance with two unforgettable women and stirs up trouble when highway developers threaten his lovingly restored home. BookPage got the chance to ask Waller a few questions about the new novel, his life after The Bridges of Madison County and more.
BookPage: Most of your novels are about small-town America. What is it about that setting that intrigues you? Do you think that lifestyle can continue to exist in today's world?
Robert James Waller: Write about what you know, as the old admonition goes. I grew up in a small Iowa town of 900 people, so I understand rural life very well, urban life less so. I once said there are at least three good novels to be written about any small town in America. I still believe it. Many small towns have a dry rattle in the throat. It's mostly a matter of culture and economics. Both of those play an integral part in High Plains Tango, which is set in just such a place. A new kind of rural living does seem to be emerging, quite different from the old patterns, partly because of modern communications such as the Internet, allowing people more flexibility in where they work. After spending 10 years on remote ranches in southwest Texas, I now live on a small farm in the Texas Hill Country. There are small towns all around me, some of them doing remarkably well, others not so good.
BP: The Bridges of Madison County was a cultural phenomenon. Do you still hear from readers who are moved by it?
RJW: Yes, I receive letters each week from people who have read it and are moved by the story. At one time, I received 50 to 100 letters per week. Now it's more on the order of five. The last I knew, 350 marriage ceremonies had been celebrated at Roseman Bridge.
BP: High Plains Tango is linked to Bridges: the main character, Carlisle McMillan, is Robert Kincaid's illegitimate son. What draws you back to these characters?
RJW: The Bridges of Madison County, A Thousand Country Roads and High Plains Tango, taken together, form a loose trilogy. Exactly why I am drawn to these characters is one of those magical things I choose not to examine too closely. The characters are like family to me, I suppose, and I understand completely how they think and walk and move their hands. And I find their connected stories to be very real, very possible and poignant. Plus, I like them very much, as people. Someone once said, Waller writes about the kind of people you meet in line at the grocery store. I considered that high praise.
BP: Before A Thousand Country Roads, you hadn't written a novel in seven years. What made you return to writing, and what were you doing during your time off?
RJW: I was using the word tsunami long before the tragedy in Asia made it a part of common parlance, for that was how I described my experience with Bridges, not in terms of suffering, but rather that I didn't see what was headed toward me. The intense reaction to the book took me by surprise, and being a very private, semi-reclusive fellow, I needed time off to think about it all. There were intervals when I did not leave my mountainous, high-desert ranch for months. And what was I doing? I always had been a reasonably serious musician but never had time for extended practice. So, I spent four years practicing jazz guitar five to 10 hours per day, until repetitive motion injuries stopped me cold. In addition, my wife Linda and I were busy resuscitating an old ranch that had been badly abused for decades. We succeeded, but it required a lot of time and effort.
BP: What are you working on now?
RJW: I seem to have had a resurgence of interest in all things. Aside from getting back into my early love affairs with economics and mathematics, I have another novel completed, The Long Night of Winchell Dear, which Shaye Areheart Books will publish in 2006. It covers five hours in the life of a professional poker player who is alone on a dusty ranch in west Texas. The behavior of the accidental hero of the book will jolt anyone who reads it.