Best & Worst of Times: Two rivers are the source of what I am: Robert James Waller talks to Danny Danziger

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Rockford, Iowa, is a town of 900 people, your typical American stewpot - Irish, English, German, a few Scandinavians. It was very rural, in the middle of Iowa farm country - corn, soya beans, hogs, cattle - and, also, there was a brick and tile plant, so it had a blue-collar mentality as well.

There was only one paved road out of this little town, just a county road, which went to another road.

It was a real humble upbringing; nobody had very much money but nobody seemed very poor either.

It was just understood that you would go into farming or that you would work at the local brick and tile plant, or maybe you would go to work at the tractor plant in Charles City, which was 14 miles away.

Our choices were very limited. It wasn't so much anybody telling us we had to do that, more people not telling us what else we could do.

Two rivers ran through the town, the Shellrock and the Winnebago, which was named after an Indian tribe. And therein lies the source of everything I am.

I grew up on those rivers, they were our entertainment. We fished and swam and skated in and on and around them. They were gentle mid-country streams for the most part, with ripples here and there - good fishing rivers in those days.

I would go to the river with my bucket and come home late in the evening. I might have catfish or pike, mount bass or maybe croppies. I'd come dragging into the yard and my mother would come out. We'd clean the fish under the yard light and then she would put them in the freezer, and cook them for my breakfast.

The rivers gave me a sense of humility: I watched the minnows eat the algae, and the bass eat the minnow, and I ate the bass and I started thinking, who's going to eat me?

Fishing was the first thing my father and I ever did together. He was kind of distant, like a lot of men of that generation, but a very nice man. The great regret of my life is that my father and I never had a serious conversation; but we could talk about fishing or hunting.

I was interested in the arts but there were no arts, and my father wouldn't let me play a musical instrument. The town where I grew up was very much a hairy-chested male culture - no one read poetry, and if you did, you didn't let it out.

Our house only had three books in it. There was a copy of the Bible, which nobody ever opened as I recall, Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking and a Reader's Digest condensed book.

There was a small library in the town. I would feign illness on Monday mornings and tell mother I had a bad throat; I would start improving dramatically by about 10, and then ask if I could go to the library.

I must have read half the books in that place; it was a very small library, but very nice, run by Miss Hazel Plumley, your typical American librarian - very prim and proper, but real friendly. She drove a model T Ford.

My connection with the outside world was a little brown radio with a cloth front. I would lie in my bed late at night, keeping the radio low so my parents couldn't hear, and I would tune in Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago. Whatever was on I would listen to - country music, big band dance music: 'This is your Saturday Night Dance Party from the Rooftop Garden in New Orleans . . .'

Physically, I was very small for a long time, which was difficult in a town full of big farm boys, who were over six feet when they were 12 years old and already going out with girls.

When I was a freshman in high school, I was 5ft 2in and weighed 105 pounds - well, no girl was going to go out with me.

But Margaret Knight, who was the doctor's daughter, took me under her wing. She was not real attractive and didn't date much. On Saturday nights she would invite me over to her house, where she would put on Glenn Miller and teach me how to dance.

I became a basketball player simply to prove my masculinity. I never really did like basketball, although I liked the art and physics of the long-range lump shot, but I became quite good at it. I went to college on a basketball scholarship.

Once a year, Dad would take us to Des Moines. We would all get new clothes and stay at the best hotel and eat in the very best restaurants. Then we'd go back home and put on the workclothes again.

We didn't have a car but we had two old trucks, which were used for my father's small produce business. He would get out the chicken truck, sweep out the manure, then tie up the suitcases with rope on the top.

When we pulled up in front of the hotel, my mother would always be embarrassed; and he would say, 'Godammit, my money is good enough for them . . .'

When I was growing up, Rockford was very much a self-sufficient community. You could get virtually everything you needed - nothing fancy, mind, but there were three grocery stores, a barber and a veterinarian, a few little restaurants and a movie theatre . . . 14 cents it cost to go to the movies.

I used to run my father's produce business on Friday nights, from the time I was about 10. He and my mother joined the Elks Club in the neighbouring town and when they went out, they left me in charge.

I can remember standing in the door of my father's store, which was at the end of the main street, and the street would be full of cars.

All the farmers were in town getting haircuts, buying their groceries. The lights were on, every business was going, the band was playing in the city park and kids were running around.

It is a lot different now, the town has died really, as have many small towns in America.

There was never a doubt in my mind that I would leave Rockford; the option of staying there was not open to me and I am not drawn back to it at all.

'The Bridges of Madison County', published here by Mandarin, has sold more than 5 million copies to date in the United States and is No 2 in the bestsellers' list. No 1 is Mr Waller's latest book, 'Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend'.

(Photograph omitted)

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