Robert James Waller, who has died aged 77, fulfilled the dreams of every would-be author in 1992 when his first book, The Bridges of Madison County, became one of the best-selling novels of all time. He wrote it in just 11 days.
And it showed, was the response of many critics, who decried it as sentimental, cliche-ridden and trite. For The New Yorker it was "the worst book in living memory". But millions of ordinary readers responded to the soaring aspirations couched in its folksy prose and its bittersweet tale of middle-aged romance.
A keen photographer, Waller had been taking pictures of the celebrated covered bridges of Madison County in his native Iowa when elements for a story fused in his mind. Inspired partly by a song he had written years earlier, it told of the four-day affair in the 1960s between an Italian-born housewife, Francesca Johnson, and a National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid, who is shooting a story about the bridges.
Though they bring each other the fulfilment missing in their lives, Francesca decides to remain in her marriage for the sake of her children. The novel was presented as being based on a true story and Waller said there was much of himself in Kincaid.
It was not an immediate best-seller, but word of mouth eventually helped it to reach the top spot in The New York Times's list, where it remained for more than three years - longer than any book since The Robe 40 years earlier.
Sales were further helped by the success of the film version in 1995, directed by Clint Eastwood, who also starred opposite Meryl Streep.
A Broadway musical based on the book opened (and soon closed) in 2013.
The novel, translated into 40 languages, is reported to have sold 12 million copies in hardback alone, making it by some estimates the best-selling novel in that format. Total sales are thought to be more than 50 million, a figure only equalled or surpassed by about 30 other novels, among them Watership Down and The Da Vinci Code. Among those books that Waller's has overtaken at the till are The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Gone with the Wind.
The son of a chicken-and-egg wholesaler, Robert James Waller was born on August 1, 1939 in Rockford, Iowa. He won a basketball scholarship to the University of Iowa but later transferred to the state's teacher training college. After gaining a doctorate, he taught management and economics there from the mid-1960s, becoming dean of its College of Business in 1980.
A dedicated musician - his doctoral thesis was on the American guitar industry - Waller took early retirement to pursue another interest, writing. He followed up his debut success with several other novels, mainly romantic.
Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, about the affair between an economics teacher and a colleague's wife, was the third best-selling book of 1993 in the US, behind John Grisham's The Client and Bridges itself.
Puerto Vallarta Squeeze (1995), a road-trip thriller, was filmed in 2004, while another romance, Border Music (1995), also sold well. In 2002, Waller published a sequel to Bridges, A Thousand Country Roads, which told what happened to his protagonists later in life (they never met again). High Plains Tango (2005) took up the story of Kincaid's son. Yet many readers wondered why Waller had not published more. The truth, he said in a rare interview, was that the success of Bridges had winded him. Waller is survived by Linda, whom he married in 2004, and by the daughter of a previous marriage.